Junior prospects for LA Kings have shown immense growth during 2010-11 season

By Josh Deitell
Photo: Maxim Kitsyn showed explosive offensive ability for the St. Michael’s Majors this season, posting 26 points in 32 regular season games and 18 points in 18 playoff matches. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

While the Kings were unable to get past the quarterfinals for the second straight year, this past season was still a success for many reasons, one of which was the progress of the prospects in the system playing Canadian junior hockey. Four of the team’s six junior forwards led their respective teams in scoring, not including top prospect Brayden Schenn, who might have paced the entire CHL had he played the entire season with Saskatoon. The Kings lay claim to Linden Vey, who won the WHL point crown, and Tyler Toffoli, who led the OHL in both goals and points. Without exception, each of the team’s eight prospects spread amongst the CHL played a major role and progressed developmentally this past season.


WHL

Brayden Schenn, C, Saskatoon Blades
Acquired: 1st round, 5th overall, 2009

Schenn is on track to crack the Kings roster next season after performing consistently well for an assortment of teams against varied levels of competition this past season. Starting off the year in Los Angeles after making the cut at training camp, Schenn looked good in a limited role. His two assists in eight games belie the quality of his play, particularly when considering his sparse minutes. With a glut of grittier or more defensively sound bottom-six forwards, and Schenn unable to play in the AHL due to age regulations, the Kings returned him to junior hockey.

Almost immediately upon his return, Schenn was part of a blockbuster deal that sent him to his hometown team, the Saskatoon Blades, who were gearing up for a deep postseason run. Schenn integrated into the Blades lineup seamlessly, posting 53 points in 27 games and helping propel the team to the status of regular season champions. Expectations were high entering the playoffs, particularly after the Blades scored 28 goals in winning their six-game first round matchup with Prince Albert, but they were upset in a shocking four-game semifinal sweep at the hands of Kootenay, a series in which Schenn contributed just one goal and posted a minus-six rating. He had 11 points in 10 playoff games overall.

Schenn took little time off after the disappointing playoff exit, moving to the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Manchester to help with their playoff run, but was unable to help them stave off elimination in the quarterfinals, where they lost a tough seven game series to Binghamton. He posted four points in five AHL playoff games but looked exhausted at times, understandable after his whirlwind of a season. Next year, Schenn will jump to the pro ranks for good, likely in a secondary scoring role on the Kings roster.


Linden Vey, C/RW, Medicine Hat Tigers
Acquired: 4th round, 96th overall, 2009

Vey had a breakout season for Medicine Hat this year, establishing himself as one of the top junior players in all of Canada. On top of finishing the regular season as the WHL and CHL leading scorer with 116 points in 69 games, Vey showed no signs of fatigue in the playoffs, and currently sits second in the Dub with 25 points in 15 postseason games. Despite his effort, Kootenay eliminated the Tigers in a four-game sweep after rolling through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Vey’s biggest improvement this year was in his consistency, particularly in his willingness to play gritty, two-way hockey. Though he’s not capable enough defensively to hang at the NHL level yet, he’s improved by leaps and bounds since being drafted. His speed and offensive skill have also developed to the point that he can make quality plays at high speed with stick-handling ability to create time and space in coverage.

Having completed his fourth year of WHL hockey, Vey will undoubtedly join the professional ranks next season. It remains to be seen where he’ll fit in on the Monarchs roster, but he’ll likely spend the year refining his all-around game without the pressure of being a go-to player.

Jordan Weal, C, Regina Pats
Acquired: 3rd round, 70th overall, 2010

Despite being forced to deal with the loss of linemate and WHL star Jordan Eberle (EDM), Weal had a fantastic season in which he provided a majority of the team’s offense, finishing fifth in the league with 96 points and leading the Pats in all major offensive categories with 43 goals and 53 assists in 72 games. No other player on the team topped the 52-point mark and the next top goal scorer on the squad had 18.

Still, the major concern with Weal was not how he would perform at the junior level, how his game will translate to the professional ranks. He’s a shifty player who does well in avoiding contact, but will be prone to being outmuscled unless he can pick up his skating. His forechecking ability makes him valuable as more than just a scorer, but his size limits his usefulness defensively, so he’s a bit of a tweener prospect at this point.

He finished this season with Manchester of the AHL, posting one assist in seven games. Weal will be headed back to the Dub for another season, though there’s buzz that he might find himself dealt from Regina to a contender looking for veteran talent.


