AHL affiliate for Los Angeles Kings loaded with NHL-ready talent

By Josh Deitell
Photo: Andrei Loktionov will be expected to compete for a regular NHL roster spot in the 2011-12 season. (Photo courtesy of www.russianprospects.com)


A solid season which saw the Manchester Monarchs make the playoffs for the ninth time in ten years ended on a sour note as the team lost a hard-fought seven-game series in overtime to the Binghamton Senators during the first round. Still, the campaign was a successful one in many regards, with players such as Dwight King and Brandon Kozun having breakout years, Martin Jones and Jeff Zatkoff filling in admirably for stud goaltender Jonathan Bernier, and youngsters such as Brayden Schenn, Tyler Toffoli, and Jordan Weal getting their first taste of AHL action. Having lost to Hershey in the conference finals in two of the last five seasons, the team’s goal entering next year will remain the same, despite the lingering, disheartening playoff loss: championship or bust.

Forward

Andrei Loktionov, C, 20

After separating his right shoulder in his first NHL game last season, Loktionov looked to be taking a step forward towards cementing his place in the Kings’ top six this campaign before an injury to his left shoulder that required surgery cut his year short.

With the Kings, he posted seven points in 19 games despite never quite finding a niche on a particular line at his natural position of center. In 34 AHL games he posted 31 points and was the most consistent producer on the Monarchs’ roster. He will enter next season looking to lock down an offensive role with the big club, though with a glut of veteran forwards on the roster, Brayden Schenn poised to assume a major role up the middle, and the Kings’ expressed desire to keep Loktionov at center, he has to put on some size this summer and stay healthy in order to maintain his high standing in the organization.


Justin Azevedo, C, 23

After two injury-riddled seasons, Azevedo was finally able to prove that he can perform over the course of a full professional campaign, cementing his status as a go-to offensive player for the Monarchs’. He was the top scoring center on the team, posting 53 points in a team-high 79 games.

Despite his slightness of build, a solid start to next season may earn Azevedo a cup of coffee at the NHL level, being that he’s clearly paid his dues in giving three years of professional hockey to the Kings organization to date. With just one year left on his entry-level deal, it’s do-or-die time for Azevedo, who may find himself looking for a new team this time next year, largely because of the Kings’ depth up the middle and his lack of versatility.

Corey Elkins, C, 26

Though he’s one of the elder statesmen on the Monarchs roster, Elkins is coming off just his second year of professional hockey. A late bloomer in college, Elkins posted solid totals of 21 goals and 43 points in 73 games as an AHL rookie in 2009-10 and put up similar numbers this past season, scoring 18 goals and totaling 44 points in 76 contests.

A two-way center by trade, Elkins is on the Kings shortlist for players capable of assuming a bottom six role, but the breakout of Trevor Lewis in seizing the fourth-line center role greatly hampers Elkins’ chances of locking up a full-time spot next season.

Marc-Andre Cliche, C, 24

Cliche finds himself in a similar situation to that of Elkins, particularly being that he’s now entering his fifth professional season. Totaling just 212 games played in his first four years with the Monarchs, Cliché has struggled with injuries, but brings a hard-working attitude that earned him the captain’s C this past season. He posted totals of 14 goals and 35 points in 63 games but despite his dependable play, did not do much to separate himself from his peers.

At 24 years old and poised for restricted free-agency after signing a one-year deal last summer, Cliche will be looking for an opportunity to crack an NHL roster and may not be able to do so in Los Angeles. He appears ready to assume a bottom-six role in which he can utilize his penalty killing acumen and speed.

Dwight King, LW, 21

Of all the players who had the opportunity to play on the Kings’ first line this past season alongside Anze Kopitar, King was probably the worst fit, but considering he was playing two tiers below the NHL to start the 2009-10 season, it speaks volumes about how far he’s come in his development. After posting 35 points split between 72 games with Ontario of the ECHL and Manchester of the AHL, King broke out this season with 24 goals and 52 points in 72 games, good for third in team scoring.

His size and checking ability combined with his rapidly developing offensive game make him an intriguing prospect. He is primed to ascend to the NHL as soon as a hole opens in the bottom-six on the left side, which could occur as soon as next season with the possible departure of impending free-agent Alexei Ponikarovsky.


