Improving on big seasons a major storyline for the Los Angeles Kings prospects in 2013-14

By Jason Lewis

Kevin Gravel - St. Cloud State University

Photo: St. Cloud State defenseman Kevin Gravel will look to take another step forward in his senior season after helping the Huskies to the 2013 Frozen Four (courtesy of Scott W. Grau/Icon SMI)

It seemed like across the board, be it CHL, NCAA, or AHL, the Los Angeles Kings organization had surprise and standout performances from multiple players.

Michael Mersch, Joel Lowry, and Nic Dowd led their respective NCAA squads. Alex Roach and Colin Miller had tremendous final years of junior hockey. Andy Andreoff, Tyler Toffoli, and Tanner Pearson  made waves as rookies in the AHL. With so many great performances in 2012-13 it sets the standards even higher as we turn our eyes to the approaching 2013-14 season.

It is a tall order to ask young players to emulate and exceed our expectations year after year, but that is what makes the world of prospects an exciting one to watch. Big follow-up years are just one of the many storylines that pepper the King system in this year's prospect preview.

Pro

Top Pro Prospect
Tyler Toffoli, RW, Los Angeles Kings (NHL) / Manchester Monarchs (AHL)

There is currently no doubt that Tyler Toffoli is the Kings’ leading prospect at the pro level and in their entire system. For a second round pick it seems like Toffoli was the panacea for a King system that was lacking a true scoring threat until his emergence. His junior numbers have certainly translated and Toffoli still possesses a “shoot first, ask later” mentality that is similar to that of Jeff Carter. When he enters the zone and has the puck on his stick his mindset is always to get it on net.

With that in mind he has shown he has a laser of a shot and a deceptive release that can beat a lot of goaltenders. He still has to work on his skating a little bit but he was practically the best player on the Kings roster at times during the 2012-13 playoff run. His willingness to get engaged physically and win battles along the boards is also promising considering he is not the biggest player at 6’0. His rookie season at the AHL was tremendous, he had an impact with the NHL in a very limited role, and he is still just 21 years of age. Even if Toffoli fails to make the Kings team out of preseason in 2013-14, he still is head and shoulders above the rest of the prospects in terms of NHL readiness, skill level, and potential long-term success and utility.

NHL Bound
Andy Andreoff, C, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)

Andreoff has been the talk of the Los Angeles Kings world since his 2012-13 rookie season which saw him take tremendous strides in his game. Andreoff was up and down to start last season with the Monarchs, but slowly adapted to the pro level and by the end of the year was one of Mark Morris’ most reliable forwards. Coaches and general managers love seeing progression, and Andreoff took huge steps in becoming a reliable two-way forward capable of both special teams utilization as well as late game and defensive-zone pressure situations. Not to mention he put up 26 points in his first year as a pro. More importantly though, he was out there for a lot of big faceoffs during the end of the year and was one of the leaders for the Monarchs as the squeaked into a playoff spot with a great stretch run.

Andreoff’s leaps and bounds put him on the radar for a potential fourth line position with the big club out of camp. Last season the Kings bottom line really struggled, and it is highly likely that one of Colin Fraser, Jordan Nolan, or Dwight King will make way for the Pickering, Ontario native this year at some point. It may only be for a limited time, but all signs point to Andreoff factoring in to the NHL season in at least some capacity this year.

Unsigned for 2014-15
Brandon Kozun, RW, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)

Brandon Kozun is definitely in a tough spot this year. At 23 years old and going on his fourth pro season, he is starting to see the prospects pile up in front of him and closely behind him in the depth chart. He will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season and will definitely have to prove that he has NHL utility if he wants to stay relevant in a right wing group that is getting a little crowded. A couple of 2013 draftees, like first-round pick Valentin Zykov and NCAA newbie Hudson Fasching have joined the ranks. Do not forget 2011 draftee and the University of Wisconsin standout Michael Mersch who is finishing his senior season in 2013-14. With his age, Kozun will have to clear waivers as well if he does not make the team out of training camp, which is a little bit of added pressure if he dreams of playing for his home town squad some day in L.A.

