The Los Angeles Kings were placed in the unenviable position this season of having to rely upon various rookie players to maintain their position in the standings and make a push for the playoffs. A team that sets the NHL record for most man-games lost to injury must locate a source of warm bodies to replace those who have fallen or find yourself looking up from the bottom of the standings. Fortunately General Manager Dave Taylor had set the organization on a path of draft and develop several years ago from which quality replacements could be found.
Due to the loss of numerous integral contributors from the past season, Dustin Brown, Esa Pirnes and Tim Gleason each made the NHL roster straight out of training camp. Not much was expected, but when the injuries began to hit, their respective roles stepped up from complements to contributors. However, even the most talented rookie prospects cannot stop the type of hemorrhaging the Kings faced this season. The long absences of players like Ziggy Palffy, Aaron Miller, and Martin Straka forced the team to draw upon its wealth of talent showcasing in Manchester. Over the duration of the season, Scott Barney, Tomas Zizka, Martin Strbak, Noah Clarke, Denis Grebeshkov, and Mathieu Chouinard each experienced the thrill of a phone call from the Los Angeles Kings requesting their services.
Dustin Brown, RW (Age 19)
Brown was the first of three forwards drafted by the Kings in the first round of the 2003 draft. Forgoing his junior eligibility, Brown impressed the organization early at the annual prospects camp and during training camp. He had proved the OHL was no match for him and the decision was made to keep him on the NHL roster so that he can learn first-hand the rigors and sacrifices necessary to stay. His role was never to provide an instant scoring punch – in fact explicitly being limited to about 50 games, often drawing comparisons to the way Joe Thorton’s development was handled by the Boston Bruins. An early ankle injury and other nagging injuries as the season progressed would frustrate the organization’s plans for Brown. He would ultimately appear in only 31 games. More importantly, Brown was a mainstay at team practices, soaking up all the lessons of the professional hockey life and developing arguably the most important skill of them all – his solid work ethic.
Milestones: 1st point – an assist November 5th against Florida. 1st goal – November 22nd against Colorado. 1st multi-point game – still waiting.
Esa Pirnes, C (Age 27)
Esa Pirnes was selected in the sixth round of the 2003 draft as an overager out of Finland. Another to have made the NHL roster straight out of his draft class, Pirnes’ energy and skating ability were ideal characteristics for centering the fourth line. He will forever be known for being awarded a penalty shot in two consecutive games in his second and third games of his career – the fastest a player would receive two penalty shots in the history of the NHL. However, he would skate away empty handed on both. Neither could Pirnes escape the injury bug plaguing the Kings. A concussion would keep him out of the lineup for nearly six weeks and limit him to 57 games for the season. Returning in mid-January, Pirnes reasserted himself on the fourth line where he would finish out the remainder of the season.
Milestones: 1st point – an assist November 5th against Florida. 1st goal – January 24th against Anaheim. 1st multi-point game – April 4th against San Jose.
Tim Gleason, D (Age 21)
The last of the three prospects to make the opening day roster, Tim Gleason made his mark early. Gleason was acquired in a trade deadline deal in March of 2002 from Ottawa for Brian Smolinski. Immediately stepping into the defensive rotation, Gleason often looked to be the best defenseman on the ice and, with the exception of Lubomir Visnovsky, played arguably the best hockey amongst the Kings defensive corps early. Sent down after 20 games, not as a result of his play but because he would not need to clear waivers as the Kings began to activate their regulars from the injured list. He would spend a second brief stint in Manchester before finally being called up for the remainder of the season on February 13th. It is often said that defense is the most difficult position to learn how to play at the NHL level. If this is true, one would be hard-pressed to say it about Gleason. Although his high level of play early in the season was not sustained, he never appeared over-matched or out of place against grizzled veterans. His unspectacular +1 is at least respectable considering his level of experience.
Milestones: 1st point – an assist October 12th against Chicago. 1st goal – still waiting. 1st multi-point game – still waiting.
Scott Barney, RW (Age 25)
Scott Barney’s ascent into an NHL regular has been an arduous and inspiring tale. A long time sufferer from an extremely painful alignment problem in his back, Barney missed three complete years of hockey in pursuit of relief. Through it all, Barney never gave up on his dream of playing in the NHL and the Kings never gave up on him. They would fly Barney across the globe seeing several specialists in hopes that one treatment would work. Eventually, Barney found his relief in various exercises specifically designed to alleviate the pain in the alignment. As the pain subsided, he laced back up the skates and resurrected his climb to the top of the hockey ladder, seeing a brief five game call-up during the 2002-03 season.
A mid-season injury to Martin Straka provided the opportunity for Barney to see the most significant playing time of his career. Inserted into the top line, he would prove to be up to the challenge by scoring seven points in his first nine games. A concussion would deprive him of a month of playing time, but he would return showing no ill effects of the injury. Barney is a testament to the philosophy that hard work and perseverance will always eventually overcome.
Milestone: 1st point – a goal in his first game, January 14th against Minnesota. 1st multi-point game – January 29th against Colorado.
Tomas Zizka, D (Age 24)
Tomas Zizka was a sixth round choice in the 1998 draft out of the Czech Republic. After posting excellent numbers in two seasons with Manchester, Zizka received his first NHL action during the 2002-03 season. He managed to find his way into only 10 games during that season before being returned to Manchester. Promoted to Los Angeles once again in October of 2003 as a replacement for injured Mattias Norstrom, seeing ice time in two games before being sent back to the AHL. He would rack up the frequent flyer miles before a February injury to Lubomir Visnovksy would necessitate his staying in Los Angeles. He notched five points in 11 games before Visnovksy’s return would push him out of the rotation and back to Manchester.
Milestones: 1st point – an assist last season. 1st goal – February 15th against New Jersey. 1st multi-point game – still waiting.
Rookies playing few games
Denis Grebeshkov, D (Age 20)
Ranked No. 1 amongst Kings prospects by Hockey’s Future, the much anticipated arrival of Denis Grebeshkov in Los Angeles was temporarily derailed by a wrist injury that would require surgery. After impressing during prospect and training camps, he began the season in Manchester adjusting to the North American style of game, but missed nearly six weeks from the December 1st wrist injury. Once thoroughly acclimated to his new surroundings, Grebeshkov would heed the call to service in Los Angeles. He appeared in only four games in late February and early March.
Noah Clarke, RW (Age 24)
The local boy from La Verne, Noah Clarke would get a brief two game stint in mid-December. Clarke describing his call-up, “I had about a half hour to get ready, so it was like panic-nervous. What do I take? What do I bring?” He brought enough to make an immediate contribution with an assist in his first game.
Mathieu Chouinard, G (Age 24)
When Roman Cechmanek went down with a chest injury, Mathieu Chouinard earned himself a cup of coffee with the big club, literally. In the lone game he appeared in this season, he was on the ice for a total of only three minutes – the average time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Facing only two shots, he masterfully turned away each.
Martin Strbak, D (Age 29)
A 1993 draft pick out of the Czech Republic, Martin Strbak started the first 12 games of the season in Manchester. Later called up to Los Angeles, he would not need to unpack his bags after being dealt to Pittsburgh just five games later in the deal that yielded Martin Straka. Strbak will always remember that he netted his first two career goals in a Kings uniform.