Minor league system for LA Kings brimming with character

By Andrew Knoll
Photo: In his rookie pro season, Linden Vey has 11 goals and 11 assists through 44 games. (Photo courtesy of NHL)

Not long ago, the Kings system was brimming with depth. Now, thanks to graduations, trades, departures overseas, and a transformation in the goals of the franchise’s management, the organizational depth has taken a bit of a hit. Former top-ranked prospect Brayden Schenn was traded in the Mike Richards deal, the Kings did not have a first-round selection this year and they traded another former first-rounder last season. The results in Manchester have been a middling team filled with players who are reasonably proficient in many areas but truly excel in few facets of the game. Those attributes extend from individual players to the team as a whole, although there are still some promising individual talents on the roster.

Andrei Loktionov, C, 21

Loktionov, once an obvious standout among his peers in the organization, has sustained some setbacks in the form of injuries and adjustments to the North American game. While he has often put up very respectable point totals in Manchester, he has seldom been a leader on offense. A playmaker by trade, he can capitalize on opportunities with his passing but is neither an outstanding creator of chances nor a strong shooter. He has major strength issues and is easily knocked off the puck. This makes it difficult to utilize one of his strengths, his ability to make plays in traffic, since physical opponents are able to eliminate him from the play.

Perhaps the biggest concern with Loktionov has been that each of his past two seasons have ended with shoulder injuries that required surgery, one to each shoulder. Some close observers wonder if he will ever gain the strength and confidence to take full advantage of his hands, passing ability and vision. Loktionov has continued to be first in line for call-ups to the Kings this season after a couple stints with the big club last season. He has played both center and left wing, however by both his coaches’ word and his own admission, he is a natural center. His call-ups have seen him play on Los Angeles’ first, second and third lines, as well as both their power-play units. At no point has he dazzled at the top level, although he makes the occasional impressive pass off the wall during a power play.

Martin Jones, G, 22

Jones drew high praise from the Kings coaching staff in his third training camp with the big club. Outgoing head coach Terry Murray and goalie coach Bill Ranford each praised his maturity, confidence, technical improvement and leadership during the rookie camp and preseason. Jones was the first goalie on the depth chart after Kings roster goalies Jonathan Bernier and Jonathan Quick. His poise and presence in the net was noticeably stronger and carried himself with more certainty.

His AHL campaign, however, sputtered at the start as a combination of poor defense and arrhythmic goaltending set his season off to a brutal beginning. He has since righted his ship, rising to a 12-12-1 record and .912 save percentage. Much like last year, hot runs by both he and Jeff Zatkoff have led to a reasonably even split of starts in net for the two Monarchs goalies. At this point, Jones seems like a player with fairly strong backup potential and an outside shot at developing into a starter. His strongest play still came late in the 2010-11 season with Manchester.

Jeff Zatkoff, G, 24

Zatkoff has been the better goalie statistically, riding a turnaround in the overall play of the club and the consistency it brought. His record and save percentage are both better than those of Martin Jones, who bore the brunt of a misfire at the start of the season. Zatkoff has above average size at a somewhat lanky 6’3", an asset that helps him erase some errors in reads or positioning at times. He possesses decent lateral mobility but it neither exceptionally quick nor athletic.

At 24, Zatkoff is likely behind four goalies on the organizational depth chart who range from a draftee (Christopher Gibson) to a young starter in his prime (Jonathan Quick). While he has put up solid numbers in the AHL, earning Goalie of the Month honors last season, his NHL future remains cloudy. He does not scream out to onlookers in net, he seems to put on the gear, stop the puck and go home. That makes for an effective goalie to a certain point, but Zatkoff does not project the intangibles of an elite goalie prospect.

Jordan Nolan, RW, 22

Nolan has blossomed of late, turning in an impressive rookie camp and a fine preseason before matching last season’s totals in about one third of this AHL campaign. Once a super-sized project with a projectable frame and athletic ability, but seemingly limited coordination, Nolan now looks every bit the player. His game is a buzzing game with a physical, aggressive mentality in all areas of the ice.

There were executives in the OHL who raved about Nolan’s potential to develop in a five-year span after his draft year and he has begun to prove them right. Nolan has become more coordinated physically and put together his skills more cohesively. He may develop into a winning player, the kind of guy who wins boards battles, sets a physical tone in games, moves the puck effectively, and occasionally turns in some timely secondary scoring. He has shown determination on and off the ice, where he has developed into an increasingly impressive physical specimen.

Linden Vey, RW, 20

Coming off a dominant offensive season in Medicine Hat during which he led the WHL in scoring, Vey has made a relatively smooth transition to the AHL. Ice time has not been easy to come by for rookies under head coach Mark Morris, but Vey seen an increase of over the course of the season. While he has not taken the league by storm, his respectable totals do not tell the full story of his contributions. Vey has come up with timely goals and seems to elevate his game as the stakes increase.