Kozun has been consistent, if anything, in his AHL career. He hovered around the 50 point mark for three years running at the pro level, but his defensive game and physical game have not always been reliable. He took good steps last year in upgrading his defensive game and it could go a long way in getting him a qualifying offer and perhaps a job as a bottom line player with the Kings.

Junior

Top Junior Prospect
Valentin Zykov, RW, Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)

The Kings’ top junior prospect is a new and fresh face for the team, as he was added from the 2013 draft back in June of this year. Valentin Zykov, a second round selection, is a hard-working, high-intensity forward with some skill to boot. The young Russian had a massive season with Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the QMJHL in 2012-13 potting 75 points and 40 goals in 67 games. Coaches and scouts have raved about his work ethic to go along with all of your prototypical Russian attributes like the offensive creativity and puck skills.

Zykov has all the features and attributes of a blue chip prospect and the fact that he fell to the second round may be a blessing for the Kings. He already plays a Kings style game that is complimented very well with a high scoring ability. The fact that he is already over in North America and has had tremendous success in the QMJHL in a short amount of time is only making his stock rise.

Bounceback junior
Nick Ebert, D, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

Ebert had a bit of a rough year in 2012-13. While the 2012 seventh round pick did not take a real step back, he did stagnate, which can be just as troublesome. Picks are made based on upside and development and seeing Ebert hold steady in his third year in juniors was not the most positive of things. However, he did finish the year quite strong. He jumped up to the pros for a short look with the Ontario Reign of the ECHL and collected three points in four regular season games and seven points in 10 playoff games.

Ebert is considered a bit of a project player but he has plenty of good tools to work with and maybe confidence was the missing element. He was returned from camp in 2013-14 to the Windsor Spitfires for what should be his last season in juniors. He had a taste of the pro game with the Reign and did quite well, hopefully that can be the boon his confidence needs. If he can surpass the 40-point mark, which has eluded him in the two years since his rookie OHL season, and finally become a plus-rated defenseman, it could go a long way in raising his stock before entering the AHL or ECHL full time.

Offensive Breakout
Justin Auger, RW, Guelph Storm (OHL)

The big Waterloo, Ontario native, Justin Auger, doubled up his point total with Guelph of the OHL from 14 points in 2011-12 to 33 in 2012-13. Can he do it again? It seems like he might be able to. Being 6’7, Auger has a physical advantage that hardly anybody in juniors can touch and as he grows older and more accustomed to utilizing that physical advantage he will reap the rewards. He is still young and growing into that advantage mentally though. Last year was a good year for him, but with his hands and size you would hope for perhaps a little bit more out of him than 16 goals.

He just got finished participating in his first professional training camp and he will now have an NHL development team checking in on him. He could benefit from those things and it could contribute to a big offensive year. Guelph is also loaded with talent, being one of the older teams with eight NHL draftees on the roster. Is a 50-plus point season in the making for Auger?

Amateur

Top Amateur Prospect
Kevin Gravel, D, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCHC)

How often is a shutdown defenseman going to be a top prospect of any kind? That is not to say shutdown defensemen are not valuable, but they do not have the flash and fire of a high-scoring, wheeling-and-dealing offensive defenseman. However, St. Cloud State stalwart Kevin Gravel is certainly the Kings’ top collegiate prospect. It was a tough choice to go with Gravel over Michael Mersch of Wisconsin, but Gravel has been one of the biggest progress makers and one of the most steady players in the King system. He had a fantastic 2012-13 where he improved on his puck moving, gap control, and skating, and it helped his Huskies squad go all the way to the semifinals of the Division I NCAA National Championship.

