Anatomy of the Kings' trying season

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It is a strange thing for the Los Angeles Kings, this abundance of time.

Captain Dustin Brown found himself volunteering at his son's school, officiating a kickball game (and showing zero reluctance to throw out a mouthy 8-year-old at first base). Defenseman Alec Martinez is trying again to pick up the guitar when he isn't hanging out with his 3-year-old mixed breed, Hank. Veteran defenseman Matt Greene can now accompany his pregnant wife, Alyssa, who is expecting at the end of the month, to her doctor's appointments.

"I'm not excited about having this time, but I'm excited about the possibility of using this time," Brown said. "To be in better shape, to be better prepared, to be everything that will make us champions again."

Following the summer of 2014, one filled with celebrations and fun but little time for rest and recovery, Brown returned to Los Angeles dreading the idea of lacing up his skates again. It felt as if they had only just left the ice, having dispatched the New York Rangers in five games in June to win their second Cup.

Only five teams have played more than 60 postseason games in a three-year span since the playoff format changed in 1987, and no team has played more postseason games (64) in a three-season span than the Kings did from 2012 to 2014, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The Kings hoisted Lord Stanley's Cup twice during that run, but their postseason prowess took a heavy toll.

It was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting work -- gratifying for sure, but exacting nonetheless.

"Last summer, I didn't even want to look at my equipment," Brown said.

The expectations heading into the 2014-15 season were predictably high. Once you've won, it's hard to accept anything less. Every team comes out gunning for the Stanley Cup champs.

In the salary-cap era, the Kings are the only team to win two Stanley Cups in a three-year span (2012, '14). They are one of two teams for which the D-word -- dynasty -- is used to describe these days, the Chicago Blackhawks being the other. They have one of the most loaded, balanced lineups in the league. They play a bruising, battering style -- big-boy, heavy hockey that leaves opponents limping.

So when the Kings were slow to start the season, people thought it was just a Cup hangover. Even during the midway point, when the Kings were still struggling, folks were reluctant to suggest they might not make the cut. And yet there they were on April 12, packing up their bags for the summer, out of the playoffs.

"No one expected them to miss the playoffs," one Western Conference player said.

If it were just a matter of the two points by which the Kings missed the playoffs, Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi would lose less sleep. But there is so much more to digest -- and not just on the ice.

Defenseman Slava Voynov was arrested in October and charged with felony domestic assault against his wife, prompting the NHL to suspend him indefinitely. He is currently awaiting trial. In April, veteran leader Jarret Stoll was arrested on a drug charge, accused of possessing cocaine and MDMA, during an unofficial end-of-season trip to Las Vegas with several teammates.

They were unrelated incidents, likened only by the fact that Lombardi wishes, desperately, he could've done more to prevent them. And for a team that has always emphasized the concept of family, they were significant blows among many that sidetracked the defending Stanley Cup champions.

As the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning battle for hockey supremacy in this year's Stanley Cup finals, Lombardi repeatedly asks himself: Were there warning signs? Should we have seen this coming? What could we have done to prevent this from happening?

And he has been tormented by these thoughts.

"This is my fault," he said.

Lombardi cried when he finally sat down with Stoll after Stoll's arrest, absolutely gutted not by the mistake itself but by the betrayal of trust that it signified. Lombardi had tabbed Stoll as one of the team's most important leaders. Lombardi said he couldn't function for four days. He questioned his own judgment.

Less than a week after the Kings' season ended, Stoll was arrested on April 17, 2015, after undergoing a routine pat-down before entering a party at the Wet Republic pool at MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

According to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department arrest record, obtained by ESPN.com, Stoll had 3.3 grams of cocaine in the right back pocket of his swimsuit shorts, including several gel capsules of MDMA, 8.1 grams of an Ecstasy-type substance with a street name of Molly.

A spokeswoman for the Las Vegas County district attorney's office told ESPN.com that charges are still pending toxicology results. The lab is severely backed up.

Stoll, 32, could face serious charges. Two law enforcement sources with narcotics experience told ESPN.com that the amount of drugs reportedly found on Stoll could challenge the threshold for sales or intent to distribute in some jurisdictions, though his status as a first-time offender will help his cause.

One Las Vegas-based criminal drug attorney said the possession of cocaine, a class E felony, is less concerning than that of the MDMA, a class B felony and a non-probation offense. Under Nevada penal code, any amount of a schedule 1 substance over 4 grams triggers state drug-trafficking laws.

