Mid-season Q&A with Al Murray

By John Logue

Al Murray is in his 11th season as Director of Amateur Scouting for the Los Angeles Kings and is directly responsible for the club’s amateur scouting operation, including scheduling, assignments, evaluation of talent and development of the final list of players leading up to the annual NHL Entry Draft. Hockey’s Future spoke to Murray earlier this week to get an update on some of the Kings prospects.

HF: 1999 second round pick Andrei Shefer is a name Kings fans haven’t heard for a long time. One of the last blurbs about him had him playing defense instead of forward and then back to being a forward again. How has he been progressing?

AM: I haven’t seen him myself for a couple of years, but all the reports from our scouts in Russia and from Ari Vuori, our European Scout who has seen him play, is that he has pretty much settled back now as a defenseman. When he used to come over to North America for tournaments, he was often a fourth line player. Sometimes, Russian teams will keep four forwards and an extra D but they actually play the forward on defense. They did that often with Andrei. From what I hear he is playing well on defense. He is turning 24 this year and I think the general public writes guys off a lot faster than hockey people do and more and more we are seeing guys enter the NHL at 25 and 26. This happened with guys like Philippe Boucher, Sean O’Donnell and Jaroslav Modry. All three of them never started playing regularly and making an impact until they were 25 and 26. Every team has those kinds of guys.

Andrei is still a developing guy. We didn’t draft Lubomir Visnovsky until he was 24 and there have been other European late bloomers who weren’t even drafted until they were in their mid 20’s. We’ve still got lots of time with Andrei and that’s one of the beauties of having Europeans in your system.

HF: Is it safe to assume he’d be more of an offensive defenseman that a stay at home defensive defenseman since he was drafted as a forward?

AM: He plays a really solid positional game, is a really good passer and has a very nice first pass. But he really doesn’t join the rush — he isn’t a power play quarterback or anything. He’s not a tremendously physical guy, he’s a 6’1 guy who will make a good first pass and play well positionally. He isn’t going to be a thumper like a Timmy Gleason or put up big numbers like Grebeshkov will. He’ll be a support guy in a fifth or sixth defenseman role if he makes it. He’s a good skater, very smart, very well positioned. He’s not a dynamic player, but the kind of guy who will help you win because he doesn’t make mistakes and will play some good minutes for you.

HF: Jens Karlsson went down to the second tier of the Swedish league and was almost a point a game player before going back up to the Elite League. Did getting significant ice time boost his confidence and make him start to think harder about playing in North America?

AM: Jens has always realized he could play. Jens doesn’t lack confidence. He’s not a cocky guy, but he has confidence in his own ability to play. When he gets the opportunity he’s put up fairly good numbers. He’s not a dynamic offensive player who will weave around. He’s a straight line guy who plays physical and is good in the corners and in front of the net. When he went down to the second division, he got a lot of ice time and he produced. Now he’s back up with the Elite team in Frolunda. Grant Sonier from our staff is over there this week for the tournaments and he happened to see Jens play. He said his skating still needs some work, but Jens plays a very responsible game. He was on the third line, he got regular ice time, and has some scoring chances. He still has grit, still plays hard, and is still a legitimate prospect for us.

When you look at Jens, he’s turning 23 this year and his development in the Swedish league, especially with his team, has been slow. We’d love to have him come over from Europe, but we run into those battles with agents. The agent says since he’s a first round pick they want a lot of money but there is no reason for us to give him lots of money when he hasn’t proven he deserves to be paid large signing bonuses to come over here and continue to develop. At a certain point, we hope the lure of trying to make the NHL and the large compensation that comes with making the NHL, will get him to come over at a reasonable salary and play in the American Hockey League. Those things haven’t happened yet.

HF: 2004 eighth round pick Yutaka Fukufuji has taken over the No. 1 goalie job in Bakersfield and is really starting to earn some recognition. You mentioned in the past that Fukufuji was recommended by Kings scout Glen Williamson. Is Glen looking like a genius right now?

AM: We’ll certainly trust him on his next scouting report. He has come through for us on this one. I have still never seen him play in person. Everything I have heard from Andy Nowicki (Kings Goaltending Consultant), Bob Bartlett (Director of Player Personnel for Bakersfield) Kevin Gilmore and Dave Taylor is that he still has a ways to go. He still needs to improve his strength and consistency and he still has some technical things to work on, but he keeps getting better all the time. He is a great kid with a great attitude who is working as hard as he possibly can to eventually become an NHL goalie and is getting better. Those things are all very positive for us. He’s not that old, he is going to turn 23 this year and was a huge step for him to come from Japan and play in the ECHL. It sounds to me like he is moving towards an American League job next year if he keeps improving.

HF: Konstantin Pushkarev seems to be adapting very well to North America. He is all over the score sheets. How does the organization view him and can we expect to see him in Manchester next year?

