Tyler Toffoli slides into lead in Los Angeles Kings’ top 20

By Josh Deitell

Tanner Pearson - Barrie Colts

Tanner Pearson parlayed a breakout OHL campaign for the Barrie Colts into a first-round selection and entry-level contract with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. (courtesy of CHL Images)

Winning the Stanley Cup is a proud moment for an the entire organization from top to bottom, but while the players, coaching staff, and upper management get much of the publicized credit, scouting and development personnel rarely get their due praise.

Many of the supporting players who suited up for the Kings during the playoffs (Dwight King, Trevor Lewis, and Jordan Nolan up front; Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez on the back end) are Lombardi-era draft picks and have gone through a long developmental process that includes personal coaching and consultation, rookie camps, training camps, and more. While the Kings roster was also comprised of a number of free agent signings and trade acquisitions, winning a championship in the current cap era is not possible without cheap homegrown talent.

No team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. It was difficult to do then, and it is even more difficult now considering the multitude of measures the league has put into place to improve parity and encourage competitiveness. The current NHL demands consistent improvement and while the pipeline has suffered as a result of trades and graduations, the Kings still boast a varied and talented group of prospects, many of whom will be looked upon to replace the older players on the roster within the next few years with the hope of extending the team’s Cup window.

1. (2) Tyler Toffoli, RW, 8.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 47th overall, 2010

When the Kings acquired Jeff Carter last spring, they got the type of player that Toffoli is on track to become. The best word to describe them both is opportunistic. With a lethal array of shots, a quick release, and pinpoint accuracy, Toffoli is a complementary player of the finest variety. Natural finishing talent is hard to come by and he possesses it in spades.

Toffoli has never been and will never be a top two-way forward or skater, but his feet and defensive awareness have improved year by year to the extent that he has morphed from a pure triggerman into a relatively well-rounded player. This will be the first year the young forward seriously challenges for a roster spot, but even should he miss the cut, he will have a great opportunity to bring some much needed flash to a Manchester Monarchs team that finished the 2011-12 season with just one 50-point scorer on the roster.

2. (3) Andrei Loktionov, C, 7.5C
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2008

Loktionov is stuck in hockey purgatory. He has proven himself as a quality two-way playmaking forward at the AHL level but has not quite been able to lock down a full-time roster spot with the NHL club. It has not been entirely his fault as the Kings have a strong forward group that is particularly deep at center, making it difficult for him to break through. With every player returning from last season’s Stanley-Cup-winning team, it does not look like things will get easier for Loktionov anytime soon.

More importantly to consider, after years of trying, the Kings have finally become a team that is tough to play against. Every player on the roster can take the body or, at the very least, play strong along the boards. Loktionov is more of a free-wheeling player that plays his best in open ice, which begs the question as to whether he is not just having trouble cracking the Kings roster for the time being, but is also a poor fit in the organization overall. He certainly has NHL talent, but it is uncertain whether he will ever break through for the Kings.

3. (NR) Tanner Pearson, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 30th overall, 2012

Based on the team’s current system, Pearson is a prototypical King. Intense, hard-working, and capable at both ends of the rink, the soft-spoken forward was passed over in the 2010 and 2011 drafts before breaking out with 37 goals and 91 points in 60 games for Barrie during the 2011-12 season, good for third in the OHL scoring race. He also posted six points in six games for Canada at the 2012 World Junior Championships.

As a skilled playmaker with exceptional hockey sense and plenty of finish, Pearson gives the Kings some top talent on the wing in the pipeline, something they have sorely lacked outside of Toffoli. As a 20-year-old, he can play in the AHL this season, which allows the Kings to fast track his development for the sake of extending their current success window. As a mostly polished prospect, Pearson is much closer to the NHL than most newly-drafted players.

