If trades for Patrick O’Sullivan and Jack Johnson did not firmly attach General Manager Dean Lombardi’s name to the current state of the Los Angeles Kings farm system, then the offseason signings of five free-agent prospects rings his name loud and clear. Of the Kings 48 prospects, 28 have been signed to either NHL or AHL contracts, the vast majority of which came to terms under Lombardi’s regime. While it is still the case that most Kings prospects were acquired under Dave Taylor’s watch, it has been Lombardi that has assessed the inherited prospect pool and signed those prospects which he feels are fit for competition at the professional level, which is half the battle.
And competition is the name of the game for the current state of the system. The raw talent is in place in the minor league system for the Kings, now the players must take it upon themselves to apply what they have learned and use their competitiveness to drive themselves in their development to a higher level of performance. While the Kings have one of the most talented and deepest pools of prospects in the NHL, they may find it difficult to fend off equally talented clubs like Chicago, Washington or St. Louis as the top overall farm system. Prospects will now need to convert potential to production at the professional level.
Left Wing: B+
Little has changed at the left wing position in the system since the beginning of last season. No prospect graduated or lost his status as a prospect, only one was added via the draft, and all progressed as can be reasonably expected. The top-end talent is still there with O’Sullivan, and depth with Scott Parse and Matt Moulson. As left wing leaguewide is often filled with physical or grinding forwards that bring intangibles more than skill, if two develop into legitimate offensive threats at the NHL level, this group will prove to be a success.
O’Sullivan entered last season with the goal of locking down a top six forward role with Los Angeles. Outshined by Anze Kopitar in training camp, O’Sullivan found himself on the fourth line, incapable of generating offense with less than gifted forwards surrounding him and struggling to improve his play away from the puck. After a brief stint in Manchester, O’Sullivan was recalled to Los Angeles and showed improved production under similar circumstances as early in the season. The question remains whether O’Sullivan has retained the lessons he learned last season and earn playing time on more skilled lines. If he can excel on lower lines through solid defensive play, awareness and aggression, it bodes well for his future when he earns top line minutes as a more well-rounded forward.
One priority this offseason was to ink Parse to a contract before the signing deadline for college graduates. In addition to being a skilled offensive player, Parse proved to be the well-rounded forward that O’Sullivan is taking strides toward. Parse is skilled at both ends of the ice, showing an awareness that is rare in forward prospects. While no single attribute stands out and screams NHL-caliber, it is the mix of so many different successful characteristics that makes Parse a legitimate high prospect as a puck distributors from the left side. After a year or two with Manchester, he might carve out a niche for himself on the third line for Los Angeles. He is the left wing prospect to keep an eye on most this season as steady development might result in a call-up at some point.
Not far off of Parse in terms of development is Matt Moulson. He spent last season with Manchester as one of the more reliable scorers on the team and returns to Manchester. Moulson has likely already progressed offensively about as far as can be expected for him. Seeing ice time in Los Angeles will now rest on his ability to consistently bring his speed and scoring touch every night. There is little reason why Moulson could not lead Manchester in scoring this season which, due to the extremely high level of talent on their roster, would make the largest case for him being considered by Los Angeles in the future.
After O’Sullivan, Parse and Moulson, there is a significant drop-off in talent at this position. Dwight King is an intriguing prospect that was acquired in the 2007 Entry Draft. A large, physical stature with a developing offensive game, he is a project for a future power forward. Constantin Braun is in his second consecutive season in the highest hockey league in Germany, but is still just a youngster among men and struggling to see significant minutes.
Ned Lukacevic has developed into a speedy defensive specialist that is likely to spend his entire career without getting out of the minor leagues. The new management regime has shown little confidence in his ability to play full time in Los Angeles and with the state of the Monarchs roster the way that it is, Lukacevic is expected to spend the season in Reading once again. Dany Roussin still has not worked his way up the depth charts to compete for an NHL job and, in fact, continues to battle to even earn a job in the AHL. If he fails again in his attempt to earn a starting position in Manchester, he may fall off the depth charts entirely.
Graduation (Kopitar) and a position change (Boyle) has carved into both the depth and top-end talent at the center position for the system. There is still a large quantity of centers in the system, but none outside of Trevor Lewis with solid top-six forward potential. But with Kopitar already anchoring the top line in Los Angeles and Lewis with his eye on the second line in the next year or so, there is little need for immediate top line talent at this position. However, it would be wise to refresh the talent at this position soon so that the cupboard will be stocked for four or five years in the future.
