Follow-up seasons and fresh starts await many of the Los Angeles Kings Top 20 prospects

By Jason Lewis

Alex Lintuniemi - Los Angeles Kings

Photo: Rough-and-tumble Finn Alex Lintuniemi was the highest scoring defenseman on the Ottawa 67’s last season, a performance that helped him to the number two slot among LA’s defensive prospects (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

 

10. (17) Zach Leslie, D, 7.0D
‏Drafted 6th round, 178th overall in 2013

‏Guelph took a step back this year (not a big one), but Zach Leslie did not. He maintained his performance level during a season in which he very easily could have been complacent. He remained a very productive puck-mover despite the Storm going from a team that scored 340 goals in 2013-14 to 237 in 2014-15. His quick outlets and heads-up thinking made him one of the team’s most valuable defenseman and a catalyst on the offensive side of things. Good outlets and movement out of the zone are two elements that the Kings organization loves seeing from defensemen, and Leslie is strong in both areas. His season was prematurely shut down due to shoulder problems that troubled him for most of the season. He begins his career with Ontario in 2015-16 and could very well be a big under the radar prospect for the Kings.

9. (7) Nic Dowd, C, 6.5C
‏Drafted 7th round, 108th overall in 2009

‏The Kings have been incubating Nic Dowd for a while now. They allowed him to finish all four years of college, and at age 24 he made his rookie debut in the AHL. All the waiting seemed worth it as the St. Cloud alum put up 41 points in his rookie season, capping it off with a 13 point post-season. Like Nick Shore before him, Dowd is an excellent shutdown forward with good face-off ability. He is going to see a very elevated role with Ontario next year as the center spots open up in front of him. Will it be a sophomore slump or more continued success from the versatile center?

8. (NR) Erik Cernak, D, 6.5B
‏Drafted 2nd round, 43rd overall in 2015

‏The Slovakian defenseman has been getting rave reviews for his defensive game already. Standing at a hefty 6’3 and 200 pounds, Cernak is a long-limbed, physical defenseman who has been a nightmare for opponents of the Slovakian league and the various World Junior rosters. While the offensive game is a bit in question, and an improvement in skating is needed, the 18-year old has had some great showings playing against grown men in Europe already. Both physically and mentally he already looks ready to step in to the North American pro game. It is one of three potential landing spots (the Erie Otters of the OHL, the Slovak league, or the AHL) for the Kosice, Slovakia native this coming season.

7. (11) Alex Lintuniemi, D, 7.0D
‏Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall in 2014

‏The Finn has risen to the number two defenseman spot in the Kings system in a very short time. Lintuniemi has so many tools in the tool box it is hard not to be intrigued by his potential. Physically he has proven to be a somewhat dominating force in the OHL, he has shown a good overall hockey sense and transition game, and took a step forward in the offensive portion of the game this past season with the Ottawa 67’s. While the skating still must improve, the 19-year old has an already strong all-around skill set that is still developing. The ceiling looks potentially high for Lintuniemi.

6. (16) Michael Mersch, RW, 7.0D
‏Drafted 4th round, 110th overall in 2011

‏Former Wisconsin Badger Mersch was ranked 16th in the midterm rankings last season. While that seems regrettable in hindsight, it makes sense when looking at the otherworldly second half of 2014-15 that Mersch had. The bullish winger posted 45 points and 22 goals in his 76 game AHL rookie season. He also put up 22 points in 18 playoff games. This becomes astounding when you consider that the 22-year old had only 16 points and 7 goals through the first 44 games of his rookie season. In the final 50 games of both the regular season and playoffs, Mersch scored 28 goals and 51 points. That is what you call finishing strong. 

5. (4) Derek Forbort, D, 7.0D
‏Drafted 1st round, 15th overall in 2010

‏Is this the year Derek Forbort makes the show? The Kings have been waiting, and so have the fans. It seems, maybe, that it will be the year the big defenseman finally gets some valuable NHL time. With an opening on the Kings blueline, and an altogether solid 2014-15 in the AHL, the time could be ripe. The depth chart in front of him has proven difficult to crack in the past, and there is still work to be done for the steady defenseman. His eligibility to avoid waivers could see him start in the A once more. A bit of killer instinct probably would not hurt the 23-year old in snatching at the opportunity that is in front of him. He remains the only member of the 2010 NHL first round to not play a game at the highest level.

4. (5) Jordan Weal, C/W 7.0D
‏Drafted 3rd round, 70th overall in 2010

‏As with Forbort, this could be a make or break year in Jordan Weal’s standing with the Kings. It has been a long time coming, but after an outstanding MVP-worthy regular season and MVP-winning playoff run with Manchester of the AHL, the time may be the best right now. The crafty and diminutive winger has proven capable of scoring and creating chances with regularity for the better part of three professional seasons. A potential transition from center to wing may finally give him the opening he needs to crack the Kings’ bottom lines for good.

3. (1) Valentin Zykov, RW, 7.5C
‏Drafted 2nd round, 37th overall in 2013

‏Zykov has a lot going for him. He has offensive skill, defensive skill, leadership, a great work ethic, and a determined attitude. Does he excel to a blue chip degree in any of the on-ice areas though? That remains the biggest question with one of the Kings’ more prized prospects. He has a good all-around skill set but may not be an outstanding player in any major area. Does that slot him in the top six in the future? The bottom six? You have to like the hard-working attitude and ethic of the Russian, but he is going to have something to prove as he enters the AHL. Can he score and play defense well enough at the next level to be a relevant top end prospect? The attitude says yes, the skill set is still hanging in the balance.

2. (3) Nick Shore, C, 7.0B
‏Drafted 3rd round 82nd overall in 2011

‏Nick Shore will almost certainly lose his Hockey’s Future prospect status to graduation in 2015-16. After slotting in at the fourth line center position with the Kings in the second half of the year, the University of Denver product looks to have the third center spot locked up to start the season. It was not an easy 2014-15 for Shore. He obliterated the AHL in scoring before moving up to the NHL and struggling out the gates. He saw tremendous improvements in many possession metrics like shot differential and goals for percentage by the end of the season. With the Kings being a heavily possession-based team, these were excellent developments. His strong faceoff ability and defensive game make him a natural in-house replacement for the departed Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards.

1. (2) Adrian Kempe, RW, 7.5B
‏Drafted 1st round, 29th overall in 2014

‏If there was doubt about his offensive game translating to the pro level in North America, Kempe eased that doubt considerably when he scored eight goals in 17 playoff games upon arrival to the Monarchs. Not only did the Swede score in these high-intensity playoff games, he looked like an excellent fit all around. His skating, determination, and intensity in the offensive zone and on the forecheck provided a fantastic boost for the Monarchs depth. Coupled with a strong hockey sense, size, and a developing defensive game, Kempe is starting to look like a real deal potential top six forward for the Kings. He will have a lot to learn, and his first full season in the AHL will be a great measuring stick. However, the 18-year old jumps up to the top spot in the Kings system and may move on to even higher recognition with a stellar rookie campaign in the AHL.

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