The Los Angeles Kings system, while you would expect a drop off in quality due to several playoff appearances in the last few years, has remained relatively strong.
The system lacks a superstar punch to it outside of top talent like Tyler Toffoli, but mid and late round drafting has helped the organization build a steady pipeline of healthy potential NHL players, albeit of the unspectacular kind. The depth charts are filled with prospects with a variety of projected NHL utility, and several like Toffoli, Linden Vey, Andy Andreoff, and Tanner Pearson, who are looking very close to being NHL players right now. In the middle parts of the depth chart the Kings tend to veer towards players with bang-or-bust potential or players with tremendous physical tools, such as Justin Auger and Nicolas Deslauriers, and try to work from there. It is not a bad way to build a system, and it has worked in the past with some notable late round selections like Jordan Nolan, Alec Martinez, and Dwight King.
The left wing position is probably the area of biggest weakness in the Kings’ system. With only five players listed under the left wing category in our charts it should come with the caveat that the Kings like to swap and rotate wings if they are capable of doing so. Trevor Lewis is a prime example of a player listed as a right wing but capable of playing center or left wing. It would not be out of the question to see the Kings try and play the likes of Kozun, Tomas Hyka, or Valentin Zykov on the left side instead of the right.
None the less, for purposes of categorization the Kings only have five natural left wingers currently. Tanner Pearson is the rock star of the group and one of the most NHL-ready prospects the system currently has. His great 47-point rookie season with the Monarchs put him on the map, and his strong, power forward game suits the King system well. With potential utility on all four lines, not being pigeon-holed into a top-six role, Pearson looks more and more like an NHL player as the games go by. He has shown a lot of prowess as the dirty worker on lines with more highly skilled players, which is underlined by his success with Tyler Toffoli and Linden Vey. He walked away with 19 goals of his own, some of them skilled goals, others by planting himself in the crease and picking up the trash.
Behind Pearson the Kings hit a couple of promising, yet enigmatic Russian prospects in Nikolai Prokhorkin and Maxim Kitsyn. Both players fit the typical Russian mold of being cognitive and highly skilled technical players, but divert from the mold when you incorporate their penchant for physical play. With each player standing at 6’2 and 6’3 respectively they already have NHL size. Prokhorkin is currently having a phenomenal start to his 2013-14 season with CSKA Moscow of the KHL playing against full grown men, while Kitsyn is fighting to get into a roster spot with the Monarchs after floundering around in Russia the last two years. His readjustment to the North American game will likely take some time. Prokhorkin, a fourth round pick from 2012 is starting to look like a real gem. While he has not probably been given enough credit in the past for his skills, he is having an eye-opening start to the season at the top level of the KHL. He may be that skilled left winger the Kings are looking for in the top-six when his time in Russia is done.
While the Cornell Big Red did not have a great season in 2012-13, sophomore Joel Lowry certainly did, as he was third on the squad in points and second in goals. His upside seems somewhat limited at this time, but he still has another two years to develop at the NCAA level.
Last but not least is the raw but talented Dominik Kubalik of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves. He had a decent first year with Sudbury, and is off to a fantastic start in his second full season in the OHL with seven goals, three assists in his first nine games. He is a great skater and a creative playmaker who also likes to play physically. He is one of many players in the Kings’ system that has a lot of desirable tools but has a few glaring deficiencies. In Kubalik’s case, his habit of staying on the perimeter will have to change to fit the Kings’ system. Hopefully they can shape and develop him into a worthy talent. If not, he was a seventh-round selection.
While the right wing was formerly an area of weakness, the Kings have absolutely loaded up on right wing talent over the past two to three drafts.
Tyler Toffoli has come into the system with guns blazing, and was one of the AHL’s leading scorers in his rookie season and even saw time in the NHL during the postseason. His nose for the net, his natural ability to find scoring areas, and a top-level shot release have already made him a name amongst King fans as a goal scorer for the near future. The right wing position in the NHL is currently nailed down it seems so the Kings can afford to slow play the 21-year-old a little bit. Another good season at the AHL though and there will be no holding him back. A point per game pace at the AHL is not something you keep down.
