TORONTO -- When I last visited with the Los Angeles Kings, it was training camp in September, about as surreal a camp as there was around the NHL.
The Kings, at the time, were turning the page on a season from hell, both on and off the ice. And the organization introduced some major off-ice initiatives to educate its player on drug abuse and domestic violence.
On the ice, they were embarrassed by having missed the playoffs last season after winning two Cups in the previous three seasons and were looking to prove they were still among the elite clubs in the NHL.
In short, there were a lot of questions surrounding this team at camp, and we're beginning to see the early answers.
The Kings look to be on the road back. Their 20-10-2 record is giving them an eight-point lead in the Pacific Division and making them look very much like a team with the potential to go far this spring.
"I think a lot of guys learned a lot from last year," captain Dustin Brown said over the weekend at Air Canada Centre before his team capped a six-game Eastern swing (3-2-1) with a 5-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. "We started off 0-3 and since then we haven't lost more than two games in a row. I think that [was] a big issue for us last year, we had two or three stretches where we didn't win a game for four-, five- or six-game stretches. I think we've done better this year catching it before it slides into a streak. If you can do that over the course of 82 games, that goes a long way putting us where we need to be."
Indeed, when the Kings started 0-3-0 this season, people wondered if this was last season all over again. But they've since gone 20-7-2, their top players absolutely being their top players when it comes to Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar.
One of the many questions at camp was the issue of leadership. Who would fill that void created when Robyn Regehr, Justin Williams, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll exited, one season after Willie Mitchell also left?
That's a lot of leadership out of the dressing room door. The onus from management was on Doughty, Kopitar and Quick, in particular, to take greater ownership in this area and transition the team's leadership into their hands.
"Obviously you miss those guys, but it's an opportunity for others," Brown said of all the veterans no longer on the team. "I think Drew has just been itching to take on more of a leadership role and he has done that. With some big voices leaving, you saw a collective push, and that's how it's always been for us, it's never been one guy. It's always been a group of guys and that's part of what makes us able to get through some stretches where we're not on top of our game. We have a group mentality, we're in this together."
The leadership void is no more, Doughty said.
"That's not an issue," he said. "We've had some of the young guys step up in that category. Our leadership on this team, I think is phenomenal. We have so many guys that could be wearing letters or whatever it may be. No matter who in the room is speaking up, everybody is listening. This group is so tight together."
No question Doughty has been relishing this opportunity to become a bigger voice on this team. The outspoken 26-year-old is such a breath of fresh air in a league where so many players carefully filter their thoughts so as not to bring attention on themselves or rock the boat.
"I'm one of the most competitive guys I think ever," Doughty said Saturday. "I don't want to lose games. It's not always about winning games. I love winning, obviously, but I absolutely hate losing. When big games come and it's a do-or-die situation, I know I need to raise my level of play and play my best game, and usually I'm able to do that."
Believe me when I say he's not bragging, he's just stating plain as fact how he feels.
Another example of Doughty not being shy about walking into a minefield was last Monday in Ottawa when the conversation with media revolved around his comparison to two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. Doughty -- who has never won a Norris -- was asked if he thought he was getting enough love when it came to the voting for the award for the top defenseman.
"I don't know. It's hard to say," Doughty said. "I guess last year some guys just left me off their ballot completely, so I don't see how that's possible. I don't know. I think if I was playing in the East, I would have had a little more love. What can you do?"
Doughty was runner-up to Karlsson for the Norris last season and, while I think the all-world Karlsson certainly deserves the hardware he's collected, it is a bit puzzling that Doughty has yet to win the Norris (it's worth noting that Karlsson helped carry the Sens into the playoffs with a late-season push last season while the Kings just missed out on the postseason).
I asked Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, who coached Doughty on two Olympic teams, whether playing on the West Coast hurt Doughty's profile.
"I don't know the answer to that, he's doing alright out West, isn't he?" responded Babcock. "He's got two Cups, doesn't he? I think he's got a couple of gold medals, doesn't he? He's doing OK."
Babcock has been enamored with Doughty ever since as a 21-year-old Doughty shined on the Olympic stage at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
"He's a really, really, really good player," said Babcock. "He's a good kid, he knows how to play right. The bigger the game, the better he plays. He can stickhandle in a phone booth ... he doesn't mind drilling you the odd time, he's a real hockey player. He likes it and has fun with it."
The love affair is reciprocal.
"I love Babs as a coach, he's very demanding as a coach, he tells you exactly what he wants," Doughty said. "If you do exactly what he wants, your team is going to be successful. He's a great coach. He can turn [Toronto] around."
Perhaps most impressive by Doughty is that he's been paired this season with 24-year-old Brayden McNabb, who is playing in his second full NHL season, which puts the onus on the Kings' No. 1 blueliner to help shield McNabb as he goes through the ups and downs of learning to be a top-four blueliner.
While McNabb has mostly been fine, there are enough dips in his game that I think the Kings know it would be a huge boost in their quest to contend to get another top-four blueliner for insurance before the Feb. 29 trade deadline.
In particular, I would suggest a right-handed shot, so that the lefty-lefty Muzzin-Martinez pair could be broken up and the Kings could go lefty-righty in their top four.
And I tell you, the guy that would be a perfect fit is Dustin Byfuglien, if the Winnipeg Jets can't re-sign him and put him on the trade market. One of the problems for the Kings, though, is that it doesn't have a first-round pick (which would be more enticing to the Jets) for the June draft -- that pick belongs to the Carolina Hurricanes from last season's Andrej Sekera trade. So if and when Byfuglien becomes available, the Kings would have to be more creative in going after him, if indeed they do at all pursue him.
Until then, there's no reason they won't keep humming above the rest of the Pacific Division. Life is good again in L.A.