Kings 2006 system audit

By David A. Rainer

At the conclusion of the 2005-06 season, the entire Los Angeles Kings organization went through a period of reevaluation and personnel turnover, resulting in the dismissal of former general manager Dave Taylor and the majority of his management group. Former San Jose general manager and Philadelphia scout Dean Lombardi was hired as general manager and entrusted with a farm system that was beginning to produce at the NHL level.

Addressing the underachieving stigma of the NHL roster, one of the first moves made by Lombardi was a draft-day trade of Pavol Demitra to Minnesota for elite prospect Patrick O’Sullivan and a first round draft choice in 2006 which was used to select Trevor Lewis. To follow up his draft day acquisition, Lombardi pulled the trigger on a deal that would also bring phenom defensive prospect Jack Johnson into the Kings fold. These trades, while adding three top young players to a system that was running low in high-level NHL prospects, announced to Kings fans that the future will be built from within and not from expensive but questionable stars gathered from the free agent market.

Left Wing: B+

With the trade of Jeff Tambellini to the Islanders, the left wing position was essentially devoid of top end talent. Some intriguing prospects remained, but none that had established themselves as legitimate contenders for an NHL roster spot. This gap was addressed with the acquisition of O’Sullivan. As a whole, the position lacks depth at the top, but does contain some mid-level prospects that can develop into surprising offensive threats. After the top four, the group is more suspect than prospect. However, the addition of O’Sullivan and Matt Moulson carries the group into the upper echelon of left wing prospects.

While O’Sullivan has spent most of his development career as a center, he does have the ability to play all three forward positions and has moved over to left wing to fill a need for the organization, both in the system and on the NHL roster. O’Sullivan’s offensive potential is tremendous and he can finish plays with the best of prospects. There is not much that he does not do well, save for minor concerns over his consistency. He has already spent a dominating year in the AHL and a roster spot is his to lose in the NHL.

O’Sullivan has also overcome off-ice obstacles with well-documented run-ins with his abusive father. While this situation was looked to as a negative on draft day by general managers, it might now be looked to as a positive to some, drawing strength from his experiences. O’Sullivan, more so than any other player, knows what a real pressure situation is.

The offseason acquisition of Moulson adds another left wing prospect with offensive capabilities. Signed as an unrestricted free agent from Pittsburgh, Moulson has completed his college eligibility and will likely find himself playing on one of the top two lines in Manchester. Moulson has a well-rounded game with a good scoring touch, but is limited on high-end offensive potential as he makes his next step in development. What he does lack in raw skills, Moulson makes up for with leadership qualities. If he continues to develop his offensive game, he might see time on a second scoring line in the NHL, but is probably better suited on a quality third line.

Scott Parse and Ned Lukacevic add some depth to the left wing position. Parse, a Hobey Baker finalist last season and a preseason candidate for the award this season, returns to the University of Nebraska-Omaha for his senior campaign. While some may expect Parse to increase his totals from last season, this is unfair to a prospect who has already established lofty expectations with a 61-point season already under his belt. Reproducing the 2005-06 season should be sufficient in route to beginning his professional career at the conclusion of the college season. Parse is much in the same mold as Noah Clarke where his best aspect is his eye for distributing the puck from the wing position and will have to battle to find his niche in the NHL.

The most intriguing of the left wingers for the Kings is Ned Lukacevic. His raw talents are apparent in practice but they do not always shine through in game situations. He will spend his first full season with Manchester in 2006-07. Already displaying top skating ability, if Lukacevic can harness the puck skills that he shows in practice and apply it consistently to games, he will surely be a fast riser on the depth charts and might get early looks from Los Angeles if needs arise. But Lukacevic still has much development ahead of him before he can be seen as an NHL option. Even at his highest level, Lukacevic will be looked to as more of a role player on specialty teams than a player relied upon for offense.