Zykov is an intriguing player, and as a second round pick in 2013 the Kings are going to get tremendous value from him. His work ethic alone sets him apart from other players, as wherever he has gone he has been commended for his effort. He had a tremendous camp with the Kings and will embark on his second season with Baie-Comeau of the QMJHL, looking to topple his 75-point rookie season. The Kings right wing corps is loaded, and Zykov benefits from being able to play both wings. That alone could boost the probability of the young Russian making the NHL sooner rather than later. He is just 18 and already has enough skill for a 40-goal season at the junior level, so the ceiling is looking rather high for Zykov.
Tomas Hyka has continued to bounce around and this year has landed in Sweden, playing for Färjestad. It is not the worst move for Hyka, as the highly skilled forward will be competing against some solid talent in the SHL. The only thing with Hyka is that he could be eligible to re-enter the draft if he is not signed by this coming offseason. A big season will be needed overseas, and there is a lot of doubt hanging over the young Czech’s head. He is still a noteworthy talent and hopefully the Kings can retain him, if he earns it that is.
If there is one wild card in the right wing group it is Hudson Fasching. At 18 years old and 6’3 and 220 pounds, Fasching is already a brute. However, he has a silky smooth game that goes along with that big frame, lending to the intriguing nature of the Minnesota native. He has been very good in the USNTDP, and gets to play for his home state University of Minnesota this year. The Kings will likely be patient with Fasching, who has a lot of raw and natural talent, and the maturity level he will obtain during a four-year college career could push him over the top. For a fourth round pick there is a tremendous amount of potential in the young power forward.
Michael Mersch is another player who benefits from being able to play both right and left wing, an important trait to have in this system. Just like the aforementioned Fasching, the Kings selected Mersch in the fourth round and have slow-played him through the collegiate level due to his raw potential when selected. They have seen marked improvements year after year from the Wisconsin Badger and as he enters his senior season in 2013-14 he has carved out a nice little place in the Kings depth chart for himself as a potential complimentary top-nine player. He has size and strength and has improved year after year on his offensive numbers.
Once the top prospect on right wing for the Kings, Brandon Kozun has fallen into a tough spot. He did not make the team out of the 2013-14 Kings camp and cleared waivers to get back down to the AHL. At 23, turning 24 in March, it is tough to say Kozun has a spot in the NHL with the Kings, as more and more talent piles up in front of him with a game that is perhaps more suited to the Los Angeles style. Nonetheless, he has shown skill and smarts at the AHL and is still an outside shot for a call up. His window of opportunity is certainly getting smaller and smaller though.
The Kings camp had two very impressive performances from relatively unexpected places. One was from former University of Denver center Nick Shore, and the other was from free agent camp invitee Scott Sabourin. Sabourin, who was passed over in the draft last season, went from a 19-point season in 2011-12 with Oshawa of the OHL to a 50-point season the next year. He played his way onto the Monarchs team with great camps, and even had a few goals and fights in the LA Kings preseason games. You have to like the fire and determination that Sabourin brings, and as a free agent signee why not take a chance on a guy who was that impressive in camp? As of two years ago Sabourin was not likely on too many team’s radar, and here he is earning himself an entry-level contract with a recent Stanley Cup Champion.
Justin Auger is one of those players that the Kings select in the late rounds due to a very unique skill set. Auger’s is his size. At 6’7 the Kings see a lot of potential for growth, and perhaps usefulness in their system that thrives on big players who are hard to play against. While Auger needs to get stronger, you cannot teach size. He has some offensive skill to go along with it and will be looking to jump up this year in his third season with Guelph. Unfortunately he has come down with an injury after just one game, which could keep him out for an extended amount of time.
