Transition year pushes Los Angeles King prospects in a strong 2013-14 season

By Jason Lewis

Tanner Pearson - Los Angeles Kings

Photo: The Hardest Worker award went to Kings winger Tanner Pearson, who skated in his first 25 career regular season NHL games in 2013-14 (courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon SMI)

The Los Angeles Kings had several standout performances this year from the NCAA to the NHL. It was a pivotal transition year for many different players, and it appears that they were indeed ready to step up to the next level.

With AHL to NHL transitions happening for the likes of Tanner Pearson, Martin Jones, Linden Vey, and the now graduated Tyler Toffoli, the Kings also had players like Jordan Weal striving to step into the leadership role. They also had newcomers in Derek Forbort, Brayden McNabb, and Scott Sabourin vying to make a difference. The transition years seemed to jump up the playing level across the board for Kings’ system, and it was not easy selecting just one player for each of these categories. The players below are just a few of the prospects being recognized this year.

Prospect of the Year: Martin Jones, G, Los Angeles Kings (NHL)

The undrafted goaltender took his game to another level this season. Any time you can step into the NHL as a goaltender and put up numbers like he did, it is going to draw some recognition. Jones started out the season in great form in Manchester, posting career highs in both save percentage (.928) and goals against (2.13) before being called up to the big club. The injury to Jonathan Quick made many King fans nervous, but between the unexpected performances of both Martin Jones and Ben Scrivens, the Kings completely avoided what could have been a disastrous two to three months. Jones suited up for 19 games for the Kings, posting a .934 save percentage and 1.81 goals against. He also had four shutouts and a 12-6-0 record. His contributions helped the franchise earn its first Jennings trophy in history, as well as breaking the team single season shutout record. Hard to imagine a better start to an NHL career for an undrafted goaltender than the one Jones had this season.

Hardest Worker: Tanner Pearson, LW, Los Angeles Kings (NHL)

Between Tanner Pearson and Jordan Weal, the Kings had two extremely hard working prospects neck to neck for this award. While equally deserving of the accolades, Tanner Pearson started to see his hard work pay off at the NHL level towards the end of the season. He was arguably the least NHL ready looking prospect of the three (Vey, Toffoli, Pearson) that were called up by the Kings in November, and he lasted six uneventful games on the fourth line before being sent back down. However, the assignment back to Manchester did not seem to hinder him the slightest bit. He had 21 points in the 26 games after being sent back down, and was subsequently returned to the Kings in late February. Not only has Pearson stayed up with the team this time around, he has looked increasingly comfortable. Not enough credit can be given to the mental strength and hard work it took for Pearson to remain focused on improvement after a rather lackluster and frustrating start to the NHL year.

Hardest Shot: Brayden McNabb, D, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)

When the Kings received prospect Brayden McNabb at the 2014 trade deadline, word quickly spread through the fan base that the big 6’4” defenseman possessed a cannon of a shot. No doubt, McNabb has the hardest shot of any King prospect currently, with a slap shot that regularly touches triple digits. Between McNabb and former prospect Jake Muzzin, the Kings are going to have a couple of howitzers from the point for many years to come.

Best Defensive Prospect: Kevin Gravel, D, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCAA)

This is an easy choice almost every year, Kevin Gravel. Although there was challenge from fellow St. Cloud State forward Nic Dowd, who had an outstanding year as the Huskies primary all-situations forward. Nonetheless, Gravel emerges for a second straight year as the team’s best defensive prospect, and arguably the best defenseman in the system. His tough shutdown game was dominant at the NCAA level, and it will need to continue to be as he pushes into the pro level.

Fastest Skater: Jordan Weal, C, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)

Weal worked on his skating pretty heavily this offseason and it looked to pay extreme dividends for the diminutive forward. As the leading scorer for the Monarchs Weal utilized the extra foot speed to break away from defenders in the offensive zone and close the gap defensively as well. Understanding that he is not the biggest guy on the ice, Weal set out on improving his skating to compensate this offseason. It looks like that move was well-thought out as Weal zipped his way to a near point per game pace in his sophomore pro season.

Breakout Player for 2014-15: Nikolai Prokhorkin, C/LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)

The Russian was neck to neck with Jones for prospect of the year with his outstanding season in the KHL. Many have been high on the talent level of Prokhorkin for some time, but the uncertainty factor was fairly high going into the next few seasons in the KHL. Prokhorkin struggled last year to find consistent playing time at the top Russian level, but he put all doubts to bed with a strong 37-point campaign in the 52 games he played for CSKA this year. Not to mention he put up this kind of performance as one of the youngest players in the league at age 20. His physical maturity looks to have given him an upper hand and it is becoming apparent that the former fourth round selection could make an easy transition to North American hockey. He has one more year left on his contract with CSKA and it will be intriguing to see if he can repeat his team-leading performance in 2014-15.

Most Improved Prospect: Paul LaDue, University of North Dakota (NCAA)

At the beginning of the year there were not a lot of people had Paul LaDue penciled in as an everyday defenseman for the University of North Dakota. He opened the year with the team in a battle with about four other defensemen, and a platoon scenario was not out of the question in the early going. However, as the year progressed LaDue looked more and more comfortable with every passing game. By the end of the season the young defenseman was an integral part of the UND blue line and a contributor in every situation. He went from being a question mark starter to having a 20-plus point freshman season that earned him NCHC All-Rookie honors.

Overachiever: Nic Dowd, C, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCAA)

Dowd has been an integral cog to the Huskies for the last two to three years, but this year he went above and beyond what was expected. Dowd, the captain, set a new career high in goals with 22, plus/minus with a plus-17, points with 40, and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award. Although he lost out on the award to Johnny Gaudreau (CGY), Dowd had a masterful senior year that surpassed any and every expectation.

Underachiever: Maxim Kitsyn, LW, Ontario Reign (ECHL)

It is hard to argue with Kitsyn being the underachiever this year. There was excitement hovering around the big winger after a tumultuous two years in the Russian leagues, but unfortunately, he struggled to find his game back in North America as well. He played 20 rather uneventful games with the Monarchs from opening day to January, registering just three goals and four points. He was sent to the Ontario Reign of the ECHL where he seemed to get back on track a bit with 30 points in 33 games. Despite his turnaround after visiting the ECHL, this is probably not how Kitsyn imagined his return to North America. He still has a ton of promise though, as the flashes of size and skill are there at times. However, this year will just have to be chalked up as another difficult transition and adjustment year in the young forward’s career.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Patrik Bartosak, G, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

It is never a bad thing to have a goaltender as a high risk/reward prospect. In fact, when you think about it most goaltender are high risk/high reward by nature. While a fifth round selection is really not that high risk, it is to the Kings, whom have drafted extremely well in the middle rounds under Dean Lombardi. Bartosak has been monstrous at the WHL in his career thus far, with a career save percentage hovering around the .930 area. However, he plays an athletic style not to different from current King goaltender Jonathan Quick, which can lead to some fluctuation in performance. He has all the makings of a strong professional goaltender, but it is still too early to know where he will go. He now starts his AHL career with a strong goaltending development program closely watching over him.

Follow Jason Lewis on Twitter via @SirJDL