After the first three prospects, the talent level severely drops off at left wing. Most are just depth forwards in the system or are a long distance from the NHL. Dany Roussin has yet to show anything which would warrant the second round draft choice used to take him in 2005. Roussin will get a chance in Manchester this season and must show an ability to produce without his former Rimouski linemate Sidney Crosby, since a trade to Pittsburgh is not likely. Roussin is still young and might prove to be a slow developer or just fade into the background altogether.

Constantin Braun is a new draftee that some think is a hidden gem from the German leagues. But Braun is still a long-term project at best. Mike Sullivan has put up respectable numbers in the NCAA but does not stand out as a much more than a grinder at the next level. Shay Stephenson is little more than a depth forward at this point in his career and John Seymour is a physical forward with limited potential.

Centers: A

The Kings group of centers is arguably the best amongst all NHL organizations. It boasts both top end talent with Anze Kopitar, high reward projects with Brian Boyle and Trevor Lewis, and depth with experienced speedsters Gabe Gauthier and Matt Ryan. Granted, it helps that three first round draft choices were used to select centermen in the last four years.

Kopitar heads the list of future centers for the Kings. After being drafted in 2005, Kopitar signed a three-year contract with Los Angeles and attended training camp. He more than held his own in that camp, and might have earned himself an early season look at the age of 18 if not for his contractual obligations to return to Sweden for another year. After leading all forwards of his age group in the Swedish Elite League, Kopitar made the decision to finally move his game to North America. After a stellar training camp in 2006, Kopitar has already secured his spot on the NHL roster and is paying immediate dividends to the Kings. Many around the league now believe it is not a matter of if, but when Kopitar will center the top line for Los Angeles.

Followed closely behind on the depth charts is Boyle. His 6’7 frame is imposing on the opposition and with the increased restrictions on defensemen for clearing the front of the net, Boyle can be a tremendous asset on the power play. However, while his skating has tremendously improved since his draft year, with the new speed of the NHL game comes the questions of whether Boyle can keep up pace. As a fall back, both Boston College and the Kings have experimented with Boyle on defense, looking to maximize his long reach and quality shot while minimizing the affect of the speed. Regardless, Boyle remains a Hobey Baker award candidate for this fall and a top center prospect whom will be given every opportunity to prove himself in the AHL as a forward first and foremost.

When Los Angeles scouts went to Dean Lombardi on draft day with a name, Lombardi pulled the trigger on the Demitra trade to acquire an additional first round draft choice to take that player. As a result, Trevor Lewis is now under contract with the Los Angeles Kings. Lewis worked his way into the line-up for Des Moines of the USHL and earned himself honors as the top forward in the league. He comes to the Kings with tremendous skating skills and offensive abilities as well as a high level of leadership and character. Having declined the scholarship offer from the University of Michigan, Lewis moves to a better developmental league in the CHL. He is a project, but one that may develop quickly. His ultimate progress may make this batch of centers the clear favorite in the NHL.

Gabe Gauthier signed as a free agent after the completion of his college eligibility. He is another of the small and speedy forwards that the Kings have become known for drafting and signing. At this point, Gauthier appears to be a depth signing for Manchester and Los Angeles. Likewise, Matt Ryan was used in much the same role for Los Angeles last season. Signed after the completion of his juniors eligibility, Ryan provided speed for Manchester and acted as an emergency fill-in for Los Angeles early in the season due to injuries. Ryan is likely to fill the same role this upcoming season and does not project much further than this role.

Bud Holloway is another character forward capable of contributing to a team in a myriad of ways. He possesses scoring ability and is known for his well-rounded game and may prove to be a valuable compliment on any of the four lines. David Meckler is a solidly built center who can play physically in front of the net. He is known for his scoring and finishing abilities, but did not get a chance to display these with Yale University due to an undisclosed wrist injury. Like Lewis, Meckler has left college hockey to develop in the CHL. Because of the injury, the verdict is still out on how good of a prospect Meckler can be. He is definitely a prospect Kings fans should keep an eye on for the upcoming season.

