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2016-17 in Review: Is the NHL road smooth ahead for Kevin Gravel?

The St. Cloud State prospect will benefit from expansion draft ineligibility, and intelligent hockey will continue to be the key.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

For the next month or two, we’ll be taking a look at the players who made the Los Angeles Kings’ 2016-17 season what it was: a crushing disappointment that got people fired an up-and-down journey which managed to be both unusual and familiar. Rather than the good-bad-future-grade format we’ve used in past seasons, we’ll ask a crucial question and answer it using it what we saw this year.

Is the NHL road smooth ahead for Kevin Gravel?

The 2016-17 season marked the emergence of an intriguing prospect—Kevin Gravel. The 6’4, 212 pound defenseman from St. Cloud State rose quickly through the minor league ranks. According to Gann Matsuda of Frozen Royalty, coaches credited his decision to sign an AHL contract with the Kings after college, instead of declaring for the NHL draft. By doing so, Gravel took advantage of the Kings’ developmental system, and increased his level of play, which stalled at St. Cloud State.

Gravel is not a heavy-handed, physical defenseman—that would be Brayden McNabb by a clear margin. Gravel is also not the blue line offensive specialist and overtime assassin that has made Alec Martinez a household name. Rather, his role in 2016-17 was to provide solid support on the third defensive pairing by making smart decisions. He is reputed to skate fast for his size, can play both sides, and showed great poise with his puckhandling ability, including on the penalty kill. And his first NHL goal was a beauty:

To best get a sense of Gravel’s place on the depth chart, we can compare him to McNabb. Though McNabb is two years older, both players appeared in 49 games this season, and have similar heights and weights. In addition, Gravel and McNabb average 14 and 15 minutes on the ice, respectively. Let’s compare the stats of the two:

Gravel and McNabb, 2016-17

Player Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot % Avg Ice Time BLK HIT
Player Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot % Avg Ice Time BLK HIT
Kevin Gravel 24 49 1 6 7 3 6 52 1.9 14:09 65 73
Brayden McNabb 26 49 2 2 4 1 54 47 4.3 15:04 54 110
Source: hockey-reference.com

Now let’s normalize the data. What I mean is, let’s calculate what Gravel and McNabb would do if they played all 82 games and 20 minutes per game. Then, let’s compare their production to that of Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, and Derek Forbort. Heck, let’s add Drew Doughty, along with Paul LaDue, another touted Kings prospect. For Doughty, we need to reduce his stats to reflect 20 minutes per game. I know this isn’t a perfect normalization because we didn’t reduce the minutes of Martinez, Muzzin, and Forbort, but it’s close enough:

Normalized data for Kings defensemen, 82 games and ~20 minutes per game

Player Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot% Avg ice time BLK HIT
Player Age GP G A PTS +/- PIM Shots Shot% Avg ice time BLK HIT
Kevin Gravel 24 82 2.4 14.3 16.7 7.2 14 124 1.9 20:00 155 175
Brayden McNabb 26 82 4.5 4.5 8.9 2.2 120 105 4.3 20:00 129 263
Paul Ladue 24 82 0.0 38.5 38.5 -24.0 19 130 0.0 20:00 63 82
Alec Martinez 29 82 9 30 39 -17 24 144 6.3 21:38 167 137
Jake Muzzin 27 82 9 19 28 -21 46 184 4.9 22:18 122 162
Derek Forbort 24 82 2 16 18 8 54 100 2 20:07 159 180
Drew Doughty 27 82 8.8 23.6 32.4 5.9 34 133 6.6 20:00 80 95
Source: hockey-reference.com

Interesting. It turns out Kevin Gravel’s numbers, when normalized, are quite similar to those of Derek Forbort. Almost the same player, with less of an aggressive streak (40 less PIM). But the point production, shot percentage, shots, blocks, and hits are very similar. More striking is LaDue’s 38 normalized assists, which beats Martinez, but also LaDue’s normalized -24 rating, which is worse than Muzzin’s. The Kings gave LaDue a shot after Gravel. Will the highly-touted LaDue steal Gravel’s thunder next season?

With Forbort’s rise being well-recognized by the Kings, and LaDue serving as tough peer competition, how can Gravel cement his spot on the roster?

1) Toughness: Derek Forbort struggled to be an NHL regular in 2015-16, with the criticism being his alleged lack of passion. In 2016-17 Forbort made up for it with much improved physical play, sticking up for teammates and starting scrums when needed. This earned him a spot alongside Drew Doughty. With only 6 PIM in 2016-17, Gravel has proven to be light in the big leagues. He does not need to match McNabb’s 120 normalized PIM. But by showing a desire to stand up for teammates, as he has done so in the AHL, he can become a regular for the Kings.

2) Shrewdness: Gravel is reputed to be an intelligent player who can carry the puck. He also has an effective slap shot, capable of reaching the goalie, and does not have the reputation for missing wildly like Doughty. If Gravel continues to exhibit poised puckhandling under pressure and generate assists from the blue line, Kings fans will no longer have to crack jokes about the Apprentice, immigration, and bringing back a certain defenseman from Russia. Gravel will benefit from new management and coaching which will not put him on a short leash, and demote him for one bad defensive play, the way Darryl Sutter did. In addition, LaDue’s normalized -24 rating is a clear indicator that although the Kings are excited for LaDue, Gravel is safer to use and more seasoned.

3) Exemption from the expansion draft: If anything, this will help Gravel stay. Without getting into detail about the expansion draft rules, Jon Rosen confirms that Gravel is exempt, and it is possible that McNabb will be left unprotected. If Vegas chooses McNabb, the road gets smoother for Gravel.

I am optimistic about Gravel’s chances. But the normalized data reveals much more, and I will discuss that in my upcoming review articles.