OHL

Tyler Toffoli, RW, Ottawa 67s
Acquired: 2nd round, 47th overall, 2010

Toffoli’s biggest challenge next year will be keeping par with his impressive 2010-11 campaign for Ottawa. After showing promise as a triggerman by potting 37 goals in his draft year, Toffoli one-upped himself with eye-popping totals of 57 markers and 108 points, leading the OHL in both categories. Toffoli was the finisher on one of the most potent lines in junior hockey, lining up alongside playmaking center Ryan Martindale (EDM) and speedy cannonball Shane Prince for nearly every shift all season long.

Despite finishing with the second seed in the Eastern Conference, the 67s were swept in a surprising fashion by underdog Sudbury. Toffoli had eight points in the series, four of which he collected in the first game. He joined Manchester for their playoff run and had one assist in five games in a limited role.

After being snubbed by Canada this year in not receiving a WJC camp invite, much less roster spot consideration, Toffoli will likely return to Ottawa next year not only hoping to propel the 67s further than the first round, but also seeking to secure a spot on a Canadian national junior team that has gone two years straight without a gold medal after winning six straight.


Maxim Kitsyn, LW, Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors
Acquired: 6th round, 158th overall, 2010

Selected with a sixth-round pick largely over transfer concerns, Kitsyn came across the pond mid-season to play with Mississauga Majors of the OHL, quelling some doubts regarding his commitment to eventually playing in the NHL. His move to Canadian junior hockey came on the heels of his impressive performance at the 2011 WJCs, where he finished third in scoring on Russia with nine points in seven games and helped propel them to a gold medal victory.

It did not take Kitsyn long to adapt to the OHL with his gritty style of play. He posted 26 points in 32 regular season games and was a presence on the cycle and around the net. He’s been even better in the playoffs, notching 15 points in 15 games, tying him for tops on the Majors, who are currently up two games to nothing in the OHL Championship series against Owen Sound.

It’s uncertain whether Kitsyn will stay or return to Russia next season, but he has proven that he can thrive in North American hockey. He projects as a complementary second or third line forward in the Tomas Holmstrom mold, but he may be years away from NHL action.


Robert Czarnik, C, Plymouth Whalers
Acquired: 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2008

After a season in which Czarnik moved from playing meager minutes at the University of Michigan to a key role with Plymouth of the OHL, the young center entered this season with expectations that he would take over Tyler Seguin‘s (BOS) role as the team’s go-to player, and did not disappoint. In 61 games, he finished tied for the team lead in points with 77 and showed good chemistry with draft-eligible prospect Stefan Noesen.

Czarnik has been dominant at times with Plymouth, displaying high-end offensive skill and a mean streak in bursts, but he has some issues with inconsistency, in particular with his willingness to compete along the boards and play in traffic. Still, his ability with the puck combined with a rapidly developing two-way game makes him an intriguing prospect that could be a good fit on the Kings’ third line down the road.


QMJHL

Nicolas Deslauriers, D, Gatineau Olympiques
Acquired: 3rd round, 84th overall, 2009

One of the most explosive defensemen in junior hockey, Deslauriers would likely be a household name amongst hockey fans by now were it not for the unfortunate timing of knee injury immediately prior to the Canada’s WJC camp. Despite his lack of exposure on the international level, it’s difficult to discount the impact he’s made in the QMJHL. After an off-season trade sent him to Gatineau, he stepped into the lineup and took over as the team’s top defenseman, posting 43 points in 48 regular season games.

More importantly, he has taken his game to the next level in the Q playoffs, totaling 17 points in 19 games and playing sound all-around hockey. His Olympiques are facing off against Saint John, who appears to be unstoppable in its quest for a Memorial Cup berth.

Deslauriers is on pace to step into the Monarchs lineup next year and take on a major role as a two-way defenseman with puck-rushing ability, but finds himself stuck behind similar defensemen in the system, such as Slava Voynov, Thomas Hickey, and David Kolomatis. The Kings will need to do some shuffling over the summer, but there’s no doubt they’ll be trying to fit the rapidly improving defenseman with sky high upside into their plans.


Jean-Francois Berube, G, Montreal Juniors
Acquired: 4th round, 95th overall, 2009

Lost in the Kings goaltending shuffle is Jean-Francois Berube, who despite sitting behind four quality prospects in the system is establishing himself as a potential NHL player. Berube played in 50 games for Montreal this year, finishing ranked in the top six amongst goaltenders in goals-against-average (2.60), save percentage (.902), wins (32), and shutouts (3).

Playing a similar positionally sound butterfly style as that of current Kings prospect and QMJHL alum Jonathan Bernier, Berube is eligible to make the jump to the professional ranks next season, but will likely have to play his trade at the ECHL level before earning a better opportunity. His upside is somewhere between that of a NHL starter and backup, but it’s difficult to project goaltenders without first giving them a long look at the professional level.