The remainder of the group is fodder for the lower levels of the farm system. Brady Murray spent the 2005-06 season playing in Switzerland and will return again this year with little to no room for him in the system. Valterri Tenkanen skated in Finland last season and will probably spend the remainder of his hockey career playing in his home country. At this point, the organization has shown no interest in bringing him over to North America. John Zeiler is nothing more than a depth forward for the AHL at this point. Zeiler has shown improvement at each level and can contribute scoring to Manchester, but he is a long shot to jump more talented forwards on the depth chart.

Right Wings: B

Right wing had been a position of strength for the Kings in recent years. The graduation of Dustin Brown to the NHL roster and the lack of a right wing selected in the 2006 draft or signed as a free agent opened up some holes at this position. The Kings still have a top prospect in Lauri Tukonen, an agitator who plays his role well in Petr Kanko, and an offensive enigma in Konstantin Pushkarev, but the remaining right wing prospects have concerns which need to be addressed.

For a 19-year-old, Tukonen had a relatively impressive season. He did not finish in the top ten in the league for scoring, or in the top five on the team in scoring, or even finish the season. But he did score at better than a half a point per game clip as a rookie to the league and to the country. Tukonen made the jump from Finland during the 2005 offseason and spent the year getting acclimated to his new surroundings. When settled, there is no telling how explosive Tukonen can be offensively as demonstrated during the 2006 U20 WJC where he finished second overall in scoring amongst some of the very best NHL prospects in the world. This production might be attributed to the comfort level he felt skating on a line with fellow Fins. Unfortunately, shoulder surgery ended his season early, but that should not detract from his overall projection as a prospect. If all progresses well, he might be skating in Los Angeles by the end of the season.

The immediate status of Kanko might depend upon the fate of Sean Avery. Groomed as the successor of Ian Laperriere, Kanko was placed on hold after the Kings acquired Avery in a trade with Detroit. Avery was so effective both as an agitator and as a scoring threat that there was no need to press Kanko into action. But as Avery has largely fallen out of favor with the organization, Kanko has jumped back into the picture. Kanko is valuable as an immediate option for the NHL roster, but is limited in offensive contribution. He will be asked to provide a high-energy game for the Kings, which might result in a fair share of points, but is limited to action on the third or fourth lines and on special teams, making him a valuable but unheralded contributor.

Pushkarev was viewed as a highly skilled and extremely raw forward when drafted by the Kings after impressing during the 2003 U18 WJC. So highly prized was Pushkarev’s talents that it was reported that the Kings turned down offers from other teams looking to trade up to select Pushkarev. But the development of his raw talents has been slow and frustrating to some. He still displays the same one-dimensional approach towards the game of hockey and has a difficult time involving teammates and settling for an easy, smart play instead of forced aggression. The new management group in Los Angeles may not view Pushkarev through the same rose-colored glasses that the prior regime did and Pushkarev might find himself with a different organization if strides are not made in his development.

After having not missed a single game in his college career, Greg Hogeboom cannot seem to stay healthy. Plagued by the injury bug during the 2004-05 season and hampered by lingering injuries in 2005-06, Hogeboom has yet to play himself into a groove since arriving in Manchester. His time is running out as a legitimate option for Los Angeles, but a single injury-free season could push him up the depth charts. Likewise, after suffering an early-season injury in 2004, Marty Guerin has not been able to recover momentum. Guerin played a more defensive oriented game in 2005-06 and did not get the same quality scoring chances that were there for him as a freshman. The few chances he did earn, he could not find the back of the net. He remains a good two-way forward prospect, but is looking more like a high-energy specialist than a top prospect.

John Curry has not found consistency in college hockey and is not showing enough to warrant signing him upon graduation. Curry has a long road of development ahead of him just to earn a spot in the minor leagues.