David Meckler, LW, 23

After a hot start to the season during which Meckler posted nine points in his first ten games and appeared on his way towards a breakout, he cooled off substantially and ended up posting 16 goals and 33 points in 75 games, numbers more in line with previous seasons. The mucky goal scorer has had trouble finding his touch at the AHL level, failing to break the 20-goal mark for the third straight season since notching 23 as an AHL rookie.

With his contract expiring this summer and possessing four professional seasons under his belt, Meckler does not appear poised to break onto the Kings roster any time soon and may be forced to look elsewhere for the opportunity to play major minutes at the AHL level, much less get an NHL shot.

Ray Kaunisto, LW, 24

One of the many late bloomers that the Kings have taken fliers on as free-agent pickups, Kaunisto premiered in the AHL last year coming off a breakout college season and though he didn’t set the world on fire with the Monarchs, he was an important cog in the team’s bottom-six, posting 14 points in 57 games and bringing a consistent physical element to his game.

Kaunisto will return next season looking to establish himself offensively but with the Monarchs poised to welcome a variety of talented newcomers for next season may have trouble finding an opportunity to do so. He’ll need to keep illustrating the same work ethic and take advantage of whatever chances he gets in order to move up in the lineup.

Richard Clune, LW, 24

After seemingly securing a roster spot at the conclusion of the 2009-10 season, Clune was surprisingly waived at the beginning of this past season and spent the entire campaign with the Monarchs. Playing mostly in an agitator role, Clune managed eight goals and 22 points to go along with a team-leading 222 penalty minutes.

He may not be the most disciplined or productive player, but Clune’s sandpaper style of play is one for which many teams in the league have created a niche on their roster. If he can learn to better control himself emotionally and avoid the same type of injuries as the one he suffered during the Kings’ playoff series in Vancouver in 2009-10, when he seriously injured his shoulder in a scrap, he could feasibly carve out a successful career as a depth player, starting as soon as next season.

Bud Holloway, RW, 23

Having just completed his second straight season as the Monarchs’ top scorer, Holloway is making it difficult for the Kings to justify not giving him a cup of coffee to date. He led the team with 28 goals and 61 points in 78 games and had another solid playoff performance in which he accumulated 11 points in seven games.

Though Holloway is a bit of a niche player, possessing neither elite offensive skill nor defensive acumen, his well-rounded game is suited to a depth role and it’s hard to imagine him staying out of the NHL for long with the AHL success he’s had. His contract expires in about a month’s time, but the Kings would be remiss to let him go.

Brandon Kozun, RW, 21

Though his first professional season was not without its speed bumps, Kozun successfully transitioned his game to the AHL to the tune of 23 goals and 48 points in 73 games, good for eighth best amongst league rookies. Playing largely in a second line role with ample powerplay time, Kozun was the only first year player on the roster to finish in the top 15 on the Monarchs in scoring.

With the Kings looking for scoring help on the wings and Kozun developing well, it would not be far-fetched to expect him to get a crack with the Kings next season, though he’s likely at least another year away from landing a full-time role. For now, he’ll be looked upon to be a go-to offensive performer on a team that has not boasted an 80-point scorer since 2008.

Jordan Nolan, RW, 21

Nolan understood his role for the Monarchs this year and performed it well. Utilizing his 6’3, 217 lb frame, Nolan accumulated 10 fighting majors and 115 penalty minutes to go with 17 points in 75 games. More importantly, he was a physical presence that the team was able to roll consistently.

Still a very raw player, Nolan has room for improvement at both ends of the rink, though in order to advance he’ll have to stick to the same style of play that has gotten him this far. He looks to have the makings of a new wave enforcer who can take a regular shift on the fourth line and drop the gloves when necessary.


Defensemen

Slava Voynov, D, 21

Save for Drew Doughty, there’s no defenseman in the Kings organization with the same offensive upside as Voynov. The 21-year-old blueliner finished the year with 51 points in 76 games, good for seventh in league scoring amongst defensemen. His plus-21 rating was tops on the Monarchs and a drastic improvement from the minus-three he accumulated in his first two years with the team.

Still, Voynov’s all-around game is not quite up to snuff, as represented by the organization’s unwillingness to rush him into NHL action, having entirely held him back from the Kings roster to date. The emergence of Alec Martinez as a capable secondary offensive contributor will make it a little more difficult for Voynov to get minutes, but now seems like a sensible time to give the young Russian his first exposure.

