Defensemen dominate the Los Angeles Kings junior level prospect pool

By Jason Lewis
Nick Ebert - Windsor Spitfires

Photo: Windsor Spitfires' defenseman Nick Ebert is one of several late-round defensive picks in the Kings' system developing at the junior level. (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 
The Los Angeles Kings currently have eight players developing in the CHL and USHL junior levels. Of those eight players, five are defenseman, and of those five defenseman, two were free agent signings and the other three were taken after the fourth round.

Aside from goaltender Christopher Gibson, the Los Angeles Kings junior level prospect pool is filled with late-round grabs like defenseman Nick Ebert, project players, and high-risk high-reward style choices like forward Michael Schumacher. In recent years the Kings scouts have invested a lot into NCAA hockey with the selections of Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel, and Nick Shore, but that is not to say that some talented players are not developing in the junior ranks.

It is defense that the organization has predicated itself on for some time, and there are certainly a solid number of defensive prospects and a few forwards currently in action in the juniors.

WHL

Alex Roach, D, Calgary Hitmen
Acquired: Free agent signing in September, 2011

The Kings lone Western Hockey League representative, defenseman Alex Roach, has been on an absolute tear that no one could have seen coming. Roach has averaged 17 points for Calgary in his last two seasons while averaging 61 games played. We are at the 26 game mark right now in the WHL for Calgary and Roach has 18 points, besting his last two seasons with just a third of the games played.  On top of being his squads leading defensive scorer, he is sitting at a plus-16, which is head and shoulders above everyone else on the division-leading Calgary Hitmen. Roach has continued to play a physical brand of hockey, but has tapped into an offensive capability this year that not a lot of people knew about. At 6'4 and 225 pounds, Roach is an intimidating figure. The fact that he is now putting together an offensive game on top of that is promising. Maybe this is what the Kings expected from the big defenseman when they granted him a tryout after being passed over in the draft back in 2011. He was signed shortly thereafter.

OHL

Nick Ebert, D, Windsor Spitfires
Acquired: 7th round (211th overall) in 2012

Nick Ebert is another late round, project defensemen in the Kings system, and while he is off to a good statistical start he definitely looks to be a project. The scouting report on Ebert has always been that he possesses a great shot and great skating ability. Just like the past though, his hockey sense and defensive coverage have been question marks. In his third season with the Spitfires, Ebert is coming off a great last week of November in which he scored two goals, one assist to give him 16 total points in 28 games on the season. However, the number that Kings management probably wanted to see balance out is his plus-minus, which despite his scoring still sits at a minus-four. That being said Ebert is on pace to have a good year and his Windsor squad is right in the thick of things. A little more attention is needed on Ebert when it comes to his decision making and on-ice awareness if he wants to take his game up a notch. His natural ability outweighs the deficiencies in his game currently, but it would be nice if he could tighten it up.

Michael Schumacher, LW, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: 7th round (200th overall) in 2011

In October and September, big Michael Schumacher was off to a blistering start. He had 11 points in his first 13 games and was only a minus-3. However, towards the end of October and through November, Schumacher hit a bit of a wall. He had just six points in his last 14 games and was a minus-six during that span. But as Sault Ste. Marie fans would probably tell you this is nothing new. The Swede has always been a hot and cold sort of player dating back to last season. in 2011-12 he had 13 points in the month of December and 11 in the month of October. Then he would have months like February where he had just four points and not a single goal. That has been the real story of the Soo offense though this season, as the team is fighting to get out of the basement of the West Division. Schumacher needs to find some consistency and really utilize his naturally gifted 6'5 frame, which to this point you could say he has not put to full effect. He also could use a little more seasoning in his defensive game considering he is currently a minus-nine. Remember though, it can be difficult to be a plus player on a below average team.

Colin Miller, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Acquired: 5th round (151st overall) in 2012

On the same struggling Soo Greyhounds squad as Schumacher, team captain Colin Miller has been somewhat of a bright spot. Despite an injury in October that lasted nearly four weeks and a three-game suspension for a slash in early November, Miller has kept his level of play quite high. The overager is second amongst defensemen on the team in scoring with 18 points despite missing 13 games. Miller had a strong finish in November with 11 points in the last six games of November with a plus-six rating. Obviously it would be much better if Miller had not missed time due to injury and suspension, but the fact that a four week absence did not have an effect on the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native's play is nice to hear. In fact, he looks to be on pace for a career year in points regardless of these setbacks. As mentioned earlier, Soo is at the bottom of the division and fighting to stay afloat. Miller will need to be at his best and continue his strong play at both ends of the ice if the Greyhounds want to work their way back into things. His leadership ability will also definitely be put to the test as the team begins the middle third of the season in a less than desirable position. Good tests await the 20-year-old, tests that will likely determine where he goes within the next year.

