How does the NHL work? You can win the Stanley Cup without having an elite roster. A few exceptional players and a lot of grit can get you to the top of the mountain. Look no further than the Pittsburgh Penguins last year for that.
So to begin with optimism, we can say the LA Kings begin the 2016-17 season Wednesday against San Jose with three, possibly four, exceptional players as that foundation.
But then comes reality. That core will have to perform above expectations for this team to make the playoffs, let alone win the cup this year. It’s not that the so-called window of opportunity has closed as much as it is cracked, waiting to see if prospects will flourish in the next year or two to lift the team back to contending status.
The team has kept its core of defenseman Drew Doughty, goaltender Jonathan Quick and center Anze Kopitar. Also, Tyler Toffoli has the makings of a consistent all-star. Virtually the rest of the roster — particularly at forward — is in transition thanks to two painful realities.
One is payroll restraints: The Kings have just $57,000 in salary cap room. The front office is doing all it can to shoehorn one more player into the roster legally as I type — a left winger that could join their top line, Devin Setoguchi. Adding to that burden is the NHL salary cap provides little relief when players get injured long term. Setoguchi is seen as a replacement for injured sniper Martin Gaborik.
The cap limit was also part of the reason the Kings could not retain forward Milan Lucic, a bruiser that fit perfectly with their heavy style of play.
The second is cuts made due to some players’ off-ice behavior. The Kings let go of forwards Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards due to drug-related arrests. Slava Voynov was supposed to stabilize the defense for a decade with Doughty, but he’s back in Russia thanks to an ugly domestic violence arrest.
Currently, the third and fourth line of forwards are centered by Nic Dowd and Andy Andreoff, who haven’t impressed much. So LA’s offensive depth has been depleted, and this was a team that struggled to score in the first place.
The defense last year allowed the third-fewest goals in the NHL. It will have to at least equal that. There’s no reason to expect a slump from Doughty or Quick, but if there’s an injury, LA could be toast. And Quick has had injuries to the back, wrist and groin.
I can’t say with confidence the Kings can consistently match up with San Jose or Anaheim. The top three finishers in the Pacific Division are assured of playoff spots. They’re probably better than Vancouver, but Edmonton and Phoenix have added to their rosters and Calgary looms for a bounceback season.