Al Murray is in his 11th season as the Los Angeles Kings Director of Amateur Scouting. Hockey’s Future recently spoke with him by phone to get his take on the Kings 2004 Entry Draft and recent happenings with other prospects.
HF: There were rumors the Kings were trying to trade up to get Al Montoya. Were those rumors accurate?
AM: There were a lot of rumors at the draft, many of them untrue, that people had us already trading for the third and fourth overall pick. I know Dave Taylor talked to Doug (MacLean, GM of the Blue Jackets) about acquiring the fourth overall pick. I also know he talked to other teams who wanted to move from the back up to the front and acquire the 11th pick from us. As far as I know nothing really got close. There was always a lot of talk, I think a lot of people had us pegged as having to have Montoya. Al Montoya is a very good player, but he was one of seven players that we felt were at the top of the draft, and Lauri Tukonen was also one of one of those players. So the way we did our homework, we were pretty sure one of those seven were going to fall to us. We were very happy to have Lauri Tukonen, as we would have been happy to have Al Montoya.
HF: How shocked was everyone at the Kings table that Tukonen was there at No. 11. Most of the draft publications had him going third, fourth or fifth overall.
AM: Not shocked. We were certain one of the seven were going to be there. We had certain information that certain guys were going to be picked up higher. But he was never one of the guys that we really expected to be there. There were a couple of the other guys that we thought would fall to us before he did. It only takes one surprising pick, and the Wheeler pick was obviously sort of out of the blue. That was a real surprise, and then some other team’s guy is still there and before you know it a good player like a Dustin Brown falls to us. In this year it was Lauri Tukonen falling to us.
HF: Since you mentioned Wheeler, where was he on the Kings draft board?
AM: I can’t tell you exactly where, but we felt he was a legitimate first round draft pick. We felt that he had upside similar to Brian Boyle. A guy who played high school hockey, never really challenged could sort of do what he wants. But when you look at the size, the skating package, and the hands you hope that there’s a player that could become an elite player for you. We felt that since we had three picks last year, it was a reasonable thing to take Brian with one of those picks and we hope he continues to develop. He had a huge step this year going from high school hockey to Division I in a really elite program with Boston College. You are not going to play all the time when you take a step like that until you to adapt and really make your move. We expect next year will be a significant improvement for him. Wheeler is a similar situation, but he’s going back to high school for another year where he’s going to have to play Tier 2 before he can go on to college, so he’s got an even longer development curve. We are surprised he went that high, but definitely not surprised that someone in the first round liked him.
HF: Tell us about Lauri Tukonen.
AM: Lauri is what some guys like to refer to as a three-zone player. He plays the offensive zone, he’s very aggressive in the neutral zone and he works his tail off defensively as well. He is going to be a real asset to our team in a lot of ways. He’s big and strong and plays a very similar style to a Dustin Brown or Adam Deadmarsh, where he is working the corners and working very hard defensively in addition to having good offensive skills. He was apparently the youngest player in the draft and the youngest player in the Finnish Elite League last year. He was on a primary role with their World Junior team on the top two lines and was the go-to guy on the big line for them on the Under 18 championships and led the Under 18 in scoring. We think he has a terrific upside with and without the puck. He’s one of those guys that can play any of the wing positions on the first, second or third line.
HF: There were one or two reports that he was ready to play in the NHL. Going into training camp, is he going to have shot to make the team or is he going to play in Finland again next year?
AM: I think it is really premature to expect him to play for the Kings this year. We’re happy with his development to this point. He is going to play in the men’s league this year. Ari Vuori our Finnish Scout, has talked to the Espoo people before the draft. They expect Lauri to play on our of their top 2 lines next year and he is going to be a major part of their team this upcoming season. That is a good development situation for him at his age, to play regularly in the Finnish Men’s league and to play another World Juniors. We don’t feel the need to rush him over to play in Los Angeles.
HF: The Kings selected Paul Baier in the third round. I read on the Kings website that one of your scouts had coached him in a summer tournament.
AM: Yes, Brian Putnam does some coaching in some of those summer tournaments with USA Amateur Hockey and that allows him to get to know some of the kids a little better. He enjoys that and it give us a little more inside information. Paul is a large kid he is 6’3” and over 200 pounds. He plays a combination type of a game he is not a big point producer but he can put up some numbers. He’s not a real crusher but he does play physical. At this time we project him as a real solid fifth /sixth defenseman who may have upside to play in our top 4. He’s got size and strength and we think he’s got a really nice package that could develop in the future as he goes through college and moves on.
HF: One draft guy compared Paul Baier to Rob Blake is that an accurate comparison or way off?
AM: Way off. Rob Blake is a pretty special player. The only similarities are that they are over 6’3” both shoot right and both play defense.
HF: Moving into Day 2 of the draft, what can you tell us about Ned Lukacevic?
