The Los Angeles Kings have an older group of prospects, most of whom have progressed into the AHL. For that reason, the Monarchs have been a force this season. The squad clinched the Atlantic division and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They now move into the Eastern Conference Finals of the Calder Cup playoffs in an effort to erase last year’s disappointing first round bow-out.
The pipeline has a group of NHL ready talents, many of whom have been held out of the LA Kings lineup due to the numbers game. Because of that it is not surprising that many of them have gone on to have seasons worthy of recognition in Hockey’s Future’s end of the year prospect awards.
Hardest Worker – Jordan Weal, C, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
Weal has had his sized questioned as a limiting factor when it comes to his NHL future. He has also had his potential role questioned. Is he gritty enough for the bottom six? Is he skilled enough for the top six? Be that as it may, Weal has done the best possible thing for himself over this season by playing very well.
Weal saw teammate Nick Shore get a call-up mid-season while having two of his own call-ups amount to nothing by virtue of cap space issues and a coaching decision by Darryl Sutter. Nevertheless Weal has continued to work and round out his game in effort to make the dance. He was one of Manchester’s best players for the second year running, and it is hard to imagine he would not get a sniff at the NHL sometime in the near future. He has been patient and loyal, all the while working on what the coaching staff and scouting staff have asked of him. His shot has to come soon, with or without the Kings. Weal’s strong playoffs so far is further evidence that his efforts will pay off for him.
Hardest Shot – Colin Miller, D, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
This one is a no-brainer. It is hard to imagine picking anyone else but Monarchs’ defenseman Colin Miller. The 22-year old took a huge step in his second professional season, tying for the lead in goals and finishing third in points among all AHL defensemen. His shot, which has always been a plus part of his game, came to the forefront at the AHL All-Star game. Miller broke the hardest shot record in the skills competition with a blistering 105.5 MPH slapper. Considering Miller stands at just 6’0 and a listed 181 pounds, that is pure technique.
Best Defensive Prospect – Derek Forbort, D, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
Forbort, like Weal, got a cup of coffee with the Kings this year that did not amount to much. During a slew of injuries to the Kings roster, Los Angeles was forced into calling up their most NHL-ready defenseman. That was Derek Forbort. It was a nod to the 23-year old blueliner, who has been subject to some criticism from fans for his slow progression. As a first-round selection in 2010, he is the only remaining player from that first round to have not played an NHL game. That being said he has come along nicely and now looks set to be a fixture in the Kings bottom-four defensive pairings as early as next year. His safe, low-flash game is looking prime for a test at the NHL level. He has been playing top-pairing minutes for Manchester this season and looks primed to take the next step.
Fastest Skater – Colin Miller, D Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
It was not enough for Colin Miller to break the AHL hardest shot record at the skill competition. The young defenseman also went on to win the fastest skater competition. This only added to the hype already surrounding the former Soo Greyhound. Mobility has been paramount to young Miller’s game. He plays an offensive-oriented style, and utilizes that speed to jump up into the rush as well as carry the puck through the neutral zone. The Kings are working on helping Miller decipher when it is best to jump into the play and when not to. The fact that he has the willingness and confidence to do that already, coupled with exceptional skating, is a very enticing thing.
Prospect of the Year – Nick Shore, C, Los Angeles Kings (NHL)
Shore had an exceptional season. While his NHL minutes were not nearly as groundbreaking as his AHL minutes, he still morphed into a viable bottom-six center by season’s end. In fact, by the end of the NHL regular season, Shore had put together an 82-game pace of about 15-20 points while being the team’s best faceoff man. Before his NHL debut, Shore was a destructive force as the Monarchs’ number one center. In 38 games he had 43 points, 20 of which were goals. He forced the hand of the Los Angeles Kings, who have seen a deterioration of their once-outstanding center depth. While he still has a long way to go, Shore has shown that he is an intelligent and capable two-way center, with a potentially untapped amount of NHL production. At this point, with an aging and struggling group of bottom-six centers, Shore’s emergence could not have come at a better time.
Breakout Player for 2015-16 – Nic Dowd, C, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
Speaking of Nick Shore, there was another player who had a similar rookie AHL season this year. That player is Nic Dowd. After being a collegiate standout at St. Cloud State, Dowd moved up into the pro game. Unlike Shore though, Dowd seemed to jump off the blocks in his first two months of AHL time. The centerman registered 21 points through the first 32 games of the year. While he cooled significantly through the middle portions of the season, he had an impressive overall rookie season that saw him log 40 points and emerge as a top six center in Manchester. Like Shore, Dowd is a reasonably responsible two way centerman with a potential for some offensive production. His rookie season was very impressive, so look for him to be a big factor in 2015-16 with the top center spot with the Ontario Reign being up for grabs.
