As the Los Angeles Kings enter the 2005-06 season with a roster studded with big-name veterans, their prospect cupboard continues to stand strong. The Kings boast one of the strongest groups of forward prospects in all of hockey. Their defensive corps includes both top-end talent and newly-stocked depth. However, the goaltender position continues to lag well behind the rest of group in quality but not quantity. In this audit, we will look at the stock for each position, their strengths and weaknesses, and identify areas of improvement for the future.
The Los Angeles Kings group of forwards is inarguably one of the best. The Kings have concentrated on forwards in their recent drafts, particularly in the top rounds, and display both depth and diversity. The mixture of speed in some, size in others, and skill all the way through provides the organization with the flexibility to plug in a forward prospect in an open slot. And with quality at each of the three forward positions running three to four prospects deep, the organization has further flexibility to trade from their strength to fill a weakness yet still retain sufficient prospects in reserve.
Left Wing: B-
Traditionally the most difficult forward position to find elite prospects, at left wing the Kings have also had their share of struggles. Jeff Tambellini is the closest the Kings have to an elite prospect at left wing, but even he pales in comparison to some of the more higher echelon prospects like Alexander Ovechkin (WAS) and Thomas Vanek (BUF). Tambellini left school early to get a jumpstart on his professional career and his top level speed combined with his scoring ability makes him a sniper primed for the new NHL. But Tambellini is not without his drawbacks. Though some will point to the various undersized forwards in the NHL as proof that height does not necessarily correlate to ability, others will point to the hundreds of nameless prospects that no one knows because their size did not meet with the rigors of the NHL. While few doubt that Tambellini, listed at 5’11, will be one to make a name for himself in the NHL, his size is a hurdle he will have to address.
Similar to Tambellini, Dany Roussin is a top left wing prospect that has some questions to address. Primarily, can Roussin score when not on a line with Sidney Crosby (PIT)? This is a question that can be answered in the next couple of seasons. Roussin did not catch fire burying the puck in the QMJHL until Crosby came to town. At that point, it became difficult to discern whether Roussin was scoring because of ability, because of Crosby, or a little of both. Kings scouts felt enough about his raw scoring ability to take him in the second round of the 2005 Entry Draft, having previously been chosen in the seventh by Florida, but his upcoming season in Manchester will determine if the second round gamble paid off.
Noah Clarke, Ned Lukacevic, Connor James and Scott Parse continue the small, speedy and skilled theme on the left side of the ice. Clarke is a prospect that you love to cheer for – a hometown boy, competitive and quick – but his time as a prospect is running short and he has already developed about as far as he is going to. He needs to assert himself this year in Manchester to earn another look in the NHL or it might be a career spent riding a plane between the NHL and AHL. Lukacevic is on the other side of the spectrum. Young with tons of untapped potential, he will spend another season in the WHL but early returns on his season have revealed a tremendous scoring ability. Connor James shows great speed that could be of use in the NHL if the obstruction penalty is called as intended and has progressed since spending last season in the ECHL, but remains a fringe NHL prospect at best. Scott Parse was a low risk, low reward pick out of the NCAA. His skill allows him to put up decent production against limited competition, but it is not likely sufficient enough to produce the same numbers when matched against the best of the best in the AHL.
While the organization has an ample supply of speed and skill on the left wing, they also have a number of prospects with size. Jens Karlsson immediately jumps to mind at 6’3, but Karlsson was drafted for his scoring ability as well as his size, something that he has not shown since being drafted. At some point Karlsson as a legitimate NHL prospect must be called into question. He has not demonstrated any development in his scoring ability – in fact apparently regressing – and his skating ability was always suspect. At best, he is considered a grinder, but even that may be called into question. The longer he remains in Sweden, the more likely the Kings will cut the line and move on to more promising projects.
Henrik Juntunen, Mike Sullivan and John Seymour also add size to the left wing. But each is a project in his own right and either not likely to ever see an NHL rink (as is the case with Juntunen) or is a long development away from being considered a legitimate option at the NHL level. Left wing may be a future area of concern for the Kings. They may look to either acquire veteran left wings to fill their future holes on the professional roster, may trade for a prospect using their depth at another position, or should focus on left wing in the draft.
