Canadian major junior hockey has been a fertile ground in terms of draft picks for the Los Angeles Kings since Dean Lombardi took over as general manager. With 12 total prospects in major junior hockey, the path is paved to begin plugging the very best of the group into the roster of their AHL affiliate. Oscar Moller, Thomas Hickey and Jonathan Bernier began the season as the big names to watch, but several others had enormous break-out seasons and earned themselves professional contracts with the Kings organization. Nearly every Los Angeles prospect playing in major juniors this season distinguished himself in a profound way – in fact all 12 have a strong possibility of making their professional debuts with the Kings organization.
Both Moller and Wayne Simmonds were selected in the second round of the 2007 Entry Draft and were expected to build on strong pre-draft campaigns. The two right wings turned in impressive post-draft seasons and each represented their respective countries at the U-20 World Juniors Championships in January. At one point this season, Moller led the WHL in points and all of the CHL in goals scored before coming back down to Earth in the second half of the season. Finishing the season tied for tenth in the WHL in points (82), including a nine-game stretch where he scored 17 goals, he would, however, score only 14 goals after returning from the WJC as the opposition began to focus on him. Even when not producing at a top pace, Moller remained a team leader both for Chilliwack and Team Sweden. At the conclusion of Chilliwack’s season, Moller signed an ATO with the AHL Manchester Monarchs to finish the season, appearing in two games. With at least another season of major junior eligibility left, Moller is bound for the WHL next year.
While Moller was making a name with a torrid goal-scoring streak, Simmonds was making a name as a physical presence to be reckoned with on the ice, also earning a roster spot with Team Canada for the WJC. With a solid 75 points in 60 games between Sault Ste. Marie and Owen Sound of the OHL, Simmonds was no slouch on the score sheet while acting as a wrecking ball in front of the net and was more than willing to drop the gloves against any foe. He has continued to bulk up his frame over the season but continued strides in this department need to be made to be able to apply his physical game to bigger and stronger competition in the professional game. As long he remains equally a threat to score as well as to lay a physical hit, Simmonds will be a valuable prospect for the Kings as a gritty winger capable of decent offensive production while physically wearing down the competition late in games.
Sometimes the most pleasant surprises are the ones that sneak up on you gradually. Bud Holloway has continued to develop and grow from season to season and even from game to game. He might not have the same points-per-game average as Moller or Simmonds, or have represented his country during the WJC, but his importance to his major junior squad was no less than the bigger names. Leading his team in goals (43) and points (83), Holloway carried the Seattle Thunderbirds into the playoffs despite suffering from a mild concussion in January. Holloway signed an ATO with Manchester at the conclusion of the Thunderbirds’ season but did not join the team in time to appear in any of the Monarchs’ playoff games. The Los Angeles Kings will need to sign Holloway in the offseason and it is a safe bet that he will don a Manchester sweater before the year is out.
Not to be outdone by the more highly-touted forward prospects, Dwight King and Bryan Cameron each turned in remarkable seasons of their own. Each forward was a member of the extensive class of major junior prospects selected by the Kings during the 2007 Entry Draft. Cameron competed with Moller, Holloway and Simmonds right down to the wire for the lead in goals scored by a Kings prospect, ultimately finishing with 41 in 68 games played for Belleville. Cameron led the Bulls into the OHL championship series, but struggled to score in the playoffs as top defensive pairings keyed on his line. Instead, his line occupied the opposition’s top defenders, opening up opportunities for the second scoring line. Likewise, King led Lethbridge into the WHL championship series. The dramatic rise in the standings by Lethbridge and their subsequent drive through the playoffs was due in no small part to King’s tremendous development since last season. Already a large frame at 6’3 and 213lbs, King nearly tripled his goals scored (34) while significantly improving on his plus/minus, as did most who played for the Hurricanes this season. King was dominant on the power play and showed grittiness sufficient to hold up to large defenders and dig out pucks around the net.
