Kings captain Dustin Brown greets fans as he leaves the ice after warming… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
NEWARK, N.J. -- The Kings had just fallen to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final, the most emotionally devastating moment of Luc Robitaille's career, but he was already looking at it as a beginning for the franchise, not an ending.
"We didn't think it was a one-shot deal," he said. "I remember clearly telling Rob Blake after the loss, 'We'll be back next year.' "
The Kings didn't make the playoffs the following year or the three after that. Egos clashed, Coach Barry Melrose's habit of favoring grinders over skill players cut his tenure shorter than his mullet, and the team was plunged into chaos while owner Bruce McNall defrauded banks of $236 million and was exiled to federal prison.
One bankruptcy, two owners, three general managers, seven coaches and 19 years later, the Kings will again compete in the Cup Final, an often tortured journey that will peak when they face the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday at the Prudential Center.
It's more than a slice of heaven for Kings fans — it's an entire pie. Tiers of pies. And those pies rest on a foundation solid enough to believe that unlike 1993 this team is capable of more than one-and-done, that with a core of young players under contract and strong financial support from parent company AEG the Kings can make this an annual event, not a once-in-a-generation moment.
"I just love the fact that we are built for a long run because that's how great franchises are built," Robitaille said.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the players' union expires Sept. 15 and in the next deal the salary cap could drop from this season's $64.3-million ceiling, which the Kings approached.
No matter the cap level it will be difficult to keep everyone happy. For a cautionary tale look at the rapid dismantling of the 2010 champion Chicago Blackhawks, who lost 10 key players and a few support players because of their cap squeeze.
But given the Kings' relative youth and productive farm system — the talent-evaluating website hockeysfuture.com ranked their prospects fifth-best among NHL teams — there's reason to expect this team will contend for a long time.
"It was never about rebuilding in those days. We never talked the way we've talked the last few years here," said Robitaille, then an All-Star left wing at the height of a Hall of Fame career and now the Kings' president of business operations.
"I like where we're sitting today. This is about now and it's about the next two weeks and we're going to do the best we can and the goal is to win the Cup, but what I like about it is you can look at our team and say, 'OK, for the next five, six, seven years we're going to compete for the Stanley Cup every year.' "
Ron Hextall, the Kings' assistant general manager, said the slow and sometimes agonizing process of building the current roster was always geared toward a long run.
"In our minds there's no question we're on the front end of it and hopefully this lasts years and years," he said. "Our biggest sticking point in the future is going to be the salary cap. When you have success, we all see what happened in Chicago and we'll do everything in our powers to try not to lose the players we have.
"Inevitably, though, there's going to be some tough decisions for us, whether it's this year, next year or the year after, without question."
Many key forwards are locked in. Top regular-season scorer Anze Kopitar is under contract through the 2015-16 season at a cap hit of $6.8 million. Mike Richards' hit is $5.75 million through 2019-20. Jeff Carter clocks in at $5,272,727 through 2021-22 and Justin Williams' hit is $3.65 million through 2014-15. Leading playoff scorer Dustin Brown is a bargain with a hit of $3.175 million through 2013-14, after which he can become an unrestricted free agent.
Defenseman Drew Doughty, enjoying a terrific postseason, is signed through 2018-19 at an annual hit of $7 million. Veterans Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene are signed through 2013-14. Youngsters Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez each have one more season before they can become restricted free agents.
The Kings' primary goal must be to retain Jonathan Quick, the best goaltender they've ever developed and a central reason they've gotten this far. He has one season left at $1.8 million and they can begin discussing an extension with him July 1.
"That would be on our agenda at this point, I think it's fair to say," Hextall said.
Doughty, at least, doesn't anticipate a problem.
"I think we definitely are going to have a great team for the next few years. Our core guys are so good and signed for a little while and I don't think there's any doubt that Quickie's going to sign here long-term as well," he said. "So we're loving what we have going here on this team and in this dressing room and I think we'll be able to compete for many years to come."