Drafting and development was nothing more than Plan B for the first 40 years of existence for the Los Angeles Kings organization. A sub-par season was usually followed up with a trade of the top draft pick to find immediate relief from their heartburn. But as the pill only masked the symptom without treating the cause, the organization fell further and further behind their counterparts in terms of player development. Even with what appeared on the face of it to be commitment to player development under former General Manager Dave Taylor, it was often met with spells of waffling between plans — dedicated to none, unable to succeed, truly splitting Solomon’s baby with no crying mother to reveal truth.
The change in management regimes to Dean Lombardi represented a shift in the paradigm for the Kings. No longer would Plan B be unsealed only in time of crisis. Drafting and development would become the only plan. The system has began to produce NHL-caliber talent like never before, thanks in part to poor finishes in the standings and hording of draft picks. Instead of filling gaps with trades, picks were being used to fill holes before they ever developed. The depth created at all levels of the organization meant that prospects could develop for a number of years in the minor league system, left to earn their way to the NHL instead of inheriting their status by default. As a result, not only is the Kings system bearing fruit in Los Angeles, but depth is gathering in Manchester as well.
Left wing has traditionally been a position of weakness for the Kings and the current status leaves little optimism for the immediate future. The Kings have been shifting centers and natural right wings to the left side to compensate for lack of developed talent. A trade at the NHL level and the dedication of a second-round pick at the 2009 draft table bought the Kings some time to find their more permanent replacement at left wing on the top line.
Even if Kyle Clifford develops better than expected, the Kings will still be looking for a top-scoring left wing. Taken in the second round this summer, Clifford is a blend of grit and competitiveness with limited offensive ceiling. Lombardi might have wanted to improve the competitiveness of players throughout the system, but one should never confuse production for effort and effort for production. The system will still be searching for some modicum of offensive talent from the left side, especially if Alexander Frolov leaves via free agency, in hopes of finding that perfect blend of both effort and production. Clifford may very well become a fan favorite in Los Angeles someday, but it will likely be in the role of a third or fourth-line forward.
The rest of the group at left wing does not leave much hope for a top-six forward candidate. Now in his third season with the Manchester Monarchs, Scott Parse still has yet to demonstrate the scoring touch he displayed in college hockey. He is looking more and more like an injury fill-in for Los Angeles at best. Dwight King and Geordie Wudrick are rugged players with power-forward physiques who may be gritty compliments to the more skilled forwards. Both will need several years of development in Manchester before they can set their sights on Los Angeles and are still projects at best. Richard Clune plays with an edge and can be a middle-weight enforcer unafraid to drop the gloves even when outmatched in size.
The Kings have plenty of depth down the middle, both on the NHL roster and in their farm system. It is from this area of strength that the Kings can be most patient with the development of prospects. The depth at this position will contribute heavily towards changing the “culture” of the organization by increasing the level of competition between prospects to stay on the ice. The emphasis in the 2009 draft and offseason free-agent signings sent a loud and clear message to the center prospects already in the system – improve your habits or find yourself out of a job. But even with that message, the vast majority of the center prospects will never ascend beyond the AHL level, instead operating as a high-intensity, highly-competitive backdrop for the more skilled prospects like Brayden Schenn and Andrei Loktionov to immerse themselves in and learn how to contend at a top level before stepping up to the NHL.
Schenn was the fifth overall pick in the 2009 Entry Draft and someone the Kings believe can anchor their second line for years. Much coveted for his skills as a two-way center and his competitiveness, he played perfectly into Lombardi’s plan to change the culture of the organization. He will likely spend the next two seasons in the WHL before making the jump to the professional ranks and may be a young addition to the Kings roster immediately at the conclusion of his major junior hockey career.
