Two years ago, calling the Los Angeles Kings a Stanley Cup contender would've been the funniest joke you'd heard in a month. Two years ago, calling the Los Angeles Kings even a playoff contender would've caused rumors of drug usage to circle around you.
Two years ago, the Kings were preparing for the '09-10 season still trying to break a six-season streak of missing the postseason, a stretch where they had finished within 10 points of the playoffs only once.
But things were starting to look up.
And look up they did. Los Angeles moved up from 13th in the Western Conference in '08-09 to sixth the following season in a 22-point turnaround, the second-largest improvement of any team in the league that year. And now, in the summer of 2011, Los Angeles has made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in nearly a decade and has finally begun to be regarded as a legitimate elite club in the realms of the NHL.
Based on what we've seen so far, though, they're only going to get better. A successful offseason has added the few key pieces the Kings need to break through in their extremely difficult division, and the assets L.A. will retain—such as two-time All-Star forward Anze Kopitar and Olympic medal-winning defensemen Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson—give them an impressive lineup to begin the 2011-2012 season.
In our minds, the Kings are truly nothing short of a Stanley Cup contender, no matter what anyone said two summers ago. They have reliable, well-rounded units at all positions and have already proven that this current team really does know how to win. It's not too much of a stretch to predict that Los Angeles might just be the best team in the West...and here's why.
Note: This slideshow is Part Three of a four-part series looking in-depth at a few specific teams who we believe have become new Stanley Cup contenders or new playoff teams with their offseason moves.
Part One, portraying why the Buffalo Sabres will be a Cup contender in '11-12, can be found here. Part Two, explaining why the Florida Panthers will be a playoff team next season, can be read here. Part Four, stating our reasoning behind calling the St. Louis Blues a playoff team, is available here.
They might not be the most well-known duo in the goaltending circles of this era, but the L.A. netminding tandem of Jonathan Quick, 25, and Jonathan Bernier, 22, has turned into arguably the best young goalie pair on the continent.
Quick, a third-round pick of the Kings in '05, went 22-18-6 as a part-time starter in '08-09. Since then, he's been the headlining player at his position in Los Angeles the past two seasons, totaling up a nice 74-46-26 record with a respectable .912 save percentage and very solid 2.36 goals against average (GAA) over that time period. In addition to his stardom in the NHL, Quick was a member of the silver medal-winning Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Though it's unlikely Quick is going to "age out" of the rotation anytime soon, the Kings also have a top-class replacement option/trade bait in Bernier, the 11th overall selection in the '06 draft. Bernier played his first season as a backup last year, appearing in 25 games with an 11-8-6 record, .913 save percentage and 2.48 GAA.
The two goalies were able to support Los Angeles' half-questionable defense for almost all of the regular season and helped the Kings finish tied for sixth-lowest in the league in goals against (196, or 2.39 per game). Another year of experience should be enough to catapult both of them into the NHL's elite.
Even with RFA Drew Doughty's lack of a contract still complicating things, it's still hard to deny, assuming the Kings retain Doughty, that his pairing with teammate Jack Johnson doesn't create one of the most skilled, all-around talented defensive lines in hockey.
Twenty-one-year-old Doughty and 24-year-old Johnson, both former top-three overall draft picks, may be even younger than the aforementioned Quick-and-Bernier duo, but they haven't gone nearly as unheralded as their fellow backstops. The two were both crucial members of their respective teams (Canada and USA) in the Olympics two winters ago and complement each other perfectly in the Kings lineup.
Doughty, the more offensively gifted half of the combination, scored six goals and 27 points in his rookie season of '08-09, but has since built even further upon that productive start. The Ontario native had 16 tallies, including nine on the power play, 59 points, and a plus-20 rating year before last and then scrapped up 11 scores—five on the man advantage—that added into an eventual 40 points and plus-13 rating in the season ending this past spring.
Meanwhile, his negotiations over a new contract (after his entry-level one expired earlier this summer) have certainly taken longer than expected, but Kings GM Dean Lombardi apparently still feels confident a deal with Doughty will eventually come.
Johnson is fairly productive from the blue line, too, especially as a playmaker (totals of 28 and 37 assists the past two seasons), but is better suited in his own zone. Though his plus/minus ratings have recently taken a startling dip, he led the Kings in blocked shots for the '10-11 season.
Rob Scuderi, Matt Greene and even Willie Mitchell when healthy can be reliable defensemen in their own right, but Doughty and Johnson really highlight the show when it comes to defense. They'll end up being major contributors to any Cup run that Los Angeles can put together.
Trevor Lewis (No. 22) tries to strip the puck from his now-new teammate, Mike Richards (No. 18), in a Feb. 13 game.
Indeed, the Los Angeles Kings do not have the sheer quantity of offseason additions in their pocket that teams like the Florida Panthers, Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche or Chicago Blackhawks do. However, the out-of-town players they did get their hands on this summer outshine the total quality of all of the free agents combined for many of those clubs.