One of the league leaders in penalty minutes, Matt Fillier provided enforcer duties for St. John’s of the QMJHL dispute a middle-weight frame. Contributing a point from time to time, Fillier continues to follow a similar development path as former Kings draftee Eric Neilson. Forgotten among more talented forward prospects, Fillier might be just as likely to succeed at the next level, but in a more narrowly defined role. While prospects like Moller or Simmonds might be the goal scorers of the future, Fillier can play the equally necessary role of protector to these bigger names.
As Moller and Simmonds were the top Kings forwards, Thomas Hickey, one of Hockey’s Future’s Top 50 prospects, was one of the top defensive prospects in all of major junior hockey. While his offensive production did not exceed his pre-draft season, Hickey took on a much larger role both as a target for the opposition and as a team leader. Tenth in the WHL in scoring among defensemen with 45 points in 63 games, Hickey was named a First Team All-Star for the Western Conference. As a squad, the Seattle Thunderbirds shifted their scoring emphasis more towards their forwards this season than in past years, capable of icing two equally potent scoring lines, and reducing their reliance on production from the blueline. Consequently, Hickey concentrated on other aspects of his game and rounded into more of a pure two-way defenseman with a considerable amount of grit.
Alongside Hickey on the blueline for the WHL Western Conference All-Star First Team was fellow Kings prospect T.J. Fast. In his first full season of major junior hockey, Fast rapidly assumed the role of team leader for the Tri-City Americans, both in terms of his captaincy and production. His 54 points in 71 games was good enough for fourth among all defensemen and his 92 penalty minutes were indicative of an overlooked physical presence for a player of his offensive attributes. Fast was used in all situations for the Americans, including four shorthanded goals, which led all defensemen and was good for fourth in the league overall, and second overall in total shorthanded points (8). What this all equates to is that Fast is one of the most well-rounded leaders on the blueline in all of major junior hockey.
Complimenting the Kings pair of offensive defensemen in Hickey and Fast are the Kings pair of physical defensemen in Josh Kidd and Joe Ryan. Playing for the Erie Otters of the OHL, Kidd spent more of his time patrolling the blueline and covering deep in his own zone than tallying points on the scoresheet. Hampered by a pelvic injury that limited him to only 43 games, Kidd had little to look forward to upon his return as the Otters were mired in last place all season. But the early end to their season allowed Kidd to join the Manchester Monarchs and appear in his first nine professional hockey games. Even though he does not have the offensive talent as other defensive prospects, Kidd showed enough in his brief stint with Manchester to demonstrate to the Kings that yet another major junior hockey prospect might be a sensational addition to Manchester in coming years.
Ryan is on the flipside of the offensive talent spectrum from Hickey and Fast. Stocky and strong, Ryan returned to the QMJHL as an overager and resumed his role as a physical presence on the blueline. A midseason trade to Gatineau allowed Ryan to play for a stronger contender for the President’s Cup, an accomplishment that came to fruition where Ryan would contribute five points, 24 penalty minutes and a +11 rating en route to the championship. As the Kings minor league system begins open tryouts next season, expect to see Ryan providing a physical presence to either Manchester or Reading very soon.
Not to be outdone by the star quality at both the forward and defensive positions for the Kings, the position of goaltender boasts its fair share of excellence. Jonathan Bernier struggled a bit after returning to Lewiston from Los Angeles, but turned things around towards the middle of the season to finish at or near the top in most goaltender categories in the QMJHL again. Despite the rough beginning, Bernier finished the season with a 2.73 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, both in line with his career major junior totals. At the conclusion of Lewiston’s season, Bernier joined Manchester to finish out the season as the starter in net. In a career that has seen him rise from a backup to the starter for a championship team, to a struggling phenom striving to regain his technique, Bernier has persevered and is ready to take the next step.
Linden Rowat quietly enjoyed an extraordinary season and earned runner-up to goaltender of the year honors for the WHL. The Regina Pats’ second-place finish in the Eastern Conference is almost entirely the result of Rowat keeping the team in each and every game. With an average defense in front of him, Rowat scratched and clawed to a 2.68 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. With at least another season of eligibility, Rowat will return to Regina next season and build upon this season. While Bernier was the goaltender to keep an eye on this season, Rowat has clearly established himself as the focus in net next season.