General manager Dean Lombardi sees progress in the Los Angeles Kings' back-to-back playoff berths. He also sees a danger of stagnation after their season again ended in the first round.
The Kings still haven't broken through the next barrier in their rebuilding project, falling to the San Jose Sharks in six mostly tight games. After a 98-point regular season in the fiercely competitive Pacific Division, Los Angeles is right back where it ended last spring.
"I don't like that we put ourselves in situations that we had to face adversity, but I like the way we dealt with it," Lombardi said Wednesday at the start of his offseason evaluation process. "The way they found a way to win, that's progress. That's part of building mental toughness and not caving to the pressure of having expectations. But on the other hand ... it was almost like we had trouble dealing with success."
Yet after missing the postseason for eight straight years, the Kings finally are solid winners. Lombardi and coach Terry Murray now must figure out how to move to the next level of Stanley Cup contenders.
Los Angeles (46-30-6) was among the NHL's best teams early and late in the regular season, but a 2-10-0 post-holiday swoon was a big reason the Kings finished with the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They lost all three of their home playoff games against San Jose, including Monday's elimination game in overtime.
Murray emerged from his initial playoff analysis Wednesday mystified by his team's inability to follow his usual game plan against San Jose — struggling for defensive positioning and refusing to get the puck deep into the Sharks' zone on offense.
"Our structure, our play without the puck, that's so far away from what we've been all year," Murray said. "We're going to stay with it. We're going to have to push it more, and that's all you can do. You bring that in as a focal point of your training camp in the fall."
The Kings' brass agrees the club needs more offensive talent beyond All-Star forward Anze Kopitar, whose season-ending ankle injury last month put a huge asterisk on Los Angeles' brief playoff run.
"This year, he became a complete player," Lombardi said of Kopitar, noting the Slovenian forward made the transition to a peerless two-way game in much the same way Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic adjusted at similar points in their careers.
Although Kopitar's evolution should be interesting next year, the Kings might not improve unless they get more scoring to take the pressure off their star.
Among the 16 playoff teams, only Montreal scored fewer goals than the Kings' 219 during the regular season. Their power play ranked 21st in the NHL, and their 28.8 shots per game were 23rd.
Lombardi said the Kings' skill level "is clearly something we've got to address." Los Angeles hopes to get a boost from prospects Andrei Loktionov and Brayden Schenn, but he's also looking outside the organization at free agents, just as he did last summer before losing a protracted courtship of Ilya Kovalchuk.
"The cap is going up, so obviously we're in pretty good shape there," Lombardi said, noting that some of his decisions will be predicated on whether he signs Doughty to a long-term extension this summer, or waits another year.
A portion of the Kings' offensive struggle this season rests on defenseman Drew Doughty, a Norris Trophy finalist last season. Lombardi and Murray realize their young star got off to a terrible start before playing his way into top shape.
"He's got to understand that when you're preparing, you're competing," Lombardi said. "I'm looking for a lot more improvement than last year. What he found out, to reach that level you talk about, that top level, you're not going to be allowed to just go out. You've got to work."
The Kings also need much more dedication from Dustin Penner, the bruising forward acquired from Edmonton near the trade deadline. Penner failed to score in his final 12 regular-season games, and he managed just one goal in the postseason while getting bumped to the fourth line.
With one year left on his contract, the Kings hope Penner is properly motivated to be a major contributor to the Kings in the fall.
"I've had several meetings from the time he arrived here," Murray said. "I wanted him to be a hardworking, intense, compete player. I didn't really care about the scoresheet. I referred to that often. I'm not looking at goals. I'm not looking for the points. I want to see a player who is playing the right way and playing our system."
Michal Handzus and Alexei Ponikarovsky are the Kings' two prominent unrestricted free agents. Lombardi and Murray both seemed very interested in re-signing the versatile, veteran Handzus, and perhaps slightly less enthused about newcomer Ponikarovsky, who managed just five goals in 61 games after scoring at least 18 goals in each of his previous five NHL campaigns.
Although the season will remain a missed opportunity in the Kings' minds, Lombardi hopes it inspires his painstakingly assembled roster to keep moving forward with a culture of success despite its failure against San Jose.
"They really thought they could win this thing, and they kind of liked that nobody gave them a chance," Lombardi said. "Not only did they have a chance, they actually had 'em. I know they thought if they got into Game 7, that's our advantage."