This is the biggest question the Los Angeles Kings face: Are they on the right track?
Everyone knew what was coming when general manager Dean Lombardi jumped aboard with marching orders to get the ship righted, much like he did in San Jose. That meant rebuilding, and rebuilding means stripping away what's not working by selling off assets for picks, drafting well, development, patience with your blue-chip prospects, trying to keep key young players together as they climb the ladder and hope they're ready when they get their crack.
But two seasons have passed and the Kings are still facing an uphill battle not only to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in six seasons but also toward respectability. Two years is probably not nearly enough time to accurately assess whether rebuilding is a success, but this is business and the L.A. market – surprisingly loyal throughout so many frustrating years – is losing interest and crowds are waning.
So we ask, is Los Angeles on the right track?
Anze Kopitar is the Kings' best player. The 21-year-old top-line center – 11th overall choice in a very good 2005 draft – has great size, skill, speed, leadership and already two solid NHL seasons under his belt.
Defenseman Jack Johnson was chosen No. 3 in that same 2005 draft but by Carolina. Acquired in a trade, Johnson is a physical presence on the blue line. He logged an average of almost 22 minutes while appearing in 74 games last season, and the learning curve is large, especially for a young defensemen. The Kings should not be worried.
Goalie Jonathan Bernier is 20 years old, the 11th pick in 2006. He got a look at the outset of last season, but playing that early in the NHL for that bad of a team is not the recipe for future success, especially for a goalie. Bernier has the reputation of moving well in his net and possessing great reflexes.
So the Kings would appear to have their cornerstone players set, but it doesn't end there. Los Angeles selected 18-year-old stud defenseman Drew Doughty with the second overall pick in June. The Kings also are excited about fellow young defensemen Thomas Hickey, 19 (fourth pick, 2007) and Colton Teubert, 18 (13th, '08). At forward the Kings have their eyes on a couple of 23-year-olds with minor-league experience – creative right wing Teddy Purcell and powerful center Brian Boyle. And two other developing goalies the Kings are watching are Jeff Zatloff, 21, and Jonathan Quick, 22.
The impression those players make this season, some preferably on the Kings' roster, will answer our original question, but it probably won't add up to a playoff run for Los Angeles.
Last season: 32-43-7, 71 points, fifth and last place Pacific Division, 15th and last place Western Conference, 29th place overall with the same point total yet one more win than the Tampa Bay Lightning. Missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
Imports: C Jarret Stoll (2007-08 team: Edmonton Oilers), D Matt Greene (Edmonton Oilers), D Denis Gauthier (Philadelphia Flyers), RW Brad Richardson (Colorado Avalanche), LW Richard Clune (Dallas Stars).
Three keys to the season: First key is new head coach Terry Murray, who was brought aboard for one reason: his reputation as a teacher. When Lombardi knew he'd be going with young players this season, he also knew that Marc Crawford, who had no patience for mistakes, was not the right man behind the bench. Murray, 58, has not been a head coach since 2001, but his job is to roll with the punches and guide the youngsters down the right path.
Second, the defense is going to have to play better than it looks on paper. Nothing stalls development more than giving up too many goals and being out of games early. Johnson and Tom Preissing are penciled in as the No. 1 pairing. That's asking too much from both players. Johnson could use a veteran to play with and learn from. This is where the loss of Rob Blake is especially painful. Preissing was most effective when he was part of a third pairing in Ottawa. Lombardi acquired a pair of vets – Matt Greene from Edmonton and Denis Gauthier from Philadelphia – to try to fortify a group that lost Lubomir Visnovsky in the offseason and Brad Stuart at the trade deadline. Greene isn't flashy and should help, but the big-hitting Gauthier is injury-prone. Doughty probably makes the team, but his minutes and the situations in which he plays have to be watched.
Third, the Kings are going to need an entire leadership group to emerge. All of last year's lettered players – the captain Blake and the three alternates including Cammalleri (traded), Visnovsky (traded) and Scott Thornton (retired) – are gone. It's not a stretch to hand Kopitar at least an "A." Hard-hitting forward Dustin Brown leads by example and the rest will have to sort itself out during training camp and the preseason.
On the hot seat: Lombardi worked similar magic in San Jose without a salary cap. He overspent to acquire heart-and-soul veterans to surround a core group that would blossom into a perennial playoff qualifier. He can't use the same formula now with a salary cap, but it should be noted the Kings are bumping up against the basement of the cap instead of the ceiling. That could bode well later as a number of similarly aged vets will have entry-level contracts expiring at the same time (see Pittsburgh's recent difficult choices), but the Kings are going to have to show they're making progress this season or Lombardi won't be around much longer.
Poised to blossom: Left wing Patrick O'Sullivan just seemed to get better as last season progressed. There weren't a lot of "big goals" in Los Angeles, but when the Kings got one it seemed like O'Sullivan was often involved. He scored 22 goals and 53 points while appearing in 82 games during his first full season. With the confidence gained from experience, and figuring to get plenty of time on the top line alongside Kopitar and Brown, O'Sullivan figures to continue his upward trend.
Analysis and prediction: It's just hard to imagine the Kings being able to compete in the tough Pacific Division and Western Conference with so much youth and inexperience. It really is just a season to develop and take baby steps. The Kings will have to keep their goals modest, but staying out of the conference basement would be a good place to start.