Lewis returns to Manchester for his first full season and will be relied upon to carry much of the offensive load. Fast and skilled, Lewis is perfectly suited to provide a scoring punch from the second or third line for Los Angeles in the near future. He has developed steadily since being selected in the first round of the 2006 Entry Draft and represents the only real potential top six forward out of the group of center prospects. Lewis might be skating a regular shift for Los Angeles as early as next season.
After Lewis, there is a significant drop-off in talent at center. Brady Murray returns to North America after two seasons in Switzerland and is knocking on the door in Los Angeles. He will be used as a part-time fourth line center to start the season and has the overall potential of possibly a third line energy forward with some scoring capabilities. David Meckler and Bud Holloway are the only other center prospects with strong probabilities of making the NHL fulltime. Meckler is currently signed to Manchester, but Los Angeles retains his reserve rights for another two seasons since he left college early. He is a gritty, hard-working center that plays with passion and is not afraid to perform the dirty work around the net. His game is most suited for the third line in the NHL but might show more offensive skills while playing in the AHL. Holloway is a similar gritty, two-way center who can play in all situations and do much of the dirty work in support of the scoring wingers. He has another season in major juniors before he can be considered a legitimate candidate for the NHL.
Bryan Cameron and Josh Turnbull are new draftees. Like Meckler and Holloway, Cameron is a gritty center with some offensive skills. He is still years away from being an option at the NHL level but might develop into a nice third line player. Turnbull will be joining college hockey this coming season and is a development project that can play in all situations on the ice. A full year in college hockey will be a better gauge of his potential. Matt Ryan and Gabe Gauthier provide skill and speed to Manchester and are nothing more than depth forwards in the organization that may be called upon for spot starts in Los Angeles if a high-energy replacement is needed for a game or two. Kevin Westgarth is a physical, grinding forward with little more than fourth line potential. He will be skating in Manchester this season and can be substituted in at either the AHL or NHL level when an increased team physical presence is needed. Matt Fillier is defensive forward that can also act as a middle-weight agitator in some situations. It is not likely that any of the above will have a significant, lasting impact in the NHL although several might see some time in the NHL at some points in their careers.
Right Wing: B+
At this time last season, the right wing position was beginning to thin out. Through trades, free-agent signings and two new draftees, right wing is a position again full of life. Lauri Tukonen headlines the group for the third consecutive year, which is either good or bad depending upon perspective. Ted Purcell adds scoring potential. Oscar Moller and Marc-Andre Cliche contribute two-way capabilities. As a whole, the group is both diverse in styles and deep in options.
Once again, Tukonen is the right wing with the highest potential in the Kings system. But the luster is beginning to fade as he is only marginally closer to the NHL now than when he was originally drafted. He is still young at the age of 21, but injuries and average performance have downgraded his high-end potential projection. He is a potential second line forward for the Kings, but how much offense he can contribute has been called into question. He needs to show something soon or be passed on the depth charts. Being the top right wing prospect for the Kings can be perceived as either a plus, as he is still a quality prospect, or a minus, as the Kings have not drafted or developed any other right wing prospect to the same level in the time that Tukonen has been in the system.
If there are any that might challenge Tukonen as the best right wing prospect, it will likely be out of a group of Ted Purcell, Oscar Moller and Marc-Andre Cliche. Each comes to the Kings via different routes and each provides a different skill set. Purcell signed as an unrestricted free agent after a single season with the University of Maine where he was one of the top scorers in NCAA hockey as an over-aged freshman. Purcell is a playmaker and a creative goal scorer, he has the best pure offensive potential of the bunch with top six forward capabilities but might be better suited as a scoring threat on a third line. Oscar Moller was drafted this year and will continue his development with Chilliwack of the WHL for the next two seasons. He does not have the same pure offensive skills that Purcell has, but is more of well-rounded on-ice leader. Short, but solidly built, Moller is a great candidate for the second line in Los Angeles but is still a few years away from competing for a roster spot. Cliche came to the Kings in a trade deadline deal with the New York Rangers. His offensive production stagnated last season with Lewiston of the QMJHL but he demonstrated solid two-way forward skills and would be a great fit complimenting more skilled forwards on a third line and logging ice time on the penalty kill. He is one of a number of forwards assigned to Manchester this season that will be competing to move up the depth charts.
