The Los Angeles Kings have made it clear over the last few months that they want to take the next step as an organization.
Making the playoffs alone isn't enough, they need to make some noise once they get there. First-round exits won't cut it anymore.
And as Rob Blake pointed out in his exit interview on Sunday, a Kevin Fiala or Phil Danault sized acquisition is unlikely this summer. He used the word "shaping," and mentioned, "growth from some more players getting into the mix, pushing that leadership group."
It seems clear the Kings are banking on young players to take the next step and push this team over the line. Leaving no more excuses for the prospects.
There are plenty of players who fall under the "needs to step up" category. But I'm going to highlight a trio of forwards.
These three have plenty of NHL experience and a lot of runways to work with. And, if they step up can be game-changers for the Kings next season.
Always the most contentious Kings player to discuss, we'll start with Byfield.
Depending on who you ask, Byfield was magnificent last season and took a huge step forward. Or he was terrible and shouldn't be on an NHL roster. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
He made massive strides last season in certain areas. He was a nice compliment piece with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe on the top line, forechecked well and displayed some excellent board play.
But his three goals and 19 assists in 53 games simply aren't good enough. Fair or not, being drafted second overall changes the expectations on Byfield, making him number one on the list of players who need to step up.
There's been mitigating factors in the past, a broken ankle in his first season and a month-long illness in his second. But again, the excuses are gone.
With Todd McLellan indicating he wants to ease some of the burden on Kopitar next season, Byfield needs to carry a lot of the minutes Kopitar leaves behind.
It's difficult to put strict points expectations on him next season without knowing his role. My early guess is that he centers the third line and plays on the second power-play unit.
With that usage, the bare minimum for Byfield is 40 points and close to 20 goals. Some people might view that as too low, but you can't expect too much from third-line minutes. And again, that's the minimum expectation. Forty points and 20 goals would indicate a season that wasn't a failure, nothing more.
If he's back on the top line, that expectation changes. I'd keep the 20-goal marker and move the points to 50-55.
More than anything, Byfield needs to prove he can be a consistent impact in the NHL. He needs to carry play and drive offense; he can't be a passenger anymore. He showed flashes of that ability this season, but it was just that, flashes.
I don't expect next season to be Byfield's huge breakout year, but he needs to prove the breakout is close. A strong season to set up a true breakout in 2024-25.
From what I've been told, the King's front office expected a longer development path for Byfield and knew it could take up to five years for him to fully reach his potential. Well, he's moving into year four now, so time is running out.
Kaliyev had a very strong start to last season. He was deadly on the power play and was showing signs of improvement at five-on-five. And then he broke his foot.
That injury derailed his season and he never got back up to speed. An illness in the playoffs was the cherry on top, with Kaliyev barely playing down the stretch, dressing in just two playoff games.
And with roster spots dwindling, this could be a make-or-break summer for Kaliyev. He needs to establish himself as a reliable NHL forward at five-on-five.
He needs to do what Vilardi did last summer, come into camp, and force his way into a top-nine spot. Ironically, it was Kaliyev who suffered from Vilardi's improvement, being bumped from the third line by Gabe.
But Kaliyev can do the same to someone else next season.
Last summer, Kaliyev made huge improvements in his skating and he needs to do the same this summer. Kaliyev's two big weaknesses coming out of juniors were skating and defensive awareness. He's improved a lot in the defensive zone and is an NHL-caliber player in that area.
But his skating still needs one more gear before he can take the next step.
Few players in the world shoot the puck like Kaliyev and his ability to find open space and loose pucks is second to none. If he can become an NHL-average skater, he'll be a consistent 20-plus scorer for this team at minimum.
Another summer with his skating coach and some added strength might do the trick. And if it does, the Kings will have a top-nine, if not top-six, player on their hands.
This would also give them the freedom to move some more experienced players and free up cap space.
It was an odd season for Kupari. In some areas, he made the biggest leap of any player on the roster.
He became a reliable faceoff taker and penalty killer. He added an element of physicality to his game and even seemed to grow in confidence towards the end of the season. Using his skating to carry the puck through the neutral zone consistently.
But no one falls apart at the crucial moment like Kupari. He does everything right up until he has to make a final pass or finish off a chance himself.
And it's not like he lacks the skill to finish either. He has a good shot, something McLellan's pointed out on multiple occasions, and he's shown playmaking ability at different levels. He just can't find it in the NHL.
My favorite description of Kupari as a player is, "he's really good in theory." He has all the tools to be an impact player in the NHL, skating, stickhandling, shooting, etc. But he just can't apply them in a game.
McLellan made the comment that Kupari, "might be what he is," earlier in the season. And maybe he is just a fourth-line center who frustrated you with his lack of finish. But if he can find that final pass or shot. He becomes a game-changer for the Kings' bottom six.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what Kupari needs to work on this summer. Some added strength will help, but it's not like he has a glaring issue in his toolkit.
His struggles seem to be a mental block more than anything and that's tough to get past.