Like most players his age, Vey faces two major obstacles, experience and size. Having played for a competitive team with other prominent prospects such as Tigers linemate Emerson Etem (ANA), Vey may have a step on some players his age on the former front. On the latter, however, he appears smaller and less physically sound than many of his counterparts. Vey remains the most promising of Los Angeles’ undersized players, but his ETA at the NHL level is likely beyond the foreseeable future.

Dwight King, C/LW, 22

King has been one of the last players to leave training camp in each of the past two seasons and even dressed briefly last year during the period in which the Kings had a revolving-door situation at left wing. King’s competitiveness made him a favorite of outgoing coach Terry Murray and last season he put up stronger offensive numbers. This year, however, Murray has been dismissed at the NHL level while King’s production has been anemic at the AHL level.

His competitiveness and versatility make him one of several players in Manchester who may be labeled as jacks of many trades but masters of none in particular. While he is still just 22 years old, his own lack of production and some changes within the organization may very well have left him in tenuous standing with the Kings.

Justin Azevedo, C, 23

Acevedo is a player who thrives on speed, with solid quickness and excellent hip action. While he seemed an unlikely candidate to make the Kings roster, Acevedo was among the last players sent to Manchester from training camp. He has worked hard to improve his fitness and physique, looking to maximize the potential for his slight frame.

For the second straight season, he has posted respectable offensive totals. However, for the second straight coaching hire, the Kings have gone with a head man who believes in big, two-way players who make life difficult for opponents. With the Kings or any other team, Acevedo will have to transform into an explosive scorer in order to stick at the top level.

Brandon Kozun, RW, 21

Kozun is another small, quick forward for the Monarchs. His increased production and ramped-up effort contributed considerably to their turn around after stumbling off the blocks this season. His speed remains impressive and his hands are generally on pace with his feet. An extremely competitive player, Kozun hates losing as much as anyone in the AHL, a trait that stands out to even casual observers.

In camp, Kozun demonstrated that competitiveness among his peers and showed the type of upgrade he could be to the Kings’ team speed. Even so, he did not seem to be a favorite among the coaching staff in rookie camp or training camp. In his aspirations to be a King or play for any other NHL team, Kozun must overcome his size and win coaches over with results. He certainly does not lack confidence. Despite playing in zero NHL games, he has maintained that he is ready for the grand stage.

Jake Muzzin, D, 21

Muzzin made the jump from an overage junior season to the NHL last season. He impressed the Kings in camp with his physical maturity, seeing-eye shot, and ability to make high-impact hits. Although he did not stick for the entire season at the pro level, the campaign definitely put Muzzin on a much faster track to a prominent place within the organization. He captained the Kings rookies in their competition against Phoenix’s neophytes this summer. He was also a captain with the Saulte St. Marie Greyhounds, where he was regarded by OHL coaches as one of the most complete defensemen in the league.

At the AHL level, Muzzin has been a definitive two-way defenseman, boasting more offensive upside than a stay-at-home rearguard but stronger defensive ability than a puck-moving or offensive-minded blueliner. His numbers reflect that, apart from his plus/minus rating bearing the brunt of some broader defensive struggles. Muzzin is roughly the Kings’ eighth defenseman now, behind their five roster regulars, Alec Martinez and Slava Voynov. Even so, he could easily be playing in the NHL on a team with less depth. He made a great deal of progress in a short period of time and now appears to benefitting from a more tempered approach to his development.

Slava Voynov, D, 22

Drew Doughty‘s contract dispute gave Voynov a chance to emerge as the Kings’ seventh defenseman in the preseason and an injury to Alec Martinez put him on main club’s roster after just eight games with Manchester. Voynov has been a pleasant surprise for the Kings, turning in three multi-point games en route to 11 points in 31 contests in 2011-12. He has also been steadier than advertised on defense, skating at a plus-four rating and rarely becoming a liability.

A right-handed shot with a quick release and strong instincts, Voynov has strong potential to put up points and key rushes. While his size is not ideal for a top-level defenseman, he has worked to add muscle, now courting the 200-pound mark and demonstrating improved strength. In an organization once crowded with defense prospects, Voynov appears to have moved to the head of the pack.

Thomas Hickey, D, 23

On paper, Hickey does not look dissimilar to ascending prospects like Muzzin and Voynov. His point totals are respectable and he skates in the black. He also received some chances to play in the preseason during the arduous negotiations with Drew Doughty and he has remained a Monarchs regular. However, Hickey has been surpassed by several other defensemen in the organization and seen his value plummet for reasons that are at once intangible and widely agreed upon by observers.

While Hickey has developed into a decent puck mover with a nifty wrist shot, his competitiveness has simply not been up to par. For a team that prides themselves on being tough to play against, Hickey falls well short in terms of his physical play.

Hickey will represent the Manchester Monarchs in the 2012 AHL All-Star game.

