Over the years the Los Angeles Kings' scouting staff has developed a solid reputation of selecting, signing, and developing NCAA athletes. General Manager Dean Lombardi has been pretty adamant in the belief that NCAA hockey helps players mature physically and mentally before making way into the world of professional hockey. Current Kings Alec Martinez, Jonathan Quick, Matt Greene, and Rob Scuderi are just a few names on the current Kings roster who have played at the collegiate level, and in the minor leagues the organization has several former and current collegiate players edging closer to the NHL.
With the NCAA tournament getting underway on March 29th and the Frozen Four coming up this weekend, the scouts of the hockey world have had their eyes glued on the tournament as the NCAA develops more and more world class talent. The Kings had five players competing in the end of the year tournament on four different teams. Whether it was defensemen Derek Forbort and Kevin Gravel or forwards Michael Mersch, Nick Shore, and Nic Dowd, the Kings had several key prospects to watch in the tournament. Only the St. Cloud State duo of Gravel and Dowd survived to play in the Frozen Four.
Derek Forbort, D, University of North Dakota (WCHA)
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, in 2010
Big Derek Forbort was definitely in the spotlight as his team battled for a spot in the Frozen Four. His UND squad did not exactly set the world ablaze this season, nor did they perform very well in their conference tournament (lost in the quarter finals to Colorado College). Regardless the mascot-less North Dakota squad finished the year with a 21-12-7 record and slotted in at eighth in the NCAA tournament seedings. The club survived their first round game against Niagara but fell to Yale in the West Regional final.
Forbort had a solid junior year overall playing all 42 games for his squad, and recording 17 points. His plus-11 rating was a nice turnaround from 2011-12 that saw him register only a plus-two. While his point totals are not anything humungous, it was a big year for Forbort considering the challenges he was facing from other players within the squad. Newcomer Jordan Schmaltz (STL) and emerging prospect Dillon Simpson (EDM) certainly posed a challenge to the minutes and usage of Forbort, however the 21-year-old handled the competition quite well and continued his steady development.
Positive signs have come out of the development of Forbort, and with UND making an exit from the tournament, it is possible he signs and joins Manchester as the Monarchs currently sit one spot out of the playoffs with 18 games left and have a host of players nursing injuries. All together though, it might be wise for Forbort to return for his final year at UND to grow as a player and work out a few minor kinks in his game before committing to the AHL and the Kings as a professional.
Kevin Gravel, D, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall, in 2010
Kevin Gravel wrapped up a very steady 2012-13 season with the Huskies, who were seeded at 13th overall heading into the NCAA tournament. Gravel was a big mover on our Spring Top 20 list for the L.A. Kings notably for his commitment to discipline and defense. His play helped the Huskies beat Notre Dame in the first round and Miami in the second round to earn a spot in the Frozen Four.
The Huskies carry a mentality similar to Gravel, which is gritty, defense-first hockey. Gravel was primarily a second pairing defenseman all-season, and played penalty kill time as well. While he does not wow you with offensive play, and certainly a solitary goal in 2012-13 speaks to that, he has demonstrated a steady commitment to his own end. Gravel, like Forbort, could potentially be an addition to the depleted Manchester Monarchs roster after his junior season finishes. Overall the Kings should be happy with Gravel, his role, and his development with the Huskies thus far.
Nic Dowd, RW, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 198th overall, in 2009
Another player who has been significant in the success of St. Cloud State is two-way forward Nic Dowd. Behind the nation's leader in assists, Hobey Baker finalist, and WCHA Player of the Year, free agent Drew LeBlanc, Dowd has had a solid season of 39 points in 41 games.
He is utilized in all situations for the Huskies and even ranks second on the team in blocked shots. He is a high-energy player, and Dowd can be a scrappy, agitating player, but also mixes in a nice offensive ability. While he lets his edge get the better of him sometimes, Dowd has nearly doubled his overall production in his junior year, and at 22-years-old could be a rather late bloomer into the AHL with his gritty style. With good size, and good offensive upside shown in 2012-13, the forward could be in line for a pretty big 2013-14 if he continues to build on his newly found form.
Nick Shore, C, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 82nd overall, in 2011
With the departure of so many big names from Denver this season, including Nick Shore's brother Drew, it was bound to be a year for learning and for growth with the 20-year-old. The team managed the ninth seed in the NCAA tournament, but despite getting out to an early lead, they were knocked out by New Hampshire in the first round.