Brian O’Neill, the 25-year old Yale grad, was a spot starter bottom liner for the Monarchs last season. While he had a great collegiate career with several 45+ point seasons, it is hard to see him having any impact in the NHL with his size (5’9), age, and competition in front of him.
The Kings possess a variety of centerman, all with very unique skill sets and intriguing potential efficacy.
Nick Shore had an absolutely killer camp with the NHL squad this fall and was amongst the final cuts to be made. Coach Darryl Sutter had some very complimentary things to say of Shore and hinted that when he has seen more pro level experience he may get his shot. He is a responsible centerman and is noted for his aptitude in the faceoff dot. He does not have real killer offensive ability but his skills lend nicely to being a responsible bottom line center at the NHL.
Linden Vey is another centerman, who in a different system you could argue may already be in the NHL. Vey has had a great rookie and sophomore season at the AHL level making noteworthy improvements between the two seasons. What stands out about Vey is how incredibly intelligent he is on and off the puck. Along with that he is a very skilled playmaker. You would have to imagine Vey is in a first-call-up situation for the Kings given his track record so far.
Andreoff is probably the next most NHL-ready center the Kings have, and a lot of people believed he would be in consideration for the fourth line center spot to start the year with the Kings. However he was sent back down to Manchester towards the end of camp and will have to have a solid sophomore year to keep up with those around him. Andreoff is a nasty and agitating forward who also can kill penalties and chip in offensively. If there is one thing going for the 22-year-old, it is that he fits very well into the Kings style.
Jordan Weal was also impressive in camp and impressive in his AHL rookie season, but there still is the question of his size hanging over him. Despite solid production and impressive play from Weal, it will be even harder for him to crack the lineup at the center position, arguably a more physically demanding position, given how they have passed over Kozun at wing. He has an eerily similar development path to that of Kozun, but hopefully Weal can get his shot.
It is hard to gauge what kind of year 2013 fifth-round pick Jonny Brodzinski will have with St. Cloud State this season. He was incredibly impressive in his rookie season with the Huskies, however he was playing with Hobey Baker Award winner Drew LeBlanc (CHI) on his line. LeBlanc was arguably the best passer in the NCAA which probably helped Brodzinski pad his stats a little. Either way he has three more years to show LeBlanc was not the only reason he scored.
Brodzinski’s teammate Nic Dowd also had a great year with the Huskies and was amongst the leading scorers of the team. Dowd has been a slow developer, but a steady developer with a positive arc. Scouts love to see improvement like that, and the responsible and intelligent center can cap off a great college career with a sound senior season this year. It would not at all hurt his value moving into the pros if he could.
Robert Czarnik is very much the forgotten man in this group of centers. A former third-round selection, Czarnik has spent two years as a frequent press box member and fringe player for the Monarchs. When he does get in the lineup he has been relegated to fourth line duty. He is slowly moving down the depth chart, and it is hard to see him having much of a future with the organization unless he can turn around after a lackluster 2012-13.
The Kings have a number of decent defenseman floating through the system and it all starts with Derek Forbort.
Forbort has had a long and somewhat slow development in his career. Many fans expected more from Forbort throughout his collegiate career, and even scouts were somewhat baffled by the wall he hit in his offensive game. That being said Forbort has been steady and consistent. He has started well with the Monarchs in 2013-14, which will be his first full pro season. If he can better use his natural size, Forbort could be a very valuable piece to the Kings’ defensive crew moving forward.
An equally valuable piece that has emerged over the last several season is no-nonsense defenseman Kevin Gravel. While Forbort is valued for his potential all-around game, Gravel has made himself known in the NCAA at St. Cloud State for being one of the best shutdown defensemen at the collegiate level. Gravel has one more year at St. Cloud before heading to the pro level, and it could not come at a better time as the Kings are currently dressing three defensive defensemen over 30 in Matt Greene, Robyn Regehr, and Willie Mitchell.