AM: I would expect he would be in Manchester next year. He signed with our team with an NHL contract. He is playing this year as a 19-year-old and each Major Junior team is only allowed to carry three overagers and generally if you have a player that is continuing to develop you want him moving on to the next level as opposed to playing as an overager. I would think that Konstantin would have a really good chance of playing on our American League team next year. He needs to get stronger, that’s his biggest weakness right now. He is still very thin, still immature physically. He has very good skills and he has adapted well to North America. Going to Calgary has been a very good move for him, seeing how the North American style is played on a decent team and get a lot of ice time. I’d be surprised if he didn’t make Manchester. But since he has only been in the CHL for one year, if he is not ready for Manchester it won’t hurt him to play a second year back in Calgary. But if I were to guess I would expect him to be in Manchester next year. I have had scouts from other teams, Phoenix and Detroit in particular, tell me that Konstantin will be the best player we selected in 2003.

HF: The lockout has given the organization some extra time to develop and evaluate David Steckel. Most of the reports I hear from Manchester of David are glowing. Has the organizations view of him improved?

AM: I have heard a lot of good things about David as well. He was a point a game guy in the East Coast league. He hasn’t been able to score that way up in the American League, but he has worked really hard. He’s taken on more of a defensive role. There are some nights where he is contributing offensively and he is a real force when he is in on the forecheck. He still needs skating and strength development, but I don’t think he is a write-off. He has made a big step from where we had him at the start of the year and that is a real credit to him that he has come back and done that.

So many times, not just our team, but hockey people in general and I know fans in particular are too quick to write a guy off. I wish guys got better every day too, but they don’t. They get better, they get worse, they go up, they down. They get a year where they look like they are going to be world beaters and the next year they come back for training camp and they’re horrible and it takes them until Christmas to get going. Nobody seems to know why. A lot of it is self-motivation, or lack of it, or lack of physical preparation sometimes. Dave has a real opportunity. It was almost the end of his hockey career and he’s grabbed this opportunity and he is showing us that he wants to be a hockey player. It’s nice to see, it’s encouraging to see, but he’s still got a ways to go.

HF: Under the expired CBA, the Kings would receive a compensation pick for not signing Steckel to an NHL contract. Since he was signed to an AHL contract are the Kings still entitled to the draft pick?

AM: No one knows what the new rules are going to be. Under the old rules, if you didn’t sign a college player who you drafted in the first round you would receive a pick in the same position the player was drafted, but in the second round. If we didn’t sign Dave under the old rules, even though he did sign with Manchester, we would get the 30th pick in the second round. Who knows what is going to happen under the new rules — that rule may still be in effect and it may not. And I don’t know what our stance is going to be as far as signing him. That is determined by Bill O’Flaherty, Kevin Gilmore and Dave Taylor. There are a lot of things still up in the air. We are very happy that David took the opportunity to sign the two-way contact with Manchester and Reading and show us what he could really do and give us a chance to get to know him better. I wish I could give you more answers, but no one really knows what the new labor agreement is going to bring.

HF: Has Mathieu Garon been everything you thought he would be or has he exceeded you expectations?

AM: He has been every bit what we thought he would be. If you look at the statistics, he is in the top three of GAA and save percentage and he is tied for the league lead in shutouts. People shouldn’t underestimate what he has brought to the team in Manchester. We have a lot of solid contributors down there, but a big, big part of their success has been having caliber goaltending in Manchester that can save you the games when you need them saved. Adam Hauser has done a terrific job as well. But I think Mathieu has given everyone tremendous confidence down there. When you have good goaltending, players aren’t afraid to push forward and try to score more goals. We lead the AHL in goals per game by a wide margin. A big part of that is the forwards having faith in their back end that they can go up and take a few chances and if need be the goaltenders will make the saves.

HF: You mentioned Adam Hauser, he’s had an incredible last couple of years since signing with Manchester and the Kings. Was he a victim of a log-jam of goalies in Edmonton, or did the Kings see something in him that Edmonton didn’t?

AM: I think he didn’t play that well. He was another guy who was drafted and went to college and was very inconsistent all through college. If I had been asked about signing him when he was coming out of college I would have said “No, there is no reason to sign him.” He worked his way through the minor leagues and whether he did a David Steckel or George Parros and re-dedicated himself to hockey, I don’t know. But I know since he has come to Manchester he has played well above anyone’s expectations. He’s been terrific.

HF: If the NHL does introduce a shootout, will it change your drafting philosophy at all?

AM: Unless Dave Taylor changes his strategy, we will continue to go with the best player available. That’s what we have done the last few years and that’s been Dave’s philosophy and we do what the boss wants and I think it’s a pretty good plan.

HF: How about an update on Lauri Tukonen. I know he is on a bad team, how is he developing?