While his numbers reflect a step back perhaps, 33 points in 38 games and a minus-four, he was thrust into a much bigger role and was asked to carry the weight of the team. Shore was the leading scorer for the Pioneers despite being eight points behind last year's totals. He was used in every situation, be it special teams or regular strength, and he took on the role of the team's offensive leader, albeit with slight hiccups. All things considered Shore was asked to play a much bigger role very early on in his college career, and he showed signs that he can be a leader and a player that can be relied upon in the future. Moving forward, Shore will look to build on this season to have a significant senior year for the hometown Denver boy.
Michael Mersch, LW, Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall, in 2011
It was a puzzling season for Wisconsin, who was the 14th seed but one of the hottest teams in the nation heading into the tournament. Maybe equally puzzling to many scouts was the emergence of Michael Mersch, one of the leading scorers in the NCAA, and the second-leading goal scorer of the WCHA with 23 goals. On top of his outstanding performance, it was widely considered a huge snub when Mersch was not added to the All-WCHA honor team despite his strong season.
Mersch has had a fantastic 2012-13, with 23 goals, 13 assists, and a plus-18, taking his game up a level from his 2011-12 numbers (14 goals, 30 points, and a minus-5). At 21, and in his junior year, it feels like Mersch might be peaking at the right time in his development.
Wisconsin ran into an equally hot team in UMass-Lowell, who was the third overall seed and arguably the best team in the nation. Regardless of the early exit from the tournament, as the leading scorer of the Badgers and a WCHA Final Five champion, Mersch and the Kings should be very excited about the season he had.
Joel Lowry, LW, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall, in 2011
The Big Red finished up the year with a 15-16-3 record, and failed to make the NCAA tournament. Lowry, personally, had a solid year including a doubling of his goal total from 2011-12.
The sophomore was third on the team in scoring 23 points for the Big Red, played on the top line for a second straight year, had four power play goals, and was a plus-six on the season. Lowry, at 6'2, certainly plays up to his size and was seemingly getting more and more comfortable utilizing that advantage during the season. While Cornell did not have a very deep squad, nor did they have a ton of success this year, moving forward Lowry will be a key fixture in the future as the team rebuilds a bit and recruits more talent.
Nikolai Prokhorkin, LW, THK Tver (VHL-Russia)
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall, in 2012
Drafted in 2012, there was a lot of hope that Prokhorkin would make his way over to the CHL to the Barrie Colts who had acquired the young forward's rights from the London Knights last year. After an eight game tryout with the Manchester Monarchs the Kings cut Prokhorkin loose with the best of hopes that he would remain in North America. Unfortunately like so many Russian prospects, and of similar fate to other King prospect Maxim Kitsyn, Prokhorkin has been buried in the minor leagues of the KHL for the majority of the season.
Prokhorkin, just 19-years-old, has played some limited time with CSKA Moscow of the KHL, but was a boy amongst men, and was subsequently benched and then sent to the VHL, which is the minor league of the KHL. Prokhorkin is a very talented young forward, but under contract with CSKA for two more seasons, it may be some time before the Kings see him back in North America.
Maxim Kitsyn, LW, HK Sarov (VHL-Russia)
Drafted 6th round, 158th overall, in 2010
Kitsyn, another talented forward out of Russia in 2010, was pegged as being a very high draft pick due to his solid international showings and his junior showings but fell in the ranks due to the mystery and uncertainty surrounding a lot of prospects from Russia.
Kitsyn has bounced around the minor leagues since returning to Russia in 2011, and was inconsistent at best at the top level in the KHL during his limited stints with Metallurg Novokuznetsk in 2011-12 and Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in 2012-13. However, he settled with HK Sarov of the VHL seemingly, and has played better hockey this year then in years prior. His 12 points in 29 games is a step in the right direction. He has a game well suited for North America, big puck presence, strong on the boards, good size at 6'2 and 200 pounds, and a cycle-grind ability. While it does not suit the KHL, if Kitsyn ever makes his way over to the AHL, which is expected in the coming season, he could be a solid bottom line addition. At this point, playing time and production is a good thing for Kitsyn, no matter what league he is in.