The ‘Next Wave’ is cresting in Manchester

By David A. Rainer

There might be some prospects that are more explosive, some that are more physical and some that are better skaters. But Noah Clarke, Petr Kanko, Greg Hogeboom and Denis Grebeshkov constitute a second wave of highly talented prospects that are shinning in Manchester, the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, and nearly ready to take their places on the Kings NHL roster. Being at similar stages in their development, they might advance through the organization together as a group and add to the foundational stone of youth begun with the likes of Alexander Frolov, Dustin Brown, Scott Barney and Tim Gleason.

Often, championship teams are built from a solid core of drafted prospects that the organization nurtures, develops and grows. Cores like Sakic, Forsberg, Hejduk, Tanguay and Drury for Colorado. Or Yzerman, Lidstrom, Fedorov and Kozlov for Detroit. For Kings fans, there is a solid core of youth developing right before our eyes and anyone following the Manchester Monarchs has a front row seat of the future for Los Angeles.

The Manchester Monarchs have jumped out to a 7-0-0-0 start for the first time in their short history on the strength of an excellent offense, a shut-down defense and a pair of red-hot goaltenders.

“As a goalie, you always hope for those five or six goals,” Adam Hauser, one of the two hot goaltenders, said after the October 23rd Monarchs game held at Staples. “We’re putting up the offense right now and we’re playing well enough defensively that things are working out for us.”

Even in a league packed with top prospects due to the work stoppage, the Monarchs are making waves. The already established talent of Dustin Brown, Mike Cammelleri and Tim Gleason, which has spent parts of the last two seasons in Los Angeles, constitute the first wave of youth for the organization. However, immediately behind this first wave is another set of top talent waiting to add to the core. This second wave is anchored by Clarke, Kanko, Grebeshkov and Hogeboom and is one of the main reasons why Manchester is sitting atop the American Hockey League.

Noah Clarke is the oldest of the group at 25 years of age, but he’s only one season out of college, where he finished his senior season leading the nation in assists.

Asked about Clarke’s role with the team, Manchester coach Bruce Boudreau said “We want him to continue to improve. You can see out there that he has definite talent and he’s playing with a lot more confidence.”

Clarke stepped off of the campus of Colorado College and into the role of an All-Star for Manchester last season, showing little sign of needing to adapt to a new league slowly, which is sometimes the case for college hockey players. His steady play and lightning quick speed are just a couple of reasons why he likely will be the next prospect to get a longer look at the NHL level.

The talk of the 2002 Prospect Camp where he teamed up with fellow Kings’ prospect Brady Murray on a potent scoring line, Kanko is playing in first full season in the AHL this year. But don’t expect Kanko to take a back seat to other seasoned veterans on the roster.

“Petr Kanko is going to be a really good player,” said Coach Boudreau. “He plays with passion and compassion. He’s very strong for his size. When he learns a little bit how to play without the puck in his own zone, which is very common with young players, he’s going to be a very good player.”

Kanko built off of his momentum from the 2002 Prospect Camp and impressed during training camp one month later, just missing making the NHL team as an 18-year-old. Instead, he was sent back to the OHL to finish out his eligibility the next two seasons. Kanko is already playing at a high level even though he has yet to play more than 10 games in the AHL. Kanko might have already been playing in the NHL if not for the great prospect depth currently in the organization. Smoothing out those rough edges to his game that might have barred him from playing in the NHL the last two years is something that will eventually come with time and practice.

Greg Hogeboom is yet another college prospect that, after completing his full four years of eligibility, enters the AHL at a high level of development. After completing one of the most explosive careers at Miami, Hogeboom signed a contract with Los Angeles and brought his well-rounded game to Manchester to finish the 2003-04 season. He only found his way into a handful of games, but it is only a matter of time before Hogeboom asserts himself as one of the best players on the ice as he did with Miami.

When asked about the progress of Hogeboom, Boudreau preached patience.

“He’s a young player who’s going to learn as the season goes on. He’s a guy that by next year might be the second line right winger. It’s a big adaptation for some guys to move from the college game and we’ve got a lot of players who are fairly good that he can learn from. It’s a situation where he’ll not play as much as other guys in the beginning, but he’ll learn and move up.”

Hogeboom likely will need the most amount of additional development out of the four prospects and will have plenty of time to do this during the current work stoppage. By the time the puck is again dropped in NHL rinks across the continent, expect to see him ready with his eyes on the NHL.

