Now that the worst seems to be behind them — the tedious rebuild of their talent base and their philosophy, the climb from the depths of their division and their return to the playoffs — the Kings should enjoy smooth sailing when they assemble for training camp Thursday in El Segundo.
Or maybe not.
“I don’t think the hardest part’s behind us. I think the easiest part’s behind us,” coach Todd McLellan said.
His reasoning is that while it was difficult to restructure an old, slow team to compete in a league driven by youth and speed, that transformation has been accomplished. Creating salary cap space by shedding big contracts worsened the pain but became a gain because it allowed them to sign useful free agents and pay productive winger Kevin Fiala, this summer’s big trade prize. They’ve accumulated young talent and have positioned prime draft picks to become stars.
The next step is steep: building on the progress some of their kids made last season, pushing for more from them and other young players while relying on Stanley Cup champion holdovers Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick to help lead them to contention again.
The Kings had to make the playoffs last season to assure themselves and their fans the indignity of their post-Cup decline was a tolerable price to pay for a potentially bright future. Despite injuries, the Kings gave the Edmonton Oilers a battle and led their first-round series 3-2 before the Oilers wore them down.
The Kings’ ceiling has become higher. So are expectations. They must embrace that.
“The hard work is to close the gap on the top 10 teams in the league because they’re getting better every day,” McLellan said by phone Wednesday. “So I think we have the hard work ahead of us. The easy work is done.”
Wednesday was devoted to medical testing. On Thursday, “We begin to sort ourselves out. Somebody gets better and somebody falls off. That’s just the way it is,” McLellan said of the NHL. “And we have to make sure that we’re one of those teams that’s getting better every day.”
Doughty (wrist surgery) and winger Alex Iafallo (shoulder) are expected to be fine to start camp but other key players will be missing or at less than full strength.
Defenseman Sean Walker, who suffered a major knee injury six games into last season, will participate but his workload will be monitored. Defenseman Sean Durzi, who underwent shoulder surgery after a breakout season, also will be limited physically at the outset. Center Alex Turcotte, the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, failed his physical and is recovering from a concussion.
Winger Viktor Arvidsson is rehabbing on his own following surgery on a herniated disc and won’t join the team until the season starts. McLellan said the recovery timeline for Arvidsson, who scored 20 goals in his first season after being acquired from Nashville, remains on schedule.
Most questions surrounding the Kings will be answered in the next few weeks, before their Oct. 11 opener. The goaltending question seems likely to linger.
In what appeared to be a torch-passing moment, Cal Petersen started on opening night last season but couldn’t sustain a high level. Quick, 36, won the No. 1 job by compiling a 2.59 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, his best in a while. And that was behind a defense that often was pieced together because of injuries.
McLellan laughed when asked about the goaltending split. “I get asked that just about every year and I don’t give a clear, concise answer,” he said. “For me to say we’re going to play this guy 45 and the other 35, I’d be lying because I have no idea how it’s going to roll out.” He will go by performance, with advice from goalie-whisperer/coach Bill Ranford.
Some must-improve areas for the Kings are obvious. They ranked 20th in the NHL in goals for, at 2.87 per game. Their power play was a miserable 27th, with a 16.1% success rate. Their penalty killing ranked 22nd at 76.7% efficiency. “We have to move at least to that midrange mark of the league, if not higher, if we want to take a step forward, and expectations for those group of players and coaches are high,” McLellan said.
Any conversation about the Kings’ future starts with the kids they stockpiled during those lean years.
The development of top prospect Quinton Byfield, drafted No. 2 in 2020, was slowed when he broke his ankle in an exhibition last season. A formidable 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, he could be the third center behind Kopitar and Phillip Danault if he’s healthy.
“When you use the word expectation, there is some expectations put on him to move the needle,” McLellan said. “It’s not about scoring 50 goals or anything like that, but move the needle and energize the group and himself. And I really believe he can do that.”
They also need forwards Iafallo, Jarret Anderson-Dolan and Rasmus Kupari and defenseman Tobias Bjornfot to have a bigger impact. They need Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore to be the dynamo he was after the All-Star Game, when he scored 10 of his 17 goals. They must learn whether Danault’s career-best 27 goals were a fluke or sustainable. The same for Adrian Kempe’s career-best 35-goal performance. None of that is guaranteed.
This might, as McLellan said, turn out to be the hardest part of the Kings’ revival. It also carries the greatest reward. They’ve earned the privilege of facing pressure to win. The next step is a leap of faith.