"It doesn't matter about any intent to sell, [with that] weight, possessing is all that matters," Lance Hendron of the firm Guymon & Hendron told ESPN.com.

Stoll's future with the Kings was in jeopardy before the arrest -- a decline in play, health issues and salary-cap constraints were all contributing factors -- but it is most assuredly over for the pending unrestricted free agent.

One veteran agent predicted that Stoll would still find a job this summer, though he'll likely have to take a pay cut. His agent, Don Meehan, declined comment.

Stoll's arrest, however, has brought attention to a problem with which the NHL and the NHLPA are becoming increasingly concerned.

Multiple sources within the league told ESPN.com that there is concern about cocaine use being on the rise, and it makes sense why that is a legitimate fear.

Beyond the obvious reasons -- young players thrust into lavish lifestyles with plenty of money to burn and temptations at every turn -- there are other factors.

For one, it metabolizes quickly. Michael McCabe, a Philadelphia-based toxicology expert who works for Robson Forensic, told ESPN.com that, generally speaking, cocaine filters out of the system in two to four days, making it relatively easy to avoid a flag in standard urine tests.

The NHL-NHLPA's joint drug-testing program is not specifically designed to target recreational drugs such as cocaine or marijuana. The Performance Enhancing Substances Program is put into place to do exactly that -- screen for performance-enhancing drugs.

The joint NHL-NHLPA program administers extra testing on one-third of tests that screen for recreational drugs, a source confirmed. But even if a player tests positive, it would not trigger a suspension. In fact, it would not even trigger a visit from the Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program doctors unless a result "shows a dangerously high level for a drug of abuse such that it causes concern for the health or safety of the player or others," according to the CBA.

The program's doctors warn players in rookie orientation and in team visits during the season about the perils of drug use, but there is skepticism about how effective a lecture from a middle-aged physician is on players. Said a source knowledgeable of the program: "It's like your parents telling you not to drink."

When asked recently about cocaine use in the NHL, deputy commissioner Bill Daly admitted it was on the league's radar.

"Those are issues that obviously we're cognizant of and we watch and we monitor," Daly said. "It's about two things: It's about the health and safety of the players, but it's also about the reputation of the league and the sport. And if there was any basis on which to believe that there was an issue, we would address it."

With respect to the Kings, Brown said he is not worried that one incident is an indication of a deeper problem.

"The way I see it is, [Stoll] screwed up and it is what it is," Brown said. "But am I worried about this happening again or this happening during the season or people getting into that lifestyle? No."

Guys would be held accountable if it were not an isolated incident, Brown said, and generally if a guy is not pulling his own weight, he will be hearing it from his teammates first.

Lombardi wanted to give that same sort of unequivocal response, but with how much he has been surprised over the past year, he's not sure he can do that anymore.

"I could give you a standard answer, but I think you'd have to have your head in the sand. I don't think anybody ... " Lombardi trailed off before settling on this: "It's very clear I should have been doing something more before this happened."

One thing is for sure: He is willing to do everything in his power to prevent it from happening again.

He plans on bringing in former NBA player Chris Herren, who had his career derailed by addiction, to talk to the Kings about drug use. Lombardi wants education to be a big part of the solution.

Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake thinks seeing a revered, beloved teammate like Stoll go through what he is going through will be its own lesson.

"They see how fast his life can change with one decision," Blake said.

Education, communication and prevention will be critical components in the team's efforts to deal with the domestic violence issue as well.

Lombardi was floored after learning of Voynov's arrest, incredulous that he had not already thought about a domestic-violence education program that could have pre-empted the ugly incident. Lombardi, who has diligently studied the dominant San Francisco 49ers teams under head coach Bill Walsh, had even read about the club's implementation of such a program in the 1980s. He can't believe he never considered doing it himself.

The team reached out to several groups about a collaborative partnership and will be working in conjunction with Los Angeles-based Peace Over Violence to provide appropriate resources. Lombardi is considering hiring a marriage counselor; anything, really, to make sure the players have adequate support.

As it stands, Voynov, 25, is awaiting trial in California Superior Court, where he will face a felony count of "corporal injury to a spouse with great bodily injury." He could face up to eight years if convicted. Deportation for the Russian is also a possibility.

