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Elliott: Kings open season with heartbreaking loss to Vegas, but expectations remain high

When Todd McLellan was hired to coach the downtrodden Kings in 2019, he compared them to marathon runners at Mile 1. With a hard-fought playoff series loss behind him and the deepest, most skillful lineup he has had at his disposal, McLellan updated that analogy as he began his fourth season.

“We’ve settled into the race now,” he said. “We’ve climbed some hills. We got in some valleys. I think in marathons there’s runners that break away and sometimes the pack catches them again. I would say we’re in that pack. We’re no longer in Miles 1 through 5. We’re way further into it.

“But if crossing the finish line and putting a medal around your neck is the Stanley Cup championship, we still have a lot of running to do.”

True. But they’re striding purposefully now, not stumbling. They have structure, defined lines and a mobile defense corps that’s injury-free.

The chrome-domed Kings still had an assortment of “ifs” and “maybes” to resolve as they opened the season Tuesday with a 4-3 loss to division rival Vegas at Crypto.com Arena. They were fueled by goals from Gabe Vilardi, Adrian Kempe, and Arthur Kaliyev, but their defense was spotty and they gave up a goal to Mark Stone with 24 seconds to play.

“We wasted an outstanding goaltending effort by not getting a point tonight,” McLellan said of goaltender Jonathan Quick’s effort against a 51-shot barrage.

Still, looking at the big picture, they’re no longer running on a treadmill to failure. Their path is clear. They just have to avoid hitting the wall.

“We made a step last year but now we have to make sure we’re taking the ability to move past that and keep that going,” general manager Rob Blake said Monday in discussing the season. “I think there’s less and less concerns through our lineup. I think there still are at different times and there will be at times as the season goes on, but I do think we have players that can fill some certain roles and we do have some depth in the right positions if needed.”

The impact of acquiring and signing left wing Kevin Fiala to a seven-year, $55.125-million contract extends beyond hoping he will replicate the career-best 33 goals and 85 points he scored for Minnesota last season and join Kempe and center Anze Kopitar to form an elite first line.

“I think Rob has made some really good moves and it just shows us that he believes in us and he spent that money for a really good player that we needed,” said center Phillip Danault, who added an offensive dimension to his trademark solid defense during his first season with the Kings. “Rob did a big move, and now it’s our time to show it on the ice.”

Vegas Golden Knights’ Jack Eichel, right, shoots under pressure from Kings’ Phillip Danault, foreground, and Viktor Arvidsson during the first period on Tuesday at Crpyto.com Arena.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Whether Danault can match the 27 goals and 51 points he scored last season alongside Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore and Viktor Arvidsson is one of the “ifs” that will go a long way toward determining the Kings’ fate. The same is true for Kempe’s career-high 35 goals and 54 points.

If those were flukes, scoring will continue to be a problem. If Danault and Kempe can match or surpass those totals, there will be less pressure on their kids to produce, though 2020 No.2 pick Quinton Byfield and 2017 No.11 pick Vilardi — on the third line with Alex Iafallo — must contribute.

“Yes, I can do it again,” Danault said. “I can’t wait to see what this year is going to bring, and obviously I’m waiting for what I’ve wanted to achieve my whole life — winning the Cup.”

Danault’s offensive output last season was a bonus. “We definitely have an expectation of Phil that now increases offensively, but I think a lot of it surrounds around his leadership. I felt that he added a big touch to that,” Blake said. “That created excitement some of those players bought in. And now we have to get that out of Kevin Fiala, we have to get it out of some of our young guys who are going to take a little bit more prominent roles on the team.”

McLellan said he’d seen no signs of Kempe faltering. “Is he a 35-goal scorer? I sure hope so,” McLellan said. “But I know he’s a 20-minute player for sure most nights, and that’s just as important as being a 35-goal scorer.”

Um, sure. But another big season from Kempe is essential, even if new assistant coach Jim Hiller pulls off a miracle and fixes their feeble power play. “When you get into tight situations or an overtime situation and you’re relying on a big player to step up, he’s now at that level for us,” Blake said of Kempe.

The only change on defense to start the season, other than Drew Doughty and Sean Walker returning from injuries, was the presence on the roster of 19-year-old Brandt Clarke, the eighth pick in the 2021 draft. Clarke didn’t play Tuesday but he might not wait long because McLellan wants to limit the burden on defenseman Sean Durzi, who is coming off shoulder surgery.

Goaltending is their biggest “maybe.” Quick started Tuesday and Cal Petersen backed him up; Petersen started the opener last season but struggled and lost the job. Petersen was shaky in training camp and if he doesn’t find his footing soon, Blake might have to look elsewhere to support Quick, 36.

In the meantime, the Kings’ marathon continues. They won’t win the race this season, but the finish line isn’t so impossibly far away anymore.

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