The LA Kings started the 1998-99 season amid optimism for a breakout season. The backbone of that potential was what then-coach Larry Robinson called “one of the best defensive corps in the NHL.” While that may have been an overstatement, the fact remained that the Kings were deep at defense. A year later, Robinson is gone, as well as the deep defensive corps. Steve Duchesne was a bust, Garry Galley’s effort has been called into question, Doug Bodger has been told to seek employment elsewhere and promising young defenseman Aki Berg is no closer to signing with the club. Add to that the fact that Matthieu Biron, the club’s top pick last year, was sent to the Island in the Ziggy Pallfy trade, and we’re looking at some major depletion here… The Kings still have solid NHL defensemen in Rob Blake, Mattias Norstrom and an improving Sean O’Donnell, but still lack depth. Phillippe Boucher, Jaroslav Modry and Garry Galley round out the experienced defensemen on the NHL roster. The result is that one or two of the following players will need to make the club this season, and the other young defensemen in the system will need to mature quickly.
GM Dave Taylor eased some of the need by signing draft pick Jere Karalahti during the off-season. Karalahti brings huge potential and some serious baggage. ESPN has reported that Karalahti has dealt with a Heroin addiction, but is ready to play in the NHL. Karalahti’s success is vital to the Kings as he appears to be among the only young Kings defenseman ready to play in the NHL . The good news for the Kings is that what they lack in NHL ready D-Men, they more than make up for in big, young, promising defensemen.
Here is the rundown of the Kings top defensive prospects:
Aki Berg- The 23 year-old Berg’s holdout is becoming a concern for the Kings. After taking his lumps as an 18 and 19 year old in the NHL, Berg was starting to show the skills that made him the third overall pick in 1995. While is offensive game had been slow to develop, Berg threw some punishing checks and began to use his ample size (6’3″, 205) and developed a mean streak. By the end of the 1997-98 season, Berg was seeking out contact on the ice. This followed him overseas last season, where Berg put three opposing players out of action with his powerful checks. While a holdout last season did not hurt as much, the Kings need to pony up for Berg now, or risk losing him to Europe for another season. The Kings have actually been offering Berg a lower salary than he was making in his previous contract, and Berg has refused a pay cut. The club maintains that the pay cut is misleading because a signing bonus caused the larger salary in the final year of his first contract. Either way, the Kings NEED to get Berg back on the team this season if they plan on going anywhere.
Jan Nemecek- Nemecek played a few games in for the Kings last season and showed some promise. Nemecek has a nice offensive game, but was frequently turned around by big forwards, but did show improvement as the season went on. Nemecek is 6’1″, but is a stocky 215 and being only 23, he’s still learning the physical demands of playing defense in the NHL. If he learns to use his size more, as he began to last year, Nemecek can be a solid NHL defenseman.
Frantisek Kaberle- Kaberle is a bit older (25), but comes off a season where he was voted the most valuable defenseman in the Swedish Elite League. He will be given the opportunity to contribute this season. Kaberle is 6’1″ and 185 pounds and is the brother of Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle.
Sean Blanchard- The 21 year old defenseman spent the season in the ECHL with Mississippi. Blanchard is considered an offensive defenseman. While the Kings have moved to bigger defensemen, Blanchard has shown that he is a solid two-way player. He was 3rd on his team with a +14 rating. The question mark appears to be his size- he is 5’11 and 198 pounds.
Kip Brennan- Kip Brennan’s arrival will be eagerly anticipated by the Kings’ brass. While his skills are solid, Brennan’s strength is the physical game. The 19 year old defenseman is considered the best fighter in the organization. Brennan can give the Kings the muscle on the blue line that they have lacked since Marty McSorely’s departure. Kip did have 21 points in 38 games, but was a -4 during the regular season. The lack of depth at defensemen may keep Brennan at Defense for a few years, but his future is most likely at forward in the NHL.
Jason Crain- Jason Crain was the Kings’ 3rd round draft pick in 99. This big 19 year old comes in as a highly regarded collegian, just as Rob Blake did in the late 80′s. This American born blueliner has the size (6’3″ 190 lbs.) to contribute sooner than later. Crain is a gifted passer who has tremendous offensive upside.
Richard Seely- Seely is another big young defenseman (6’3″, 206- 20 yrs. old) from the 1997 draft. Seely had an impressive season for the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, with 10 goals and 48 assists in 61 games. He added 110 PIM’s and was a +34. Seely is among the top defensemen in the organization.
Peter Hogan- Hogan is a tall, lanky defenseman who has now played four years of minor league hockey. The 21 year old is 6’3″ but only 183 pounds. Hogan has shown a nice passing touch and has worked on increasing the physical aspect of his game. He will need to beef up before appearing in the NHL.
Joe Rullier- Rullier is a nasty 19 year old who uses all of his 6’3″ 202 pound frame. Rullier racked up 202 PIM’s last season while with Rimouski of the QMJHL. Joe sometimes sacrifices sound defensive decisions for contact, as evidenced by his -9 rating. He did post 30 points in 54 games and is still developing a complete game.
Tomas Ziska (6’2″, 198 lbs.)
Martin Strbak (6’3″, 198 lbs.)