Kings’ Euro and NCAA prospects feeling the growing pains in 2014-15

By Jason Lewis
Team Russia v Team Sweden

Photo: Los Angeles Kings first-rounder Adrian Kempe starred for Team Sweden at the World Juniors but did not stand out on a struggling MODO squad. (courtesy of Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Hockey is a tough sport with a lot to think about and a lot of moving parts on the ice. There is the physical aspect as well as the mental aspect that players have to develop. In the early stages of their career it is not uncommon to see one fall a step behind the other. The Kings have six prospects playings in the NCAA ranks and overseas, and most of them have endured seasons of struggles with a steep learning curve. Some, like Nikolai Prokhorkin, are battling mental challenges, while others like Adrian Kempe are battling the physical challenges. Either way it has made for a year filled with growing pains that will hopefully better these players as they move forward in their careers.


NCAA

Paul LaDue, D, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
‏Drafted 6th round, 181st overall, 2012

‏The sophomore defenseman is overshadowed by some of the more highly regarded names, but he has been very strong in 2014-15. LaDue’s solid all-around game has seen him match his point output from last year, and he is also playing a solid defensive brand of hockey. His 21 points are second on the team for defenseman, behind only Jordan Schmaltz (STL). He has played at various points in the year paired up with Schmaltz, as well as seeing time with senior Nick Mattson (CHI). He has also received plenty of power play and penalty kill time from coach Dave Hakstol.

‏He has done a bit of everything for UND, and between his strong freshman and sophomore years he may be on the fast track to an NHL contract. He has been one of the most solid and consistent defenseman in the NCHC this year.

Jonny Brodzinski, RW, St. Cloud State (NCHC)
‏Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, 2013

‏The Huskies needed Brodzinski to continue his NCAA tear from the last two seasons. With the departure of leading goal scorer from 2013-14, Nic Dowd, the pressure was on for Brodzinski to perform again. He was second on the team in points and its leading goal-scorer with 20, leading into the NCAA Tournament. He was also a major factor in St. Cloud having the conference’s best power play. His eleven overall power play goals and seven goals within the conference were tied for the top spot with teammate Patrick Russell. While Brodzinski was off to a notably slow start, he was a man possessed in the middle third of the season. On top of a good offensive game, Brodzinski has put together a good defensive game. He has played penalty kill minutes for the Huskies as well.

‏His offensive skills and heavy game are going to fit nicely into the Kings pro level system whenever they feel he is ready to step in. 2014-15 has been a good year and another stepping stone for the winger.

Joel Lowry, LW, Cornell University (ECAC)
‏Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2011

‏While the big winger was off to a very promising start in 2014-15, with eight points in his first 11 games, that was all she wrote for the year. Lowry played his last game as a Big Red skater in December, as his season was put to an end due to back surgery. Lowry has been a consistent contributor with Cornell throughout his career, and the middling Big Red could have definitely used him for the better part of this season.
 
Steven Johnson, D, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
‏Drafted 4th round, 120th overall, 2014

‏The Kings 2014 4th-round pick was going to be up against it this year. Minnesota was sporting three upperclassmen and two sophomores to start the season, on top of having three incoming freshman. While the sixth D spot was open for the taking, young Blue Jackets prospect Ryan Collins has seemed to establish himself ahead of Johnson and fellow freshman Jack Glover (WPG). Johnson has played just 11 games this year and has been used as a bottom pairing defenseman. Consider this a year of learning for the defenseman. Next year will be when we can truly see what he is about on the ice.

Europe

Adrian Kempe, W, MODO (SHL)
‏Drafted 1st round, 29th overall, in 2014

‏It has been a bit of a mixed year for the Kings top 2014 draft selection. Kempe has never been hailed for his skill, but he has had a fair amount of struggles scoring and finding the space to score in the SHL. While he still has a very good defensive game coupled with great skating, the Swede logged just two points in Modo’s final 22 games of the season. Most of Kempe’s 17 points came in the first half of the season. It is difficult to get a good feel for Kempe, as his bullish game projects well in North America. The extra space on the ice in Europe is making him a far less impactful winger. It is also important to remember that Kempe is just 18 and playing in a men’s professional league. The offensive skill set may yet come around with time. He has a very good skill set for North American hockey and plenty of time to grow into it.

Nikolai Prokhorkin, C/LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
‏Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, in 2012

‏Prokhorkin, like the other Kings Euro prospects, has had an up and down year. The ongoing contractual issues and negotiations have perhaps distracted the young forward, as he has looked a far less motivated and effective player on the ice. Prokhorkin thrived in being a relative unknown last year in the KHL, but after a breakout rookie season he has been targeted by team’s top defensemen. This has caused the prolific scorer to look more like a peripheral player on a nightly basis. It got to the point where CSKA Moscow sent him to Buran Voronezh of the second division VHL for more playing time and a boost in confidence. Perhaps the best possible thing for Prokhorkin at this point is to find a way over to the AHL in order to have closer contact with the Kings’ development team. Unfortunately he and his agent have been fairly adamant that he does not want to play in the AHL. This has left all parties involved in a rather precarious position as Prokhorkin continues to struggle in Russia.

Dominik Kubalik, LW, HC Plzen (Czech)
‏Drafted 7th round, 191st overall, in 2013

‏Kubalik returned to his native country to play for his hometown team this season. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite gone as planned. While he played very well to start the year with HC Plzen’s U20 squad, he could not hang with the pro squad. After 35 games of modest offensive contribution, Kubalik was loaned to HC Havlickuv Brod of the second division for more playing time and a little bit of confidence. He returned for Plzen’s playoff series, registering a goal and an assist in four games. At this point, given his situation and performance it is hard to imagine a return to North America is likely.

Prospect of the Month
Los Angeles Kings headshots
‏While he isn’t flashy, Alex Lintuniemi has been a stud for the Ottawa 67’s on the blue line this year. The big Finn has been eating tons of minutes as the 67’s top pairing. He has also logged plenty of time on both the power play and penalty kill. He plays a smooth and composed game and has great size to back it up if need be. While there was question that the 67’s might move Lintuniemi at the deadline in an effort to get younger, the stuck with him for the remainder of the year. He had eight points in 12 February games with a minus-five rating.  It can be easy to overlook the contributions of Lintuniemi, as they don’t regularly show up on a boxscore. He is steady and smooth with the puck and is an excellent thinker of the game. He has been as solid as can be down the stretch and it will be interesting to see what he brings to the table for the OHL postseason. He has also been paired up with fellow Kings prospect Jacob Middleton, so keep an eye on that as the 67’s head into the playoffs.