Next year starts early in the NHL these days, with no real defined off-season any more and the future even murkier this summer, with the collective agreement set to expire and the possibility of another lockout looming.
In 2004, the Tampa Bay Lightning were celebrating a warm-weather Stanley Cup championship in the same way that the Los Angeles Kings are today. But once the NHL endured a full year on the sidelines thanks to a contentious labour dispute, general manager Jay Feaster's first order of business was to tear apart his team to comply with the new salary cap.
Thankfully for the Kings, they may not need to do that, no matter how the landscape may look when the NHL reconvenes. General manager Dean Lombardi painstakingly built his team through the draft and has virtually all the core pieces under contract for the upcoming season.
Only two of his players, defencemen Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi, are over the age of 30, with centre Jarret Stoll set to join them later this month. Getting Stoll's name on a new contract, and getting goaltender Jonathan Quick to agree to a contract extension will be Lombardi's twin priorities this summer.
Stoll was the sort of "glue" guy that coaches such as Darryl Sutter prize, someone whose value far exceeds the comparatively pedestrian statistics that he compiled (21 points in 78 regular-season games, five more in 20 playoff games). Stoll centred the Kings' third line, took all the key defensive-zone faceoffs, was first out on the penalty kill and, along with Trevor Lewis and Dwight King, was the key ingredient on a viable, contributing unit.
Stoll, Dustin Penner, Colin Fraser and Scott Parse are the team's four unrestricted free agents up front. Penner played himself back into the Kings' good graces in these playoffs, and Fraser – who was virtually forced on them last season in the Ryan Smyth trade with the Edmonton Oilers – ended up thriving under Sutter.
Chances are, the Kings will offer Penner and Fraser new contracts, but not break the bank to sign them.
It'll be different for Quick, who carted off the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff's most valuable player and has just one more year left on a bargain-basement contract paying him $1.8-million (U.S.), at which point he will become an unrestricted free agent. The Kings will be in a position to talk extension with Quick after July 1 and Lombardi will likely hoard his available salary-cap space to get him locked up on an expensive, multi-year contract.
The larger question is, can the Kings' Stanley Cup victory have a longer-lasting effect on the market – and attract more than just the small, but hardcore fan base that has supports them so well, year in and year out.
The Kings' unexpected 16-4 run through the playoffs created the usual celebrity sightings, just as their 1993 trip to the Stanley Cup final saw fans as diverse as former U.S. president Ronald Reagan and movie star Goldie Hawn become regulars at rinkside. But that proved to be just an infatuation, and when the Kings missed the playoffs the following year, and Wayne Gretzky was eventually traded away to the St. Louis Blues, interest in hockey waned.
"1993 was all about Gretzky – and there was an expectation that they had a chance to win," explained Patrick O'Neal, the Kings' television host. "With this team, nobody really saw this coming."
That's because the Kings were a quintessential middle-of-the-pack club in the regular season, finishing eighth out of 15 teams in the Western Conference standing and qualifying for the playoffs in the final four days.
O'Neal's father is the actor Ryan O'Neal and he is occasionally is asked to interview celebrity visitors at Kings' games. Celebrity-wise, 2012 was not the same as 1993, according to O'Neal, because two decades ago, "Wayne Gretzky brought them out. That moment in time was like the Lakers. It was Showtime."
The Kings' visibility was aided and abetted when the aforementioned Lakers, the No. 1 sports attraction in town, exited the NBA playoffs in the second round. It meant that suddenly, acres of space opened up in the city's newspapers, and the Kings migrated from the back pages to the front for the past three weeks.
Team captain Dustin Brown, the longest serving member of the Kings, said the Gretzky-era Kings put hockey in L.A. on the map, but you would have to ask him "in 20 years time" what the effect of their victory would be.
"When you think of L.A. you don't think of hockey," said Brown, who had never been west of Chicago before the Kings drafted him in the first round back in 2003. "The one thing that blew me away was, in my first year before the lockout, we were 14th and Phoenix was 15th. It was the last game of the year and it was a sellout. You've got the two worst teams in the league playing against each other in April and it was a sellout. That was an eye opener for me personally – that we have those diehard fans here."
But O'Neal, who grew up in Los Angeles and also works on the Lakers' telecasts for FoxSportsWest, thinks he knows exactly what a Stanley Cup victory will mean, short and long term, for the Kings. The die-hard fans will remain, through thick and thin. For everybody else?
"There's going to be a nice celebration," said O'Neal. "They'll show up for the parade, people will go 'Yeah' and then they'll go about their business again."