A similar young addition to the Kings will be that of Loktionov possibly as early as this season. Loktionov joined Manchester to begin the season but not before thoroughly impressing the Kings coaching staff during training camp. Still only 19, he is offensively gifted and may be the first center prospect called up. Loktionov is well-rounded and can easily transition into any role on any of the four lines for Los Angeles. His and Schenn’s progression over the next couple of seasons will go a long way towards turning a young but still developing group of centers in Los Angeles into a dynastic one, possibly pushing the more than capable veterans Michal Handzus and Jarret Stoll out the door in improving the overall skill level down the middle.
Former first-round pick Trevor Lewis began the 2009-10 season with Los Angeles and is likely to spend the majority of the remainder of his career in the NHL. While his offensive game has been slow to develop, his ability to grind and effectively cycle the puck with quality skating skills make him a prime candidate for on-the-job training in Los Angeles. If his offense begins to develop, Lewis will be a quality third line forward.
Schenn, Loktionov and Lewis are the cream of the crop at center for the Kings and the most likely contributors to the long-term success of Los Angeles. Others are projects and depth for Manchester that will keep the competition level high while also acting as a pool of role players should the need arise for one.
Justin Azevedo is a smallish scorer that will need to prove himself at every level because of his size. A move to the wing might be in his future where his size will be less of an issue. A propensity to find the net at the AHL level may create a brief opportunity in Los Angeles for him, but the odds are against him. Juraj Mikus signed after a career year in Slovakia as former King Ziggy Palffy’s center. Mikus will find the transition to North America difficult as he is stuck behind a number of other center prospects and more likely to be depth for Manchester. Likewise, Corey Elkins was signed in the offseason out of The Ohio State University to provide depth and energy to the Monarchs. Little is expected from Elkins and will only be a pleasant surprise if he contributes at any level in the NHL.
The future hopes of a heavyweight enforcer for Los Angeles are wrapped up in Kevin Westgarth. Already knocking on the door, Westgarth was one of the final training camp cuts and stands as a possible call-up for matches where the Kings would like to ice a bigger and tougher line-up. Westgarth has better all-around skills than current strongman Raitis Ivanans and could be a major upgrade in the long run.
David Meckler is in his third season of minor league hockey and is showing little more than a third line forward for an AHL club. Even his ability to play physical around the net will only get him so far in the face of other center prospects capable of playing a more skilled game. Bud Holloway has become a bit of a penalty killing specialist and grinding defensive forward who will be hard pressed to ascend beyond the AHL. Michael Pelech was drafted as an overage prospect in 2009 specifically to add that physical and competitive edge to the minor league system that Lombardi felt was lacking. If he skates his entire career in Manchester and becomes the wily veteran that personifies Lombardi’s new “culture”, he will be a resounding success.
A number of other center prospects are still years away from joining the minor league system or even earning a try-out contract. Garrett Roe is another smallish forward with a nose for the net. Not dissimilar to former King prospects Connor James and Noah Clarke, Roe will compete for scoring titles in college hockey but find the professional game difficult for his skill set. Robert Czarnik is a good two-way forward still developing as a sophomore with the University of Michigan. He may never score in bunches in college hockey but is solid enough at both ends of the ice to add some depth to Manchester in a couple of years. Nic Dowd is in his first season in the USHL. He is tremendously raw and has a long way to go before he can be considered for anything. Son of NHL head coach Ted Nolan, Jordan Nolan is a fighter that will be looked to add toughness to Manchester and little else. Joshua Turnbull is running out of time in his third season with the University of Wisconsin and is a fringe prospect at best.
The position does not have nearly the depth as center, but the Kings have never had a problem graduating impact right wings to the NHL roster. Ted Purcell continues a recent string of quality forwards developed by the Kings and skating in the NHL, while Oscar Moller potentially could be the best of the bunch both in terms of offensive ability and intangibles. With two right wings of this caliber at the top of the system, there is little need for depth, especially when centers can readily be moved over the right side in time of need.
