The adage keeps ringing true for the Kings: It’s hard to reach the top, but it’s even harder to stay on top.
The Kings followed up a non-playoff season with a disconcerting first-round exit, a five-game loss to the San Jose Sharks last spring. That means no playoff series victories since their 2014 Stanley Cup championship, and salary cap limitations continue to handcuff them.
The Kings still retain one of the best foundations in the NHL with center Anze Kopitar, defenseman Drew Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick. But they have a fresh set of questions as training camp begins Friday in El Segundo.
1. Do they have enough depth at forward? The loss of Milan Lucic to free agency and their limited salary cap space leaves the Kings largely trying to fill out their bottom-six forward roles internally.
Teddy Purcell begins his second stint with the Kings, but he is not a prolific scorer, and their only other forward acquisition was Michael Latta. The onus is on Michael Mersch, Andy Andreoff, Nick Shore, Nic Dowd and top prospect Adrian Kempe to grab jobs and contribute. This will require Coach Darryl Sutter to trust young players, something he is not known to embrace.
2. How will Dustin Brown respond? Brown’s relationship with the organization has taken awkward turns over the past year, from his demotion to the third and fourth lines last season to having the captain’s “C” that he’s worn since 2008 given to Kopitar this summer.
Brown wasn’t comfortable with the latter, and how he responds will be key. Will it hurt his identity or will he rediscover his game?
Brown, who hasn’t reached 30 points the last three seasons, acknowledged his drop-off and vowed to be ready. Otherwise, the Kings are on the hook for the remaining five seasons of his contract, at $5.875 million per season.
3. Can Tom Gilbert help the defensive depth? The Kings’ defense is strong at the top with Doughty, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez, and Gilbert was acquired to help address depth.
The Kings need him to provide responsible minutes, especially if one of the top three goes down. The defense will otherwise be filled out by Brayden McNabb, 37-year-old Rob Scuderi and veteran Matt Greene, who had shoulder surgery and has not played since last October.
Rookies Kevin Gravel and Derek Forbort should get long looks in camp.
4. Is it time to ease Quick’s workload? It seems as if this question could be asked most years, but it’s appropriate after Quick played in the World Cup.
Ideally, the Kings keep him fresh for the playoffs but that hasn’t been the case the last two seasons, when Sutter has leaned on Quick for stretches. Quick has played 68 and 72 games the last two seasons, the last resulting in 40 wins, but he wasn’t as sharp in the playoffs.
This could depend on Sutter’s faith in Jeff Zatkoff, previously a Kings farmhand, who was signed in the off-season as Quick’s backup. Zatkoff took part in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run last season.
5. How will Kopitar adapt to being the face of the franchise? Kopitar’s promotion to captain was just, especially after he won the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward.
There will be considerable more pressure on him this season, though, as the Kings try to rebound after two disappointing seasons in an improved Pacific Division.