The Monarchs have a pair of rookie pros in Alex Roach and Colin Miller this season who are coming off outstanding final CHL seasons. Roach, a big bruising defenseman with an offensive flare was tremendous with the Calgary Hitmen last season but has been a healthy scratch so far to start the year in the AHL. Colin Miller, the two-way puck-mover, was a leader with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and has been solid thus far in his first pro season. Each player is considered a low-risk, high-reward player, but the opportunities for playing time are there for the taking in a very young Monarchs blue line.
One of the veterans of the Monarchs is 22-year-old Nicolas Deslauriers. Moving into his third season with the Monarchs it seems like there has been talk about the raw physical talent and Jack Johnson-esque play of Deslauriers for some time. However, the young defenseman is still trying to find his way around the defensive side of the game. One major development though is that Deslauriers has recently been moved to playing left wing, an idea that he has apparently embraced. Whether he sticks or not remains to be seen, but that would certainly take the pressure off parts of the game he has struggled with in the past.
Nick Ebert, a 2012 seventh-round selection, had a rough outing in 2012-13 and arguably took a step back in his third year of juniors. He was returned for his final year with Windsor of the OHL and hopefully the young puck-mover can improve rather than regress.
Kurtis MacDermid is a rough and tumble defenseman who excels at the physical aspect of the game. He is not overly big but he plays big, which is an important factor. He has very little offensive upside, with an eight-point 2012-13 season with Owen Sound, but he has already blown away that pace in 2013-14. If he could put up some better numbers he might be able to define himself as more than just a simple agitating and defensive minded defenseman.
It is fitting to finish up with Zachary Leslie, who is rather unassuming, but has made tremendous progress over his career thus far. He jumped from 17 points in his rookie season with Guelph to 40 in his second. He is on pace to break that point total early on in 2013-14 with nine points in nine games. He is just one of many low-risk, high-reward picks that the Kings make in later rounds, who make significant strides season to season. The King scouts, if anything, recognize a positive arc in player development and try to take a chance on someone on the upswing. Leslie is a perfect example of this.
In the way of goaltenders, the King system is going through a bit of a mini rebuild. However it is not really imperative that a contender emerge from the group of three at this time given the solidity between the pipes the team has at the NHL level. Jonathan Quick is just starting a 10-year contract, and Ben Scrivens is a cheap and reliable backup who knows his role.
The AHL Manchester Monarchs currently holds two of the contenders for the NHL backup job in Martin Jones and Jean-Francois Berube. Jones did not necessarily start out 2013-14 on the right foot, as a holdout situation saw him miss a good majority of the Kings’ camp. In his first couple of games though with the Monarchs he has put up stellar numbers. It has never been about the single game performances with Jones though, but more or less the long haul. Consistency has plagued him over the last two seasons, as extreme highs are coupled with extreme lows. That being said he is only 23 and has time to figure it out. His numbers have been good the last two years in the pros and he will be the bulk starter in Manchester again.
Behind Jones is J.F. Berube, who has bided his time in the QMJHL, ECHL, and now gets to be in the AHL for a limited backup role. He will probably see in the range of 15-20 starts this year unless a hiccup by Jones (which is not unheard of) calls for more starts. He is going to have to do a lot to impress, and impress quickly as a very intriguing talent in Patrik Bartosak is making waves in the juniors.
With that we segue to the final goaltender for the Kings, the Czech Patrik Bartosak. When you look at the accolades from last season (WHL All-star, CHL Goaltender of the Year) it is hard to believe Bartosak was a fifth-round pick. That is the reality of goaltending drafting these days though. Bartosak also has a rather unorthodox style and a history of injuries. That being said he is an incredibly athletic goaltender similar to current Kings starter Jonathan Quick. He is off to a decent third year with Red Deer of the WHL, and as a player who turns 21 in March, the Kings will be closely watching his development to see if he is a potential AHL player come next season.
Follow Jason Lewis on Twitter: @SirJDL