May 24, 2024

The Kings’ season will be an exercise in mathematical wizardry and an attempt to exorcise the memory of two consecutive playoff losses to the Edmonton Oilers.

The math component looms large for the Kings, who open the season Wednesday against the Colorado Avalanche at Arena, because the NHL’s hard salary cap has grown slowly since the COVID-19 pandemic and stands at $83.5 million. They aren’t alone in starting the season with fewer than the maximum 23 players on their roster — they might open with 20 — and they’ll probably dress 11 forwards instead of the usual 12 in some games in order to stay under the cap limit.

The roster and lineups could change often, creating unpredictability and questions for a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations but might have to make a move if the Pheonix Copley-Cam Talbot goaltending tandem can’t produce top-tier performances. The uncertainty surrounding the roster is the most Kings coach Todd McLellan has faced, and he’s starting his sixth season with them and 17th as an NHL coach.

“Yeah, I can’t lie. I can’t beat around the bush. This is,” said McLellan, whose contract was extended through the 2024-25 season. “But we are in a unique situation, and when I say we, I’m going to talk about the league as a whole. Because there’s a lot of teams that are juggling rosters and cap constraints.

“But we’re not surprised by it. We were informed and are aware. It can’t be an excuse for not being prepared to play .”

Anze Kopitar, who led the Kings in scoring last season for the 15th time in 16 seasons, suggested dressing fewer forwards could have some benefits.

“It’s certainly something new and something we haven’t seen as often before,” he said, “but then again, everybody usually wants more ice time and more opportunity, so I don’t think we’re going to be upset by it. We’ll show up to the rink and whatever the case may be, that’s what’s going to go. Bottom line is we’re trying to win games and it doesn’t matter how many guys we play and how we’re going to do it.”

The Kings got stronger and bigger with the offseason acquisition of center Pierre-Luc Dubois, who clicked with Kevin Fiala and with rookie Alex Laferriere, a third-round draft pick in 2020, during training camp. Laferriere’s creativity and grit helped him win a spot on the season-opening roster.

“Waking up in the morning and realizing you’re going into the rink to walk into this locker room is definitely a little surreal,” Laferriere said Tuesday. “Those two guys are special players. They’ve played a lot of games in this league. They’re some of the best players in this league for a reason. Not only because they’re super skilled but they also make those around them better. They’ve definitely done that for me, not only on the ice but off the ice too, just kind of guiding me and making me feel welcome.”

Bringing back forward Trevor Lewis, a member of their 2012 and 2014 Cup championship teams, addressed a need for an experienced penalty killer who has credibility and leadership.

“We lacked that the last couple seasons,” general manager Rob Blake said.

Blake’s ability to re-sign defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov maintained a solid top four on defense, but the third pair could be a problem. Rookie defenseman Jordan Spence earned a spot but was assigned to the American Hockey League because he’s exempt from waivers and the Kings needed every dollar of cap space they could find. They’ll likely recall winger Arthur Kaliyev from the AHL so he can begin serving the last two games of his four-game suspension for a training camp kneeing infraction. If so, he’d count against the roster and the cap while ineligible.

Another complication is that winger Viktor Arvidsson sustained a lower-body injury Monday and is questionable for Wednesday, possibly triggering more maneuvering. Also, the Kings placed goalie David Rittich on waivers Tuesday and he will be assigned to the minor-league Ontario Reign if he’s not claimed.

Kings goaltender Pheonix Copley stops a shot against the Dallas Stars on Jan. 19, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Pheonix Copley, stopping a shot against Dallas last season, will form the Kings’ goaltending tandem with Cam Talbot.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Blake said “the pieces are there” for success if young players like Kaliyev, Spence, Quinton Byfield, and defenseman Brandt Clarke can make meaningful contributions and if everything clicks. But to go anywhere they must improve their penalty killing, which ranked 24th during the season and killed only 43.8% of the disadvantages they faced against the Oilers. If your best penalty killer is your goalie, as the hockey cliche goes, that could be a problem for the Kings again and prevent them from making the leap to legitimate Cup contender.

Copley helped keep the Kings in playoff contention last season but was passed over in the playoffs in favor of Joonas Korpisalo, who signed with Ottawa over the summer. Cam Talbot, who compiled an .898 save percentage with Ottawa last season, hardly inspires confidence.

With the Oilers and the defending Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights in their division, the Kings face a difficult road in their quest to avoid a third straight elimination by Edmonton — or by anyone else.

“We’ve improved our team from a year ago, which we wanted to do,” Blake said, “and it’s a balanced lineup. If you can get average to above-average production and play out of the group collectively, I think we have chances to do some things in the playoffs.”

Doing “some things” isn’t enough after years of retooling and rebuilding. But that might be the most they can do.

“Our division and conference are very strong at the moment so whoever you play in the first round is going to be a tough matchup,” said winger Adrian Kempe, who’s coming off career-best totals in goals (41) and points (67). “We’ve had some tough series against Edmonton the last two years so hopefully we can become better throughout the regular season and then when it matters, show up and win the series.”

The Kings haven’t won a playoff series since they defeated the New York Rangers in the 2014 Cup Final, losing four appearances since then. Ending that drought is essential. Veteran defenseman Drew Doughty is aiming even higher.

“We want to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I know that’s a lot to maybe put on us right now, but we’re not just trying to get out of the first round. We’re trying to go as far as we can and finish that climb to the top of the mountain, and that’s winning the Stanley Cup.”

For the Kings, it’s a matter of production, depth and making the math work.

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