LOS ANGELES — The idea was that after missing the playoffs a year ago, the two-time Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings would come back re-energized and ready to reclaim their place among the NHL’s elite.
And they did for the most part, putting up a 102-point season and picked by many to go on another deep playoff run and challenge for the Cup.
But a five-game loss to the San Jose Sharks in the opening round nipped that in the bud rather quickly — and opens up questions about where this team is headed in its attempt to get back in the winner’s circle.
“I haven’t given that much thought yet,” Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said shortly after his team’s season ended Friday night in a 6-3 loss at Staples Center. “Your whole focus going in to the season is obviously to make the playoffs as quick as you can, and we did that and we did it in pretty good fashion. Then another thing was to get to 100 points, then start again. We just weren’t able to get that.”
It’s exactly what Milan Lucic said after the Game 5 loss Friday night, that for whatever reason the team lost its mojo late in the regular season and never got it back in time for the playoffs. Giving up a 3-0 lead and losing 4-3 to the Winnipeg Jets in the regular-season finale was a red-flag moment.
“Being the first team in the West to clinch a playoff spot, unfortunately after that our game slipped to where we couldn’t get it back,” said Lucic. “I think we played only one really good game at home against Anaheim, and that was it. We weren’t able to find that magic here. It just wasn’t there. And it’s really unfortunate because this was definitely a special group and we could have done something special here, but the commitment to the little details in this series wasn’t there.”
And for the record, Lucic mentioned himself as being among the top players that didn’t step enough.
But really, it’s not up front that you see where the issue lies on this team. The Kings’ lack of depth on defense was made even more difficult when defenseman Alec Martinez went down with an injury in Game 1.
“Lack of depth on D,” said one Western Conference GM from an opposing team Friday, when asked to analyze the Kings he saw in the end. “And also, frankly, they’re a little slow. They’re very big, and I applaud that. But I see the pace of their play as being a bit slow and the lack of depth on D as the two main things.”
“He’s a true sniper who scored clutch goals for that team,” he said.
True, but the issues on defense trump all in dissecting this team’s early exit.
Ever since Slava Voynov‘s arrest early last season and eventual exile back to Russia, the Kings have never recovered from his absence in their top four.
Drew Doughty had a Norris Trophy-worthy regular season but was asked to do too much in the playoffs with Martinez out and his minutes pushed up.
After Doughty and Jake Muzzin, without Martinez there wasn’t much else.
The Kings must find a way through their salary-cap issues this summer to find another top-four defenseman. Easier said than done. They also will try to keep Lucic, who is an unrestricted free agent on July 1. There were contract talks in March and early April but they were shelved after the playoffs started.
“I’m being truthful, I have no plans other than playing for the L.A. Kings,” Lucic said Friday night. “But obviously it has to make sense for both sides. I’m more than willing to make it work in order for this team to stay together and move forward. I’ve really enjoyed my time here this year. As an organization, I don’t think it gets more first-class than this. I just hope moving forward we can get something done and I can be an L.A. King for the rest of my career. Because that’s what I truly want.”
Oh, and Sutter’s contract is expiring, too. The head coach wants to return. After all, there’s clearly unfinished business.