Wayne Simmonds has an outside of chance of surpassing all those already mentioned. Drafted in 2007, he is a very talented and raw prospect that is years of development away. He will need to add muscle to his large frame, round off the rough edges to his game and improve on his consistency – all of which are typical ills that plague the very youngest of prospects. Right now, it is wait and see with Simmonds while he spends the next two seasons developing in major juniors.
There is little that is covert about John Zeiler. A high-energy, grinding forward, Zeiler is already paying dividends at the NHL level. He spent half of last season with Los Angeles and begins the season there again in 2007-08. But while Zeiler’s game is easily recognizable, there is little upside potential left to his game. He has established himself with Los Angeles as a fourth line forward and is not likely to stray from this position.
Petr Kanko returns to Manchester for his fourth full season. Kanko has not progressed, as personal and work-visa problems have distracted him from his development from day one. After getting his house in order, Kanko has returned to training camp in Manchester in possibly the best shape of his life. If he can shake off the cobwebs that have built up over the years, he might enjoy the best season of his career and find his way into the Los Angeles lineup by the end of the season.
In another offseason signing, Vladimir Dravecky was brought over from Europe where he skated in the top league in Slovakia. He is another physical, third line forward that will provide more depth to the forward corps than to be a scoring weapon. With a little adjustment in Manchester, Dravecky might receive an injury call-up to Los Angeles to provide solid defense.
Mike Curry still has not shown anything at the college level and might be out of the system completely by this time next year.
When looking at the two variables that are generally used to analyze groups of players – high-end potential and overall depth – it would be difficult to find another organization than can compete on the blue line with the Kings mix of both. While it can be said that organizations like Nashville, Boston and Montreal can compete with the Kings overall depth, they would be hard-pressed to compete with the Kings high-end potential in Jack Johnson and Thomas Hickey. On the flip side, while it can be said that organizations like St. Louis and the New York Rangers can compete with the Kings high-end potential, both lack the overall depth enjoyed by Los Angeles. What that equates to is the best group of defensive prospects in the NHL.
Leading off the group, and one of the best defensive prospects in the world, is versatile Jack Johnson. After leaving college hockey at the end of his sophomore season, Johnson got his feet wet in the NHL, appearing in five Kings games at the end of the season. Now, Johnson is firmly planted on the blueline in Los Angeles and on the radar for the Calder Trophy. While it is unlikely that he will garner enough consideration to win the Calder as scoring opportunities are rare for young defensemen, he will be battling Erik Johnson (STL) as the top rookie defenseman this season. Solidly built and physical, while also skilled with a booming shot, Johnson will take his lumps this season but will only grow from his experiences. Barring injury, he is almost assured of graduating from prospect status later this season.
On a level slightly below Johnson, but with similar high-end potential, are Thomas Hickey and Brian Boyle. Hickey was a surprise fourth overall selection in 2007 with tremendous offensive skills that compare favorably to Lubomir Visnovsky. Quick and mobile, Hickey returns to the WHL for another season of development as he will need to increase his strength and stamina to keep up with the rigors of the professional game. If he develops his strength, Hickey will be the perfect power play quarterback compliment to Johnson’s booming shot.
While Hickey and Johnson are born and bred defensemen, Boyle was converted from center this offseason. Boyle had limited upside as a center, not likely to progress much past a physical third line center, but he exhibited the right qualities for a potential top pairing defenseman. At 6’7 with a good physical presence, a potent shot from the point and adequate skating abilities for a player his size, the decision was made to pull Boyle away from the net to utilize his size and shot on the blueline. While this shift is in its infancy, the early indications from training camp point towards a great success. Boyle still is learning his new position and will require further development in Manchester, but he has the raw skills to become a dominating force on the blueline. It will ultimately "boil" down to his ability to learn the proper positioning.
