Though the Los Angeles Kings are still looking for their first playoff series victory since 2001, there is little doubt that hockey is on the upswing in the City of Angels.
After ending a six-year absence from the postseason in 2009-10 thanks to a 101-point campaign, the Kings returned to the playoffs after managing 98 points in an ultra-tight Pacific Division. But, for the second year in a row, Los Angeles was ousted in six games in the quarterfinals, this time by division rival San Jose.
Los Angeles entered the series with high hopes of knocking off the Sharks after putting together consecutive seasons of more than 45 wins for the first time in club history, but never really recovered after blowing a four-game lead in the set's third game.
While the 2010 exit may have had to do with rust, one has to wonder if last year's playoff run would have lasted longer if leading-scorer Anze Kopitar had not suffered a right ankle injury in late March that caused him to miss the season's final seven games and all six playoff games.
Kopitar's injury came not long after fellow forward Justin Williams sustained a dislocated shoulder, leaving the Kings' shallow offense without two of its top players.
The cost for Richards was high, with the Kings sending gritty forward Wayne Simmonds, well-regarded prospect Brayden Schenn and a 2012 second-round draft across the coast. But in return, Los Angeles is getting a 26-year-old workhorse who excels on both ends of the ice.
The Kings didn't need to do much on the back end thanks to the presence of one of the top defensive tandems in Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, both former top-five draft picks, while young goaltender Jonathan Quick is coming off another solid campaign.
Doughty was still a restricted free agent as of press time and has yet to join the club for training camp as the two sides haggle over money. General manager Dean Lombardi has said he won't go over $6.8 million a season for Doughty's service -- the same salary as Kopitar -- and Doughty's camp appears to be holding its ground as well, even in terms of the lengthy of a contract.
Whatever the issues, the Kings and their former Norris Trophy candidate need to settle things soon as the loss of Doughty could off set everything the club did in the offseason as the time appears to be now for Terry Murray's club to finally put together some postseason success not seen since the Wayne Gretzky era.
FORWARDS - The loss of Kopitar was the poison in the well for a Kings club that ranked just 25th during the regular season with a mere 2.55 goals per game. While Los Angeles did miss out on signing a high-profile free agent for a second straight season -- Ilya Kovalchuk in 2010 and Brad Richards this past summer -- the franchise landed a key piece in getting Mike Richards.
The combination of Kopitar and Richards down the middle gives the club excellent depth along with center Jarret Stoll, while the Kings' top six is as solid as any club in the west thanks to the addition of Gagne to captain Dustin Brown and last year's big trade deadline acquisition, Dustin Penner.
Richards (23 goals, 43 assists in 2010-11) figures to be at the start of a lengthy stay in Los Angeles as his 12-year contract signed with Philadelphia in December of 2007 carries over. That is good news for the Kings, who are getting a former All-Star in the prime of his career.
Kopitar (25g, 48a) seemed poised to break his career-high points total of 81 set the previous season before his injury and could find some more room on the ice to make plays if Gagne can stay healthy. After posting a pair of 40-goal seasons over his 10-year stay with the Flyers, the 31-year-old posted 17 goals and 23 assists in 63 games with the Lightning last year while missing time with a neck injury.
Richards and Gagne didn't come cheap, so the Kings dealt veteran forward Ryan Smyth to the Oilers for forward Colin Fraser and a 2012 seventh-round pick, let forward Alexei Ponikarovsky leave as a free agent and were unable to re- sign center Michal Handzus.
Fraser's health was debated by the Kings and Oilers following the trade, leading Lombardi to fire some unkind words towards the Edmonton franchise.
Los Angeles will hope for more out of the 28-year-old Penner this year after he posted just two goals and six points in 19 games following his trade from Edmonton. He'll likely play on the top line with Kopitar and Williams (22g, 35a), while Brown (28g, 29a) will round out the second line with Gagne and Richards.
Center Brad Richardson (7g, 12a) was re-signed in the offseason and the Kings also gave Ethan Moreau a one-year deal after the veteran was limited to just 37 games last year with Columbus due to a broken hand and rib injury.
DEFENSE - While Doughty didn't have quite the offensive showing last year as he did in 2009-10, dropping from 59 points to 40 in six fewer games, there is little doubt that he has emerged as one of the top young defenseman in the league.
The same can be said for 24-year-old American Jack Johnson, who did increase his points total by six to a personal-best 42, but was also a career-low minus-21. Johnson is a career minus-78 for his career, so he obviously still has a little seasoning left to go through, but he did manage to tie for the team lead with five points in the playoffs.
Still, the Kings were tied for sixth in the league at 2.39 goals allowed per game and came in fourth-best on the penalty kill at 85.5 percent.
Los Angeles also re-signed Alec Martinez this offseason.
GOALTENDING - The Kings blueliners can afford to take some chances with Quick in net.
The Connecticut-born 25-year-old set a club record with 39 wins in 2009-10 and then posted career-highs with a 2.24 goals-against average and .918 save percentage last year. Playing in 11 fewer games could have helped to keep him fresh as Murray wasn't afraid to go to the well-regarded Jonathan Bernier at times.
Bernier appeared in 25 games in his first extended NHL action in 2010-11, going 8-3-3 with a 2.48 GAA and three shutouts and teams with Quick to give the Kings a young and talented duo in net.
As long as Quick doesn't regress, Bernier could also serve as an excellent bargaining chip at some point during the upcoming season if the Kings need to upgrade on offense.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - After years of poor finishes allowed the Kings to stockpile young talent, Lombardi has converted some of his future to win now. The move to get Richards should push Los Angeles up another tier in the Western Conference and he is still vital to the long-term success of the club, more so than the 31-year-old Brad Richards would have been. A full season of Penner and a healthy Gagne should add more pop to the offense, making the defensively-talented Kings one of the division's heavyweights. Anything less than a deeper playoff run would be a disappointment for this up-and-coming club, but Doughty must be in the fold as well for that to happen.