4. (4) Derek Forbort, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, 2010

Next season is shaping up to be an interesting one for Forbort. Though once touted as a potential top tier two-way defender, signs point to Forbort being depended on to be more of a shutdown player for the Sioux next season. Jordan Schmaltz (STL), a highly-touted 2012 first-round pick, is joining the team and could become the go-to offensive defenseman from the onset. In addition, the team’s other puck-moving defensemen are all returning. Those hoping that Forbort will get a crack at showing his offensive skill may be out of luck.

The most frustrating thing about Forbort is that he has the build and natural ability to be one of the most dominant defensemen in college hockey. It is very possible that he will never get the chance to be that defenseman for North Dakota, in part due to the way the team structures their roster with an emphasis on depth but perhaps more so because Forbort has not shown he deserves it. He still has the potential to carve out a major role for himself even on a crowded blue line but has to prove that he has the hockey sense to play big minutes in addition to playing a more physical, assertive game.

5. (4) Jake Muzzin, D, 7.0C
Signed as a free agent in January, 2010

After starting the 2010-11 season with the Kings just months removed from OHL action, many believed that the Kings were fast-tracking the young defenseman to the NHL. When it became clear that he was not quite up to snuff at the NHL level just 11 games into the season, Muzzin was sent down to the Monarchs, where he has since played and defined himself as a quality two-way defenseman with a mean streak. Of all defensemen on Manchester’s roster, Muzzin is arguably the most NHL-ready, but he is caught in a numbers game.

The Kings have three veteran defensive defensemen on the roster in Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, and Matt Greene. Muzzin would ostensibly be taking one of their spots if ascending to the NHL, but all three are coming off a Stanley Cup win and Lombardi would certainly be remiss to shake up a blue line that has had recent success. Without top-end offensive skills, Muzzin is a long shot to win a spot otherwise. That leaves him to compete with Thomas Hickey and Davis Drewiske for the seventh spot as, unfortunately, all three would need to pass through waivers to play for the Monarchs. It is hard to imagine they will all be with the organization at the conclusion of training camp.

6. (6) Linden Vey, RW/C, 7.0C
Drafted 4th round, 96th overall, 2009

Vey was a pleasant surprise for the Monarchs last season. Coming off a year in which he led the entire CHL in scoring with 116 points in 69 games for Medicine Hat, it was understandable that Vey grew accustomed to being depended on mostly for his offense. In Manchester, where the players are held very accountable for checking and defensive-zone coverage, he was forced to improve his overall play. Growing pains notwithstanding, Vey has developed into a much more reliable three-zone player, and his offense is still coming through. Vey finished third on the Monarchs in scoring with 43 points in 74 games. He also led the team with six points in four playoff games.

Vey is on track to get a look with the Kings this upcoming season as he is likely one of the team’s first injury call-ups. Should he continue the improvement of his overall game he will be a safe bet to have success as a versatile bottom-six forward for the Kings, but there is reason to believe he has even more upside than that. Do not be surprised if he breaks out for the Monarchs this season.

7. (10) Nick Shore, C, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 82nd overall, 2011

Of all the prospects in the organization, perhaps no other had such an eye-opening season as Shore, who quietly established himself as one of college hockey’s most talented all-around forwards. After posting 18 points in 33 games as a true freshman in 2010-11, Shore exploded for 41 points in 43 games in 2011-12 while playing outstanding two-way hockey and earning just 16 penalty minutes.

With his adaptable playing style and faceoff prowess, he looks to be developing into the type of NHL player who can be iced comfortably in any situation at any position, from taking defensive zone draws with seconds left on the clock to running a power play. With three of Denver’s top five scorers (Nick’s brother Drew Shore, Jason Zucker, and Luke Salazar) moving on from the Pioneers and the other (Joey LaLeggia) a defenseman, Shore is entering the 2012-13 season as the team’s most accomplished forward and will be counted on to play as such.

