Small collegiate prospect pool signals philosophical shift for Los Angeles

By Andrew Knoll
Photo: Defenseman Derek Forbort is one of the few high draft picks representing the Kings at the collegiate level. (Photo courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn/Icon SMI)

The Kings' farm system has been thinned rapidly via graduations, trades, and a shift from stockpiling to readily dealing draft picks and assets. Their holdings at the collegiate level are somewhat limited, although they include a pair of the organization's more promising prospects. Overseas, they have just two players, one of whom may be extremely unlikely to return to the organization. Still, the Kings have plucked some outstanding players recently from both talent pools, such as European trained Anze Kopitar and Slava Voynov as well as former collegian Jonathan Quick.

Michael Mersch, LW, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2011


Mersch has emerged as a rather intriguing prospect for the Kings. After seizing a larger role than many anticipated as a freshman, his game blossomed as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. He posted 30 points in 37 games and he led Wisconsin forwards in goals with 14. Mersch has developed into a legitimate power forward prospect, working hard with a skating instructor, a strength coach and a whole staff of Wisconsin assistants to complete his game.

Like many successful prospects, Mersch's rise has not only been rapid but steady. His commitment to improvement has been apparent from day one. He has not only gotten stronger and more willing to go to the dirty areas, but more effective in using his body to protect the puck, make plays and wear down opponents. Mersch's finesse and gangly frame impressed recruiters but his transition into a player that is tough to play against impressed the Kings. Thus far, their investment has appreciated quickly with Mersch becoming one of the players to watch in the L.A. organization.

Joel Lowry, C/W, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, 2011

Lowry, a second-generation aspiring pro, has established himself quickly at Cornell. He notched 22 points in 35 games and stayed true to his commitment to defense, which was a major reason he opted for Cornell over a career in the WHL like that of his brother Adam. Lowry projects as a sound defensive forward, a grinder with enough offensive ability to be considered a strong two-way player. While he may not ascend any career leaderboards, he has the pedigree and focus to have a long, successful career in the NHL.

Though he will need to fill out a projectable frame, he already has better strength than most of his peers and the drive to utilize it. Lowry works effectively along the boards and wins most puck battles. He goes hard to the net and has the hands to do something with the puck once he finds it in front. Defensively, he is an aggressive forechecker and a strong backchecker, showing a real commitment to the details of the game.

Derek Forbort, D, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (WCHA)
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, 2010

Forbort sustained some injuries this season at inopportune times as back issues considerably limited his participation in Kings rookie camp before a separate injury ended his World Junior tournament prematurely. That did not, however, curb Forbort's development, who continued to gain confidence throughout his game. He has added some nastiness to his defensive game and became more effective in one-on-one battles. Offensively, he has shown greater willingness to join the rush, pinch, and otherwise demonstrate the certainty in his reads to take some prudent risks. He remains more of a puck-mover than a carrier, but he has used his mobility a bit more and refined his decision-making.

That said, Forbort's production decreased this season and physically he remains a project. Tall and lanky, one can imagine Forbort filling out marvelously but it not yet happened. He has gained some strength and a little bit of weight, but he will need to push hard to reach his physical potential. The Kings front office continues to be high on Forbort but they have also taken a very patient approach and acknowledged needs for improvement, particularly in his physique. Fluid and agile with a long reach, Forbort persists as a promising project with a fairly steep learning curve and distant ETA.

Nick Shore, C/W, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 82nd overall, 2011

Thrust into a variety of roles and positions by injuries and instability in the Denver lineup, Shore has flourished under fire this season. He has continued to develop a complete game, using his stick masterfully at both ends of the ice. Shore has an uncommon level of hockey intelligence and poise for his age, capable of dangling, passing, shooting and buying time for teammates. He has also remained committed to the defensive game, seldom cheating to leak out of the zone and sealing lanes with his body as well as his active stick. His brother Drew, a Panthers prospect, also plays at Denver, and another Shore, Quentin, finished his second year with the U.S. Developmental Team and will be eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft.

