Kings 2008 system audit

By David A. Rainer

The Los Angeles Kings system has come a very long way in a short time.  But this progress did not come without expense.  A series of disastrous finishes in the standings translated into back to back top five draft picks.  Additionally, being nearly eliminated from playoff contention by the trade deadline allowed for the sell-off of veteran players for draft picks and prospects.  While the on-ice product in Los Angeles the past several years has been lacking in results, the prospect system has been largely rejuvenated.

Not all areas in the system have been rejuvenated equally.  The left wing position has fallen well behind its counterpart and the quality at center has dropped off.  However, if we take the current prospect system in conjunction with those players 25 years of age and younger already in the NHL, the two halves of the story come together to show that what the Kings may be lacking in prospects has already been accounted for on the NHL roster.

Left Wing


Left wing is currently the deficient area in the Kings system, which is an easier pill to swallow than the traditionally deficient areas of goaltender or defense.  In 2008, only Matt Moulson has a strong chance at a long NHL career.  The rest of the group are either volatile projects or grinders at best.  But when you take into account the two star left wings that the Kings already have, outside of Moulson, the organization will not need to tap into this prospect pool any time soon.

Already having spent half of last season with Los Angeles, Moulson broke camp with Los Angeles and is unlikely to return to the minor leagues for any prolonged period of time.  He is a solid offensive producer who can be an adequate complement on the first or second line, but is probably better suited to the role of scorer on a third line.  The Kings have used Moulson on all three lines in his career in hopes that he finds his niche.  He is not likely to ever be a top scorer in the NHL, but he has proven reliable enough to be part of the Kings youth movement and graduate from prospect status before the end of the year.

After Moulson, there is a significant drop-off in talent at the position.  Scott Parse and Richard Clune are two prospects closest to making an impact in the NHL, but in differing roles.  Parse is recovering from missing nearly the entire 2007-08 season to injury.  He will need to re-establish himself as a legitimate prospect as age begins to creep up on him.  Parse has been noted as someone who can play in any situation on the ice – power play, penalty kill and even strength – similar to former Kings prospect Noah Clarke.  Starting back at ground zero after the injury, Parse will need an excellent season in Manchester or find himself passed over in favor of more established forwards.  Clune is one prospect who can overtake Parse as early as this year.  Acquired in a trade with Dallas, Clune is a tough and physical forward, noted more for his ability to fight than to find the back of the net.  He impressed in training camp with his ability to take the body and is a good fit on an energy line but not someone who is ever going to score more than a handful of points in a season.  Regardless, outside of Moulson, he is the closest left wing prospect to the NHL.

The three remaining prospects at left wing are still several steps away from being considered legitimate NHL contenders.  Dwight King had a solid performance in major junior hockey last season but still needs to develop multiple aspects of his game if he is to earn an entry-level contract.  If signed to a contract at the end of the season, King will likely spend a considerable amount of time in the minor leagues.  Geordie Wudrick is a new draftee with very raw skills and a nose for the net that translates well to the professional game.  He has a physical aspect to his game despite an average frame, not dissimilar to Tomas Holmstrom.  He is still a number of years away from even making the Manchester roster, but might surprise many if he harnesses his raw skills into more of a scorer.  Constantin Braun is a fringe NHL prospect for the organization, currently playing in Europe.  The organization has not expressed an interest in bringing Braun to North America any time soon.

Center

The Kings have plenty of quantity at the center position, but this does not always translate to quality.  But with the top two center positions in Los Angeles locked down for the next several years and Brian Boyle as the heir apparent to one of the other center spots, there is currently little need for top center prospects at this time.  Outside of Boyle, the Kings have a number of projects and potential defensive specialists at center.  As a whole, their group of centers is average at best with only Boyle and Trevor Lewis with any kind of star potential at the NHL level.

Ideally, the Kings would like Boyle to take the next step in his development and earn his playing time in Los Angeles.  Outside of a stellar eight-game call-up last season, Boyle has done nothing to force Los Angeles to keep him in the regular line-up.  But Boyle is notoriously a slow starter and often requires extra motivation from coaches before he turns on the proverbial switch.  He is exactly what the organization needs – a large body who can compete and shut down the other large power centers in the Western Conference as well as dominate in front of the net on the power play – and so the Kings will be extra patient with Boyle.

Likewise, the Kings are being patient with the development of Trevor Lewis.  His first professional season in Manchester was un-noteworthy.  His offensive skills, specifically his skating ability, are clearly visible, but Lewis has had trouble translating his skills into actual points.  There are still hopes that Lewis develops into a speedy second line center for the Kings, but he will need to establish himself as such in the AHL first.  A move to wing on the third line for Los Angeles might be in the future for Lewis where his speed can be used to break away from the defense and his defensive awareness can be used on the penalty kill.  While it is important for an organization to develop NHL regulars out of their prospects, a third line defensive specialist out of a former 17th overall choice is not good value.  And unless Lewis begins to take flight soon, this might be a best-case scenario.

