With the current state of several Los Angeles Kings prospects it seems like there are plenty of questions to be asked to start this 2014-15 season. The organization is reaching an apex with several of their prospect groups and 2014-15 seems like a year where plays could be made.
There are many new additions to the Manchester Monarchs, a few new additions to the Los Angeles Kings, and several young players in the CHL and Europe who are on the cusp of being ready to play professional hockey.
Tanner Pearson’s monstrous play in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Playoffs was a welcomed surprise for the Kings as they marched to their second Cup in three years. The question now remains whether that was enough of a showcase for young Pearson to be considered for the 2014-15 opening night lineup. The Kings still have a very stacked and structured group of forwards with new waiver exempt additions like fellow prospect Andy Andreoff and veteran signing Adam Cracknell. With Pearson still being able to go to the minors, it may be inevitable he gets sent down to start the year in order to make room on the Los Angeles roster. However, that does not mean that he is not the team’s top prospect, nor does it mean he is not NHL-ready. The Kings had a similar situation arise last year with Tyler Toffoli, and the young winger ended up being a mainstay on the roster shortly after the first quarter of the season.
Pearson has evolved as a player in the past year. Originally talked about as a forward that was good in all areas but not spectacular in any one area, he has developed a formidable offensive sense and work ethic. Pearson’s skating also has taken a step forward, as has his tenacious play along the boards. His play alongside Jeff Carter and Tyler Toffoli was absolutely tremendous, as the 6’0, 200 pound winger used his hard-nosed style to fish the puck out on a regular basis for his highly skilled linemates. The Kings love players who score from the difficult areas of the ice and hard workers, and Tanner Pearson is currently the poster boy for that style of play.
Brayden McNabb, D, Los Angeles Kings (NHL) / Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
Last year in this feature we selected Andy Andreoff, who ironically is in the same situation as Brayden McNabb this season. Both players are waiver exempt at this point in their contracts and they have seemingly nowhere to go unless the team wants to run the risk of placing them on waivers. Where McNabb benefits over a player like Andreoff is that McNabb does not have the same competition at his position. The Kings parted ways with veteran Willie Mitchell this offseason, which opened up a depth defenseman job. While Jeff Schultz is also going to compete for the job, McNabb seems to have the inside track.
The Kings made a trade deadline deal with the Buffalo Sabres to get the hard-hitting defenseman, dealing up-and-coming prospects Nicolas Deslauriers and Hudson Fasching. McNabb fits nicely into the Kings right-left set up on the blue line in terms of handedness. His game is also a good fit for the team’s desire to pair puck-movers with stay-at-home defenseman. With his hard-hitting style and massive slap shot, McNabb just needs to find a bit of consistency to be considered an NHL player at this point.
Colin Miller, D, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
When you look at the Kings’ blue line depth chart it can be easy to overlook Colin Miller. However, the solid skating defenseman is coming off a decent rookie year where he made a great deal of progress over the course of a season. The 21 year old had a 17 point rookie season, which was one of the highest among Manchester blueliners. As one of the few pure puck movers with Manchester, Miller stands to receive a lot of minutes on the power play as well as a high number of offensive zone starts. Having his first full season in the books will also help, as the learning curve will be much less steep and he can focus on improving aspects of his game rather than adjusting to the speed of the pro level. He has had a number of productive seasons in the CHL before this, and the Kings are hoping he can contribute at the same level on what is a blue line light on offensive skill.
Valentin Zykov was our top junior prospect last year, and he remains in the top spot again this year after another solid outing. While his goal totals were down from his breakout rookie season in the QMJHL, he took on a bigger role with the Drakkar and was facing much stiffer competition this past season. On top of taking on a larger role, Zykov was no mystery to opposing defenses. His goal scoring was down due to this, but it gave the young Russian a chance to show off his passing ability and his vision. He topped his assists total from 2012-13 and also had an impressive 15 assists in 22 playoff games for the Drakkar.
Zykov is on the cusp of jumping into the pro game, but one more year in the CHL will benefit him. The Kings have plenty of time to work the talented forward onto their AHL team in the near future.
While the bounceback prospect could have gone in a number of directions, Matt Mistele looks like someone in line for a comeback season. The pesky, high energy forward blew a lot of people away with his 34 goal 2012-13 season. However, the following year he was barely able to reach half that in his point and goal totals. Coming off a down year, Mistele was selected by the Kings in the 6th round of the 2014 Draft. With that distraction behind him we might see a return of the 2012-13 player who potted 30+ goals and had 60 points. He has the skill set to score, and Plymouth will need that moving forward. The team as a whole was down in 2013-14, and they are hoping that 2014-15 brings better tidings.
Jacob Middleton, D, Ottawa 67’s (OHL)
If his progression from 2012-13 to 2013-14 is any indicator, then 18 year-old Jacob Middleton is in line for a big season. Middleton definitely has the savvy to improve on his modest offensive numbers from 2013-14, particularly his goal total. In 65 games last season for Ottawa, Middleton had just 2 goals but 23 points. He is a huge player at 6’3 and 200 pounds, and if he can learn to use that length and strength to his advantage he could score a few more than two goals. Also, the defenseman will likely see an increase in his minutes with the 67’s, giving him more opportunity to see power play chances and offensive zone scenarios. His plus/minus numbers are also a bit of a drag, as his minus-21 rating could stand to improve.