The selection of Anze Kopitar in the 2005 Entry Draft performed miracles for the Kings at the center position. Lagging dangerously close to left wing in mediocrity before the draft, Kopitar adds that single elite prospect in the middle that the organization can count on to build around in the future. Kopitar has already demonstrated an ability to play at the NHL level after appearing in several preseason games at the tender age of 18. So highly thought of by the organization that he was signed to a three-year entry contract shortly after being drafted. His combination of size, skill and skating ability makes him less of a project than any of the other prospects in the middle. Kopitar is the only complete package of a prospect at center for the Kings.
While Kopitar is a star in the waiting, Michael Cammalleri might be a star of the present. He has proven at every level that he can score. The question with the 5’9 Cammalleri had always been his size and lack of attention to defensive assignments. But an NHL that emphasizes speed and skill might make those questions less of a priority. Regardless, Cammalleri must still prove he can not only stick on an NHL roster, but excel. Until he does, he will remain just on the outside of elite status looking in.
All of the size in the Kings center prospects is vested entirely in Brian Boyle. Standing at 6’7, he towers over nearly every other player in college hockey. While everyone continues to have high hopes for him, he continues to remain a project for the Kings. A poor freshman season at Boston College was followed up by an above average sophomore season, although highlighted by great strides in development. However, he is still a bit of a “plodder” and is years away from finding the right combination of size and skill that will make him an impact player at the NHL level. Between he and Cammalleri, if one of the two develops into an NHL regular along with Kopitar, the Kings will have succeeded with this group of center prospects.
The remainder of the group is comprised of small, shifty skaters with little chance of reaching the NHL. Yanick Lehoux was well on his way to breaking this analysis with a phenomenal first half of a season in the AHL last year. But an injury derailed him and a contract dispute landed him in the middle of Europe. Now toiling in Switzerland after only a 38-game stretch of greatness in a three-year entry-level contract, Lehoux becomes a question mark in and of himself.
Brady Murray, Tim Eriksson and Matt Ryan round out the group of small centers. While injuries have limited Murray’s play, Eriksson and Ryan are fringe prospects not likely to ever make an impact in the NHL. Valterri Tenkanen and Tuuka Pulliainen are Finns drafted in later rounds so that they can develop in Europe on their own schedule. One of these five might make it to the NHL, but not after a considerable amount of development and a little bit of luck.
Right Wing: A
The strength of the Kings forward prospects is their right wings. With size, skill and grit up and down the ladder, any one of them has a legitimate shot at contributing at the NHL level in some capacity in the near future.
Beginning with the prospect that is already contributing to the NHL roster, Dustin Brown is the crown jewel on the right side. But the single aspect that plagues the Kings throughout their prospect pool also applies to Brown — they lack that single, elite prospect that is sure to be a perennial all-star. Brown’s hard work and physical, gritty play make him a must for every team. But he is not likely to score more than 60 points in a season, cannot carry a team offensively and may only occasionally be an all-star. However, if he brings the aggressiveness displayed in Manchester to the NHL, he will be a permanent fixture on the Kings top scoring line for many years.
In addition to Brown, there are several right wing prospects that are on the cusp of contributing to the Kings this or the next season. Lauri Tukonen has signed an entry-level contract after being brought over from Finland at the age of 18. He was active in the Kings’ offseason camps and participated in their NHL training camp. The Kings have been discussing bringing him over from Finland as soon as they could since being drafted because of his mature style of game. There is little question that Tukonen will adapt early to the North American style, but how much of his potential he will realize is the primary issue. At this point, Tukonen would be no better than a grinder on the third or fourth lines and such placement might turn him into a permanent grinder as he concentrates more on his already mature physical skills instead of those skills in the most need of work – offensive. A wiser decision might be to spend a season in Manchester, playing on an offensive line and developing the skills needed to put the puck in the net.
The most volatile of Los Angeles prospects on the right side is Konstantin Pushkarev. His offensive potential is enormous and has the style of a quick playmaker. But his lack of ice awareness and defensive deficiencies keep him from reaching star potential. No one expects Pushkarev to suddenly develop into Jere Lehtinen, but if he can at least not be a defensive liability, he can be a great second line forward for Los Angeles. His development is crucial. If the he can develop into a star scorer for the Kings, he will make this group of right wing prospects the best in the NHL.
