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HELENE ELLIOTT

Kings see reasons, but need answers

Kings' second straight first-round playoff exit wasn't progress, with disintegration of defense of great concern. General Manager Dean Lombardi and Coach Terry Murray assess strengths and weaknesses.

April 27, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Kings winger Kyle Clifford (13) and Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle (22) battle for position as they chase after the puck in the third period of Game 5.
Kings winger Kyle Clifford (13) and Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle (22) battle… (Cary Edmondson / US Presswire )

Nine minutes and two seconds into summarizing where the Kings progressed this season and where they fell short of expectations, General Manager Dean Lombardi finally took a breath.

In a stream-of-consciousness response he theorized fear of success might explain the dramatic swings during the season and in the playoffs, praised the team's ability to rebound from adversity but agonized over its habit of creating that adversity, and puzzled over the disappearance of the Kings' trademark defensive game during their six-game playoff loss to San Jose.

"Those are the things that initially strike me," he said. "Ask me in two weeks and I'll probably give you a longer-winded answer."

There isn't enough time for an expanded version of Lombardi's thoughts before camp opens in September. And the essential truths he and Coach Terry Murray offered Wednesday won't change in two weeks or two months.

The Kings' second straight first-round playoff exit wasn't progress. There were individual successes, such as goaltender Jonathan Quick's rise to an elite level and the emergence of rugged rookie winger Kyle Clifford, but the disintegration of their defense-first style under playoff pressure was inexplicable and inexcusable.

"Our structure as far as the play without the puck, that was so far away from who we've been all through these past couple of years that to me, today, it's still a concern," Murray said.

He and Lombardi agreed the absence of center Anze Kopitar, who tore ankle ligaments on March 26, was a greater loss defensively than offensively. That defenseman Drew Doughty had a better second half than first half but can be better still. That defenseman Jack Johnson, who joined Team USA for the World Championships in Slovakia, had a second-half dropoff. That the power-play unit underachieved and needs fixing.

They also agreed that left wing Dustin Penner, who scored only three goals in 25 games, must improve his conditioning. Lombardi hopes peer pressure will sway Penner into being conscientious.

"There is some serious work to do here in the summer and to me that's all culture," Lombardi said Wednesday. "It's almost like you look at it and say, 'There's some up-side here if you're going to buy in.' This is a strong man.

"So that's clearly the message, it's buy into basically what your teammates believe in, in terms of how you prepare. Simple as that. It's not only going to make him a better hockey player but clearly it's about attitude."

On the medical front, Lombardi said right wing Justin Williams must decide whether to undergo surgery on the shoulder he injured in March but no other players face major repairs.

Lombardi said his first priority is to figure out "where we are, and what we have to get better at." That includes projecting the potential of forwards Brayden Schenn and Andrei Loktionov, who should make the team next season and bring much-needed skill.

After that, Lombardi must decide whether to re-sign unrestricted free agent forwards Michal Handzus and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Murray, who benched Ponikarovsky in the final two playoff games, said he'd like both to return. "I need him to score more, though," Murray said of Ponikarovsky, who had five goals this season and one in the playoffs.

Lombardi must also sign restricted free agents Doughty, Wayne Simmonds, Trevor Lewis, Brad Richardson, Alec Martinez and Oscar Moller. Murray's decision to scratch the talented but small Moller to play Scott Parse after a five-month absence suggests Moller's future in the organization isn't bright.

Doughty will get big bucks but the salary cap is expected to rise from $59.4 million to about $62 million and the Kings have space. "Part of this is do we go short term with Doughty for now and keep it down or try and go long-term," Lombardi said, referring to the seven-year, $30.5-million extension he gave Johnson.

In the meantime, Lombardi, Murray, and their players will try to analyze why another season ended in disappointment. Lombardi said he isn't going to change the coach. The coach said he isn't going to change the system. Someone has to figure out how to change the outcome next spring.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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