Los Angeles Kings strength in depth comes from development

By Jason Lewis

Michael Mersch - Los Angeles Kings

Photo: LA Kings prospect and former Wisconsin Badger Michael Mersch has become a dependable AHL scorer in his pro career (courtesy of Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

It really can be hard to nail down whether or not the Kings system took a step back or forward over the course of a year. The team has traded away tons of picks and prospects in order to go into a win-now mode. That has significantly lessened the top end prospect quality that the franchise has currently. Moving potentially high level players like Colin Miller (BOS) – and to a lesser degree Roland McKeown (CAR) – has been costly for the system. However, the Kings have continued to thrive and make up a lot of the void in smart player development.

The team regularly turns its late-round picks into NHL players. The progress thus far from players like Paul LaDue, Michael Mersch, Alex Lintuniemi, Zac Leslie and Jonny Brodzinski goes a long way in making up for a lack of high draft picks and blue chip prospects. Can the team sustain this kind of development for much longer – especially with a mini-rebuild potentially looming? We shall see. For now though, the Kings system has gone well in some areas, while dropping heavily in others. Overall it has not lost much quality since 2014-15 and remains a lower to mid-range group of prospects among the 30 teams.

Left Wing

‏Only four players slot into the natural left wing spot, although a number of players on the Kings can play various forward positions. Austin Wagner and Matt Mistele lead a pretty thin group of lefties, as seasoned prospect vets like Max Kitsyn and Joel Lowry attempt comebacks of a very different variety. Kitsyn, a player once highly though of, lost a step in the KHL that he seems to have never gotten back. Joel Lowry, a Cornell grad, is dealing with a back injury that saw him miss nearly his entire senior year. The Kings still gave Lowry an entry-level contract in order for him to have his shot.

Wagner and Mistele are both mid-to-late round selections that bring a good 200-foot game. While Wagner brings a bit more jam to his game than Mistele, a lot of people seem to like the low-flash yet effective game of the Oshawa Generals forward. He also brings an element of versatility, being able to play all three forward positions. Neither are anything spectacular to write home about, but both have elements of their game that could lend nicely to an NHL roster. Wagner has a seemingly untapped energetic and explosive game, while Mistele plays a more safe and all-around game. Neither project as top prospects, but both add value and diversity to the system. They are the prime players in a thin, but fluid group of wingers.

As stated before, several Kings wingers – like Adrian Kempe for example – can play both wings. As a whole the wing system is quite strong, but if you isolate the left side it is not nearly as strong as the opposite side of the ice.

Center

‏The Kings’ center group mainly hinges on three major players, one of whom is about to graduate by Hockey’s Future criteria: Nick Shore. Nic Dowd and Michael Amadio are the others. Jordan Weal has cut into the NHL, but his status as a center is fluid at the moment as he tries to make his way at wing in order to see NHL playing time.

This leaves a trio of centers who are altogether solid, but not overwhelming. Shore, Dowd, and Amadio all play fairly similar, responsible two-way games. Each have their own specialties of course, but the bottom line is simple: the Kings center group lacks scoring. Shore projects as a good third line option with an optimistic ceiling of near 20 goals. Dowd could arguably be put in the same sort of category, albeit with more of a playmaking edge to his game. Amadio, with another impressive year, could redefine his own ceiling to something more offensively appetizing. All three are pretty responsible and low-risk players, which is perfect for the Kings’ style and system. However, if you were looking for offensive flash and creativity, do not look into the Kings’ center group.

‏Further down the group you get Alex Dergachyov, and a duo of scrap-happy grinders in Jake Marchment and Andrew Crescenzi. Crescenzi is playing in what will be his aging-out season, and Andy Andreoff has also aged out. The Kings center group has taken a pretty hefty step backwards.
 
Right Wing

‏Outside of defense, the Kings sport an outstanding group of top end wingers. They have the high picks like Adrian Kempe and Valentin Zykov, but also the aforementioned duo of developed talents from the later rounds in Mersch and Brodzinski. Both were phenomenal NCAA players, and the latter is making his way to the pro realm in 2015-16. Mersch, a 2011 4th round selection, was a beast in the second half of his rookie AHL season. He carried over his outstanding regular season and postseason play to this year’s training camp with the Kings. It was pretty well decided that  the 23-year old would be sent down due to his waiver exemption status before the end of camp. While he did go down eventually, he was among the last cut, and one of the most impressive forwards in camp. It was a numbers game that kept the power forward out of the NHL to start the year, but do not be surprised if you see him midway through the season with Los Angeles given how good he was in training camp.

With Kempe, Mersch, and Brodzinski all bringing an element of scoring depth, Zykov is seeing his stock waver. However, the Russian possesses some great leadership qualities and two-way ability that has earned him some nods in the organization. Justin Auger is still learning to use the natural gift of size to his advantage, while Spencer Watson continues to evolve as a dynamic and creative goalscorer with Kingston in the OHL. If the Kings are going to bring goals into their NHL squad from the pipeline, the right wing group is far and away their best chance at it.

‏Overall, including left wingers, the Kings wing group has taken a step forward compared to last season with the development of several key players.

Defense

‏This has been the bread and butter of the Kings development system for several years, and it continues to be one of their strongest groups of prospects. On the top end of things, the Kings have promoted very few, and developed many.

While the loss of Colin Miller to Boston takes away arguably their most explosive offensive defenseman, there are several that are capable of filling the void. Derek Forbort has made the NHL club after a strong training camp, while second year pros like Kevin Gravel and Nick Ebert look to further insert themselves into the lineup. Jumping into the pro mix are Alex Lintuniemi, Erik Cernak, and Zac Leslie. All are very capable defenders who played well in their respective development leagues. Additions from the 2015 draft like Chaz Reddekopp and Matt Roy and a free agent pickup in Damir Sharipzyanov have gone a long way in strengthening the overall variety and depth of the pipeline. The Kings have pretty much every type of defenseman you could want right now in their group.

‏There is no true blue chip defensive star to be, but there is an outstanding bit of variety. The methodical and low-risk Derek Forbort, the offensive-leaning Nick Ebert, and the physical specimen that is Erik Cernak give a wide range of different looks and styles. If the Kings have taken steps back in other areas, like wing or goaltending, they have taken big steps forward in the defensive depth. While they lost Miller and McKeown in the last year, the positive steps from other players ultimately made those players expendable commodities. Now, what they got in return for those good prospects is certainly debatable, but the Kings’ defensive group has lost plenty of power, yet still looks formidable and diverse.

Goaltending

‏The goaltending pipeline of Los Angeles has been a prominent talking point over the last several years. They have produced quality NHL starters like Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Bernier, and now Martin Jones. However, at some point the Kings lost the overall depth at the position. What was once their greatest strength is now ultimately their weakest position in the pipeline.

With the promotion and trade of Martin Jones, the waiver claim of J.F. Berube by the New York Islanders, and the untimely injury to Patrik Bartosak, the Kings’ goaltending has been whittled down. Only Alec Dillon remains as a healthy goaltender to start 2015-16. The former Tri-City Storm netminder has shifted to the WHL with the Edmonton Oil Kings for 2015-16. The results have been less than stellar so far as he has appeared in five games and posted a rough-looking .878 save percentage.

Bartosak, a 5th round pick in 2013, remains the Kings’ best young hope at goaltending. However, he has been sidelined with a thumb injury on his catching hand and could miss up to a month and a half to start the year. The Czech remains intriguing, as he possesses a good blend of explosive athleticism and fundamentals. Nevertheless, the Kings goaltending pipeline has taken significant steps backwards over the years.