Kurtis MacDermid, D, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: Free agent signing in September, 2012

I think it was a shock to a lot of Owen Sound Attack fans when undrafted Kurtis MacDermid, a player poised for bottom-pairing duty with the team who only played nine OHL games last season, was signed by the Stanley Cup winning Kings. However, Co-Director of Amateur Scouting Mike Futa got him to the Kings development camp and he impressed enough people for a contract to be offered. Currently Owen Sound is the second best team in the OHL, and they have allowed the second fewest goals against. MacDermid has been lining up on the second defensive pairing for the Attack and has been getting tons of minutes five-on-five and on the penalty kill. While he only has a single goal this season, MacDermid's real strength has been his defensive play, which to this point has been very solid. The 18-year-old also has not shied away from physical altercations and has been in three fights this season. MacDermid could use some work on his discipline, as he finds himself in the box quite often, but the rookie has been a real surprising defensive stalwart for Owen Sound. The Attack are almost certainly poised to go deep into the playoffs at this point, and MacDermid is going to be a big player for Owen Sound in shutting down tougher and tougher opponents along the way.

QMJHL

Christopher Gibson, G, Chicoutimi Saguenéens
Acquired: 2nd round (49th overall) in 2011

In his final year with Chicoutimi, Finnish goaltender Christopher Gibson has run into a few struggles. He started off the year with some rough starts here and there, and then was afflicted with a knee injury in the beginning of October which required surgery. He is back healthy now and playing. However, to say his performances are inconsistent is a huge understatement. A 31-save shutout is intermingled with a performance in which he gave up seven goals on 25 shots before being pulled. It is really difficult to get a feel for Gibson considering how up and down his play is. He has been solid since returning from surgery and raised his record to 6-2-0 in 10 appearances, but Gibson still seems a bit raw in his fourth year as a junior level goalie. It is always important to remember though that the QMJHL is not a goaltender's junior league. It is a league known for it's offensive showcase from forwards and defenseman alike. Only a handful of goalies in recent years, like Corey Crawford (CHI), Ondrej Pavelec (WPG), and Mathieu Garon (TBL), have had both QMJHL and NHL success. This is the same junior league that has produced offensive talents like Claude Giroux (PHI), Keith Yandle (PHX), and of course, Sidney Crosby (PIT), so being a goalie in the Quebec league has historically been a challenge. In regards to Gibson, hopefully he can build on a strong play through most of November where he had a .909 save-percentage and a 2.55 goals against before he was pulled again in his final start of the month after giving up four goals on 11 shots against league-leading Halifax. The fundamentals are there with Gibson, now it all comes down to consistency and most importantly his health.

Tomas Hyka, RW, Gatineau Olympiques
Acquired: 6th round (171st overall) in 2012

Overage draftee Tomas Hyka has been off to what you could categorize as an average start with Gatineau this year. He does have 24 points in 25 games but that is off of the higher than a point-per-game pace he had last season, in which he was the team's leading scorer with 64 points in 50 games. However, Gatineau is a weaker team in general this season as opposed to last season. The team lost talented forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT), now with the Binghamton Senators, defenseman Mathieu Gagnon, now with Chicoutimi, and forward Christian Ouellet, who is now in the ECHL. So there has been some turnover of top players and Hyka and Gatineau alike are struggling a bit with the transition. Hyka's play has been a little bit concerning, as he is playing to his size. The Czech native is 5'11, 165 pounds and has been a little hesitant with physical play. While the playmaking, hockey sense, and vision of Hyka are excellent at the current level he plays, he will have to face the inevitable physicality that is the AHL and NHL. It was this quality that possibly got him passed over in the 2011 draft. It might do Hyka some good to sit down and have a chat with Kings prospect and former Calgary Hitmen forward Brandon Kozun, who is 5'8, 162 pounds, and as tenacious as they come. Gatineau could miss the playoffs this season, and Hyka needs to step up his game a little bit if he wants his team to avoid such a thing.

Junior 'A'

Paul LaDue, D, Lincoln Stars (USHL)
Acquired: 6th round (181st overall) in 2012

The 20-year-old defenseman Paul LaDue has been a bit of a pleasant surprise. Playing in the USHL for the Lincoln Stars, LaDue stood out last season as one of the best puck-moving defenseman in the league and is at it again this year. Through 19 games LaDue is leading all defensemen in the league with 17 points, and his plus-nine rating is also among the league's best. LaDue has been an all-situations player for Lincoln, but has shown a real solid knack for getting shots through from the point on the power play. With nearly a third of the season completed in the USHL, Lincoln is sitting in solid position. It will be interesting to see if LaDue can carry the momentum of a solid start on for the remainder of the season. A deep playoff run, or even a championship would be a fitting way to end his USHL career since he is committed to his hometown college, the University of North Dakota, next year.