Elliott: After ending playoff drought, Kings face next challenge – improve

Now that the worst seems to be behind them — the painstaking rebuilding of their talent base and philosophy, the rise from the depths of their division and their return to the playoffs — the Kings should enjoy smooth sailing when they meet for training camp Thursday in El Segundo.

Or maybe not.

“I don’t think the hardest is behind us. I think the easiest is behind us”, coach Todd McLellan said.

Say what?

His reasoning is that while it was difficult to restructure a former slow team to compete in a league driven by youth and speed, this transformation has been accomplished. Creating salary cap space by cutting big contracts compounded the pain, but became a gain as it allowed them to sign useful free agents and pay productively winger Kevin Fiala, the commercial grand prize of this summer. They’ve amassed young talent and positioned top draft picks to become stars.

The next step is steep: building on the progress some of their kids made last season, pushing further from them and other young players while building on the remnants of the Stanley Cup champions Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Quick Jonathan to help them question themselves.

The Kings had to make the playoffs last season to assure themselves and their fans that the indignity of their post-Cup decline was a tolerable price to pay for a potentially bright future. Despite the injuries, the Kings gave the Edmonton Oilers a battle and led their first-round series 3-2 before the Oilers wore them down.

The Kings’ cap got higher. These are expectations. They have to accept that.

“Hard work is closing the gap to the top 10 teams in the league because they are getting better every day,” McLellan said by phone Wednesday. “So I think we have some hard work ahead of us. The easy work is done.

Wednesday was devoted to medical tests. Thursday, “we are starting to manage. Someone gets better and someone falls. That’s how it is,” McLellan said of the NHL. “And we have to make sure that we are part of those teams that are improving every day.”

Doughty (wrist surgery) and winger Alex Iafallo (shoulder) should be fine to start camp, but other key players will be out or at less than full strength.

Defender Sean Walker, who suffered a serious knee injury after six games last season, will participate, but his workload will be monitored. Defender Sean Durzi, who underwent shoulder surgery after a breakout season, will also be physically limited early on. Center Alex Turcotte, the fifth pick in the 2019 draft, failed his physical and is recovering from a concussion.

The Kings celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers.

Phillip Danault (24), Sean Durzi (50), Trevor Moore (12), Alex Iafallo (19) and Mikey Anderson (44) of the Kings celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during the third period of the first game of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on May 2 in Edmonton, Canada.

(Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Winger Viktor Arvidsson is in rehab following surgery for a herniated disc and will not join the squad until the start of the season. McLellan said the recovery schedule for Arvidsson, who scored 20 goals in his first season as King after being acquired from Nashville, remains on schedule.

Most of the questions surrounding the Kings will be answered in the coming weeks before their October meeting. 11 opener. The question of goalkeepers seems to have to linger.

In what seemed like a passing moment, Cal Peterson started on opening night last season but couldn’t maintain a high level. Quick, 36, earned the No. 1 job by posting a 2.59 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, his best in a long time. And that was behind a defense often replenished due to injuries.

McLellan laughed when asked about the goalie allocation. “I get asked this question almost every year and I don’t give a clear and concise answer,” he said. “For me to say we’re going to play this 45-year-old guy and the other 35, I’d be lying because I have no idea how it’s going to pan out.” It will be performance-based, with guidance from whisperer/coach Bill Ranford.

Some areas for improvement for the Kings are obvious. They ranked 20e in the NHL in goals for, at 2.87 per game. Their power play was a miserable 27e, with a success rate of 16.1%. Their shorthanded ranked 22n/a at 76.7% efficiency. “We need to hit at least that league midpoint mark, if not more, if we’re going to make a step forward, and the expectations for this group of players and coaches are high,” McLellan said.

Any conversation about the future of the Kings starts with the kids they racked up during those lean years.

The development of the top prospect Quinton Byfield, written no. 2 in 2020, was slowed when he broke his ankle during an exhibition last season. A formidable 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he could be the third center behind Kopitar and Phillip Danault if healthy.

“When you use the word expectation, there are expectations on it to move the needle,” McLellan said. “It’s not about scoring 50 goals or something like that, it’s about moving the needle and energizing the group and himself. And I really believe he can do that.

They also need strikers Iafallo, Jarret Anderson-Dolan and Rasmus Kupari and defender Tobias Bjornfot to make a bigger impact. They need Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore to be the powerhouse he was after the All-Star Game, when he scored 10 of his 17 goals. They need to know if Danault’s career-best 27 goals were a fluke or durable. The same goes for Adrian Kempe’s career-best performance of 35 goals. None of this is guaranteed.

This could, as McLellan said, prove to be the most difficult part of the Kings’ revival. It also bears the greatest reward. They earned the privilege of facing the pressure to win. The next step is a leap of faith.