Every player on the ice Saturday looked impossibly young and swift as the Kings opened their rookie camp in El Segundo.
Even the veterans appeared energetic and fresh as they signed autographs and greeted fans at the team's second annual Hockey Fest. Free of the cuts that crisscross their faces during the season they looked barely older than the kids who hope to advance to the main training camp next weekend and win a roster spot.
Every team dreams big this time of year. The Kings' dreams seemed impossibly big a year ago, when they insisted they would make the playoffs. They turned that into reality with a 46-victory, 101-point season that ended with a six-game loss to the surer and more experienced Vancouver Canucks.
This time making the playoffs won't be enough.
"The mind-set is a lot different," team captain Dustin Brown said. "Where it's different for me is that we have expectations for ourselves, which hasn't been the case here in L.A."
Brown said reaching the playoffs in his sixth NHL season was a revelation.
"That was a big step for this team," he said. "A lot of these guys, myself included, haven't played in the playoffs and now gaining that experience, it was a lot of fun. Probably the most fun I've ever had playing. And once you experience that you want more of it, and that's a driving factor for this team."
Heightened expectations were on the mind of General Manager Dean Lombardi as he fielded questions from fans Saturday.
He repeated his theory that a team first hopes it can win, progresses to thinking it can win and, finally, knows it can win. This team, which he acknowledged is short of skill when compared to the NHL's elite but deep on defense and in goal, still has a long way to go.
"We're getting to the hardest part right now," he said. "The steeper the hill, the harder the climb. This is the first year there are legitimate expectations on this team. … I'm excited about seeing them in that phase."
Goaltending shouldn't be a problem as long as Coach Terry Murray resists the temptation to overplay Jonathan Quick again. Quick will begin camp as the No. 1 goalie but Jonathan Bernier will press him and that can only be good for both.
The defense should be solid even though Matt Greene will sit out the first month of the season while recovering from surgery on his left shoulder. Thomas Hickey, the fourth overall draft pick in 2007, has a golden chance in rookie camp to stake a claim on that spot. Jake Muzzin, signed as a free agent in January, is a two-way defenseman with a chance to advance. Willie Mitchell, signed as a free agent after recovering from a head injury, could be the defense corps' glue and a perfect partner for Drew Doughty.
"It intrigued me to play with a young group that was coming into their own," Mitchell said. "It intrigued me that I could complement their young defensemen, maybe help them out a little bit."
Lombardi said he's unlikely to add a top-six forward before training camp, though not for money reasons. Jeff Solomon, the Kings' vice president of legal affairs and salary-cap expert, projected the club to be $2 million to $3 million below the $59.4-million cap, enough maneuvering room if a deal materializes later.
Lombardi is looking at left wing Kyle Clifford, a rookie-camp participant, and returning left wing Scott Parse, who played only sporadically last season, as candidates to raise the team's skill level.
The only minor cloud is that center Brayden Schenn, a future second-line center, didn't skate Saturday after injuring his left knee Tuesday. He said he's not sure if he will skate Sunday.
"It's a day-to-day process. It feels like it's getting better and I went through a pretty tough workout," he said.
For the Kings, every workout, every shift in rookie camp and the main camp must toughen them physically and mentally for the steep climb Lombardi mentioned.
"I think this year is going to be more difficult than maybe some of the young guys think," Mitchell said. "Last year, they were kind of off the radar a little but this year everyone knows, hey, this is a good young team. It's going to be much tougher to win games and I hope to come in and speak about those things and that the challenge is going to be different this year."
But not impossible, or so it seems now.
"I think we have the right group of guys in there that will have expectations for ourselves," Brown said, "which is ultimately what's going to drive the team to success."