The presence of defenseman Alec Martinez was a big reason why the Kings won the 2014 Stanley Cup. Martinez scored the overtime winner to eliminate the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals and then scored the second-overtime game-winner in the Cup-clinching Game 5 of the Final against the New York Rangers.
Two years later, Martinez's absence was a big reason why the Kings lost in the opening round to the San Jose Sharks. Coach Darryl Sutter made the point immediately following the game — that while no team can use injuries as an excuse, Martinez's groin injury left the Kings desperately short on the blue line.
It forced Sutter to overplay his two top defensemen, Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin, and then try to divide protected minutes among the rest — Brayden McNabb, Jamie McBain, Luke Schenn and Rob Scuderi. It was not exactly a star-studded lineup on the blue line, an area where San Jose held a decided edge.
The Sharks have two All-Star candidates in Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, and at the trade deadline added Roman Polak to solidify the defense.
There were other factors contributing to the loss. Goaltender Jonathan Quick had, by his high standards, an average series. Some of the key offensive players, such as regular-season goals leader Tyler Toffoli, produced limited offense. But when General Manager Dean Lombardi draws up his off-season to-do list, adding depth on defense will be a priority.
The Kings wrapped up a playoff position far earlier than usual, and once that happened, they exhaled and seemed to take their foot off the pedal. They had a chance to wrap up the Pacific Division title in their final regular-season game against the Winnipeg Jets, but blew a 3-0 lead and ended up losing in a shootout.
That opened the door for the Ducks to pass them on the final day of the regular season. Had the Kings held on, they would have drawn the Nashville Predators in the opening round — a more advantageous matchup, at least on paper.
The Sharks were sparked by the calm of former Kings goalie Martin Jones, who ended up with San Jose after previously being traded to Boston in the deal for Milan Lucic.
Lucic, a 6-foot-3, 228-pound winger, was a terrific fit on a Kings team that plays the heavy, physical style he favors. But he also arrived on an expiring contract and the task for Lombardi will be to sign him to an extension before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Lucic emphasized after Friday's loss how happy he was playing for the Kings and living in Southern California and said he hoped he would be able to stay beyond one season.
The Kings will need to juggle payroll commitments to other players in order to fit Lucic into their salary structure, but the desire to do so appears mutual.
Apart from the Martinez injury, the Kings never really replaced Slava Voynov's key minutes. Voynov, a top-four defenseman, returned to Russia before the start of the season. Later, they did get serviceable play from Schenn and Scuderi, acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers and the Blackhawks, respectively.
Schenn is an unrestricted free agent and finding room to sign him will be a challenge. Vinny Lecavalier, who came over in the Schenn deal, promised to retire once the season ended, in order to save the Kings an expensive salary-cap charge ($4.5 million) that the Flyers agreed to split for the rest of this season to make him more affordable.
Lecavalier was a useful depth player, but even if the Kings wanted to bring him back, there appears to be no realistic way they can afford him.
Two of the Kings' core players — Anze Kopitar and Doughty — had excellent regular seasons and are considered strong candidates to win major awards this season. Doughty is one of the favorites for the Norris Trophy, given to the best defenseman, and Kopitar has a chance to win both the Selke (best defensive forward) and the Lady Byng (sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct, combined with a high level of play).
Kopitar signed an eight-year, $80-million contract extension in midseason that kicks in at the start of next season. That annual $10-million salary cap charge will force the Kings to make difficult roster choices going forward.
At some point, the Kings also will need to finalize a contract extension for Sutter, whose deal is set to expire at the end of this season. Negotiations have been ongoing during the season, but were not finalized before the playoffs started. Getting Sutter's name on an extension also will be part of Lombardi's lengthy off-season to-do list.