Edging Moller out for the final forward roster spot for Los Angeles, Purcell is nearing is last chance to prove that he belongs in the NHL. He is a gifted scorer but lacks the aggressive instinct needed to take what the defense will not give, particularly in battles for loose pucks. The Kings are looking for a big step forward from Purcell in this department. Failure to do so will open the door for Moller to return to the NHL. Moller is beginning the season in Manchester having lost his roster spot to Purcell. The better offensive weapon, gritty and a team leader, Moller spent last season in Los Angeles after earning a roster spot before suffering a shoulder injury in January. He was slow to recover from his injury, permitting Purcell to temporarily jump him on the depth charts. But Moller is more than three years younger than Purcell and the better all-around player. Both players are future second-line caliber forwards for Los Angeles.
After the top two right wings, the talent level significantly drops off. Marc-Andre Cliche is a high-energy defensive forward that may come in handy in particular situations for the Kings. He could be an emergency call-up to Los Angeles this season, but do not expect to see his name often in a box score. If Lewis continues to hold down the last forward position in Los Angeles, there will be little opportunity for Cliche to join the Kings and may spend the remainder of his years with the organization in Manchester.
Two selections for the 2009 Entry Draft round out the remainder of the right wings. Brandon Kozun is a diminutive play maker that will spend the next two seasons in the WHL. Due to his size, there will always be a question of how well his game with translate to each next level. Likewise, Linden Vey will spend the next two seasons in the WHL and will first need to earn himself a contract if he has hopes of joining the Kings organization at the conclusion of his major junior career.
The depth chart on defense has thinned out a bit with the graduations for Jack Johnson and Drew Doughty, but remains an area of strength for the Kings with several top prospects and other serviceable projects. If all develop according to expectations, the Kings will have a wealth of talent on the blueline that may allow for a trade to fill a gap in the system on the left wing. Offensive defensemen Thomas Hickey and Vyacheslav Voinov and physical banger Colten Teubert headline the group, with a number of others either already contributing in the NHL or capable of filling in if called upon.
Hickey could develop into a second pairing defenseman and a quarterback on the power play for the Kings, but will likely spend a season or two in Manchester before being pressed into duty. He does not have the exceptional all-around skills that Doughty has and so will have to defer to him as the top defenseman for Los Angeles. But the ability to role two defensive pairings with only a slight drop-off in talent is a huge advantage for the Kings in the future.
Just below Hickey on the depth chart are Voinov and Teubert. At only 19, Voinov is young for being in his second season of AHL hockey. He joined Manchester immediately after being drafted and signed by the Kings out of Russia. There are still several aspects of his game that need to be worked on, but the Kings have the luxury to wait for his development to come around. Similarly, even though Teubert is back in the WHL for the season, he already experienced a considerable number of professional games last season at the age of 19. He is a hard-nosed and aggressive player that sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him. If he can improve on his discipline, the Kings would welcome his tenacity in Los Angeles as an attribute Lombardi is specifically looking for in his future team.
Already contributing in Los Angeles are Alec Martinez and Davis Drewiske. Neither is likely a long-term player for the Kings and are only keeping the seat warm while some of the more highly-skilled defensemen complete their training in Manchester. Martinez is a mobile defenseman that is a tier below Hickey and Voinov. The suspension to Sean O’Donnell necessitated his prolonged stay in Los Angeles to begin the season and will be heading back to Manchester before long. Drewiske will stay with Los Angeles for the entire season in all probability. He will need to cease upon his opportunity and demonstrate why it should not be he who is pushed out when Hickey, Voinov and Teubert are ready. Whether he stays or goes, he looks to be a serviceable third pairing defenseman for any organization.
