Recent Los Angeles Kings drafts have steered away from players of the CHL and instead have leaned heavily on the college and European ranks. As a result, the Kings have only five prospects playing in major juniors, one of whom recently left Europe to play in North America.
The Kings do not have a sure-fire elite prospect developing in juniors, but do have several intriguing prospects that, given the time to straighten out the rough edges of their game, have the right potential to eventually join the NHL.
This review begins with a pair of scoring wingers from the Western Hockey League. Konstantin Pushkarev is a small and offensively gifted right wing from Kazakhstan. Drafted out of Russia in 2003, Pushkarev was viewed as diamond in the rough toiling away in the lower leagues of Russia without much of an opportunity to compete against stiff competition. Faced with another year of little or no playing time in the Russian Super League, Pushkarev made the decision to leave Europe for instant playing time with Calgary of the WHL.
Immediately slotted into the second line for the Hitmen, Pushkarev gained extensive experience alongside such highly talented teammates as Ryan Getzlaf (ANA) and Andrew Ladd (CAR). His 52 points in 69 games is a respectable total for a 19-year-old rookie in major juniors. Pushkarev showed glimpses of top scoring ability, but often showed an unwillingness to part with the puck, forcing himself into difficult situations up-ice for both he and his teammates. Pushkarev is filled with all the energy and explosiveness of youth. But he must also learn to recognize game situations and choose the right spots for pressing the puck and just getting the puck deep. This lesson will be learned with experience on the smaller North American rinks.
While Pushkarev received his first taste of the WHL, Ned Lukacevic completed his third season with Spokane. At 19 years of age, Lukacevic is still very young for someone with three seasons under his belt. However, the rest of the Spokane team is just as young as the Kings left winger and the Chiefs would endure inconsistencies in route to another season out of the playoffs. At times, Spokane would score six goals in a win only to go on a stretch of several games scoring one or no goals. Lukacevic experienced similar swings in production with several high scoring games followed by long stretches of scoreless streaks.
Lukacevic finished the season tied for third in scoring for Spokane. His 46 points is an improvement over the previous year, but his goals production leveled off. Lukacevic would experience a career game with three goals and three assists in a 7-4 win over Portland. Indicative of his ability to play in any situation, two of his goals would be scored shorthanded while also netting one on the power play.
Sidney Crosby has been termed everything from “the Next One” to “the Savior of Hockey” while leading Rimouski to the QMJHL championship title. Eric Neilson has been entrusted with the role of personal on-ice bodyguard for the young phenom. With only 26 points on the season, Neilson would at first glance appear out of place skating on a line with the offensive production of Crosby (168) and MA Pouliot (114). But Neilson is the type of skater that will stand-up for his teammates no matter the personal sacrifice. It is this type of play that makes him an invaluable addition to even the most talented lines.
Jumping out to a relatively quick start with 16 points in his first 31 games, Neilson flashed some ability to contribute to the extremely talented top line. But Neilson will never be confused for a sniper and quickly settled back into his role, ultimately finishing with 157 penalty minutes and a reputation for fearless physical play. His playoff drive would be temporarily interrupted with a three-game suspension for incidents involving the opposing goaltender and a defenseman.
Two Ontario Hockey League goaltenders round out the Kings quintet – Ryan Munce and Daniel Taylor. Ryan Munce was the mainstay in net for Sarnia, but couldn’t finish his major junior eligibility quick enough. As one of the few relatively bright spots this year, Sarnia’s ship would sink to a dismal 16-41-6-5 record behind one of the worst offensive and defensive teams in the league. Facing an average of 35 shots on goal per game, Munce took blow after blow from the opposition but would not break en route to posting a respectable .909 save percentage. However, when forced to turn away that volume of shots, Munce’s goals-against average ballooned to a career worst 3.17. In three seasons with Sarnia, Munce routinely was near the top of the league in shots against per game. Upon the conclusion of Sarnia’s season, Munce immediately signed with the Manchester Monarchs but did not see any action.
There are two ways to look at Munce’s production in Sarnia these past couple of seasons. Often, facing as many as 50 shots per night can be overwhelming for a developing goaltender and foster a feeling of frustration, leading to inconsistency. Alternatively, it is often beneficial to face as many shots as possible at the lower levels of hockey to gain experience in on-ice situations. As Munce begins his AHL career, he is at a point where he must show that he has learned from his experiences in Sarnia as the Kings organization continues their search for an elite goaltending prospect.
Drafted in the seventh round of the 2004 Entry Draft, Daniel Taylor was said to be a diamond in the rough, stuck behind a more experienced starter. Taylor continued to put up exceptional numbers as the back-up in Guelph, making the mid-season trade of starter Adam Dennis to London easy to bear. With the incumbent in another uniform, Taylor assumed shared starting duties with Ryan MacDonald.
Surpassing his rookie totals from the 2003-04 season in games played (31), goals-against average (2.64), save percentage (.911) and shutouts (2), Taylor quickly became the “go-to” goaltender for Guelph from October through January. In that four-month stretch, Taylor posted an 11-8-3 record with a goals-against average of 2.24 and a save percentage of .922. With Adam Dennis out of the picture and Ryan MacDonald completing his juniors eligibility, Daniel Taylor is poised to take over fulltime starting duties in Guelph during the 2005-06 season and enjoy a breakout season.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.