Petr Kanko, Greg Hogeboom and George Parros are also ready to contribute to the NHL roster this season. Kanko experienced a relatively off year last season. But the one thing that he excels most at never has an off night, agitation. Physical, agitating styles of play are easy to find in the NHL. Nearly every physical player can do this to some degree. However, those who truly excel at this style, the Esa Tikkanens and Ian LaPerrieres of the world, are difficult to come by. With the departure of Ian LaPerriere, Petr Kanko is being groomed as the heir apparent.
Greg Hogeboom lost almost an entire season to injury last year and will have to make up for it this season. If he strikes early while in Manchester, the 23-year-old might find himself in the NHL as early as this season. Parros has signed an entry-level contract with Los Angeles and is ready to play the enforcer role when called upon.
Similarly, Eric Neilson can be called upon as a “light weight” enforcer and little else. Ryan Murphy is a high-energy defensive forward that is looking at a career as a role player. Martin Guerin is showing good signs as a two-way forward, but has a low offensive potential and is still years away from making an impact with the Kings. John Curry is inconsistent and a bit of an individual. He still has several years of development ahead of him in college hockey but find himself on the path that former Kings’ prospect Dan Welch took.
Los Angeles lacked depth on the blue line, until selecting four defensemen in the 2005 Entry Draft and signing two additional free agent prospects. Now, the Kings enjoy solid quality, high-end potential and depth at defense. But what they do lack is an elite defensive prospect in the mold of Dion Phaneuf (CAL) or Cam Barker (CHI). They have several physical defensive defensemen and several with great offensive potential but lack a two-way defenseman that can be a true No. 1 anchor for the organization.
Highlighting the group of prospects on the blue line is Tim Gleason. Gleason has already spent almost an entire season in Los Angeles and has shown he is more than capable of starting every night. He is limited offensively, but shows great patience and vision. He is best suited in a second pairing and, as veteran Kings players move on, Gleason will move up to assume that role. For now, he is the best defensive prospect in the organization but might be surpassed by others within the next couple of years. Regardless, his status as a solid defender makes him the focal point of this group of defensive prospects.
Denis Grebeshkov is the closest defensive prospect Los Angeles has to elite status. He has top offensive skills and can quarterback a power play. But his lack of size and questionable stamina might prevent him from being a perennial all-star and anchoring a top defensive pair. The luster has faded a bit since his days in the Russian Super League where he could seemingly do no wrong both moving the puck and covering the defensive zone. Nevertheless, he is still one of the best defensive prospects around and will be contributing in Los Angeles before the season is completed. As the development of Pushkarev is to the right wing prospects, Grebeshkov is to the defensive group. If he can eliminate the mental lapses, especially late in games, and emerge as a top defender, he can turn this group of defensive prospects into one of the best in the NHL.
Rounding out the group of three high-end defensive prospects is Richard Petiot. With the aging of veterans like Mattias Norstrom and Aaron Miller, Petiot plays a similar style that can be plugged into the exposed gap. While Petiot can be a physical presence on the blueline, he is not likely to ever put up more than 15 points in a season, making him a rather one-dimensional defenseman. But he does shine at that one dimension, adding strength and aggressiveness to a crop of defensemen that are heavy on skill. As with Gleason and Grebeshkov, Petiot is ready to contribute to the NHL this season in at least a limited capacity. With three top defensive prospects pushing for NHL an NHL roster all while many of the veteran defenders are approaching their declining years, Los Angeles has done a tremendous job of identifying a future area of need and developing their homegrown talent to fill that need immediately.
After the top three, there is a little bit of a drop-off in talent. While prospects like Paul Baier and T.J. Fast are quality prospects in their own right, they still remain a bit of an unknown quantity that will require years of development before an accurate assessment of their future can be made. Baier is the closest prospect Los Angeles has to a two-way defender. He has enough skill to find the back of the net with some regularity and a large enough body to play a strong physical game. T.J. Fast is just that – fast. His tremendous skating ability and offensive skills continue a growing trend with the Kings in their defensive prospects. But Fast has yet to play even a single college game and is many years away from seeing the inside of an NHL rink.
Likewise, recent draftees Josh Meyers, Ryan McGinnis and Patrik Hersley are young and deficient in one or more skill category, requiring much development before they can be considered legitimate options. Each is a project, at best, in his own right. However, each has a certain degree of upside that makes them viable candidates, even from the bottom of the depth chart.