The charge stems from his arrest in October, after police were called to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance, California, after Marta Varlamova arrived upset and bloodied after an argument with her husband at their Redondo Beach home.

According to court documents obtained by ESPN.com, Varlamova was pushed into a bedroom television stand, opening a 1.5-inch gash above the left eyebrow that required eight sutures to close. Varlamova was allegedly choked, kicked and pushed to the floor by Voynov. The documents reveal that Varlamova told a nurse it was "not first time this happened." Varlamova met with both a social worker and an officer of the Redondo Beach Police Department, telling the latter that her husband "was very aggressive and had done this in the past."

The pair, through their respective legal teams, maintain that the incident was an accident and that the language barrier has led to a distortion of the facts. Varlamova has refused to testify in court and has been ordered into domestic violence counseling to reconsider that decision.

Voynov sought independent counsel, retaining attorney Craig Renetzky, who has represented Kings defenseman Drew Doughty and former Kings assistant coach Mark Hardy in other legal matters. Renetzky represented Doughty when the young defenseman was investigated for sexual assault in the summer of 2012. Charges were never filed; a Hermosa Beach Police Department source told ESPN.com that there were credibility issues with the accuser, whom he described as "deceptive" during the investigation. Renetzky represented Hardy when Hardy was facing fourth-degree sexual abuse charges in 2011; the charges were ultimately dropped and Hardy reportedly entered an alcohol treatment program.

As they did in situations with Doughty and Hardy, the Kings must wait for the judicial process to play out before taking action.

Regardless of the outcome, Voynov would have to cooperate with a separate NHL investigation before the league will consider reinstatement.

The trial is set to begin in July.

To truly understand Lombardi's fierce commitment to the concept of family, you need only take a cursory look around his office, which overlooks the horse stable and the sprawling vineyards behind the pasture in the backyard of his home in Sonoma, California.

Tucked in a corner of the room, almost out of view, are the sparkling mini-replicas of his two Stanley Cups, but displayed prominently are two pictures on the third shelf. Those frames display his childhood friends from home -- or the Bog, as he calls it -- of Ludlow, Massachusetts. It's a "rat town" of factory workers; those buddies, nicknamed Cosmo, Chief, Sponge and Weasel, remain a lifeline.

An only child raised by his grandmother in a busy, bustling house full of a rotating cast of aunts, uncles and cousins, his own home is serene by comparison. Lombardi has no children. This team is his family. These players are his kids.

And just like the patriarch of any clan, he suffers when those close to him struggle. It hurts to see them hurt. And he feels disappointment, far more than anger, when he is let down.

Separating emotions from the business can be difficult, and there might be no greater example of that than the case of Mike Richards. Richards had been instrumental in helping the Kings win their first Cup and a critical factor in helping secure their second, but his play declined in 2013-14 and his contract became increasingly difficult to justify.

Last summer, after wrestling with whether to exercise one of the Kings' two compliance buyouts permitted by the CBA, Lombardi made the trek to visit the struggling center at Richards' cottage in Kenora, Ontario, a remote town about 130 miles east of Winnipeg.

Lombardi warned Richards that he had to come to training camp in better shape than he had the previous season. He believed Richards would make the most of his second chance. Instead, the team was forced to bury Richards and his $5.75 million cap hit in the minors this season.

"We understand it's a business, but in here, you're a family," Brown said in January after Richards' demotion to the AHL. "So that's why it's really hard to see [Richards] go on waivers. ... As a group of guys who have won together, it's even harder."

Richards was recalled in March for the playoff push, but it was not enough.

"It could be the worst decision I ever made," Lombardi said. "But for all the right reasons."

Lombardi thought Richards deserved loyalty. But he doesn't expect everyone to understand that.

"In a cap world, you can't have any heart and soul," he said. "I struggle with that."

But his captain did understand.

Looking back, Lombardi couldn't define it, but he had an unsettling feeling as soon as the team stepped off the plane in Calgary before the penultimate game of the regular season. His team needed to beat a Cinderella Flames team on April 9 to keep its playoff hopes alive, and he didn't feel the requisite energy for a game that was akin to a Game 7.

Blake had already gleaned stirrings of anger when he and hockey operations boss Michael Futa ran into veterans Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams in the hotel lobby while in Vancouver two days earlier.

It wasn't so much anger that the team might miss the playoffs but that they ever let themselves slip to that point in the first place. Williams told the team about his time in Carolina when the Hurricanes missed the playoffs the season after winning the Cup in 2006.