While Clarke and Hogeboom were dominating college hockey, and Kanko was winning the Memorial Cup with Kitchener, Denis Grebeshkov was learning to play the blueline against ex-NHL stars and veteran European players in the Russian Super League. Recognized as the best hockey league outside of North America, the RSL proved to be a great classroom for Grebeshkov as he developed into one of the league’s best shut-down defensemen and was rewarded with three U20 WJC appearances and a score of other tournament appearances. Grebeshkov signed a contract with Los Angeles and immediately moved his game to North America to prepare for his eventual accent into the NHL. An injury would limit his playing time in 2003-04, but he would eventually get his feet wet in Los Angeles with a brief midseason call-up.

“This team being more of an offensive team than we’ve had in the past is helping him a lot,” Boudreau said of Grebeshkov. “He makes some passes that people can’t believe. Great vision, great eye-sight. He’s got some nuances that he’ll definitely have to work on. but he’s developing.”

Grebeshkov proved to be an invaluable addition to the Manchester roster, and after a full season in North America, is poised to take on a top role with the Monarchs and possibly stick with Los Angeles full-time should an injury to one of their defensemen occur.

Each of these four prospects are at the top of their game in the AHL and ready to take the next step in their development. In preparation for this expected next step, all four players participated in the 2004 Pacific Division Rookie Tournament in September. From former first round picks like Ryan Getzlaf, Lukas Kaspar and Keith Ballard to emerging success stories like Curtis Glencross and Roman Tomanek, some of the best prospects in the Pacific Division were pitted against each other in a four game tournament for nothing more than bragging rights. For Clarke, Kanko and Grebeshkov, 2004 would be their second appearance in the competition.

How important is participating in this contest? Three stars for the Kings from last year’s tournament – Dustin Brown, Scott Barney and Tim Gleason – each were renowned for their play in the tournament and went on to have tremendous rookie seasons in Los Angeles. While success in the tournament does not guarantee a successful rookie season, it can often be a great indicator. A player that is good enough to stand out at such a high level of competition is often talented enough to start battling for ice time in the NHL.

And stand out this new wave did. At all times during the tournament, eyes were securely focused on each of these prospects in anticipation of what was to come next. Even after losing the final game of the tournament, no one could deny what the four had done. With timely goals and fierce competitiveness, each asserted themselves as four of the best players of the tournament and clearly ready to compete at any level.

Just when an NHL roster spot will be available still remains a question. With the current work stoppage, the natural next step for each has been temporarily placed out of reach. But while the Los Angeles fans will be denied the excitement of youth, Manchester Monarch fans will be the direct beneficiaries, as each will be plying his trade in the AHL for as long as the stoppage continues.

When a new collective bargaining agreement is hammered out, these four prospects will be the foundational stone on which a Kings dynasty in the new economic environment can be built. Irrespective of precisely what the new CBA brings, it will likely be more restrictive on salaries. With restrictions on payroll, expensive veteran talent will likely be pushed out the door in favor of the cheaper and more efficient talent found in the farm system. The Kings have already witnessed the benefits of their deep system in the form of Alexander Frolov, Dustin Brown and others. Taken in conjunction with these four prospects that are waiting for their opportunity, the Kings will be well stocked with young talent for whatever the new economic system brings and might find themselves a step ahead of others who did not have the foresight to build from within.

It has been a very long time since the organization has had this much promise from their home-grown talent and at a high enough level to be a legitimate option. Quite possibly, not since the magical Stanley Cup Finals season of 1992-93 has there been this much talented youth amassed on the NHL roster and at the door-step. That season witnessed a young Rob Blake team up with rookies Alexei Zhitnik, Darryl Sydor and Robert Lang to provide the depth that would motor the team into the finals. Los Angeles might witness a similar phenomenon in the next couple of seasons as their wealth of prospects mature and grow together as a group, as they develop into the core of the future while in Manchester.

When Dave Taylor took over as General Manger for the Los Angeles Kings, a new philosophy of draft and develop from within was installed. The first wave of talent resulting from this philosophy has already reached Los Angeles with varying degrees of success over the past two seasons. Just behind it, the second wave stands knocking on the door from Manchester waiting for the NHL season to start. Fate has thrust them into a single group. Together, they will develop. Together, they will take their rookie lumps. And together, they will be the future of the Los Angeles Kings.

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