For many years running now the Los Angeles Kings have had one of the best youth systems in the NHL. However, with promotions of players, deals involving picks, and later round selections, the pool has diminished slightly over time. It is the natural progression of a rebuilding mode that has given the organization three top-five picks since 2007 and seven top-15 picks since 2005.
However, In the last two or three years the team have promoted Alec Martinez, Jonathan Bernier, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford, and Slava Voynov and they have traded first and second-round picks along with winger Wayne Simmonds (PHI), center Brayden Schenn, (PHI), and defenseman Colten Teubert (EDM). It leaves the system in a little bit of a declining state. That being said, there is still a lot to be excited about as the Kings have managed to draft very well in the later rounds, and have stockpiled a solid amount of talent at all positions. The one thing holding many of these players back however, is the current depth at the NHL level that the Kings currently posses. The Stanley Cup Champion Kings have retained the services of every player from the 2011-12 team for at least one more year, so a multitude of changes or promotions is not expected. It is a logjam at many positions of the depth chart, with an already young core in place at the NHL level.
Forwards Jordan Nolan, Andrei Loktionov, and Dwight King look poised to make the jump to the NHL within a season, and there are a number of other players, notably Tyler Toffoli, Brandon Kozun, Thomas Hickey, Jake Muzzin, and Andrew Campbell, who look fit to step in at the upper levels as it currently stands. For these prospects it is a waiting game, as the contracts of many veteran players like Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi, Justin Williams, and Jarret Stoll come closer to expiration in the coming years.
A crop of newer additions to the Manchester Monarchs have also furthered the logjam feeling for the organization. The team added three rookies this season (Nikolai Prokhorkin, Tanner Pearson, and Toffoli) on top of having five join them last season (Nicolas Deslauriers, Robert Czarnik, Jordan Weal, Linden Vey, Andy Andreoff).
The departures of Ray Kaunisto, Justin Azevedo, and Bud Holloway at the AHL level, coupled with a few promotions, have opened up some spots for the young talent currently surging up for the Kings, but it will be stiff competition to crack the main NHL lineup.
Over the last few years, the Kings have really struggled at filling holes in the left wing position both in the system and at the NHL level.
In recent history this problem prompted the team to trade for aging veteran Ryan Smyth in 2009 and make a deadline deal to acquire Dustin Penner in 2011. However, what once was a significant weakness to the organization, has now turned into a pretty solid strength through recent drafting.
Most notably the Kings picked up two pro-ready prospects in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft in overager Tanner Pearson and Russian Nikolai Prokhorkin. Both of these players are already eligible to play with the Manchester Monarchs, so it gives the left wing depth for the Kings a significant and much needed shot in the arm. Pearson, selected 30th overall, has played six games so far with the Monarchs and has two goals and one assist. Prokhorkin has played five games for the Monarchs and registered a single assist.
Also on the Monarchs, fresh off his championship run, is big man Dwight King. King was a much welcomed surprise to the left wing group for the organization. He brings size and skill alike to the table, and has already gotten a taste of the most intense NHL action in the postseason. King, barring some unfortunate circumstances should be promoted from prospect status within the year.
Down in the CHL and the NCAA, 2011 draftees Michael Mersch and Michael Shumacher have been impressive with their respective squads. Mersch, 20, has shown a really solid all-around game with the University of Wisconsin, and is off to a hot start in his junior season with four goals in six games. Schumacher, an SEL import a season ago, has looked like a men among boys in his second year with Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL, registering 11 points in 16 games.
All five of these players have brought an element of goal scoring and depth to a Kings left wing group that, circa 2010, had very little of either in the cupboard. Maxim Kitsyn in the KHL and Joel Lowry of Cornell University round out the position.
The center depth for the Kings is really quite good, but there are some interesting things to consider moving forward. While Tyler Toffoli and Nick Shore certainly are exciting players to keep an eye on this year, both players are all positions players, and have been jumping around from wing to center. Equally notable is Linden Vey, who although is listed as a right wing has been playing center for the Monarchs.
All three players bring a high level of skill, and Shore and Vey bring an element of defensive responsibility. Toffoli and Vey are both playing down with Monarchs this season, lining up in top-six roles. Shore is in his junior season at the University of Denver, where he currently has an outstanding five goals, 11 points in six games.
Further down the depth chart are grinders and defensive minded centers Robert Czarnik, Jordan Weal, and Andy Andreoff. These players have the skill set to be solid bottom-six centers at any level. All three are currently entering their second seasons with the Monarchs.
Toffoli and Shore are the real headliners here, but the problem almost all of these players face is just how many centers the Kings have, and how few spots they have available. A good example of this is summed up well with current Kings prospect Andrei Loktionov. Loktionov is a skillful center with great playmaking abilities and on-ice vision. While he seems like a real gem for the Kings, he has had trouble breaking in at center due to having Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards to contend with for a top-six center job. The writing is on the wall for the young Russian, who has not transitioned well to the wing at the NHL, and he may not be long for the organization. With that in mind, Toffoli and Shore might be better suited to try and break into the Kings squad playing wing rather than center. With Kopitar and Richards signed long term, Toffoli and Shore would be hard pressed to see top-six minutes or power play situations playing center, just like Loktionov before them. Jarret Stoll and Colin Fraser are veteran players whose positions could be available in the near future, but those spots would be better suited for a defensive minded, physical forward.