"We can't let that happen, man," Williams said.

In the months leading to the Christmas break, team president Luc Robitaille could sense something was off. The club lacked verve. The boys were not showing that extra gear, the ability to finish a team off, gain the edge in overtime.

But it wasn't until he saw Kopitar smash his stick during that game in Edmonton on April 7, a 4-2 loss to the Oilers that devastated their playoff chances, that he realized the season was over. Few guys are as cool-headed and controlled as the steady Slovenian, so to witness him lose his temper was a pretty revealing glimpse into the team's frustration level.

The Kings do not play a finesse, skilled game. They can't take a night off and rely on the power play to beat a lesser opponent. Their brand of hockey is a nod both to the team's rugged, hard-working personnel and their blue-collar leadership, that of Lombardi, a Budweiser drinker whose father and grandfather toiled in factory jobs, and head coach Darryl Sutter, who spends his summers running his cattle farm in Viking, Alberta.

That style of play makes the Kings one of the most daunting teams in the league, but it also leaves a mark. With so little time to recover in the offseason, some nagging injuries never fully healed. There was rarely a true period for the team to recharge, to get away from the game and turn it off for a while.

"It's incomplete," Sutter said of his feelings on the season during the team's breakup day. "Because when you've won it, then you want to try and do that again."

Sutter is known to be as hard-nosed as any coach in the league in what he requires from his players.

"He demands a lot, but it's because he knows what we're capable of, both individually and collectively," Alec Martinez said.

Asked about the now-infamous trash can incident, when the players reportedly barred Sutter's entrance from the locker room after a game, Brown essentially laughed it off. A version of that event definitely happened, he confirmed, though the intent was misconstrued. Brown said that sort of thing happens frequently, minor flare-ups throughout the course of a season. Lombardi told the media after the season that the incident happened in Tampa in February.

"If you're around sports long enough, there are times when crap happens," Brown said. "It's not a disrespectful thing. ... This happens on the sidelines between players and coaches, and players and players [all the time]."

Ask those around the league and they will tell you that even a fatigued Kings squad was still considered elite. Had they squeaked into the playoffs, even as a wild-card team, they still might have been front-runners.

They have one of the league's best goaltenders in former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick, a superb two-way center in Kopitar and one of the most dynamic defensemen in Drew Doughty.

But all those minutes logged, grueling series, untimely injuries and expectations seemed to catch up to the Kings. They still might be the toughest club in the league to defeat in seven games, but it's also incredibly difficult to sustain their style of play over an 82-game schedule.

"All the hockey they played and it's their best players that played it," one Western Conference executive told ESPN.com. "It's the cumulative wear and tear. For me, all of it's a factor."

That, combined with their injuries, off-ice distractions, cap constraints (at one point they were forced to play with only five defensemen because of cap issues caused by the Voynov situation) and the uber-competitive Western Conference, and it was easy to see why the Kings buckled.

"You look out West and you never get a game that's a breather," the executive said.

All these factors tested the Kings throughout the season, but Brown insisted the very things that would have threatened to tear another team apart will only make their club stronger.

This is a team in which individuals are loath to seek credit or place blame -- where accountability is paramount. That has been a strength of the club, Brown said, and it will continue to be. No one is afraid to get in each other's face, whether it's to chastise a teammate for a lackluster effort during a game or to make it clear a poor off-ice decision was unacceptable.

The leadership group was tested in this way this season, and Brown is confident with how the group responded. The pushback wasn't always pretty, but it was honest.

"Quite honestly, I'd rather have a team that cares enough to tell each other to f--- off than a team that wants to be just OK and be friendly," Brown said. "Because at the end of the day, I want to win, and if you're not willing or able or you don't have that fire to tell me I'm screwing up, then you're probably not helping us to win."

Within this group is a genuine sense of family, a sense of caring and concern for teammates, not just as players but as people too.

So when outsiders sometimes made a clear delineation between right and wrong, it wasn't always that easy within the walls of the dressing room.

There was a need to address behavior that is not condoned, but also a need to circle the wagons and protect their own. Martinez and Brown both know that is difficult for an outsider to understand.

"It's easy to judge people you don't know and you have no emotional or personal connection with," Brown said, admitting he had tough conversations with his wife, Nicole, about the Voynov situation, specifically wondering what they would do if that had been them. "It becomes much more complex, more layered when you know the people that are in a tough situation."