Defensemen: B+

The Kings defensive corps was a muddle of defensive defensemen, projects and possible gems, lacking the single, elite two-way prospect. That was, until Jack Johnson came to town. The defensemen, as a group, have nice mobility, including several with either size to exert a physical presence or puck handling and passing skills to move the puck up ice. With the exception of Johnson, none has a tremendous shot to truly boast about but all can protect the net on defense and support the forwards on offense.

In a pre-season trade in 2006, the Kings acquired one of the very best defensemen not currently playing in the NHL. Carolina had been attempting to sign Johnson to a professional contract and draw him away from college hockey but Johnson held solid to his commitment to the University of Michigan. As a result and needing to fill holes on their NHL roster, the Hurricanes moved Johnson to Los Angeles for two NHL players.

Carolina’s loss is the Kings’ gain. Many fans might already be familiar with Johnson as he attended the Kings prospect training camp prior to being drafted third overall in 2005. Johnson is a complete package – capable of shutting down the opposition in the defensive zone while using good mobility and a great shot to lead an offensive charge. Whenever Johnson signs with the Kings, he will be immediately looked to as the most promising defensive prospect the organization has had in recent memory.

Richard Petiot and Joe Ryan fit the bill as physical, mobile defensemen. Petiot spent last season bouncing between Manchester and Los Angeles and never really received a shot at playing in the NHL. After spending most of his time practicing with the Kings and sitting in the stands during game time, Petiot finally made his NHL debut, appearing in two games before being sent back to Manchester. Petiot still has some fine tuning of his positioning and defensive skills ahead of him, but he is not far from skating a regular shift in Los Angeles, likely taking over for Aaron Miller when he moves on. His potential is limited to a second pairing defenseman with little to offer on the offensive side of the ice.

Likewise, Joe Ryan is a physical and mobile defenseman who plays with a bit of an edge. He is not blessed with the large frame of Petiot, but plays a more feisty style, getting after the opposition in the corners and finishes his checks along the boards. It is unusual for a defensive defenseman to develop out of the offensive-minded QMJHL, which raises questions both of whether Ryan has offensive potential himself and just how good of a physical game he possesses. In the QMJHL, Ryan is playing against opposing forwards that are more known for their speed and skill than grinding against physical defensemen and it would be easy to look like a physical force against forwards not accustomed to the style of play. Similarly, Ryan does have some offensive skills that might be over-matched in the QMJHL but would be adequate in any other league. Ryan is a prospect that may fly under the radar while in juniors but comes into his own upon reaching the AHL where his style of play is better suited. As a boxer in his spare time, Ryan is also the type that will stick up for his teammates at any time and in any situation.

While the Kings have stocked up on physical defensemen, TJ Fast and Peter Harrold add offensive potential to the mix. Fast will be a sophomore at the University of Denver and is years of development away from contributing to the Kings. His speed and puck handling skills are tailor-made for the faster NHL and he attends a college program that is known of late for producing offensive defensemen. Peter Harrold signed as an undrafted free agent from Boston College where he captained the team that reached the National Championship game. Harrold has good defensive skills and some offensive potential, but is on the smaller side of defensive prospects in the league, while not much of a factor in the less physical college game, becomes a question mark as he moves up the development system. How well Harrold adjusts to the physical competition of professional hockey will determine whether he becomes a career minor leaguer or earns a roster spot in the NHL.

After the top physical defensemen, and those with offensive potential, is a group of three gems that, if one out of the three develops into an NHL player, make the defensive pool as deep as any in the NHL. Patrik Hersley was drafted in 2005 after seeing playing time in the SEL at the age of 18. Many believed Hersley to be a late round gem for the Kings due to his advanced physique, his NHL style of play and a developing offensive game. So highly thought of was Hersley by the Kings that they signed him to an entry-level contract at the conclusion of the 2005-06 season, but due to transfer rules, Hersley will return to Sweden for one more season. Similarly, when Niclas Andersen was drafted in 2006, many believed that he was the Hersley of his draft class with an advanced physique and NHL style of game. There are no immediate plans to bring Andersen over and by his standards, last season was an off year for Andersen. A bounce-back 2006-07 could result in both he and Hersley crossing to North America during the next offseason.

