Our annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown has officially entered the top ten! The rankings were determined by a combination of reader voting and our staff’s own voting. We then combined the reader rankings (50%) and the staff rankings (50%) to determine the top 25. To be eligible for the countdown, a player must be 24 or younger on October 5, 2017, when the 2017-18 NHL season begins.
We’re taking a look at the best and the brightest in the Los Angeles Kings organization in our fifth annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown. We’re speeding along, appropriately, to #9: Austin Wagner.
2016-17 Team: Regina Pats (WHL)
2016-17 Statistics: 64 GP, 30 G, 36 A, 66 P
Current NHL Projection (via NHLe): 82 GP, 11 G, 13 A, 24 P
Jewels Reader Ranking: 10
Jewels Staff Ranking: 8
Austin Wagner is among the more exciting players in the Kings system in more ways than one. As he is a consensus top ten player in the system, per both the Jewels reader and staff rankings, he’s exciting to follow as he he works his way up. He’s exciting to watch, as he’s the Kings fastest prospect, and possibly the fastest player under contract to the Kings at any level. Finally, his game is exciting, something that can’t be said for much of the Kings farm system. Beside his speed, he’s got a great shot and a knack for putting the puck in the net.
Fortunately, Wagner’s game isn’t all flash. He’s a self-described two-way player, and backs up those words on the ice. He’s been a top penalty killer for the WHL’s Regina Pats, and even brings some flair to it, finishing second in the league with five shorthanded goals. He’s physical too, willing to throw the body around and drop the gloves if the moment calls for it.
Wagner has shown continuous improvement throughout his career. Through five whole or partial WHL seasons, he has upped his goal, assist, point, penalty minute, and plus/minus totals every single season. That kind of across the board jump speaks well to his continued development, and shows how a guy who slipped to the fourth round of the 2015 draft can be so highly rated a scant two years later.
After signing Wagner to his entry-level deal this spring, Kings scout Brent McEwen had glowing praise (per LA Kings Insider):
“Every year he’s made really good progress,” McEwen said. “His speed is the absolute best in the league. There’s no question about that. He’s learning how to use it better.”
Were those comments to come a bit later in the season, the praise may have been even higher. Wagner led his Regina Pats to the 6th game of the WHL finals before bowing out to the Seattle Thunderbirds. He led all WHL players in goals in the playoffs, with a whopping 16 in just 22 games. Like the regular season, he excelled on the PK, picking up another three shorthanded goals. He even managed two powerplay goals topping his regular season total of one.
That leads into the negative with Wagner. While he possesses a good shot and outstanding speed, he is far from a weapon or has even particularly useful with the man advantage. In junior, this is where talented players tend to shine. Wagner hasn’t shown he is able to create much offense from the blueline in. That is far from a death knell for his future, as many an NHLer has made a career with similar skillsets. He may be unlikely to contribute with the man advantage in professional hockey, but his speed, shot, and penalty killing should allow him to make a successful jump to the AHL level. From there he looks to become a skilled third liner who can put some pucks in the net, kill penalties, and play physical hockey. That ceiling could be even higher if he can jump start his offensive game some more.
The current problem with Wagner is when this next step will happen. In the third round of the WHL playoffs, he suffered a torn labrum and dislocated bicep tendon. That sounds incredibly painful, and ended up requiring surgery this summer that could keep him out deep into the coming season. That creates a problem, as he was expected to jump to the AHL’s Ontario Reign this coming year. It will be difficult to make the transition to pro hockey with that kind of rust and coming off something so major. Fortunately, he has another option. He could return to Regina in the WHL for an overage season, work on rounding out his game some more, and shaking off the rust from his injury before moving on the Reign.
As disappointing as this injury is for those excited to see what Wagner can be moving forward, it did give us a glimpse of the kind of gamer this kid is. He continued playing through the injury through the remainder of the third round and the finals. In that last game of the playoffs, he was the victim of a cheapshot, heading back to the room, looking like he was done for. Instead, he returned and scored a beauty of a breakaway goal (found around the 3 minute mark here). Fingers crossed that his surgery and recovery goes well, as Wagner has all the makings of a Kings player in the near future, with the added boost of speed and excitement.