AM: Yes, he is on a bad team that has struggled, so quite often the young guys suffer. The team will go with older players hoping the older guys will pull them out of the doldrums. Lauri is moving forward. He is getting more ice time than he was last year. We just look for guys to get a little bit better and sometimes they get a lot better. He’s getting more ice time in a really good league. He’s scoring more points and he’s becoming more confident all the time. Their World Junior team played well below expectations. I don’t know if there was a player on that team you could say played really well. Lauri was in fits and spurts a good player and an average player. To say we’re really happy with his progress would not be true. But when we look at all of the guys drafted around him I don’t know that anyone has taken huge steps this year. We still view him as a really top prospect. We are very glad to have him in our organization. He is progressing at a normal pace.

HF: Prior to getting injured, Yanick Lehoux was really on a tear. Was he doing anything different this year?

AM: Eric Belanger and Yanick Lehoux have taken similar career paths. Both were high scoring perimeter guys in the Quebec Junior League. They got away with a lot of shortcuts there but struggled their first two years of pro hockey because they didn’t want to change their game. From what I’ve heard, Yanick still isn’t going to win any Selke trophies but he’s made progress in that area. The biggest improvement is that he’s gained more confidence and as a result, scoring. This year he came in and put up some really big numbers and scored highlight goals. So you can put up with some defensive deficiencies. Eric Belanger went the other way and became a much more dedicated defensive player to the point where he can play a lot of different roles on a team. It took both of them a couple of years to adapt from the Quebec League. We were very happy with Yanick’s season until he got hurt. We hope he comes back next year with the same drive and that he puts up the same numbers.

HF: Assuming he does come back next year with the same drive, how far away from the NHL do you think he is?

AM: That’s a difficult question for me. I don’t see him play that often and I rely on reports from other people. We’re entering into a whole new area as far as salary caps. We don’t know who is going to be cut loose by other teams and free agency. There will be a lot more juggling of budgets than ever before. I don’t know how he is going to fit into the new plans. It’ll be a little bit up in the air. We did sign Craig Conroy, Derek Armstrong is having another solid year overseas, and we have Sean Avery. There is a decision to be made about whether Mike Cammalleri is a winger or a center. There are a lot of things to consider. We could win the lottery and end up with Sidney Crosby. There are too many variables to predict where Yanick may fit in. We’ll have to see what rules we are playing under and who’s available when the new agreement is settled.

HF: So far Brian Boyle has had a much better sophomore season than his freshman year. Is he developing the way the organization expected him to and how is the development different for the larger players than the smaller guys?

AM: I think it’s a lot easier to get your coordination as a smaller guy. I think you see that in minor hockey a lot. The small guy gets his coordination and the bigger guy still has to fill out and learn how to handle that big body, and it takes him longer. When you have a player in Brian’s situation who chose to stay in his high school league, which is not a very good level of development, where you are going to pick up some bad habits, and be able to take some shortcuts that he can’t get away with when he plays with better players, it’s going to take him that much longer.

We were very happy that he went to Boston College. Their coach Jerry York is a long time college coach who has been very successful. We knew that Brian was going to have to earn all of his ice time. We weren’t happy with the fact that he got sat out as much as he did last year, but we knew that he wasn’t playing well enough to get the ice time. This year, he’s moved at various times between the first, second and fourth line and a lot of that has to do with whether he’s working hard enough or not. He has gotten regular time on the No. 1 power play unit, which is the reason he is getting more points. If you look at all of the good scorers in all the good leagues, they get power play time. It’s not a big surprise to us that Brian is moving forward and developing and we hope it continues. We know that he is going to have to work and earn everything he gets.

All of our scouts are reporting that he is consistently working harder, he’s consistently more physical, he’s gotten more strength and balance in his legs and doesn’t get knocked over as easily. We want him to continue to play grittier and continue to add offense to his game. We’re happy with his play and development. We’re still confident that we have a guy with tremendous upside. But there is no lock that any of these young players are going to be able to step into the NHL and play. But we certainly thought he had a better than average chance or we wouldn’t have taken him in the first round. And we knew he was a long-term project. Very few players are impact players before they are 24.

HF: Matt Ryan was signed as a free agent this offseason after a tryout at prospects camp. What is the organization’s view of him?

AM: We were very happy to get Matt. Matt is one of those junior players that you watch play and catches your eye every game. He’s not the biggest, strongest, or fastest guy in world. But he competes, he is a smart player and he is driven to be a player. You can’t have 20 of those guys, but if you see a player like Matt, you’d like to get him in your organization. Whether he’s got an NHL future will depend on him, but he’s one of those honest, hard-working guys that you love to have around because he makes everybody more accountable. Matt might go onto to be a quality veteran in Manchester or maybe he keeps going and becomes an NHL player. Either way, he’s a great guy to have in the organization.

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