Veterans Ryan Smith and Michal Handzus are no longer part of Los Angeles, but their spots in the group of top-six forwards will be easily replaced by Mike Richards and Simon Gagne out of Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, respectively. No matter how you look at it, there's no doubt that the Kings came away a better team after those theoretical swaps of forwards.
Richards came with a price, of course—more specifically, a price of top prospect Brayden Shenn, third-liner Wayne Simmonds, a second-round draft choice and a $5.75 million cap hit—but, disregarding the balance of the trade itself, he'll be a complete stalwart near the top of an already very adequate group of centers. The 26-year-old saw his production fall to a mere 23 goals, his lowest number in four seasons, and 43 helpers last season, but is quite capable of catapulting himself back into the 35-goal, 90-point range.
Moreover, former Flyers teammate Simon Gagne may be joining him on the second line. Gagne, 31, was signed to a two-year, $7 million contract in early July after scoring 17 tallies and 40 points the past winter for the Lightning. Those statistics aren't anywhere near his typical range, though; that tends to be nearer to the 30-goal, 70-point plateau.
Hopefully, Richards and Gagne still have the capabilities to perhaps add as many as 60 goals and 150 points between the two of them, production that would crush what Handzus and Smyth were able to create together in recent seasons (35 goals and 80 points in '10-11; 40 goals and 95 points in '09-10).
Mike Richards and Simon Gagne might both be Grade-A signings to add to Dean Lombardi's first- and second-line forwards unit, but they'll hardly be the extent of the scoring in the six-some. L.A. still retains their perennial superstar and highest-paid player, for now, in Anze Kopitar as well as trade-deadline acquisition Dustin Penner, experienced winger Justin Williams and captain Dustin Brown.
Twenty-three-year-old Kopitar, another former first-round pick of the team, has never missed the 20-goal mark in any of his five NHL seasons to date and has averaged about 28 goals and 72 points per season over his career. Those calculations aren't far off from Kopitar's '10-11 stat line, which consisted of 25 tallies, 73 points and a career-best plus-25 rating. The Slovenian will probably stay the Kings' No. 1 center ahead of Richards next season.
Brown, perhaps the best all-around athlete they have, is a good bet to play on the top line, too. The 26-year-old has played with Kopitar for five years running and has a "decent" scoring touch of his own, finding the back of the net between 24 and 33 times and accumulating a point total in the 50-60 range each of his most recent four seasons. Incredibly, the American has also been in the top three in the league in hits for five years running, in addition to his offensive role.
Two more wingers, Penner, 28, and Williams, 29, fill out the remainder of the team's imposing top six. They're both former 30-goal scorers and, even more importantly, Stanley Cup winners. That's right: Williams scored 76 points for the Carolina Hurricanes in '05-06 and added 18 more in the postseason as they became NHL champions, while Penner tacked on 29 goals during the following regular season to help the Anaheim Ducks win their first-ever title.
Williams, Brown and Kopitar's familiarity with each other should balance out the freshness of Penner, Richards and Gagne, as they've each played on the same group of forwards, and often the same line, for over two years running now. Richards and Gagne's five seasons of playing for Philadelphia together will be a fantastic benefit to their acclimation to Southern California, as well.
All in all, Los Angeles's new set of top six forwards are definitely a strong group. What may be even more in their favor, still, is the chemistry we figure they will all have together. Don't be surprised to see plenty of intermixing between all of these scoring stars over the course of the '11-'12 campaign, and, when it happens, don't think it's a bad thing, either.
Possibly the biggest reason for the Los Angeles Kings' success is a factor that very few would consider as a major component to success. It's the penalty kill, and L.A.'s surprising aptitude at it in '10-11 seemed to give them a huge advantage over the competition.
The Kings improved their penalty kill from 20th in the NHL in '09-10 to fourth last season, and were also third out of 16 teams during the 2011 postseason. In fact, no team allowed fewer power-play goals (40) than Los Angeles did in '10-11. Furthermore, Los Angeles didn't surrender more than two man-advantage strikes in any of their 82 regular-season games and killed off at least one short-handed stretch in every match, also.
When they did allow two power-play goals to their opponent, however, Los Angeles was a dismal 1-10-0. Conversely, when their short-handed unit surrendered just one or fewer goals in a contest, the Kings had a terrific 45-20-6 record. If they had managed to carry on that point percentage (1.35 points per game), they would've had the second-best record in the league!
With that said, the penalty kill appears poised to become an extremely decisive game-changing aspect for Los Angeles in seasons to come. Aided by the talents of previously discussed stars Drew Doughty, Jack Johnson and Jonathan Bernier, the Kings' penalty kill—and regular-strength defense, too, for that matter—should be a frightening brick wall for any team to go up against.
On the opposite end of the ice, it appears as though the offense is certainly capable of blasting through plenty of goals of their own. So what's not to like about this potential Stanley Cup-contending team? Well, to put it simply, not much.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 34 months so far with the site, he has written over 300 articles and received more than 340,000 total reads.