With a slew of Kings prospects graduating from NCAA hockey this offseason, Jonny Brodzinski stands alone at the top in terms of Kings amateur prospects. While goaltender Alec Dillon is nipping at his heels in terms of exciting young players joining the amateur fold, Brodzinski’s excellent 2013-14 cannot be ignored. The winger has now put up two consecutive 20+ goal seasons while improving his points total from 33 to 41. Some graduations from St. Cloud’s squad may thrust the Huskies into a small transition period; however, a good recruiting class should soften the blow a bit. Brodzinski is again going to be relied upon as one of the teams primary offensive contributors, and if history is any indicator he will be up to the challenge.
Massive goaltender Alec Dillon is heading to the USHL from the BCHL where he had a great rookie season with the Victoria Grizzlies. He will face an increased level of competition in the USHL with Tri-City as he prepares himself for NCAA hockey with R.P.I. in 2015-16 (or the CHL, as the Edmonton Oil Kings hold his rights).
Widely considered a dark-horse pick in the 2014 draft, the Kings pounced on the 6’6 netminder in the 5th round. Dean Lombardi and company are hoping to put his size and calmness under pressure to use int he future. Dillon plays an intelligent brand of goaltending. He has a solid work ethic to go along with a sound positional game. His future is a bit uncertain in terms of whether he may end up in the CHL or NCAA, but his 2014-15 season in the USHL is definitely something to keep an eye on.
Freshman to Watch
Steven Johnson, D, University of Minnesota (NCAA)
Steven Johnson was excellent for the Omaha Lancers in the USHL in 2013-14, and he hopes to carry that form into his freshman season with the University of Minnesota. The Golden Gophers lost just five seniors in their graduating class, two of which were defenseman. What that means for Johnson is that a spot is potentially up for grabs for the 6’1 defenseman on the Minnesota blue line. The challenge should be good for the reliable two-way rearguard; however, he does have the option at his age to return to Omaha and the USHL if the Kings and Johnson feel it is the best path for his development.
Nikolai Prokhorkin, LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Was there a better young player in Russia last year? Nikolai Prokhorkin was incredible for CSKA Moscow, leading the team in scoring as a 20 year old. His 37 points in the 52 game KHL season was impressive enough that the Kings tried their hardest to get him over to the NHL. However, he ended up signing an extension with CSKA for another year at Russia’s top level. While it is disappointing that the highly skilled Prokhorkin will again be held off of North American ice, when you look at what he has done in the KHL it is not a bad thing. Prokhorkin is doing what few players his age have done, and that is traverse the minor leagues of the KHL and come out ahead. Prokhorkin was fast-tracked to Moscow’s main squad after his brief 2012-13 appearances, and they were rewarded for their judgement in 2013-14.
He is strong for his age and plays a very aggressive and imposing style. With the physical markings of a power forward, Prokhorkin also mixes in puck skills and vision. With this mixture of size, skill, and attitude, Prokhorkin is in line for another solid KHL season. While Adrian Kempe is a fine European prospect in his own right, the young man from Chelyabinsk is playing on another level right now and is certainly the Kings’ top European prospect.
Adrian Kempe, C/LW, MODO (SHL)
Adrian Kempe, like Nikolai Prokhorkin, is playing at the top level of his respective league. At age 17 he was thrust onto MODO’s senior squad in 2013-14 and performed admirably. It is not fair to look simply at point totals, since 11 points in 45 games does not seem like much. Kempe’s statistics are more impressive considering he was lined up against grown men, many of whom were ten or more years older. He also played heavily on MODO’s fourth line, which could change in 2014-15. Being another year older with an NHL team’s guidance, Kempe could potentially improve a great deal from his 2013-14 season totals. Current King Anze Kopitar had a similar situation arise in his development. The season after Kopitar was drafted in 2005 he had a breakout campaign for Södertälje in the SHL. Look for Kempe to do something similar as he matures and figures out how to use his body to his advantage. At 6’2 and 190 pounds he has plenty of it to utilize.
New Team in 2014-15
Dominik Kubalik, LW, HC Plzen (Czech Extraliga)
Dominik Kubalik had a rough 2013-14 season in which he seemed to stagnate in his development. His move from Sudbury to Kitchener at the CHL trade deadline did little to jumpstart the 19 year old. He had just six points in 23 games and looked lost at times. In a seemingly predictable twist in his development, Kubalik has opted to return home to play in his native Czech Republic. Even more familiar than simply returning to the Czech Republic, Kubalik has opted to join his hometown club HC Plzen. While the Czech league is not known for its high level of competition, this move may be one that suits Kubalik well and pushes him in the right direction. Being at home in an area of comfort could help Kubalik regain the confidence that made him a 2013 seventh round selection.