Gabe Gauthier and Brady Murray have each already appeared in an NHL game.  But while Gauthier remains a call-up possibility for Los Angeles, Murray has been assigned to one of the Kings’ European clubs with little chance of making it back any time soon.  Both are smallish, energy forwards with limited long-term potential and Murray appears to be the odd man out.  Gauthier continues as the top center in Manchester, waiting for an opportunity to return to Los Angeles.  Absent injuries, Gauthier is likely to spend the vast majority of his career in the AHL.

While Gauthier is the top center in Manchester with little chance at being an NHL regular, there are some other centers developing their trade in Manchester who might have a higher chance of success in the NHL than Gauthier.  David Meckler is a perfect fit as a grinder on the third or fourth line who will play close to the net and score the dirty, physically tough, goals.  If Boyle emerges as the third line center in Los Angeles, do not be surprised if Meckler follows suit soon after as the fourth line center or as a fill in for Boyle as they play similar roles.  A move to wing to play alongside Boyle might not be out of the question either.  Bud Holloway is a well-rounded center who will likely find his niche in professional hockey as a defensive specialist with limited offensive upside.  Kevin Westgarth is an enforcer who can be called upon to add some physical toughness to the NHL roster on a game by game basis until he is ready to replace Raitis Ivanans as the resident enforcer for the Kings. 

Newly drafted Justin Azevedo has the offensive potential a regular forward in the NHL, but at the same time has the major question marks to his game that plague AHL veterans.  He could develop into anything from a scorer on the second line for Los Angeles to a spare forward for Manchester, making him the most volatile prospect in the system.

Long-term development projects Andrei Loktionov, Garret Roe and Robert Czarnik offer some intrigue to this group of prospects.  Loktionov’s stock fell during the 2008 draft due to the legal battle between the NHL and Russia over what prospects would be allowed to leave Russia.  He has since left Russia to join major junior hockey in North America and is another very volatile prospect with a ton of raw skill that might emerge as a diamond in the rough.  Roe is a small but offensively skilled forward who will likely spend a full four years in college hockey developing before the Kings will need to make a decision on his place in the minor league system.  Likewise, Robert Czarnik is developing in college hockey as a two-way forward.  His offensive skills and high quality shot make him someone to watch as a possible future sniper after a move to the wing.  Czarnik also is likely to spend the next four seasons in college hockey before he is a legitimate option at the NHL level.

Rounding out the center position are Bryan Cameron, Joshua Turnbull and Matt Fillier.  Cameron is a good scorer for a center but will take his development one step at a time, similar to Holloway.  Turnbull has yet to prove himself as a top forward in college, but is only a sophomore.  Fillier is a middle-weight enforcer and not likely to be signed by the Kings at the end of the season.  Each prospect will need to make considerable improvement this season for to earn an entry-level contract with Los Angeles.

Right Wing

While left wing has fallen behind in terms of talent, right wing remains one of the historic strong suits for the Kings.  The group is both deep on prospects with high probabilities of long NHL careers, but also diverse in styles, making them one of the better groups of right wing prospects amongst NHL organizations.  Each right wing prospect is already playing professional hockey and some have already earned roster spots on the NHL squad.  While the group lacks future superstar or elite franchise forwards, the group does contain several solid scorers that will compliment the superstars already established in the NHL.

Ted Purcell has the highest offensive potential of the bunch and already has NHL experience under his belt, even if he was bested by both Oscar Moller and Wayne Simmonds during training camp to land the final right wing position for Los Angeles.  Purcell has the pure offensive ability to one day be the leading goal scorer for the Kings, but it is more reasonable to expect a high scoring second line winger from him.  He is a late bloomer and will need to take the next step in his development soon as right wing is a loaded position for the Kings.

The steady development of Moller and Simmonds forced the Kings to return Purcell to Manchester to start the season.  Their impressive play necessitated further playing time in Los Angeles to evaluate them against NHL competition.  Moller has already scored his first NHL goal at the tender age of 19 and is a future heart and soul player on the second line. He is a well-rounded player who is gritty, competitive and gifted on both sides of the ice.  If he is returned to his major junior team early in the season, it will not be long before he establishes himself as the second line right wing for Los Angeles.  Similarly, Simmonds earned a roster spot with Los Angeles at the age of 20.  He does not have the offensive upside that Purcell or Moller has, but brings more intangibles to the table and is a perfect fit for their third line.  He is just as well rounded as Moller, but has more grit and physicality, capable of making a significant impact on a game even if not scoring.  Likewise, if Simmonds is sent back to Manchester to give Purcell a shot in Los Angeles, it will only be a matter of when, not if, Simmonds returns on the third line.