AM: Ned played in Spokane on a team that underachieved this year. He’s on of those guys, Mike Green was in a similar situation, that probably don’t get as much respect. Ned has good size, very good speed and top end offensive skills. Parry Shockey our Western Scout was very very high on him, he feels that he has tremendous upside. Once Ned’s team matures, he will mature along with the team and be one of the go to guys. People will be very impressed with him. With his speed, puckhandling ability and the ability to score. I think he will catch everyone’s eye at camp. He style of play is similar to Noah Clarke.
HF: It looks like you added some toughness to the prospect pool with fifth round pick Eric Neilson.
AM: Eric plays for Rimouski in the Quebec league. He has been one of the tougher players in that league for a few years now. We drafted him as a 19-year-old. He is sort of a bodyguard for Sidney Crosby and Marc-Antoine Pouliot. They’ve got a highly skilled team in Rimouski and Eric does a lot of the dirty work for those guys. If anyone takes exception and goes after one of their better players, he’s the first guy to step in. Plus he skates well enough and has enough skill that he can play with those two on a line. He is similar to a Kip Brennan, he isn’t as big as Kip but very similar. When we traded Kip, we had the need for some more toughness in the organization. We still have Ryan Flinn and a few other guys, but when you get the chance to take the right guy you take him. And we felt Eric is that guy.
HF: You mentioned earlier about how playing for a weaker team can hurt your draft position. Is that the case with sixth round pick Scott Parse? I know he’s not from the strongest program, but I read he that he set UNO’s all time scoring record as a freshman. Looks like you found a diamond in the rough.
AM: We think so. We saw him more than other teams because we have Mike Gabinet and Joel Andresen in that program. We were watching those players and so we had a scout at every one of their games. Scott was one of those players that always caught our eye. He’s one of those guys that scouts love. One of the statements scouts make is “Don’t make me come find you.” You catch my eye, you find me and show me that you are a good player. Scott does that for us. How good he is going to be, and how much he is going to continue to improve, we don’t know. That program is having some struggles right now but he is one of the better players in that program, and he will get a lot of opportunity to improve.
HF: Tell us about your first seventh round pick John Curry.
AM: John is a big kid, has some skills, plays physical, skates well, but doesn’t do it consistently. He is going to an excellent program, we are always trying to find good kids and good players in good programs. You always hope that guys are going to top development situations and he is with Minnesota Duluth. The Duluth coaches have seen very similar things to what we have. He’s got tremendous talent and individual skills, but he doesn’t always show up and compete as hard as he needs to take advantage of those skills. He does have to mature and become more consistent, but he does have some very interesting raw materials.
HF: And how about the other seventh round pick, goaltender Daniel Taylor.
AM: Danny was one of two goalies with the Guelph team this year. Guelph won the Ontario Hockey League championship. Danny was the backup for the whole season. One of our scouts John Stanton saw him play the year before in Tier 2 in the Ottawa area then he went onto to Guelph. We know the coach in Guelph very well and he feels he’s got big upside. The hope is for us now is that either he can take over the No. 1 job and they trade the older goalkeeper or they trade him to a team looking for a No. 1. We need him to get some more ice time, but that’s something outside of his control, other than to continue to play well and hope the team can get some other assets back for a goalie and he can start for another hockey team.
HF: Was he in a similar situation to recent Kings acquisition Mathieu Garon before the trade?
AM: That is a very good comparison.
HF: In the eighth round you took a goaltender from Japan, Yutaka Fukufuji. How did that pick come about?
AM: He played with the Japanese Men’s league. Glen Williamson, who is one of our Pro Scouts was also the Head Coach of the Japanese National Team. Glen has been pushing Yutaka on us for a couple of years now and this year he really went out of his way to tell us that he felt “this was the guy”. He thinks he can play right away in the East Coast League, possibly in the American Hockey League and can have the upside to be an NHL goalkeeper. We certainly had inside information from Glen. Glen is a big believer in him and went out of his way from Dave Taylor to Bill O’Flaherty to Andy Murray and myself to make a real point in lobbying for him. And certainly Glen has seen enough pro hockey bring one of our pro scouts that we trust his opinion. So at that point in the draft it seemed like a reasonable gamble. We’re the only team that I know of that ever took a goalie from France and that turned out pretty good for us, so hopefully the Japanese situation turns out just as well.
HF: The last pick of the day was ninth rounder Valtteri Tenkanen, what can you tell us about him?
AM: Valtteri is a center/left wing. He plays in Finland in the Elite league. He plays with a lot of energy, has good speed, some skill. He played on the World Junior team for the Finnish National Junior team this year. He’s one of those guys that has some tools, he’s in a good development situation where we don’t have to worry him and hurry him and we’ll just see how he turns out.
HF: The Kings traded their final pick No. 271 to Columbus for their eighth rounder in 2005. Did you make the trade because it was a better pick in a stronger draft or were the players you were hoping to pick already gone?