The next tier of defensemen on the depth chart are all battling each other for playing time in Manchester while they hope to catch the eye of the Kings to earn a call-up to Los Angeles. All are very close to playing in the NHL and are a year or two of development away from making significant contributions to Los Angeles. Peter Harrold, Richard Petiot and Joe Piskula have already gotten their feet wet in Los Angeles to varying degrees. Harrold is a diminutive, mobile defenseman who was signed as a free agent out of Boston College and played in a 12 games with Los Angeles towards the middle of last season. In his short time, he demonstrated calmness and solid fundamentals in making his case as the most NHL ready of the group. But his upside is rather limited and it is not expected that he will have much of an impact beyond a solid second pairing or quality third pairing defenseman.
Petiot returns from a knee injury suffered during the 2006 rookie camp. He will need to show no ill effects of the injury to earn a spot with Los Angeles in the near future. He is still big, physical and mobile, but is getting up in age and most establish himself in Los Angeles soon before he is passed on the depth charts by one of the multitude developing in Manchester. One such candidate is Piskula, who finished last season in Los Angeles immediately after signing as a free agent out of college. Piskula was one of the more sought-after free agent defensive defensemen prospects in all of college hockey and was on Lombardi’s radar as being a prospect that can have an immediate impact in Los Angeles. He is a bit one-dimensional and is a prospect who will play fundamental defense without contributing much to the scoresheet.
Also part of this middle tier, but without any NHL experience to date, are Drew Bagnall, Patrik Hersley, Joe Ryan and TJ Fast. Bagnall is another of the offseason signings out of college hockey, where he was recognized as the top defensive performer for the 2006-07 season in being named a Hobey Baker award finalist. Solid and physical, he may develop as high as a No. 4 defenseman. Hersley will join Manchester this season, his first outside of his native Sweden. Similarly physical with an excellent shot, Hersley will benefit from the smaller rinks of North America and might be playing in Los Angeles before the season has finished as a No. 3 defenseman in the making. Ryan requires the most development out of the group. He has been sent back to his junior team. He needs to improve his skating considerably to compete with the faster, stronger skaters of professional hockey. And Fast is a skilled offensive defenseman skating in his first full season in the WHL as a 20-year-old. He left college hockey for the WHL, earning more playing time in the process which is only going to benefit his progress. As one or more of this middle tier move up to Los Angeles, Fast will take their place in Manchester.
Josh Meyers and Alec Martinez have shown good potential to be impact players but are still development projects with multiple years of college hockey eligibility remaining. Meyers is developing into a power play quarterback and Martinez is a mobile, offensive defenseman. Each has limited high-end potential but might be brought in to fill out the Manchester roster as talent moves up to Los Angeles.
Josh Kidd, Martin Nolet and Niklas Andersen are large, physical defensemen who require several more years of development to round out their games and show enough potential to the Kings to warrant bringing them into the fold in Manchester within the next two years. With such a long list of defensive prospects ahead of them on the organizational depth chart, it will be an uphill battle for any of them to see Manchester.
Johan Fransson is an enormous question mark as to whether he will ever actually see this side of the Atlantic. Brought in as part of the package that sent Mattias Norstrom to Dallas, Fransson’s play regressed last year. If he does not correct this, there is no chance that Fransson can bump one of the other already signed defensive prospects for a position in Manchester. Paul Baier has not progressed as a hoped in college hockey and will need a huge year with clear development in order to earn a contract with Los Angeles.
If Jonathan Bernier develops into a stable starting goaltender, if not an all-star, then Lombardi will have done something that no other Kings general manager has been able to do before him – draft and develop a goaltender into a perennial starter for Los Angeles. A handful of goaltenders have been drafted by the Kings that have gone on to success with other organizations. But the Kings are still waiting for their first homegrown stalwart in net. As it is extremely unlikely that Bernier will be traded, Los Angeles may have finally found their man. Subsequently, the overall size of the goaltender prospect pool for Los Angeles has been thinned out of all the late-round projects drafted under Taylor that never progressed (e.g. Yutaka Fukufuji, Matt Zaba).
Bernier is a goaltender who combines a mature skill set with solid technique and calmness under pressure with an underlying competitive attitude. There are few, if any, flaws to his game. Only experience and continuing good habits remain for his development into a No. 1 goaltender. The Kings broke training camp with Bernier on the roster before being sent him back to major juniors for one final season of development. Bernier carries this group of goaltender prospects into the upper tier of all NHL organizations.
