It's fitting that 25 years after a trade for Wayne Gretzky put the Los Angeles Kings on the "hockey" map, the franchise has built a core roster that looks like it will keep the club in contention for some time.
Hockey was an afterthought on the West Coast until Gretzky arrived from the Edmonton Oilers on Aug. 9, 1988 and he helped propel the Kings to new heights while increasing the popularity of the sport. Current residents in the City of Angels have every reason to tune into the latest edition of the Kings, who are coming off their fourth straight playoff appearance and a five-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the conference finals.
That defeat was viewed as a down year by the 2012 champions, showing just how far the franchise has come.
Looking to repeat as champs, the fifth-seeded Kings battled back from a 2-0 series deficit to the St. Louis Blues in the opening round by winning four straight, then outlasted the San Jose Sharks in seven games in the conference semifinals.
Perhaps that hard-fought series, which saw the Kings win all four of their home games, took too much out of the players and L.A. dropped three-one goal games to the Blackhawks. That included a heart-breaking, double-overtime contest in the deciding Game 5.
After falling shy of the ultimate goal, the Kings did little tinkering to the roster. Head coach Darryl Sutter returns a good chunk of his top-three lines and should see his defensive grouping strengthened by the return of Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene from injury-plagued campaigns.
General manager Dean Lombardi also turned a surplus into depth, trading coveted backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a scorer in Matt Frattin along with new No. 2 netminder Ben Scrivens.
Feisty winger Daniel Carcillo was acquired to give the Kings a tougher edge, while Jeff Schultz was signed to help overcome the free agency loss of Rob Scuderi.
The Kings also took care of some in house business, signing captain Dustin Brown to an eight-year extension. He joins forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, defensemen Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov, as well as goaltender Jonathan Quick as those signed through at least 2019.
FORWARDS - The Kings finished 10th in the NHL with 2.73 goals per game last season despite getting just 10 from Anze Kopitar and 12 out of Richards.
Kopitar's scoring slump extended into the playoffs, where he had just three goals and nine points in 18 games, while Brown followed up an 18-goal regular season with just three tallies and four points in the postseason. That after he tied for seventh in the NHL during the regular season with eight power-play goals and was eighth in hits (156).
Brown and Kopitar, also a solid two-way player, look for offensive rebounds alongside Justin Williams, the 31-year-old owner of a pair of 30-goal seasons earlier in his career. He also reached the 20-goal mark in his two campaigns before last season's lockout-shortened jaunt and has not missed a game over the last two regular seasons.
With the loss of Dustin Penner in free agency, a spot opened up among Los Angeles' top six forwards. Those who will battle for a spot on the second line include the 25-year-old Frattin, 21-year-old prospect Tyler Toffoli and Carcillo.
Carcillo could be the one to claim a spot alongside Richards and Carter. The three played together with the Philadelphia Flyers, reaching the Cup Finals in 2010.
That would also allow Toffoli, the AHL Rookie of the Year, to ease into life in the NHL, though the former second-round pick had five points in 10 regular season games in 2013 before adding a pair of goals and six points in 12 playoff contests.
Offense has not been a problem for the streaky Carter, who ranked fourth in the NHL with 26 goals a season ago. He was also a clutch player for the Kings, with a league-leading eight of his goals game-winners.
Jarret Stoll adds depth as the third line center and appears ready for the start of the season despite suffering a seizure at home in early July.
Sutter will have plenty of options to choose from for his fourth line, including Dwight King, Colin Fraser, Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford.
DEFENSE - The Kings played a good part of the 2013 campaign short on defense. Mitchell was unable to play in a single game due to a knee injury, while Greene suffered a herniated disc in the season opener, keeping him out until April.
Mitchell and Greene, who had offseason surgery for a staph infection on his elbow, should be ready to go at the start of this campaign, further adding to the depth.
The Kings have two talented scorers at the blue line in Doughty and Voynov, who broke out for 25 points in 48 regular season games before matching Carter for the club lead with 13 points in the playoffs. His six goals also matched Carter and Williams for the team lead and the Kings rewarded the restricted free agent with a six-year contract.
Doughty remains the anchor of the defense and the 208-pounder had a career- high streak of three straight games with a goal. He was on pace for the second-best offensive output of his career if his numbers (6 goals, 16 assists in 48 games) were extended over a full season.
Lombardi swung a deal in April to get Robyn Regehr from Buffalo to add depth for a playoff run and the 33-year-old signed a two-year extension in May. He'll likely see top-four minutes along with Mitchell now that Scuderi is with Pittsburgh.
Schultz is one player who will battle to be the sixth defenseman along with the 24-year-old Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez, 26. Muzzin should have the inside track after playing in 45 games last year and logging seven goals and 16 points.
GOALTENDING - Quick remains one of the top goaltenders in the NHL even if his numbers were down a bit from his 2011-12 campaign, which concluded with the 27-year-old winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.
He was still solid during the regular season at 18-13-4 with a 2.45 goals against average and .902 save percentage. Quick was also key to the Kings getting back to the conference finals thanks to a postseason GAA of 1.86 and .934 save percentage.
Quick appeared in 69 games during the 2011-12 season and was on that pace in the lockout-shortened season with 37 games. So, Scrivens should expect to see some time in net as Sutter was not shy about sticking with Bernier for multiple games in a row last year.
Scrivens certainly looked capable at times last year with Toronto, going 7-9-0 with a 2.69 GAA, .915 save percentage in 20 games. That included back-to-back shutouts in mid-February, when he stopped a total of 71 shots. In total, he posted a shutout streak of 151 minutes and 46 seconds.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The addition of Vancouver and up-and-coming Edmonton to the new-look Pacific Division will give Los Angeles some extra challengers this year. The Kings, though, have had recent success without winning the division, something the franchise has not done since Gretzky's fourth year in Los Angeles in 1990-91.
This current core has also done something that "The Great One" never did in L.A. and that is win a Stanley Cup.
There is no reason to believe that the Kings won't be one of the top contenders in the league again this year. Quick will keep them in just about any game he plays in, often masking Los Angeles' scoring slumps. But the scorers took a step forward last year even with Kopitar struggling and the club's chemistry together certainly gives it a positive edge.