Three other right wing prospects provide role players to the group.  Marc-Andre Cliche is a speedy defensive specialist who can immediately be plugged into the third or fourth line as a high-energy replacement should injuries hit the Los Angeles roster.  John Zeiler is another high-energy forward, but more of a grinder than Cliche.  Vladimir Dravecky is a two-way forward but is not likely to ever make it out of the AHL.  None will ever be known for points in the NHL but each can be serviceable to fill a role made vacant by injury.

Defense

The most remarkable improvement in this prospect system is on defense.  The defensive pool entered last season deep, talented and with a lot of expectations.  Boyle began the season as a defenseman but was moved back to his original position of center.  Most other defensive prospects either stagnated with their development or regressed altogether, leaving the pool, by the end of the season, in shambles.  General Manager Dean Lombardi then proceeded to clean house.  A number of defensive prospects were left unsigned as unworthy of an entry-level contract.  Others were traded away and the gaps filled with a specific focus on defense during the 2008 Entry Draft.  With three of the top 15 defensive prospects in the game, the Kings have a new pool of defenders to draw upon in the coming years.

Headlining the group is the second overall pick in the 2008 Entry Draft – Drew Doughty.  He might not have the strength to keep the front of the net clear, but Doughty exudes offensive skills, defensive awareness, mobility and hockey intelligence, making him one of the more well-rounded defensive prospects around.  He is already paying dividends at the NHL level for the Kings and he may be one of a class that includes Luke Schenn (TOR) and Zach Bogosian (ATL) of the first defensemen, drafted at the age of 18, to remain on an NHL roster for the full season immediately following the draft since Jay Bouwmeester in 2002.  Doughty is expected to be the cornerstone on defense that the Kings organization will build their future blueline around.

On a similarly high level for the Kings, but not as elite as Doughty, are Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert.  Hickey is an offensive defenseman, known for his mobility and ability to carry the puck up the ice.  Like Doughty, he can quarterback the power play and will need to yield to Doughty as the top offensive defenseman in the system and likely in Los Angeles in the coming years.  Hickey is not far in his development from the NHL and with the exodus of veteran defensemen from the NHL roster, the road is paved for Hickey to assume the No. 3 defenseman role in Los Angeles, possibly as early as next season.  The only draw-back to Hickey is his slight stature, even with his gritty demeanor.  He will need to either stay away from physical play in the NHL or add muscle to his frame.

One way to keep Hickey away from physical play is to pair him with a physical specialist.  This appears to be Lombardi’s plan when Teubert was selected 13th overall during the 2008 Entry Draft.  If there is one thing that Teubert is known for, it is his physical tenacity.  He prides himself in punishing and wearing down the opposition as the game progresses.  Teubert is very limited offensively, but is the perfect physical compliment to the offensive prowess of Hickey.  Because Teubert’s game is defensive positioning and physicality, his learning curve should be shallower than others and might emerge on the Los Angeles roster as early as next season.

While the Kings are waiting for Hickey and Teubert to be ready to join the team, Kyle Quincey and Peter Harrold are filling the gaps and making the most of their opportunities.  Quincey was picked up on waivers from Detroit early in the season in response to the injury to Jack Johnson.  Immediately slotted into the line-up, Quincey has more than held his own, showing the good mobility and positioning that Detroit defensemen are noted for.  He enters the season as a fill-in for the loss of Johnson, but could make Harrold expendable when Johnson returns.  Harrold has now played in parts of three seasons with Los Angeles but is no closer to establishing himself as a consistent starting defenseman.  He has dominated the AHL as an offensive defenseman, but has not shown enough in the defensive zone to be in the long-term plans for the Kings.  Harrold is a depth defender for Los Angeles at this point in his career and might find himself out of a job by the trade deadline if the defensive lapses continue.

There are a number of prospects in Manchester waiting in the wings for their opportunity to prove themselves as the NHL level.  Alec Martinez was a late cut in training camp and showed enough to be one of the names to consider when looking for an injury fill-in.  He is another in the list of mobile, offensive defensemen and likely another year or two away from being a legitimate option as a consistent starter for Los Angeles.  Vyacheslav Voinov is another defenseman drafted in the 2008 class.  But unlike the others, Voinov is too raw of a prospect to be considered for NHL duty any time soon.  He is offensively skilled and full of confidence, but sometimes takes his confidence to an extreme and makes unwise decisions as a result.  If he rounds out his rough edges, he and Martinez could be battling for the No. 5 defenseman position with Los Angeles in a few years.  Otherwise, like energetic and erratic prospects before him, he could find himself on his way back to Russia as others jump him on the depth charts.