Ryan McGinnis rounds out the trio of developing gems and continues the theme of physical, mobile defensemen. McGinnis came on towards the end of last season and in the playoffs for Plymouth of the OHL. He possesses good defensive skills and has some offensive potential, but is several years away from helping the NHL team. If Hersley does not pan out or Andersen is left behind in Sweden, McGinnis could move up rapidly on the depth charts as a better offensive version Hersley.

The remainder of the pool consists of depth players and projects. Paul Baier is the closest example the Kings have to a two-way defenseman after Johnson, possessing a nice shot with size and defensive skills. But Baier had a terrible sophomore season, raising questions about his development. However, he still has two more years of college eligibility and a bounce-back 2006-07 will make everyone forget about last season. Baier is the most volatile of the Kings defensive prospects and should be watched closely this coming season as another down year will cause Baier to fall from the depth charts significantly.

Joey Mormina provides Manchester with depth on the blueline and is far behind others on the depth charts. Josh Meyers is progressing while playing college hockey, but his potential is limited and it remains to be seen whether he will progress enough to warrant making him an offer upon graduation two years from now. Martin Nolet is a 2006 draftee from a second-tier junior league in Quebec. He will be playing college hockey in the fall and is largely a relative unknown at this point in his career.

Goaltenders: B

Former general manager Dave Taylor appeared to subscribe to the theory of drafting goaltenders in bulk in later rounds and hope to develop at least one into a star. As a result, the Kings farm system is packed with projects. Jonathan Bernier is the only legitimate big-time contender after being drafted under new general manager Dean Lombardi in the first round. The other prospects in net might eventually develop into serviceable professional goaltenders, but all must make significant strides in their development before seeing the inside of an NHL rink.

Lombardi made an immediate statement as to the condition of the goaltending in the pipeline when selecting the highest ranked goaltender in the 2006 draft eleventh overall. The choice of Bernier is the highest selection of a goaltender by the Kings since Jamie Storr was taken seventh overall. While considered one of the best goaltenders currently in major juniors, Bernier is still several years away from contributing to the professional roster. His juniors eligibility and a back-log of goalie projects already filling the farm system means that Bernier will not be rushed and his impact will not likely be felt for several years. He projects as a stable NHL starter for years to come ad represents the only high-end talent in the goaltending pipeline.

Following Bernier on the depth charts are a series of developmental projects that have an adequate amount of potential to warrant the investment but still require further refinement before ever signing a professional contract. Jonathan Quick, Jeff Zatkoff and Matt Zaba are three college goaltenders with varying levels of potential that are working to recognize their talents. Quick played back-up to the senior start for the University of Massachusetts as a freshman, but will be taking over the full time starting duties this up-coming season. He is still young and behind a young defense, which has resulted in many scoring opportunities against him. Zatkoff backstopped Miami University last season, where he shared duties in net en route to an NCAA tournament berth and one of the lowest goals-against averages in the nation. Zaba is in his fourth and final year with Colorado College. He is not likely to ever develop into a superstar but has continued to post solid numbers in net. As is common with college goaltending, it is difficult to discern whether the goaltender is actually as good or bad as his numbers indicate. Often, production is a direct reflection of the program he plays for, where an average goaltender can look great and a great goaltender can look average depending upon the type of system the program runs. It will not be until each moves to the minor league system before there is a better indication of what each is capable.