8. (7) Dwight King, LW, 6.5B
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2007

Few would have thought last summer that King would not only crack the Kings roster in 2011-12 but also be an integral part of the team’s Stanley Cup run. After breaking through with 24 goals and 52 points in 72 games for the Monarchs in 2010-11, King seemed destined to spend 2011-12 further developing his game in the minors when, in early February, the Kings decided to shake up their roster. He was recalled along with Jordan Nolan to bring some size and grit to the lineup, and the rest is history.

His 14 points in 27 regular season games were impressive enough for a mid-season call-up, but he really shined in the playoffs, never looking the part of the skittish rookie. His coming out party was the series against Phoenix where he potted four goals in five games, two of them game-winners. Barring a drastic turnaround King has cemented a spot in the team’s bottom-six, likely as the team’s third line left winger for the upcoming season.

9. (8) Jordan Nolan, RW/C, 6.0B
Drafted 7th round, 186th overall, 2009

Like Dwight King, Nolan was a catalyst for the Kings’ impressive turnaround from the beginning of February onwards. Unlike King, Nolan was not a major offensive contributor, but what he lacked in touch he more than made up for in intensity. In 46 regular season and playoff games for the Kings, he racked up 94 hits and dropped the gloves three times. He mostly avoided careless penalties and was a major part of a forecheck that propelled the Kings to the Cup.

Known in juniors and the AHL as an intimidating force with a bull-in-a-china-shop style, Nolan translated his game to the NHL level with apparent ease. He showed some flashes of brilliance with the puck with the Kings down the stretch, lending credence to the idea that his offensive upside from junior hockey may well come through as well. He is rapidly developing into a 20-point, 100-penalty-minute forward that will drop the gloves with anyone, the type of bottom-six player that teams salivate over in the new NHL.

10. (12) Michael Mersch, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, 2011

Another college prospect quietly making waves, Mersch has seen consistent improvement since his draft day in nearly every facet of his game and looks to be developing into a legitimate power forward. Mersch has worked with numerous coaches over the past two years, from dedicated skating and strength coaches to the staffs of the Badgers and Kings, soaking up everything thrown his way and transforming from a raw, skilled forward to a commanding on-ice presence.

An accomplished penalty-killer who skates in Wisconsin’s top-six and sees time on the power play, Mersch plays the wing with a center’s sensibilities, shouldering a lot of responsibility every time he steps on the ice. His playing style is well suited to the pro game but it would not be surprising if the Kings let Mersch play out his last two years of eligibility with the Badgers as his ceiling continues to grow.

11. (9) Martin Jones, G, 6.5C
Signed as free agent in October, 2008

After a breakout first half in 2010-11 saw Jones take the reins as Manchester’s starter and earn a spot in the AHL All-Star Game, the young goaltender fell back to earth that spring and continued to stay there through the 2011-12 campaign. Jones plays well, he can be outstanding, but his inconsistency has become a concern. His recently departed tandem-mate Jeff Zatkoff bested him in all major statistical categories last season as Jones finished the year with an 18-17-2 record, .919 save percentage, and 2.60 goals against average in 41 games.

Jones has the talent to be an NHL goalie going forward but he will be under the microscope this year. Zatkoff’s departure for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the offseason has left Jones as the Monarchs’ incumbent starting goaltender. Outside of Jean-Francois Berube, the Kings system is bereft of contract goalies to push Jones, which begs the question as to whether the lack of competition will be something he relishes or something that diminishes his motivation.

12. (11) Christopher Gibson, G, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd round, 49th overall, 2011

The Kings surprised a bit by spending their second round selection on Gibson in 2011 instead of addressing their need for a top-end winger, but with Jonathan Bernier poised to leave the organization sometime this season it appears to have been a shrewd move. Jonathan Quick is firmly entrenched as the team’s number one goaltender but the team has to be hoping that one of the young goalies in the organization can step up into the back-up role in the near future.