Gravel was often used against opposing team's top lines, and when it came time to really show his stuff in the end of the year tournament he was lights out. St. Cloud State stifled high scoring teams like Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) before running into the number-one seed in Quinnipiac. Gravel almost certainly could have made the jump to the pro game this year but opted instead to return to St. Cloud for his senior year. He will be relied upon even more heavily this year as a leader for his team.

Freshman to Watch
Hudson Fasching, RW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)

The freshman to watch for the Kings is going to be Hudson Fasching. Fasching, after a good run with the U.S. National Team Development Program, will join up with the sixth-ranked men’s hockey team in the nation, the great program at the University of Minnesota. Fasching will be one of the youngest players on the team with a whole wealth of elder statesmen in front of him on the depth chart. He will have to fight and claw for every minute of ice time he gets and it will be great to see how he responds to being a small fish in a big pond.

His maturity and his skills will be tested over the course of the next three to four years and what foot he gets off on will be of great import. Fasching has the skills, as many scouts will agree, but the mental aspect of the game will be what challenges him moving forward. Competing at the collegiate level against older competition should be very beneficial to the Minnesota boy.

Offensive Breakout
Michael Mersch, RW, Wisconsin Badgers (Big Ten)

As if Mersch did not have a breakout season in 2012-13, right? He did, but whether he can go further is the question. His 23 goals led the team last season with the University of Wisconsin, and the aim next season should be to capitalize on a talented team that is back on the upswing after a few years of struggles. Mersch is going to have plenty of firepower to accompany him on the Wisconsin squad with eight fellow NHL draftees suiting up alongside.

It is obviously a tall order to think Mersch could carry the Wisconsin offense yet again, but it is not out of the question given his progression and his confidence that he could raise his level to over a point-per-game pace in his senior year.

Europe

Top European Prospect
Nikolai Prokhorkin, LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)

Prokhorkin is the Kings’ best prospect playing overseas, granted they only have two players playing overseas, the second being Tomas Hyka. That is not to say that Prokhorkin is not a fine talent though. He plays a North American brand of hockey which includes a physical edge to him, but his real attributes are the offensive creativity and skill level. He is a slick passer and a great playmaker. It is nice that he compliments this with big bodied play and it will go a long way in making his adjustment to the North American pro game much easier. He is not just pigeon-holed as a top-six player with the skill set he brings. He has the adaptability to be a bottom line grinder or a complimentary top-nine player.

First-Year Pro to watch
Nikolai Prokhorkin, LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)

While Prokhorkin is not a first year pro so to speak, he played parts of three seasons in the top division of the KHL, he has never been a mainstay on a pro roster. He has always moved from the KHL to the VHL or MHL (Russian minor leagues) after short stints. For example, he played no more than 15 games in any KHL season, and their seasons last 52 games.

So with that in mind, this might be the first year in which Prokhorkin is a mainstay on CSKA Moscow’s KHL roster. He has already played the first six games of the year with the big club and has four goals. It would honestly be a big sigh of relief and a big help to his development if he could consistently play against the top level of Russia. Not to mention Moscow is one of the best teams in the KHL on a regular basis with numerous ex-NHL talents. He could learn a lot playing alongside and against grown men.

Unsigned for 2014-15
Tomas Hyka, RW, Farjestad (SHL)

Tomas Hyka is in an incredibly precarious situation. He was drafted as an overage in 2012, and has yet to sign an NHL contract. He is now over in Sweden playing with Farjestad of the SHL, where he will be playing for a contract and a chance to remain in the plans for the Kings.

So was it a wise move for Hyka to go to Sweden? Maybe, maybe not. If he has a good season, the Kings would likely offer the young forward a contract, but the fact that he is in Europe and not right in their house in the AHL or ECHL makes things a touch more difficult. Not much, but a little. Either way, a good season by Hyka playing against the top level of Sweden would be huge if he wants to secure his future with the Kings organization in 2014-15.

Follow Jason Lewis on Twitter: @SirJDL

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