Making the Grade

By Harry Ouzounian

It has been a rough season to be a Kings fan, and it’s been a tougher season for Kings rookies. Some have shined (at times) — others have looked out of place. What most of them have in common is that 2002-2003 has been the season debut of eight first year pros, including Scott Barney, who made a surprising return after being assumed to be on the verge of retirement after seeing numerous back specialists. A couple of AHL veterans have also made long lasting impressions with Derek Armstrong and Brad Norton becoming regulars in the lineup every night. Another familiar face from the past, Pavel Rosa, made his return after spending the past couple of seasons in Switzerland and Finland.

It is a big transition stepping up from European, minor, junior and college level of play, but there is a reason why three certain 20 year olds were highly touted in their respectable division of competition. The Big Three: Alexander Frolov, Michael Cammalleri and Jared Aulin. All three have had theirs ups and downs this season, but there is no question that they will all have a big impact in the future of the Kings success. Others have been called upon mainly due to injuries, and it is their chance to shine and show the coaching staff and the NHL what they can do against seasoned veterans.

There has also been the emergence of an unexpected contributor who was an AHL MVP, and although not necessarily a rookie, Derek Armstrong is a new face and playing in his first full NHL season. Joe Corvo also has an edge over the younger rookies, coming in at the age of 25 after years of floundering in the AHL. He was a key component for the Monarchs success and was expected to crack the Kings lineup out of training camp after losing Philippe Boucher, but his lack of physicality brought him back to Manchester. Since being brought back up he has consistently shown a lot of poise and solid play with the puck.

It isn’t easy being critical of first year pros, and this year has been a breaking in season for many of the youngsters, and as any instructor would do, you have to give a fair assessment on each individual’s accomplishments, importance and contribution to the team. Analyzing and accessing is easier said than done, so the simplest form of assessment will be distributed, by breaking it down with a grading scale on their performances.

Derek Armstrong – Acquired from the Rangers during the off-season for a fourth round pick, Armstrong was expected to be a valuable asset and leader on a young Monarchs team. Now he has become an even more valuable asset for the Kings. His 23 points in 41 games has been a big surprise, as he is the sixth leading scorer on the team. He has fit in perfectly with the Kings’ system and has provided a spark in the lineup. Although he has been in the minor-pro ranks for quite a few years now, this season has been Armstrong’s first full NHL season, and has fulfilled and contributed more than anyone expected him to. With a healthy lineup, Armstrong deserves to be a regularly dressed skater, so we’ll have to see where he fits in when Jason Allison and Eric Belanger return. A-

Joe Corvo – It took Corvo a few years to be called up, and it has been the perfect time and chance for him to impress the coaching staff and earn a spot in the top six defense pairings. He has contributed offensively and has given the Kings another pivot at the point on the power-play, but at times has had difficulty defensively and has been physically timid, but that shouldn’t detract him from becoming a permanent fixture on the blue-line. B-

Alexander Frolov – The lanky Russian possesses the highest level of natural talent and potential to be a top line forward in the not so distant future. He needs to develop more strength and consistency, but when he is on his game, has shown his great ability to protect the puck, maintain a fore check and use his reach to his benefits. He has also been responsible in his own end, something Andy Murray demands from all his players. B-

Jared Aulin – The ‘player-to-be-named’ in the Rob Blake trade has been fairly quiet for the most part and has been up and down with the Kings, but considering only last year he was playing against a bunch of players 20 or younger, Aulin has shown a lot of composure and has not been prone to making rookie mistakes, but he has been invisible for the most part. He recently netted his first two goals in the NHL against Carolina and was sent to Manchester a couple of days ago. Hopefully he’ll show more of his offensive instincts upon his next call up. C

Michael Cammalleri – Size (or the lack of) was a big concern about Cammalleri, but you wouldn’t notice it when he’s out on the ice. He plays with a lot of feistiness and is prone to taking too many minor penalties. This has resulted in occasional benchings for the former college star . He is a very shifty player who likes to handle the puck, but at the NHL level was unable to pull off the moves on the bigger and smarter NHL defensemen. For him to stick around, he has to continue to play with an edge, much like other smallish forwards who play a big man’s game, similar to Theo Fleury’s and Jason Blake’s style of play. He is battling a serious bout of post-conscussion syndrom right now. C-

Scott Barney, Tomas Zizka, Chris Schmidt, Jerred Smithson, Derek Bekar, Cristobal Huet:

All made their Kings debuts this season, but due to their short stints and short ice time, it would be unfair to evaluate their level of play and impact on the team. Perhaps we shall see more of them and the Kings will give them a longer look, or maybe we’ll never see or hear from them again after the 2002-2003 season.

Outlook on the Kings Future

The Kings have a nice core of forwards to build their future on with Frolov, Aulin and Cammalleri and other note-worthy forwards such as Lehoux, Karlsson, Steckel and Anshakov. Up front is where the competition will be the fiercest for future forward hopefuls.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the defensemen and goaltenders in the system, as Denis Grebeshkov will more than likely spend another season in Russia and after him the talent on the blueline is lacking, as it is expected for Corvo to be a regular from now on and has graduated from the AHL.

In net, Cristobal Huet has an impressive resume playing in Europe and representing his home country France, but he is an overage prospect and the Kings don’t have any youngsters between the pipes that have the potential to take the helm of the starting role in the future. The Kings might be able to address these needs in the 2003 Entry Draft.

Overall, this has been the Kings’ most productive season in years in terms of bringing in players that were developed from within their own system. This is an indication of the Kings improvement in scouting and drafting, and by having their own minor league teams in the AHL and ECHL, the youngsters will have the opportunity to play many minutes and continue to progress upwards.