Andrew Campbell is yet another defenseman drafted high in the 2008 class for the Kings.  Like Teubert, he was drafted for his competitiveness and physical game.  Campbell is a warrior on the blueline, but needs to improve on his skating and positioning if he wants to compete against the top forwards in the world.  Josh Kidd is a big, stay at home defenseman who needs further development before being considered in Los Angeles.  Right now, there are too many other defensemen in the professional ranks ahead of Kidd and he will need to establish himself as a dominant defenseman at Manchester to earn himself playing time at the next level. 

Drew Bagnall and Joe Piskula are veterans of the AHL and are beginning to fall by the wayside in favor of more talented defensemen. Bagnall had a disappointing last season that resulted in his fall down the depth charts.  With the influx of new defensemen from the 2008 draft, Bagnall might be out of sight of an NHL roster.  Piskula might be closer to the NHL than Bagnall, but he is not likely to have any lasting impact on the Kings.  He can be used as an emergency fill in for a defensive defenseman for Los Angeles, but his chances of securing a steady roster spot are almost nil.  The same may apply for Davis Drewiske who is providing depth for Manchester with almost no chance of making the NHL this season or with the Kings in any other season.

Josh Meyers and Martin Nolet are a pairing of college defensemen who must show something phenomenal to earn an entry-level contract upon graduation with the amount of depth already in place in the professional ranks.  Meyers is an average defenseman with a low and hard shot that is beneficial on the power play, but has not shown enough to be a strong consideration for the NHL.  Nolet is a strong defensive defenseman who may be signed only as a replacement for those defenders in Manchester that move on to the NHL.  Niclas Andersen quietly continues his development in Sweden as a defensive defenseman in the mold of countryman Mattias Norstrom.  The Kings have expressed little interest in signing Andersen and so he continues to labor away in Sweden where he might spend his entire career.

Goaltenders

Historically the weakest position for the Kings, it has become a position of strength since Lombardi joined the Kings.  He immediately set to work drafting top netminders Jonathan Bernier, Jeff Zatkoff and Linden Rowat.  Adding in Jonathan Quick and the Kings have a deep and talented crop of goaltenders to choose from in the coming years.

The primary hope to develop their first homegrown, long-standing goaltender for Los Angeles is Bernier.  His mixture of athleticism, solid technique and calmness under pressure are the makings for a franchise goaltender.  The 20-year-old might not develop into an elite netminder in the mold of Martin Brodeur or Roberto Luongo, but with such an emphasis in the Kings system on the development of elite defenders, a future Hall of Fame goaltender is not necessary.  The two roster positions in Los Angeles are fairly well established for the 2008-09 season, but will be open competition beginning next season where Bernier might finally be ready to take the starting job.

Two other goaltenders that will be battling Bernier for the starting duties in Los Angeles every step of the way are Jeff Zatkoff and Jonathan Quick.  Zatkoff, who is in his first professional season, does not have the athleticism of Bernier or Quick, but is a fundamentally sound goaltender.  He might be the perfect fit as the back-up to Bernier in five years if he does not beat out Bernier as the starter or can be used in a trade to fill gaps in other areas.  Quick might not have the solid technique that Bernier and Zatkoff have, but is the more athletic and difficult to project.  Which ever of the three that finds himself as the starter in net for Los Angeles will have earned it with the level of competition that there is in the system.  The others may find solace in the arms of another organization.

Waiting in the wings for the minor league system to thin out are two major junior goaltenders.  Linden Rowat is one of the best goaltenders in the WHL but does not have the overall potential as Bernier, Quick or Zatkoff.  As one of the three goaltenders pushes his way onto the NHL roster, Rowat will be ready to step into his place in the minor league system.  Newly signed Martin Jones is also one of the best goaltenders in the WHL and, like Rowat, will be ready to step into the minor league system as it begins to thin out with graduations and trades.

Danny Taylor is the fourth of the four goaltenders playing professional hockey for the Kings right now.  His game has progressed tremendously over the 2007-08 season and deserves to be more than the after-thought of the organization that he has become.  Regardless, Taylor is not likely to find a home with Los Angeles and will need to look elsewhere at the conclusion of his contract for playing time.

Overall

Dean Lombardi’s emphasis on adding new defensemen to the system through the 2008 Entry Draft has completely overhauled a position that tremendously under-performed in the 2007-08 season.  Doughty, Hickey and Teubert headline a group of defensemen that have a franchise cornerstone, star quality, and depth to fill gaps as needed.

Likewise, right wing and goaltender are areas of strength for the Kings.  Three right wings are already on the NHL roster with Purcell – the wing with the highest offensive potential – waiting his turn in the AHL.  Goaltender is no different with three top prospects currently battling for playing time through the minor leagues and ultimately in Los Angeles.

Center and left wing have fallen behind the other positions in terms of quality.  But if taken in conjunction with those players already on the NHL roster and young than 25 years of age, this is not a concern for the organization.