Outside of the top tiers of defensemen, there are a number skating in Manchester that represent nothing more than fodder for the AHL roster. Joe Piskula spent a five-game stint with Los Angeles in 2006-07 but has not sniffed the inside of an NHL rink since. While he is a solid defenseman and integral member of the Monarchs team, Piskula’s chances as a King are dwindling quickly. So are Drew Bagnall’s chances. Signed as a free agent the same offseason as Piskula to create depth and competition in Manchester, Bagnall never progressed beyond a serviceable AHL defenseman. With the lineup on the blueline in Los Angeles set and a number of other more talented defenseman knocking on the door, Bagnall will need a change in scenery if he will ever make it to the NHL. In the meantime, the Kings will be more than happy to utilize his services as a teacher for the younger prospects. Signed as a free agent out of the Univ. of Denver, Patrick Mullen also fits into the role of veteran leadership. Already 26, Mullen adds another warm body in Manchester to elevate their level of competition on the blueline and may spend considerable time in the ECHL. Barring any unforeseen injuries, Mullen is not likely to ever to wear a Kings sweater.
Adding yet another defenseman to Manchester, David Kolomatis was drafted as an overage prospect in the fifth round of the 2009 Entry Draft and immediately targeted for Manchester after having completed his major junior career and skating on the Providence Bruins’ playoff roster in 2008-09. He will need to show a lot in a short time if he expects to leap others on the depth chart and earn an opportunity in Los Angeles. As if Manchester had any remaining ice time available on the blueline, Andrew Campbell returns for his second season with Manchester after handing in a below-average first season. Campbell joined the organization as a physical warrior not afraid to sacrifice his body to clear the net or block shots. But his other skills came into question and kept him on the bench for most of the season. He will need a major turn-around this season to climb back into the race or risk being relegated to the ECHL.
Outside of the group of prospects in Manchester, there is little else on the depth chart for the Kings, but little else is needed with the enormous number of defensive prospects already littered throughout the AHL and ECHL for the organization. The best of the rest is Nicolas Deslauriers, a 2009 draftee skating in the QMJHL. He is highly skilled yet very raw. With the glut of defensemen already in the minor leagues, Deslauriers is sure to spend the next two seasons in major junior hockey. Martin Nolet is a defensive defenseman in college hockey who is a long shot to earn a contract upon graduation this season. Niclas Andersen and Constantin Braun are European prospects that the Kings have shown slight interest in and only retain their rights due to the lapse in the transfer agreement.
Long since a liability for the Kings, the goaltender position is now hemorrhaging with potential. Jonathan Quick has graduated and is securely the top goaltender for Los Angeles, while lurking in the shadows is that goaltender with the tag of potential franchise cornerstone – Jonathan Bernier. But “potential” has claimed many lives in the battle for player development. It is incumbent on the player, not the organization, to combine what he has learned with his natural talents and produce.
Up to this point, Bernier has been lacking in the production department. Minor setbacks have been met with a loss of focus that affected his game from time to time. What had previously been a one-horse race became a duel with the promotion of Quick above Bernier. This season will reveal a great deal about the mental strength and fortitude of both Quick and Bernier as one will fight to keep his job and one will fight to take the job. The competition between the two can only lead to good things for the Kings this season and later down the road.
Jeff Zatkoff is waiting for the dust to settle between Bernier and Quick to find out where his future lies. At this moment, Zatkoff is competing with Bernier in Manchester for playing time and is the heir apparent for the Monarchs if and when Bernier moves up to Los Angeles. With two young goaltenders in Quick and Bernier holding down the roster spots in Los Angeles, where does that leave Zatkoff? Barring any unforeseen injuries, only a trade will free up Zatkoff to reach the NHL. Solid and steady, Zatkoff can either start regularly or play the role of a backup with no adverse affect on his game.
Even further away from Los Angeles are Martin Jones and Jean-Francois Berube. Jones is one of the top goaltenders in the WHL and will work his way up the ECHL and AHL depth charts while the fates of Bernier, Quick and Zatkoff are determined over the next few years. Jones is big and athletic and capable of stealing any of the three jobs. Berube is an unknown quantity as a new draftee and backup for most of his career in the QMJHL. It may be a year or two before he can emerge from behind starter Jake Allen (STL) and demonstrate his ability to a larger audience. He is several years away from even being assigned to an ECHL roster.