Andrew Campbell, D, 24

Campbell is yet another sort of middling player, with few identifiable deficiencies in his game but few major strengths either. While he boasts NHL size, he is not overly physical. Where he can make respectable decisions with the puck, he has demonstrated little creativity. At 24, he has not reached a major impasse but there has to be some concern about his NHL future as he is surpassed on both sides by other Kings defense prospects.

Another Sault St. Marie product, Campbell came in with the reputation as a defensive defenseman who could also be reliable offensively. He has taken a step forward on the offensive side this season, as he is two points shy of his 2010-11 in exactly half as many games in this campaign. At 6’4 and over 200 pounds, Campbell should have every opportunity to keep pushing toward the big show.

Nicolas Deslauriers, D, 21

Deslauriers has been a bit of a letdown for the Monarchs this season, earning himself some health scratches and reduced ice time. With some departing veterans up front, the Monarchs have sought offensive sparks from the back end. Even so, this has not helped the cause of Deslauriers, who was nearly a point per game player in his final junior stint with the QMJHL‘s Gatineau Olympiques.

In 35 games, Deslauriers has just nine points, earning spotty responsibility and seldom making the most of it. Although he has not been a bright spot so far, Deslauriers may be one of the Monarchs to watch in the second half of the season. His minutes have been more regular since Voynov’s departure and he remains a prospect with offensive upside as well as respectable size.

David Kolomatis, D, 23

While Kolomatis entered the organization with limited fanfare, he has been a strong force on the Monarchs’ defense this season. He has continued to be a fixture on the power play and has sharpened up his positional game, improving from a team-worst minus-13 to a plus-seven this season.

While he does not possess ideal size (5’11, 190lbs) Kolomatis has begun to round out his game nicely. With a bit more minor pro seasoning and physical development, he may prove himself an excellent value as a former fifth-round pick.

David Meckler, LW, 24

A smart, versatile, hard-working, competitive forward, Meckler may be yet another in a series of Monarchs who lack top-end talent or specialization capability. On a one-year deal, the end of this season may signal a crossroads of sorts for Meckler.

Meckler sees the ice well, manages the puck effectively and has become reliable defensively. He can line up at any forward position. While a shot at the top level may not be in his immediate future, Meckler has at least established himself as a solid AHL’er who will undoubtedly continue his minor pro career, whether in Manchester or elsewhere.

Ray Kaunisto, C/LW, 25

Kaunisto is a lanky player with a high energy level who has increased his responsibility and production across the board this season. The left winger has moved from the fourth line up to the third line. He had played some center in college and may be a bit more of a natural centerman, although he been a winger predominantly with Manchester.

Kaunisto was a project with a steep curve but at his age an NHL future has to be called into serious question. That said, Kaunisto has established himself as a fine AHLer who battles hard and is well-liked in the locker room. In 44 games, he has 13 points, one shy from his output last season. His numbers all around have increased in step with newfound minutes.

Robert Czarnik, C, 22

Czarnik has stepped in as a rookie after an overage junior season and made a relatively seamless transition to the AHL. Ice time has been tough to come by for rookies in Manchester but after some early scratches, Czarnik has picked up some regular responsibility. He has posted 14 points in 25 games and has shown flashes of being a budding two-way player.

At rookie camp, Czarnik showed maturity as well as poise among the chaos of shifting lines and limited preparation time. He probably possesses the vision, shot and competitiveness of a potential pro, but will have to continue to hone his skills and find his identity at the AHL level for the foreseeable future.

Stefan Legein, RW, 23

Having once appeared to have disappeared from hockey, Legein is back and in his fourth AHL season. He was basically a flyer for the Kings organization, though he’s played in 35 games for the Monarchs. His greatest asset is his end-to-end speed and lateral agility.

While he appeared to show signs of his hands catching up to his feet while with Philadelphia’s AHL squad, the Adirondack Phantoms, Legein has not shown that same promise in either of the past two seasons. He lost some development time due to stepping away from the game briefly and some stumbling blocks like a demotion to the ECHL last season, but Legein’s career remains far from over.

Jean-Francois Berube, G, 20

Berube may not have the kind of hulking size an organization like the Nashville Predators covets in a goalie, but he has long limbs and solid athletic ability. He has put up middling numbers this season that are inflated if anything, with his defense putting together outstanding efforts in his better outings. Having lost time to injuries-hip surgery, a concussion, and other minor ones-Berube has had a tough time adjusting to the ECHL as well as playing outside of Quebec.

Berube’s timing and patience are pluses, playing more of a hybrid style where he remains in the stand-up position more than most goalies. His style is similar to Kings backup Jonathan Bernier, as he read angles and releases before committing and dropping down. His ability to handle traffic and his overall confidence are still huge question marks, however, and it may be a while before he fully answers all the questions that exist about his mostly raw game.