Due to the feeling that Baier, Fast, Meyers, McGinnis and Hersley are several years away from contributing in Manchester, the Kings went out and signed free agent defenders Brad Fast and Joey Mormina to fill the temporary gap in available prospects. Each adds to the dichotomy in defensive prospects – either fast and skilled or big and physical. The Kings have few defenders that truly fill both roles and the skilled Fast and the physical Mormina fit this trend. While the Kings have a great crop of defensive prospects as a group, the organization may want to focus on their lack of two-way defenders.
Mikhael Lyubushin is a Russian defender who, in prior years, appeared on the fast track to North America along with Grebeshkov. After playing in the World Juniors Championship for Russia and ascending to the veteran filled Russian Super League, Lyubushin looked as if he might be brought over to the AHL with Grebeshkov. However, as he has reached the top of his profession in Russia and likely would be mired in a pack of merely average prospects in North America, he might be better suited to play out the remainder of his days in his native country.
The Kings have avoided drafting a goaltender prospect at the top of the draft, instead choosing to draft in bulk in later rounds and develop the group gradually. Success or failure is later to be determined, but as of today, the Kings do not have a single goaltender prospect they can count on to be their future starter. The group of prospects are all low risk, low reward projects that may or may not pan out. Even if only one prospect develops into a jewel, the Kings hit the jackpot in value for their low picks. However, if prospect after prospect fill the AHL and ECHL ranks without developing enough to make a significant impact in the NHL, the Kings may have to pay more in the long run by going outside the organization to acquire a top goaltender for significant value in either cash or draft picks and prospects.
Daniel Taylor and Matt Zaba are a pair of solid but not spectacular goaltenders. Each will make good decisions and won’t beat themselves. However, neither has the athletic ability to steal a game for his team. Continued development may turn each into a backup goaltender in the NHL. Possibly, behind the right defensive scheme, Taylor and Zaba might even become respectable starters. But both are young and still years away from helping Los Angeles. Taylor, 19, is in the OHL, and Zaba, 22, plays for Colorado College.
Recent draftee Jonathan Quick might have the highest potential of Kings goaltenders. He has a remarkable mix of butterfly style, sound fundamentals and quick athleticism. But he is only 19 years old and yet to play a single game above the high school level. While he might later develop into the gem that the Kings are searching for, it will be many years before they can mine the diamond.
Ryan Munce and Barry Brust are further along in their development, having already reached the professional ranks, and are the most likely candidates for becoming NHL starters. Munce has all the tools necessary to be a No. 1 goaltender, but gravely lacks consistency. Brust is just as skilled but needs to prove himself as he climbs the prospect ladder. Each lacks star quality and, at this point in their careers, cannot be completely relied upon to fill the net in the future for the Kings. This coming season will reveal to a great extent the quality of prospect the organization has in these two goalies.
Yutaka Fukufuji is quick and athletic and a complete unknown in how he will develop. He has been signed to an entry-level contract but is looking at another season in the ECHL. He might be the fastest riser out of all the Kings goalie prospects. If he can impress enough to earn a starting role in the AHL, Fukufuji might soon find himself backing up in Los Angeles within the next couple of years. Unfortunately, the lack of stamina and basic positional fundamentals may prevent him from ever being a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. But then, the same was said of Dominik Hasek.
What is obvious is that the crop of forward prospects is one of the best in North America. High in quality and diverse in style, the Kings can draw upon their forward pool to find a replacement to fit any situation. They are slightly thin at left wing and have some projects at center that require a considerable amount of further development. But they still have star quality across all three forward positions and make up for the lack at left wing with awesome depth at right wing.
Their defense is leaning heavily towards small and skilled with the occasional defenseman with size mixed into the group. They have three top prospects ready to contribute immediately to the NHL with a larger group of youngsters developing in their respective leagues and not likely to see professional action for three or four years. The organization may need to augment this gap in defensive prospects with free agents, preferably ones with size that can play a two-way game.
Their goaltenders are pure guesswork. Quantity does not equate to quality. The organization is relying on their ability to take a raw goaltender, drafted in the lower rounds likely due to several deficiencies, and work with that goaltender over the years to eliminate those deficiencies. While this is a low risk option, this might not be the wisest move for an organization that “developed” Jamie Storr and whose best development story to date has been Cristobal Huet.
All in all, the forward depth and the star defenders carry this prospect pool into the top echelon of all NHL organizations.
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.