David Kolomatis, D, 22

After a successful rookie campaign in which Kolomatis posted 29 points in 76 games, he entered this season with the expectation that he would continue to contribute from the blue line and performed his role admirably. Though he played mostly as a third-pairing defenseman at even strength, he was an integral part of the team’s powerplay and contributed 28 points in 70 games, second only to Voynov amongst Monarchs defensemen.

Kolomatis’ ability on the man advantage somewhat makes up for his defensive deficiencies, but it remains to be seen whether can handle playing heavier minutes at even strength at the AHL level, much less dealing with NHL talent. Should Voynov be ticketed for LA, Kolomatis would be one of the players tabbed to replace his contribution.

Thomas Hickey, D, 22

Having lost most of the 2009-10 season to injury, that Hickey suited up for 77 games for the Monarchs this past year was an important step forward in his development. It’s expected that he’ll produce more than the 24 points he totaled this past season, but more importantly his defensive game has shown steady improvement with each passing professional game.

Hickey is still in a recovery phase, working to get his play back to the level that attracted the Kings attention in his draft year. He’ll be the recipient of increased responsibility next season both as a penalty kill and powerplay option and may be in line for his first crack at the NHL, though he won’t be gifted the opportunity.

Patrick Mullen, D, 25

A dependable depth option for the Monarchs this past season, Mullen found himself a healthy scratch on multiple occasions but was a contributor when he did play, totaling 20 points in 67 games. A jack-of-all-trades of sorts, Mullen has been able to fill a variety of roles for Manchester, including temporarily moving to forward, but has been unable to carve out a major role.

With his contract due to expire this summer, the Kings will be forced to decide whether the 25-year-old defenseman is in their future plans. He’s proven himself an AHL option but has not shown flashes of a higher ceiling.

Jake Muzzin, D, 22

One of the biggest surprises in training camp, Muzzin made the Kings’ opening day roster and stuck for 11 games before being sent to Manchester for the rest of the season. With the Monarchs, he totaled 18 points in 45 games and posted a very healthy plus-20 rating. He was utilized in a variety of roles, mainly focusing on employing his grit and size in defensive situations and his cannon of a slapshot to create offense.

Muzzin is somewhat enigmatic as a prospect, as he’s both safe and steady but also illustrates some questionable decision making from time to time. Aside from the occasional lapses, which will undoubtedly become less frequent as he gets more experience under his belt, Muzzin is close to being NHL ready.

Andrew Campbell, D, 23

The only defensive defenseman left on a roster that has become overwrought with two-way options, Campbell had a good season for Manchester as a steadying presence. Despite the blunders, which he has slowly but surely worked to remove from his game, Campbell was often on the ice in the final minutes of games and employed heavily in penalty kill situations. He posted 12 points in 76 games but more impressive is his plus-12 rating, having entered this season with a career minus-31 in his first two professional seasons.

With players such as Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene occupying the shutdown roles at the NHL level, Campbell will be hard-pressed to get an opportunity to lace them up with the Kings.

Goaltending

Martin Jones, 21

Jones’ season was one with peaks and valleys. He started the season on an absolute tear, seizing the starting job and boasting a 12-2-0 record through December and earning the right to play in the AHL All-Star Game, but ultimately had some struggles down the stretch and finished the year by going 11-10-1 in his last 22 starts. In total, he posted a 23-12-1 record with a 2.25 goals against average and .924 save percentage.

Jones will get another crack at the Monarchs’ starting gig next year and will be looking to perform consistently over the course of an entire season. Signed as a free agent, Jones appears to have been a shrewd acquisition.

Jeff Zatkoff, 23

Jonathan Bernier‘s departure was supposed to represent an opportunity for Zatkoff to seize the starter’s role with the Monarchs, but the beginning of the season saw him outplayed by the younger Jones and relegated to riding the pine much of the time. Jones’ struggles opened the door for Zatkoff to prove himself able to recover from his weak start, and he did just that. A month of March in which he posted a 1.55 goals against average, .949 save percentage, and two shutouts earned him a majority of the team’s starts in the playoffs.

Jones’ inconsistency may have earned Zatkoff a new contract this summer, but with the abundance of goaltending prospects in the organization, the former Miami Redhawk who has been unable to cement himself as an AHL starter needs to put together a solid stretch of play to be considered as having a legitimate NHL future.

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