After the set of four amateur goaltenders, four other goaltenders fill the various minor league roster spots. Barry Brust holds down the primary developmental spot as the back-up in Manchester to veteran Jason LaBarbera. Brust won the starting job from Adam Hauser last season but is still waiting to get his feet wet in the NHL. Brust is not likely to be anything more than a career minor league goaltender that might occasionally see time as a back-up in the NHL. Yutaka Fukufuji returns to Reading as the assignment of LaBarbera to Manchester has pushed each of the younger goaltenders down a rung on the development ladder. Fukufuji still has several aspects of his game that he will need to work on before being a legitimate option in net for the Kings. Ryan Munce will be looking to move up to Reading from Bakersfield of the ECHL this season. Munce has a considerable amount of potential and raw skills, but struggles to find consistency on a game to game basis. Daniel Taylor finished his major juniors eligibility and was assigned to Bakersfield where he is several steps down the ladder from the other prospects on the depth chart. Taylor will need to prove himself early to move up the charts quickly or may be lost in the fray when the four amateur goaltenders begin to knock on the professional door.

Production: A

Since the beginning of the 2005-06 season, the Kings farm system has been impressively active in both providing talent to the NHL roster and use as trading assets for other pieces.

Two of the Kings top prospects from last season are now in Los Angeles as top forwards and will be relied upon for significant contributions this season. Mike Cammalleri is a legitimate top-six forward and has the offensive skills to skate on the top line for any NHL team. Due to both his physical grit and his nose for the net, Dustin Brown can be found on any of the four lines for the Kings this season and is still developing his scoring touch.

Until a preseason trade, Tim Gleason was expected to play considerable minutes on the blueline for the Kings. The trade of Gleason to Carolina was not a result of failed expectations but of the tremendous progress he has made in his game. Gleason was used as the centerpiece of the trade that brought elite defensive prospect Jack Johnson to Los Angeles. The fact that Carolina parted with such a top defenseman to obtain Gleason for immediate service on their squad is a compliment to his rapid development.

Top prospects Jeff Tambellini (NYI) and Denis Grebeshkov (NYI) were used to acquire Mark Parrish and Brent Sopel in a deadline deal with the New York Islanders. While the trade failed to result in a playoff berth for the Kings and Parrish left via free agency in the offseason, Sopel is still skating with the Kings and paying dividends on their expensive investment. Yanick Lehoux was also traded at the deadline for Tim Jackman whom is providing depth at forward in the AHL for the Kings.

Overall: A

The additions of Johnson, O’Sullivan, Bernier and Lewis have completely turned the farm system around in terms of talent. After having graduated three top prospects to NHL rosters and trading away three others, the farm system was greatly depleted save for a handful of former first round picks still developing at various levels in the system. Now the Kings can boast at least one of the best prospects in the NHL at each of the five positional categories.

The shift of O’Sullivan to the left side and the acquisition of Moulson increase both the quality and depth of the left wing position. Formerly a weakness, the Kings can now hold their own against other organizations at that position. Center has progressed by leaps and bounds, due largely to the development of Kopitar and Boyle and the addition of Lewis. While the right wing position has declined somewhat due to graduation, Tukonen, Pushkarev and Kanko are legitimate NHL options and are on the brink of regularly skating with Los Angeles as early as this season. As a whole, the forward crop has both top-end offensive talent and players with intangibles capable of filling any role.

The defense remains heavy on physical defensive defensemen and mobile defensemen whom can support the forwards. The addition of Johnson to the group finally gives the Kings that single elite prospect for the future on the blueline and is the only hope for a true number one defenseman. However, only Harrold and Mormina are immediately available to Los Angeles as the rest of the group is locked up in major junior, college or European hockey.

As Johnson carries the defensemen, Bernier also carries the goaltenders. After Bernier, the group is largely a patchwork of projects with limited skills and room for improvement. While the development philosophy under Taylor was to convert a late round gem into a diamond, Lombardi immediately reached for raw skills and potential when selecting Bernier with his first choice ever as general manager for the Kings. None are near ready to contribute to the NHL roster in a significant way and those that do fill the minor league system are back-ups and journeymen at best.

In the end, the star talent at forward and the depth on the blue line move the Kings back into the top echelon of all NHL organizations.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.