AM: There were another one or two players that we could have taken, but they were longshots. We feel that next year’s draft will be stronger. We’ll have two eighths next year and that could give us some extra options, like trading our two eighths and get a seventh next year. Accumulating more assets gives us more flexibility.
HF: How will the 2005 draft compare to 2003? Can we expect the Kings to try to stockpile picks again?
AM: We’ve talked to Dave Taylor, he understands that it is a strong draft. Every trade comes on different merits. Sometimes you need a player, sometimes you don’t need a player and you can wait and acquire picks. It won’t be a situation where we consciously go after a lot of picks, but should that trade come along and we have a choice between a player that you are OK with and a pick that you’d like in a strong draft, sometimes you go the way of the pick. Every situation is different and I don’t know that you can really have a plan to go that way until the trade deadline. As far as the strength of the draft, 2003 is going to stand out to me as a really elite one. 2005 has more strength and depth than 2004, which had Ovechkin and Malkin and then was seven deep. Next year there is the one superstar in Sidney Crosby and then it’s about 20 deep, as far as really good players. There is a lot more depth in the first round of what we consider to be top end talent.
HF: Konstantin Pushkarev was just selected in the CHL import draft. Is he coming over the North America?
AM: There are some plans in the works. The Russian League changed their rules last year. Konstantin left Kazakhstan and went to Omsk under the impression that there was going to have to be three young players in the lineup every game. Very early in the season the
Russian teams complained to the league that they couldn’t find enough young talent to make it a viable rule, so the league changed it. Konstantin ended up getting dumped from the lineup and wound up with the men’s second team for most of the season. With the potential lockout and Omsk being one of the big money teams, they want to win the championship every year. They did win the Russian championship last year. And they indicated he may not be able to work his way back into the men’s league again this year. So his agent was pro-active and got involved in the major junior draft and Calgary selected him. They are in the process of talking to Konstantin and his agent trying to get him coming over. At this point, I would be very happy to see him come over and play with Calgary. The Hitmen are going to be one of the elite teams next year. I think he could have a whale of a season. He should be star at the junior hockey level.
HF: When we can we expect Jens Karlsson to come to North America, is he going to come to prospects camp this year? Also I heard his agent is trying to get a deal done before the CBA expires to get the rookie maximum.
AM: We have been chatting about contracts, but I don’t think anything got close, and that is one of the problems, as much time as you have to wait on Europeans to let them develop. There are certain guys like a Jens that would be better off being in Manchester for a year and getting used to North American hockey. However, because he is not ready to step in and play a major role, you are reluctant to pay the money at this time knowing that he is still getting development in his own country. They want the big signing bonuses up front, they want all the cash when you sign first round guys and there is just no need for us to pay that at this time for a guy who is not ready to play in the NHL. So we can be patient with Jens, he’s hopefully going to move onto a more prominent role with his team this year. Every year they play him a lot in the playoffs when the grinding starts and the checking gets tighter, even in Sweden that’s the case, but during the regular season he’s had a tough time getting ice time. This year is hopefully the big breakout year for Jens, he should get regular ice time and put up better numbers and as the whole CBA thing gets sorted, out and all of the teams get ready for the post collective bargaining agreement era then we hope Jens is going to be a real big part of our team.
HF: Do Finnish youngsters have the same problem Jens does with lack of ice time or is that something unique to Sweden?
AM: It’s much more unique to Sweden. The Finns tend to play their guys a lot. The Russians will play the good kids a lot, the Czechs are kind of hit and miss although Olesz and Smid played a lot last year of the Czech men’s team, but the Swedes seem very reluctant to play the young players. Of all of the countries it is the most difficult for the young guys to get ice time.
HF: Last month we signed a free agent goalie prospects named Barry Brust from the Wild organization. Brust wasn’t signed by the deadline, what did the Kings see in Brust that the Wild didn’t?
AM: Minnesota had two goalies they had to sign this year, they had Josh Harding and Barry Brust. You can only have so many players at a given position. Josh Harding had a tremendous season and was player of the year. Josh is an elite goaltender, but we felt Barry Brust had a terrific season. He was drafted by Minnesota coming off an excellent year. Last year he had a poor year, didn’t get a contract so he came back to player as an overage. We felt he stepped up, and we were very pleased that he was available. He’s huge, he’s a big goalie, fills the net and he’s improved his quickness, positioning is one of his strengths and he’s an excellent puckhandler. We have a lot of confidence and faith that Barry can become a good NHL goalkeeper. He was one of the top goalkeepers in juniors along with Harding and Ward. We were lucky Minnesota wasn’t able to sign everybody this year.
HF: Can you expect all of the 2004 draftees to be at prospects camp this year?
AM: All of our draftees indicated they would be there on draft day. A couple of them like Paul Baier were already making plans to be there. I will tell you that if everything works out there will be a couple of surprises at camp this year. I can’t give you names because they aren’t guaranteed to be there.
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