Shore plays in traffic effectively due to his high level of competitiveness, solid pound-for-pound strength, nimble hands, and tenacity. He has begun to shoot the puck more often, adding another dimension to an offensive game that was already strong both in transition and while sustaining offensive pressure. A promising two-way prospect, Shore could challenge for one of the Kings' center spots behind cornerstones Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards when his college career ends.

Nic Dowd, C, St. Cloud Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 198th overall, 2009

Dowd has incrementally increased both his responsibility and production over two seasons at St. Cloud State. He went from five goals last season to 11 this year and played a bit more disciplined game as his minutes extended. Dowd still has some sandpaper to his game and he has also shown a willingness to sacrifice his body. He projects as an energetic player who can microwave a game, heating it up quickly with a frenetic shift.

Still, Dowd remains largely undefined in terms of both his game and his body. He will likely take the tempered route of many collegians, exhausting his eligibility and then heading for the minor pro ranks. At this point, it may be difficult to put a clear prognosis on Dowd's career but he should see his role expand progressively at the NCAA level as he feels his way along his developmental path.

Kevin Gravel, D, St. Cloud Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, 2010

Gravel sits in a system deep with defense, so he will likely continued to spend time with St. Cloud State with teammate Dowd. Gravel is another tall, wiry defender with solid mobility, above average positioning and more offensive ability than his numbers would indicate. He displays respectable acceleration and solid discipline, generally opting to use his long reach and active stick over taking the bodies of opponents.

At this point, Gravel is another player who needs to fill out both his physique and his skill set. Improving his strength, becoming more physical, refining his reads, and increasing his offensive confidence are all on Gravel's to-do list. The Kings have gravitated toward high-upside defensive prospects. The trend has been difficult to evaluate. On one hand, the Kings have the defensive depth at the top level and throughout the organization to develop projects. On the other, it may not be the ideal use of resources to develop long-term players when there are few noteworthy spots to fill on the blue line.

Europe

Bud Holloway, LW/RW, Skelleftea (SEL)
Drafted 3rd round, 86th overall, 2006

Holloway and Oscar Moller each faced tough decisions this past summer, as they each had one year remaining left on entry-level deals with the Kings and uncertain futures with the organization. They both opted for contracts with Skelleftea of Sweden's top men's league, the Eliteserien. Both players have prospered there, particularly Holloway who recorded 49 points in 55 games to lead the team in goals, assists, and points.

Meanwhile he was missed in Manchester where scoring, defensive consistency, leadership, and stability were all precious commodities. Holloway had led the Monarchs in scoring during both the regular season and postseason in 2010-11 and was a plus player who operated in all situations. While it remains unlikely that Holloway returns to the Kings at any level of the organization, his last two campaigns have certainly attracted attention. Thriving in two very different settings, Holloway's future is less one of questions than one of options as he proved himself to be an excellent AHLer in North America before showing potential for a lucrative pro career in Europe.

Maxim Kitsyn, W, Novokuznetsk Metallurg (KHL)
Drafted 6th round, 158th overall, 2010

Kitsyn earned more ice time in Russia this season but the results were just as puzzlingly poor as they were last season. Non-existent on offense, Kitsyn was also a minus machine with consistency issues. At times, the forward has appeared smooth, strong, and effortless, but in his KHL career he has more often seemed labored, lost, and listless.

Even so, his sojourn to North American ice to play against his peers in the OHL last season was much more successful. He jumped onto a powerhouse Mississauga team, where he immediately became a regular on the scoresheet, posting 19 points in 20 playoff games after a truncated OHL regular season for the Russian.

Kitsyn remains an intriguing prospect and perhaps even more fascinating are his capricious swings between success and failure. He could be a well-rounded forward with plenty of scoring touch or he may become another enigma. His real proving ground may be the AHL, where the Kings likely hope to stash him at the first possible opportunity.