To say that Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi loves major junior hockey would be an understatement. Since the 2007 Entry Draft, a whopping 22 of 29 selections have been spent on players skating in major junior hockey, or an average of over seven per draft. From this it can be argued that Lombardi likes to keep his prospects close to home and moved to the AHL as soon as possible.
Seemingly acceding to the argument that the style of play in this league is more comparable to the NHL than any other developmental league, Lombardi has concentrated his recent draft selections on the WHL. The crown jewel of the Kings junior prospects is Brayden Schenn, the competitive two-way forward from the Brandon Wheat Kings. Schenn was one of the last cuts from the Kings training camp roster and so was a late arriver in Brandon. But Schenn has picked up right where he left off last season, jumping out to 34 points in his first 20 games, good for sixth in the league in scoring while playing a central leadership role on the team.
Not to be out done by Schenn’s fast start, Brandon Kozun has stormed the offensive score sheet himself. While Schenn is known for having a more rounded game, the diminutive Kozun is known for offensive expertise and he has not disappointed to date. Through his first 24 games, Kozun leads the entire league in assists and scoring, second only to 2010 draft-eligible Taylor Hall for the lead in all major junior hockey. Kozun is playing an even larger role this season for the Calgary Hitmen as the team has justifiably leaned on him for the bulk of their offensive game while the team has looked to fellow Kings prospect Martin Jones to keep the opposition off the scoreboard as their top netminder. An early-season ankle injury kept Jones out of the lineup after just three games, but he has since returned to the ice to post a 10-3 record with a respectable goals-against average and save percentage. He was slow to regain form in his first couple of starts after returning from the injury. Moving forward, Jones should receive the lion’s share of starts in net for Calgary as they expect to compete for the league title.
After spending a brief stint in professional hockey at the end of the 2008-09 season, Colten Teubert was returned to the Regina Pats for another season. Teubert struggled last season with discipline, but seems to have turned a page this season with a more sound defensive game while his 15 points through the first 21 games put him on pace to break his career highs in both goals and points. If the Pats are to rise into the playoffs, Teubert will need to stay solid on the blueline and physically punish opposing forwards while not allowing his emotions to get the best of him.
Rounding out the remainder of the WHL prospects for the Kings are Geordie Wudrick and Linden Vey. Wudrick continues to be a physical scoring threat on the left side despite a slight drop in production early in the season. He has struggled through a bit of a slump in the month of November, scoring only a single point in his first seven contests with a plus/minus of -5. But Wudrick has proven to be a slow starter to seasons, using his physicality to wear down defensemen early in the season. Vey continues to be a solid contributor to the Medicine Hat Tigers, playing in all situations while placing second on the team with 27 points through his first 26 games on the second line.
The Kings well-publicized second-round pick Kyle Clifford has skated regularly for the Barrie Colts with varying linemates. Slotted onto a line wherever an aggressive skater is needed, Clifford has not been used to generate offense, but to keep the puck alive in the offensive zone with a solid forecheck. As such, his offensive production has increased only modestly, but not unexpectedly, with offense not being his primary role on the team. Do not expect Clifford to suddenly open the flood gates in the scoring department this season. Solid production on a team that plays deep into the playoffs would be a successful season for Clifford.
Jordan Nolan was the odd man out in Manchester, being returned to his major junior team as an overager after not making the Monarchs squad. He returned to the Sault Ste. Marie lineup on Nov. 1 after completing the remaining games in his 20-game suspension stemming from last season. Nolan has scored six points through only six games, playing strong around the net early in the season.
Lombardi has generally stayed away from the QMJHL in his drafting career with the Kings with the exception of Jonathan Bernier in 2006, but made a foray back into the high-scoring league with two selections in 2009. Nicolas Deslauriers is an offensive defenseman with a hard shot and a bit of an edge to his game. He has scored 15 points through his first 26 games but is well on his way to setting a new career high in penalty minutes. While not necessarily a fighter, he is not afraid to drop the gloves or hit an opposing forward. His offensive numbers should steadily increase this season while it would not be a surprise to see him penalty minutes reach triple digits.
Meanwhile, the second of the two draftees, Jean-Francois Berube, continues to labor away as the backup netminder for the Montreal Juniors. He has found himself in net only nine times this season with a pedestrian goals-against average and save percentage and should continue to be the backup to Jake Allen (STL) for the remainder of the season. Check back in 2010 where Berube will finally see full-time minutes.
Committed to play college hockey, Nic Dowd has made a detour to the USHL where he has been skating for the Indiana Ice and leading the team in points with 11 in eight games. Dowd has been the go-to player for the Ice, anchoring the top line and playing on both the power play and the penalty kill. He is likely to receive the bulk of the scoring chances for the Ice this season.