Reasons for optimism, questions facing Kings

Los Angeles core still among League’s elite; depth at forward, defense remains an issue is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Los Angeles Kings.

A first-round exit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was not what the Los Angeles Kings envisioned a season after they missed the postseason altogether.

Los Angeles ran into the San Jose Sharks, who were out for revenge after having lost to the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference First Round despite building a 3-0 series lead.

For the second straight season, the Kings were left with several concerns as to why they fell far short of their expectations. Their roster contains high-dollar contracts that put them up against the $73 million NHL salary cap, and that’s why they made few waves in free agency and lost top left wing Milan Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers.

Their core, though, remains among the best in the NHL and remains in its prime.

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick

Few teams can control all three zones with premier players like the Kings. Kopitar won the Selke Trophy for the first time last season, and Doughty won his first Norris Trophy.’

Kopitar led the Kings in scoring for the ninth straight season and, because of his ascension to their best all-around player, was named captain June 16.

“We all knew, before they won the awards, what type of players they were,” forward Tyler Toffoli said of Kopitar and Doughty. “They’re our best players and our leaders.”

Quick was second in the NHL last season with a Kings-record 40 wins, tied for fifth with five shutouts and seventh with a 2.22 goals-against average. Those numbers were achieved with another heavy workload; his 68 starts led the League.

2. Tyler Toffoli coming off breakout season

Toffoli led the Kings with an NHL career-high 31 goals. He also showed a more consistency. Last season, his longest goal drought was 10 games, and he had one other that was longer than six games. That was an improvement from 2014-15, when he had scoring droughts of 10, nine and seven games.

3. Darryl Sutter remains behind the bench

Sutter signed a two-year contract extension in May worth more than $3 million per season, according to ESPN.

That’s a relative bargain considering his resume in Los Angeles, which includes two Stanley Cup championships and a 186-112-45 regular-season record since he arrived during the 2011-12 season.

Sutter is the steady hand the Kings need. He’s a smart tactician, and this could be his biggest challenge since he arrived.

“I have lots of coaching left,” Sutter said in May.

4. Jake Muzzin has taken big step

Muzzin signed with the Kings as an undrafted free agent Jan. 4, 2010, and developed through hard work and perseverance to become an important piece to two Stanley Cup championships.

Muzzin arguably had his best season as a physical puck-mover last season, and his past partnership with Doughty was partly why he’ll play for Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Here are three key questions facing the Kings:

1. Do the Kings have enough depth at forward?

After losing Lucic to the Oilers as an unrestricted free agent and forward Vincent Lecavalier to retirement, the Kings’ biggest offseason forward additions were unrestricted free agents Michael Latta and Teddy Purcell.

It’s otherwise up to unproven prospects Michael Mersch, Andy Andreoff, Nic Dowd and Nick Shore, plus bottom-six mainstays Jordan Nolan, Kyle Clifford and Dwight King, to fill out the lineup.

2. Are they covered on defense?

The Kings signed unrestricted free agent defensemen Tom Gilbert and Zach Trotman to help fill out the defense, but the Kings would be in a difficult spot if an injury were to occur.

The Kings still have Doughty, Muzzin and Alec Martinez, but beyond that, the skill level drops off. Matt Greene, Brayden McNabb and Rob Scuderi are on the roster, and prospects Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel could push for NHL spots. Scuderi is 37, and Greene last played Oct. 13 and cleared buyout waivers in June. Luke Schenn, who had been acquired along with Lecavalier in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers last season, signed with the Arizona Coyotes as an unrestricted free agent.

3. Can Dustin Brown rebound?

During the past 10 months, Brown was dropped to the third and at times fourth line, and lost his captaincy, a role he had since 2008.

Brown said he wasn’t happy with the loss of the captaincy but owned up to his on-ice decline.

“My job is to be a better hockey player for my teammates, and as a result help this team win,” he said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a business and I understand all that. I think that is my job, to come ready to go in September.”

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