Kings: Looking ahead to the offseason

April, 28, 2011
4/28/11
3:58
PM PT
Oh, the similarities.

The Kings were not only eliminated in the same game of the same round of the same Stanley Cup playoffs as last season. They were finished off on the same day of the year.

So, while April 25 isn’t generating any fond passages in their diaries, neither are a few other dates. Six days earlier on the same ice at Staples Center, they let the San Jose Sharks spit the hook in Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinal, blowing a four-goal, second-period lead and losing control of the best-of-seven series.

Anze KopitarGeoff Burke/US PresswireAnze Kopitar's recovery from an ankle injury will be key to the Kings' success next season.

The team was a bit older and wiser this season but also was missing its best player down the stretch, leading scorer Anze Kopitar, whose season-ending ankle injury two weeks before the end of the regular season felt like a flat tire 500 yards from the finish line.

Did Kopitar’s loss cancel out any gains from the previous 12 months? Who knows?

But the blown lead in Game 3, the three overtime losses and the 0-3 record at home in the series made for a slow walk out of Staples Center after Game 6.

At least the early exit provides the Kings a head start on repairing some of their issues.

Heading into the postseason, most of the problems were thought to be offense-related, but then the defense around goalie Jonathan Quick turned into soft serve and more red flags were raised.

Here’s a look at the main areas of concern heading into the offseason.

I. Not just any ankle

Another date that won’t be celebrated any time soon is March 26. That’s the sunny Saturday afternoon when Kopitar crumbled to the ice. The Kings were coasting along with a 2-0 lead late in the second period against the under-manned Colorado Avalanche, when Kopitar’s ankle suddenly gave way during a light scramble along the boards.

Originally described as a broken right ankle, Kopitar underwent surgery four days later to repair torn ligaments.

It’s a significant injury for any athlete, but especially one who relies on his legs as much as Kopitar. He’s expected to resume skating at some point during the summer, but where he’ll be in his recovery five months from now is anybody’s guess.

What is certain is the Kings are a different team on both ends of the ice without Kopitar in the lineup.

II. Doughty dilemma

Big things were expected from Kings defenseman Drew Doughty following his 2009-10 breakout season, which culminated with a Norris Trophy nomination as one of the league's top blue liners. But his third year in the NHL got off to a rough start when he suffered a concussion in the fifth game against the Hurricanes and was sidelined for the next five.

After that, Doughty seemed to mix moments of greatness with longer stretches of sloppiness and indecision, and his production fell across the board.

Doughty, 21, finished with 11 goals and 40 points during the regular season, compared to 16 and 59 the year before. His shooting percentage dropped from 11.3 to 7.9, and his plus-minus rating slipped from plus-20 to plus-13.

Even his penalty minutes shot up.

The drop-off could wind up costing Doughty some dough if he stays with the Kings. He’ll be a restricted free agent on July 1 and free to accept offer sheets from other teams, though the Kings have the right to match.

If he does remain with the Kings, which is very likely, Doughty will be expected to arrive at training camp in better physical condition than last season, and willing to maintain that level throughout the winter.

III. More free agency talk

In addition to Doughty, fellow defensemen Alec Martinez and forwards Trevor Lewis, Oscar Moller, Wayne Simmonds and Brad Richardson are restricted free agents. Expect the Kings to make a big push to keep all but Moller, whose small size allowed him to be pushed off the puck too easily and earned himself a seat in the press box for five of the six playoff games.

The Kings also have some tough decisions with their unrestricted free agents, forwards Michal Handzus and Alexei Ponikarovsky and, to a much lesser extent, defenseman Peter Harrold.

Handzus, 34, saw his numbers tumble from 20 goals, 42 points and a plus-four rating in 81 games in 2009-10 to 12 goals, 30 points and a minus-five rating last season. Ponikarovsky’s drop off was even more significant, nose-diving from 21 goals and 50 points in 78 games with Toronto and Pittsburgh last season, to five goals and 15 points in 61 games this season, which included two stints on injured reserve.

How bad was it for the 31-year-old Ponikarovsky? He was benched the final two games of the playoffs in favor of enforcer Kevin Westgarth, who didn’t score a goal all season.

The Kings indicated they would like to keep both forwards but you can bet their offers will include a lot less guaranteed money and a plenty more incentives.

IV. Will Penner be a winner again?

One of the biggest disappointments down the stretch was the play of Dustin Penner. Acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in late February for a top defensive prospect and a couple of draft picks, the Kings probably wished they kept their receipt.

Penner did pretty much nothing to help the Kings down the stretch and into the playoffs. At one point, he went 15 consecutive games without scoring a point. He was trailing the play when the Sharks scored the winning goal in overtime to cap their four-goal comeback in Game 3, and didn’t appear to be straining too hard to get back into position.

Since the Kings are stuck with Penner’s immovable $4.2 million price tag next season, they can only hope he bends to peer pressure and gets himself in the best shape possible heading into training camp.

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s skilled. Get his legs under his wide shoulder and Penner could be a 30-goal scorer again.

V. Help wanted

Regardless of how Kopitar’s injury progresses and how hard Penner trains in the offseason, the Kings still need another high-scoring forward.

Expect them to make a run at Dallas center Brad Richards, an unrestricted free agent who scored a career-high 28 goals last season, despite missing 10 games because of a concussion.

The Kings were interested Richards at the trade deadline, but the Stars were still in the hunt for the playoffs and didn’t want to part with their star.

The Kings have the cap space to sign Richards, especially if they don’t re-sign Handzus and Ponikarovsky. The question is, would Richards want to come West?

He already has an established relationship with Rangers coach John Tortorella, winning a Stanley Cup title together as members of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, and the Rangers also have the cap space to lure Richards.

Like just about everything else related to the offseason, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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