It is not that the Kings do not have good center depth, it is that they almost have too much of it.
The right side is probably the Kings' biggest area of weakness. However, as mentioned before, there are several players, such as Pearson, Vey, Shore, and Toffoli, capable of playing in the position.
Brandon Kozun is a player to keep an eye on playing in Manchester this season. Kozun, standing at 5'7, has never really been given much of a fair shake by scouts due to his size, however he has developed a well rounded game and shown tremendous durability since joining the AHL in 2010-11. Kozun, who has back to back 20 goal seasons, is maturing into the kind of player who could be an NHL bottom-six forward despite his size, ala Nathan Gerbe with the Buffalo Sabres. Jordan Nolan, like Dwight King, is in from the NHL post-season, and was a dedicated right winger throughout the playoffs. His post-season play almost certainly nets him a promotion once the season gets underway. Stefan Legein rounds out the Monarchs dedicated right wing group.
Down in the QMJHL, Tomas Hyka is the lone right wing prospect in the CHL. As another overage from the 2012 NHL Draft, Hyka was returned to his junior team by the Kings for the final year of eligibility. He has turned some heads with his offensive game and was a good skill addition to the Kings forward group.
Nic Dowd of St. Cloud State in the NCAA rounds out a group at right wing that the Kings will probably look at upgrading in the coming drafts. They have already got a good start with Tomas Hyka, but more size and skill will be needed in the future.
Defense has been, and still is the greatest strength of the Los Angles Kings system. No matter the round or draft position, the Kings have continued to develop solid defensemen year after year. Recently, former prospects Voynov and Martinez grew into NHL players, and behind them Nicolas Deslauriers, Jake Muzzin, and Derek Forbort patiently wait.
The Kings might already have one of the youngest trio of puck movers with Drew Doughty, Martinez, and Voynov, however they have an aging group of defensive defensemen. That is where the current prospects and Manchester Monarchs players Andrew Campbell and Jake Muzzin come into play. Muzzin and Campbell have put together solid seasons in the AHL and might be the answer to the Kings question of who steps in when Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell are gone.
If that does not work out, the Kings have not one, but two nationally recognized collegiate defensemen Kevin Gravel and Derek Forbort yet to touch professional ice. Gravel and Forbort have both been included on the U.S National U17 team, and the U.S. World Junior Championship Under-20 team. Both have size (6'4 each) and solid defensive games. It is not out of the question to think that in a few years time the Kings shut down trio could include Forbort, Gravel and Jake Muzzin.
On the puck-moving side of things, the Kings still have promising prospect Nicolas Deslauriers, who over time has developed into a well-rounded, two-way defenseman. Behind him is the former top-five selection Thomas Hickey, who unfortunately has yet to surmount to anything significant, but still has the talent to do so. Another player who has started off the season for the Monarchs very well is David Kolomatis. The former 2009 fifth-round pick is often overlooked, but he has averaged near 30 points his last three seasons with the Monarchs, and has stormed out the gate in 2012 with six points in the Monarchs first five games.
Raw yet talented prospects are developing at the junior levels with Paul LaDue of the USHL's Lincoln Stars, Alex Roach in the WHL, and three OHL prospects in Nick Ebert (Windsor), Colin Miller (Sault Ste. Marie), and development camp signee Kurtis MacDermid (Owen Sound). All five of these players are more than a few years away from the NHL, but LaDue and Roach have been particularly impressive. LaDue is off to a point-per-game start through 11 USHL games, and Roach already has 12 points in 17 games with the Calgary Hitmen. He compiled just 18 points in 61 games last season, so it has been a good start for the 19-year-old.
The Kings have defensive talent across multiple development leagues, and have several that are close to being ready for the NHL whenever they are called upon.
The reality though, is that all three will, at best, likely be playing to back up Jonathan Quick. A ten-year contract and a 26-year-old Conn Smythe winner is a tough combination to tough to beat out. Nonetheless the talent is still there.
Martin Jones is the goaltender in the system for the Kings that is closest to seeing some NHL action. The 2010-11 AHL All-Star and former Canada World Junior Championship goaltender has been stellar in his career with the Monarchs the last two seasons, posting a .924 and .919 save-percentage respectively. He is a very big goaltender, listed at 6'4 and 165 pounds, and he plays like it. Jones, a butterfly goaltender, gives very little for players to shoot at. He is just 22-years-old and continues to be one of the best goaltenders in the AHL.
Behind him is Jean-Francois Berube, who for playing time purposes, is currently down in the ECHL King's affiliate, the Ontario Reign. Berube is an athletic goaltender, who posted modest numbers in the QMJHL, even though the league is considered a difficult league for goalie development. Once Jones gets his chance at the NHL, it will be up to him and Finnish goaltender and current Chicoutimi Saguenéens netminder Christopher Gibson to fight for the AHL starting job. However, Gibson has struggled so far in the latter years of his QMJHL career, and will need to pick it up if he wants to make a serious push at the AHL and not the ECHL starting in 2012-13.
With Jones at age 22, Berube at age 21, and Gibson at age 19, the Kings goaltending pipeline is pretty well set for some years to come.