Thanks to graduations and trades, Thomas Hickey was the only former first-round pick among the Los Angeles Kings’ prospects last season. Thin on high-profile selections, the Kings system was replete with well-rounded players seeking to strengthen their identity to carve niches at the next level. However, it was also brimming with character, industriousness, and a number of players who exceeded expectations. Shifting from high selections and home-run swings, the Kings have sought to invest later selections shrewdly as they have solidified their pro roster, which captured the Stanley Cup this past season.
Prospect of the Year: Slava Voynov, D, Los Angeles Kings (NHL)
Voynov first pressed during Drew Doughty’s training camp holdout, as the Russian edged out Thomas Hickey in a positional battle. Although Doughty signed as the regular season was set to begin, Voynov had cemented himself on the Kings’ radar. He played 54 games, including over two months of duty on the second pairing. He played the entire playoffs in that role, excelling alongside stay-at-home veteran Willie Mitchell. Voynov showed strong effectiveness on breakouts. He demonstrated reliable instincts and a willingness to take well-timed chances with stretch passes. There were flashes of patience and imagination on the power play that were promising as well. His offensive potential was well known but his strong work ethic and commitment to defensive improvement were both rather pleasant surprises. Most notably, Voynov got better as his role expanded, establishing himself as a prominent part of the bright future and a bargain-priced piece of the Stanley Cup-winning present.
Toffoli’s shot may be better termed hardest to stop. While he may not have the booming blast from the point typically considered for this award, his wrist shot accumulates velocity quickly and both his snapper and slapper are lethally accurate. Even more so than a huge point shot, Toffoli’s shot should develop into a huge weapon on the power play. His quick release and reliable accuracy means he needs neither a lot of time nor space to score goals.
Best Offensive Prospect: Tyler Toffoli, RW, Ottawa 67s (OHL)
While Voynov certainly made a push with flashes of offensive brilliance, this award also goes to the 67s forward, who will head to Manchester next season. Toffoli lacks impressive speed but his hands are nimble, his release is quick, his shot is accurate and he is developing a knack for finding quiet ice. He edged out Linden Vey and Andrei Loktionov, who round out the Kings’ trio of skilled forward prospects.
While Derek Forbort continues to be a promising player with NHL size, Muzzin still seems like the strongest bet among Kings prospects to have an NHL career. Muzzin is a two-way defenseman with NHL size, respectable mobility and a seeing-eye shot that gets to the net consistently. He could be in the mold of Trevor Daley and other such reliable second-pairing defenseman in the West. Voynov would win the award without question if he were not inches from prospect graduation.
Legein might not be the most prominent prospect in the Kings organization but on a team with a handful of very quick undersized players, his speed remains remarkable. He was the OHL’s fastest skater in junior and remains very quick end to end with respectable agility to boot. The Kings have upgraded their speed at the top level but still do not possess a player that quite combines game-breaking speed with game-breaking skills.
Breakout Player of the Year: Michael Mersch, W, University of Wisconsin Badgers (WCHA)
Mersch has continued to break down doors, expanding his role ahead of schedule two years in a row. He has grown stronger and played more aggressively, quickly following the blueprint of conditioning and development laid out for him at Wisconsin. A power forward in the making, Mersch has followed the trend of Kings picks that were selected just before they broke out offensively and increased their stock. He jumped from 18 points as a freshman to 30 points in 37 games as a sophomore. With defenseman Justin Schultz (EDM) leaving for the NHL, Mersch will find himself in a prominent leadership role as a junior next season.
Most Improved Prospect: Jordan Nolan, C/W, Los Angeles Kings (NHL)
He and Dwight King each entered camp with designs on a roster spot. While both impressed, the Kings went with veterans like Trent Hunter and Ethan Moreau, both of whom wound up in Manchester before too long. Nolan in particular showed tremendous energy and signs that his hands had caught up to his feet. Above all, Nolan has made a strong commitment to professional hockey. His relentless attitude, strong conditioning, and outstanding strength made him a very tough player to play against. Nolan made a strong physical impact in the playoffs, dishing out a high ratio of hits to time on ice. He provided an energetic shift every time he came over the boards and may see his game broaden in short order.
Overachiever: Linden Vey, RW, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
Vey stepped onto a roster where minutes were not easy to come by for rookies under head coach Mark Morris. The rookie forward however finished as the Monarchs’ third leading scorer. He was the only player in that top three who had a plus rating, finishing the season at plus-five. In a year that did not offer a great deal of stability, Vey played consistently and put himself ahead of schedule in his development. After an explosive final season in junior, Vey followed up with a strong rookie campaign. His offensive potential and dogged forechecking ability open up possibilities for him at the next level that would not be available to a more narrowly skilled player.
Underachiever: Nicolas Deslauriers, D, Manchester Monarchs (AHL)
Deslauriers was a prominent rookie that struggled to find his way. Injuries and upheaval had him moving around pairings and units, as well as seeing a bit of time at forward. Touted as a mobile defenseman with solid skills, Deslauriers finished sixth in scoring among Manchester defensemen. He also turned in an underwhelming minus-14 rating, showing a good deal of inconsistency. While his future may still hold promise, his 2011-12 campaign was a lateral move at best. With any luck, he can harness the experience and put together a complete game with his second AHL season, in which he will likely see more ice time.
Highest Risk/Highest Reward: Michael Schumacher, LW, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds (OHL)
The Kings selected Schumacher No. 200 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and have already seen his stock rise. Schumacher has grown to 6’5 with wiry strength, a projectable frame, improving coordination, increasing speed and all-around outstanding value as a seventh-round selection. Schumacher validated the pick immediately as he came to North America this season, likely accelerating his arrival in the NHL. As an OHL rookie, Schumacher scored 26 goals and 24 assists in 65 games with the Greyhounds. Once Schumacher stops growing, acclimates to his body and cultivates his physique, he could be a unique athlete in the NHL with hockey skills to boot.
Perseverance Award: Thomas Hickey, D, Manchester Monarchs (OHL)
Hickey has carried by far the heaviest billing of any Kings prospect currently in the lower levels of their organization. His selection as fourth overall created what were perhaps less than fair expectations, particularly as he lost some development time to injury. Hickey has recovered as well as grown stronger physically as he puts injuries behind him and casts labels aside. While it seems apparent that Hickey will never be an explosive offensive force or an imposing physical player, he has recognized that and reinvented his game. Hickey will make his living with sound positioning on defense and quick decisions as part of a simple, effective puck-moving game on offense. He was the Monarchs’ lone representative in the AHL All-Star Game this season. His plus-16 rating led Manchester and he was arguably the club’s steadiest player.
Unsung Hero: Kevin Gravel, D, St. Cloud State Huskies (WCHA)
Gravel will not appear on any NCAA leaderboards but on the ice he is certainly a leader and a stabilizing force. The lanky rearguard has worked hard to fill out his frame, improve his positioning, make better reads, and excel both on the puck and away from it at both ends. Gravel can battle individually or defend areas with equal aplomb. He makes confident, informed decisions with the puck that seldom leave his team in a tough position. Gravel plays a rather rangy game thanks to his solid skating and long reach. While he is assertive physically, his aggressiveness is controlled and well-timed. He can play a rugged style and take chances without compromising his position. Given the success and age of the Kings’ current crop of stay-at-home defenseman, Gravel could figure into their future plans as easily as any other defensive prospect in the organization at the moment.