Though the Kings are idle at the moment, their farm team in the American Hockey League is not. For the first time in franchise history, the Manchester Monarchs are competing in the Calder Cup finals, battling with the Utica Comets.

And it's a solid squad that holds promise for the team's future. One veteran NHL scout said the Kings are in "pretty good shape" with what is coming through their pipeline, with multiple players who have the potential to succeed at the next level.

This is a good sign for the Kings, especially considering their cap situation heading into next season. The club has roughly $64 million committed, with several contracts up in the air. The cap for next season is not yet set but is projected to be around $70 million.

The team is expected to broker a long-term contract extension for Kopitar, a lucrative deal already being factored in to cap projections. Re-signing restricted free-agent forward Tyler Toffoli and backup goaltender Martin Jones is a priority. The Kings are making an effort to bring back pending unrestricted-free-agent defenseman Andrej Sekera, acquired as a rental at the deadline.

In an ideal world, veteran forward and 2014 Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams would be back. Both sides would like to see a reprisal of his role as the team's resident clutch performer, but Williams will also have the opportunity to cash in as one of the headliners of a relatively thin free-agent class this offseason. His agent, Thane Campbell, told ESPN.com that a Williams return is not out of the question, though it would be difficult for the Kings to pull it off without subtracting contracts.

A buyout is a possibility for Richards, though the team is still searching for alternatives. Richards' agent, Pat Morris, said, "He'd prefer that to be in L.A., but at the same time he knows that business is the reality of hockey." Richards could not be reached for comment.

The Kings might explore suspending Voynov, if they can prove that his off-ice Achilles injury sustained during his suspension qualifies as "non-hockey related" (his agent, Rolland Hedges, told ESPN.com that he sustained it during training). The Kings ultimately gained cap relief in November when the league consented to the club's placing him on the long-term injured list. However, any future cap relief depends on what happens with his trial.

With all these moving parts, it seems as if the Kings' efforts to juggle space and money are a science project of sorts. Lombardi and the team's vice president of hockey operations and legal affairs, Jeff Solomon, work off different templates and ranges for different situations, though the latter seemed unfazed about the team's ability to be cap compliant by the start of next season.

Still, if at least two or three of the team's prospects playing on entry-level contracts can crack the lineup next season, that would be a huge coup -- high performers at lower salaries can only help them squeeze everybody under the cap.

Even in a recent business meeting with the team's department heads, after hearing reports of the team's growth in ticket sales and corporate sponsorships, Robitaille stressed the need to feature some of these youngsters during these next few weeks and during the offseason.

He recognizes them as critical components to the team's future, and it's best for everyone to realize that now.

"These are the guys that are going to help us win the Cup again," Robitaille said.

For Lombardi, summer projects await.

The hood is popped on a weathered blue and white 1992 Ford F250 that sits in his driveway, in need of a new radiator. There's a transmission job that beckons from his garage as well. And he'll eventually have to unearth his 12-foot pole saw -- a Christmas gift -- to take down branches in the backyard at his wife's behest.

With the Kings out of the playoffs, there will be plenty of time for this.

Yet he has been busy.

As soon as the season ended, he and his staff underwent an exhaustive, comprehensive analysis, a thorough debriefing, to determine how the team can be better.

He has questions: How can our athletes become better conditioned, better prepared? How do we want to play, knowing the difficulty of sustaining our style of play throughout the course of an 82-game regular season? How can each player be better? How can we make sure to provide an outlet or a resource if said player is having a problem?

Between that and his trip to the world championships in Prague in May, he hasn't really had time to unwind. Or heal from a season that left him feeling pretty hurt.

It took him a while, actually, to be able to see players working out in the gym without feeling a mix of emotions -- anger, disappointment and wariness. But now that he sees them going hard, fueled by the sort of anger and edge that the club will need to rebound, he is starting to feel good again.

"Of all the problems and the grumpiness and the off-ice [issues], we never had people blame each other [or] seek more credit for themselves," he said. "I think that says a lot."

His best players are his hardest workers, and he has never doubted the level of care within that room.

There was always something special about this group. And there still is. This group will bounce back from what was perhaps the most trying year.

Lombardi is confident in this.

"I think we can all say no family is perfect," he said. "None of us are."