Gibson took a bit of a step back this past season and looks to be years away from NHL action. Though he posted a respectable 27-17-4 record in 48 appearances, his other numbers took a dip, with his goals against average and save percentage dropping from 2.42 and .920 in 2010-11 to 2.97 and .893 in 2011-12. The talent is there to be an NHL starter but the consistency is lacking. To illustrate how hot and cold he was, consider that in Chicoutimi’s second round playoff series with Shawinigan, he gave up 22 goals in seven games. In four of those games, he let in two goals or fewer, including a 33-save shutout in a must-win game six. In each of the other three games, he let in five goals or more.

13. (13) Thomas Hickey, D, 6.5C
Drafted 1st round, 4th overall, 2007

Hickey is at a crossroads, entering his first year of waiver eligibility and competing for the seventh defenseman spot with Jake Muzzin and Davis Drewiske. It is unlikely that he would clear waivers but the Kings would be loathe to give away the former fourth overall pick for free. He is still a legitimate NHL prospect and a prototypical defenseman in the new NHL with two-way skills and upside.

Is Hickey a bust? Yes and no. It is reasonable to expect a fourth overall pick to make the NHL within five years of being drafted, but defensemen can be late-bloomers and Hickey has still shown consistent improvement, particularly in his defensive game, since turning pro at the end of the 2008-09 season. Unfortunately, the garish gaffes that have plagued Hickey as a Monarch still occur on occasion, making it difficult for the Kings to confidently usher him into the NHL. If there is anything that can be learned from Slava Voynov's ascension to the NHL it is that sometimes players perform better on the big stage, but Hickey might never get that chance with the Kings.

14. (16) Jordan Weal, C, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall, 2010

Time and time again, Weal has put up outstanding numbers in the WHL only to have them discounted because of his size. For two years running, Weal has been far and away the best forward on the Regina Pats, carrying the offensive load for the rebuilding squad. This season, there was talk that Weal would be dealt to a contender. Instead, he stayed, scored 41 goals with 75 assists in 70 games, and led the Pats to their first playoff berth since 2008. The next leading scorer on the team posted just 55 points.

More importantly for Weal than his continued junior success, he is now AHL-eligible and will finally have the chance to prove his naysayers wrong. Look for Weal to be given the opportunity to earn a substantial role with the Monarchs out of the gate, though it is unclear where exactly in the lineup he fits. In a worst-case scenario, he could go back to Regina for his overage season, where he would have a crack at climbing to the top of the club's all-time scoring lists in multiple categories.

15. (15) Nicolas Deslauriers, D, 7.0D
Drafted 3rd round, 84th overall, 2009

What a difference a year makes. In Deslauriers' case, the 2011-12 season is one he has to be itching to put behind him. After a breakout season in the QMJHL in 2010-11 in which he led Gatineau defensemen in scoring with 43 points in 48 games and led all Quebec league blueliners with 20 points in 24 playoff contests, Deslauriers not only struggled to produce for the Monarchs but at times could not even crack lineup. He finished the season with 14 points in 65 games and a -14 rating.

At the junior level, Deslauriers rose to prominence by rushing the puck end-to-end with his unbelievable skating, manning the point with his quarterbacking skills, and throwing his body around with reckless abandon. In the AHL, he has had to learn safer puck management and distribution, consistent defensive positioning, and how to contribute without being “the guy.” With the impending departures of some of the Monarchs' top defensemen, Deslauriers will have a great opportunity to be a big contributor in all situations for the club this season. He will need to seize it.

16. (19) Andy Andreoff, LW/C, 6.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2011

Andreoff is one of a string of players, such as Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds, that the Kings have targeted early in recent drafts for gritty play and two-way upside rather than elite talent. The Pickering, Ontario native compares well with a former King from the same town, Sean Avery, though with a more stable temper. Boundlessly aggressive and unafraid to drop the mitts, Andreoff promises to be a fan favorite if he cracks the Kings, which is looking like it might happen sooner rather than later.