Taken in the third round of the draft the same year as Bernier, Jeff Zatkoff has won the platoon battle at Miami University and emerged as the fulltime starter. Long and athletic, Zatkoff has steadily improved in his brief college hockey career. But it is often difficult to project college goaltenders as they are largely a product of the defensive system played in front of them. A better read of Zatkoff’s potential will need to wait until he plays against the stiffer competition of the AHL. If he continues to progress as he has with Miami, he likely would be targeted for the AHL as Bernier is expected to be in Los Angeles by the time of Zatkoff’s graduation from college.
Filling out the minor league depth chart in net is Jonathan Quick and Daniel Taylor. Quick was one of the best young goaltenders in college hockey when he left after his sophomore season with the University of Massachusetts to pursue professional hockey. He signed with Los Angeles during the offseason and was assigned to Reading of the ECHL to play full-time minutes instead of watching the game from the bench in Manchester. Good lateral movement and positioning made Quick a successful goaltender in college, but he is now facing stiffer competition. He will have a couple of seasons to prove that he is an NHL-caliber goaltender in at least a backup roll if not as a starter.
Daniel Taylor is another of the aforementioned late-round projects who was drafted under the Taylor regime but not progressed as hoped. After a terrible campaign in the ECHL last season, Taylor has a long road ahead of him to work is way back into the possible candidates for action in the AHL and NHL.
New draftee Linden Rowat is the fulltime starter in Regina of the WHL, a league that has traditionally been the best breeding ground for goaltending prospects. Rowat will be left to develop at his own pace under the tutelage of the Kings goaltending consultants. With the professional ranks well stocked and still two or more years of major junior eligibility left, Rowat provides solid depth to the group with a hope for more several years down the line.
There was only a single prospect graduation since the beginning of last season. However, the graduation was one of the most significant in recent history for the Kings. Kopitar locked down a roster spot with Los Angeles during the 2006 training camp and then anchored himself on the first line for the remainder of the season with two goals against the Ducks in the first game of the season.
Konstantin Pushkarev was included in a trade deadline deal with Mattias Norstrom and draft picks to Dallas for Jaroslav Modry, Johan Fransson and draft picks. Fransson is still in the system and Modry was re-signed by the Kings. Ryan Munce was flipped for a fourth round draft pick and John Seymour was included in a package that brought Cliche, among others, in return.
If isolated, the various deals involving draft picks would make the production for the year merely average. But the huge benefit that Kopitar was to Los Angeles single-handily pushes the production for the year above average.
The loss of Kopitar is significant to the overall outlook of the forward prospects currently in the system. The depth at forward is still there with some high offensive talent. But with Kopitar graduated, Tukonen stagnating and Boyle shifted to defense, the top end talent is extremely thin and void of a true franchise-caliber forward. Even if one looks to Kopitar as the franchise-caliber forward, which he most certainly is, an organization needs more than one in the fold to keep the system generating talent. This group of forward prospects, while deep, is merely above average on the whole.
On defense, if Johnson, Hickey, Boyle and three out of the six in the middle tier make it to Los Angeles, it will represent six homegrown defensemen on the roster. When was the last time an organization can boast that all six defensemen were homegrown and around the same relative age? While such a success is still years away and easier said than done, it does represent a very real and strong possibility which would not have otherwise been conceivable without the trade for Johnson, the conversion from center by Boyle, and the signings of Harrold, Piskula and Bagnall, all of which occurred under the Lombardi regime. Mix in NHL veterans already locked down to long-term contracts (Visnovsky) and one or more of this group might be used as trade bait to land a dynamic scoring forward.
Bernier was given a look-see at the NHL level, but eventually returned to juniors. Regardless, Bernier has progressed and demonstrated that he is one of the best goaltender prospects in all of hockey. He clearly carries the group of goaltender prospects, with both Quick and Zatkoff looking to develop into solid starters in their own right.
If the parent organization can remain patient, then the competitive conditions that have been created in Manchester will reward the organization with large and continuous payouts within the next two years. Most systems are modestly stocked and individual prospects are targeted for development and possible greatness at the NHL level. For the Kings, they have grouped them together in the same place at the same time, and need only wait for the cream to rise to the top. But as the cream does rise and prospects are moved on to the next level in their development, the organization will need to be active in replenishing what has been lost to graduation or trades. If they are successful at this by continuing to fuel the engine, the Kings farm system has turned the corner as a whole. Taylor built the farm system, Lombardi has taken it to the next level.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.