Most Improved Prospect – Justin Auger, RW, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
Auger had his ups and downs this season with Manchester, but overall his improvement was immense. Originally coined as a bit of a project player with an exceptional physical advantage, the 6’7 winger looked unsure of his game to start the year. What the coaching staff and scouts of the Kings were able to do was get Auger to utilize his frame, improve his skating, and play a better all-around game. Defensively he made solid strides, and offensively he has really started to assert himself in front of the net. He troubled numerous defensive corps along the boards and in the dirty areas, which is just what Los Angeles management wanted to see. He plays physical and responsible hockey, which has been the staple of the Kings for years. He posted a respectable 28 point, +14 rated, rookie season. Another step in the right direction next season would be big for the 2013 fourth-round pick.
Overachiever – Brian O’Neill, RW, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
There have been numerous undersized players to excel at the AHL level only to struggle at the NHL level. Brian O’Neill is currently fulfilling half of that stereotype, as he was fantastic with Manchester for the second straight season. The 26-year old O’Neill was a force this season, scoring 78 points in 69 games. He was a facilitator on the Monarchs’ top line, helping both Nick Shore and Jordan Weal have exceptional seasons. Standing at a diminutive 5’9 though, O’Neill has to overcome the dreaded ‘undersized’ tag. He has definitely shown that he can play at the AHL level, and play well, but to think he would have as big an impact at the NHL level is speculative at best. If he continues to be impressive the Kings’ hand may be forced. Given his age and stature, it does not seem likely he could replicate this performance at the NHL level. That said, the new NHL has opened up opportunities for similar players in recent years. The Kings may also feel a sense of loyalty to the hard-working winger and give him his shot.
Underachiever – Nikolai Prokhorkin, C/W, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
From KHL rookie star to the depths of the VHL. That was the season of Nikolai Prokhorkin. The young Russian got fans very excited for his potential NHL future when he had a very good 2013-14 KHL season with CSKA Moscow. However, in the offseason there was a bit of uncertainty when it came to his coming to North America. With his agent saying that Nikolai did not want to play in the AHL, but only in the NHL, he had to have a good year to prove himself worthy of that. Unfortunately, he came into this year with Moscow as the focal point of many opposing defenses. What happened, by virtue of self-inflicted pressure or opposing pressure, was that he became a much more perimeter player. He looked far less assertive in the offensive zone and struggled to find the net with regularity. His lack of production and confidence forced Moscow to send him to Buran Voronezh of the VHL to rekindle some form.
It was a big step back for the forward, no question. His off-ice attitude coupled with his year of struggles has definitely put a dent in his potential NHL future and it appears that the Kings have decided to part ways with the talented Russian.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect – Adrian Kempe, W, MODO (SHL)
Kempe is a risk, although not because of his playing style. He is a risk because of the first-round tag that hangs around his neck. There does not seem to be any questioning that the Swedish winger has the skill set to be a coveted NHL asset. However, at this point his skill set is leaning more towards a gritty bottom six winger than a top line or blue-chip prospect. He is a very smart and responsible winger, but the limited offensive upside at the pro game in Sweden has left some wondering what his NHL future will look like. He still has a ton of time to develop and grow, and his movement to North America will help that. One has to wonder though if the Kings used their first round selection in 2014 on a potential bottom line grinder. If Kempe can find a bit more of an offensive game in North America, he might turn into a player akin to Dustin Brown. That means a top six winger who plays a physical style and could pot 20-30 goals on a good year. At number 29 overall that would be a phenomenal score.
His international performances definitely give hope he can find that kind of game with regularity in the future. He is seemingly built for the North American style game and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts moving forward in the AHL. In his brief audition, he has acquitted himself well. After three scoreless games at the end of the regular season, Kempe has two goals and an assist in the playoffs, despite a limited role.
Prospect of the Month
Michael Amadio of the North Bay Battalion was one of the sure fire finishers on what was supposed to be an offensively light Battalion squad. He led the team in scoring during the regular season and continued that trend into the postseason. In 15 playoff games, Amadio registered six goals and 15 points, finishing in a tie with Nick Paul (OTT) for most on the squad. With seven points in four games, he was integral in North Bay’s sweeping Kingston out of the first round. That strong run of play continued, giving eventual OHL Champions Oshawa their toughest test in a six-game series. The centerman was in fine form all season and the 2014 third-rounder is poised for good things ahead.