Andreoff was a point-per-game player for the Oshawa Generals last season with 58 in 57 games. His production helped to prove that his breakout 2010-11 season, which led to the Kings to spend a 3rd round pick on the then 20-year-old Andreoff after he was passed over in the 2009 and 2010 drafts, was no fluke. He is poised to make the jump to the Monarchs this season where he should immediately see plenty of ice as he continues to further round out his game.

17. (NR) Tomas Hyka, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2012

After being selected in the 2011 CHL Import Draft by Gatineau but being passed over in the 2011 NHL Draft, Hyka attended training camp with the Philadelphia Flyers last fall and performed so well that the club planned on offering him a contract, just as the Kings did with Martin Jones in 2009. Unbeknownst to them, Hyka had to play one year in North America before being eligible to sign such a deal, so he went back to Gatineau for the season.

Fast-forward one year and the dynamic forward, whose style has been compared to those of Claude Giroux and Daniel Briere, is now a member of the Kings organization. The undersized forward, listed at 5'11” and 160 pounds, is an outstanding offensive talent with quick feet and great hands. He led Gatineau last season with 64 points in 50 games (the team's next highest scorer had 45) and also boasted a team-best +14 rating. Assuming he continues to put on size, and Gatineau continues to progress in its rebuilding efforts, he has the potential to develop into a star in the Quebec league as he gets more acclimated.

18. (NR) Nikolai Prokhorkin, C/LW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, 2012

A wildcard with a lot of upside, the Kings continued a habit of mixing boom-or-bust talent into their draft selections with the addition of Prokhorkin. The young Russian played an impressive 15 games with CSKA Moscow of the KHL as an 18-year-old last season and established himself as an offensive talent in the MHL, Russia's junior system. The versatile forward plays a multifaceted game and excelled in a checking role for Russia at the recent Canada-Russia Challenge.

The Kings have plans to involve Prokhorkin in North American hockey immediately and he has responded with earnest interest. He will get a crack at making the Monarchs but has a fallback option in the London Knights of the OHL, who selected him in June's import draft. His upside will become a lot clearer once he has a season on smaller ice under his belt.

19. (18) Brandon Kozun, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2009

Kozun is still capable of developing into an NHL-quality forward, but with an influx of talented wingers into the pipeline, he is at risk of falling through the cracks. A sparkplug who is unafraid to mix it up along the boards and likes to throw his body around, Kozun plays much bigger than his size and has illustrated surprising durability by playing 73 and 74 games in his first two AHL seasons. His style compares well to that of current Buffalo Sabres forward Nathan Gerbe.

Unlike Gerbe, Kozun has yet to break out as a consistently dynamic player at the AHL level. He amassed 46 points in 74 games last season, nearly identical to his 48 in 73 games the year before. A major Achilles' heel has been his discipline; he racked up 29 minor penalties in 2011-12, up from 24 the year before. This is a make or break season for Kozun, once one of the few legitimate wing prospects in the organization, as he now has plenty of fresh talent threatening to steal his ice time.

20. (14) Michael Schumacher, LW, 6.0C
Drafted 7th round, 200th overall, 2011

Listed at 6'5” and 203 pounds with plenty of offensive skill, the giant Swede has quickly established himself as a formidable presence in the OHL. Playing a straightforward, north-south game, Schumacher has taken little time to adjust to the North American style of play. Last season with Sault Ste. Marie, he scored 26 goals, mostly from the crease area, and posted 50 total points in 65 games. He stands to improve on his numbers next season as the Greyhounds progress through their rebuild and his linemates improve.

Schumacher still stands to optimize his build and get stronger. He plays big but still not quite to his size. He has seen continued improvement in the defensive zone, particularly in getting the attack going, but stands to further develop his awareness in all three zones before he can be considered a legitimate NHL talent. Along with the selection of Nick Ebert in 2012, the Kings have found great value in the seventh round of recent drafts.