We’ve reached the final week of our Top 25 Under 25 countdown! 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. Congratulations to this year’s #1: Adrian Kempe!
2016-17 Team: Ontario Reign (AHL), Los Angeles Kings (NHL)
2016-17 Statistics: 46 GP, 12 G, 8 A, 20 P (AHL); 25 GP, 2 G, 4 A, 6 P (NHL)
2016-17 NHL 82-Game Pace: 82 GP, 10 G, 7 A, 17 P
Current NHL Projection (via NHLe): 82 GP, 7 G, 13 A, 20 P (based on AHL stats)
Jewels Reader Ranking: 1
Jewels Staff Ranking: 1
Before we begin, take a moment and let this soak in:
That is quite the way to announce your arrival in the NHL. That display of speed and skill was exactly what the Los Angels Kings were hoping for when the elected to draft Adrian Kempe 29th overall in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft.
The pick was a bit of a departure for an organization whose draft strategy had leaned heavily on selecting North American talent in prior years. Kempe, however, did not profile as your prototypical Swedish-born player. He stood out among his Swedish peers due to his North-South style and willingness to play a physical game.
While those attributes gave the Kings’ confidence in his ability to adapt to the North American game, make no mistake that it was his superior skill that enticed them to use their first-round pick on Kempe. While his first NHL goal was plenty convincing, observe the subtle deception of his second goal:
As Jim Fox graciously points out, his initial burst of speed creates the scoring chance. His awareness gets him to a prime scoring position, then his savvy with the puck on his stick gets a veteran goaltender looking one way while he places a perfect shot the other way. His composure on the play is all the more impressive when you consider he was 20 years-old, with only a handful of NHL games under his belt.
Kempe is no stranger to being a boy among men on the ice. He garnered praise as a 17 year-old for holding his own playing with MODO of the Swedish Hockey League, netting 11 points in 45 games. Prior to that, he put himself on the map at the age of 14, appearing in 25 games in the J18 Elit league, the highest level of under-18 hockey in Sweden.
At the conclusion of the 2014-15 SHL season, Kempe got an opportunity to impress his new employers by being thrust into the Manchester Monarchs playoff push. The then-18 year-old did not disappoint, scoring eight goals across 17 playoff games, sparking the Monarchs to a Calder Cup title.
With the Kings electing to mostly sit out this past offseason’s free agent frenzy, the door has been left wide open for Kempe to carve out his role on this year’s Kings squad. Though he initially profiled as a winger, the Kings are grooming him as their third line center, pushing incumbent Nic Dowd to the wing. Kempe has also found himself centering their second power play unit, where he emphatically scored the NHL’s first ever goal in China.
Despite the abundance of skill, Kempe has yet to produce consistently on the score sheet as a pro. Part of that could be that he has been consistently younger than his competition at every level he has played. It is also possible the burden of learning to play center as a pro has adversely affected his scoring rates. We should also not underestimate the adjustment to not only the North American game, but to life in the U.S. in general.
To their credit, the Kings have not been deterred by his modest points totals as a pro and instead are betting on his talent and maturity making a leap to the NHL. His skill has been on full display during the preseason, making him one of the more noticeable skaters on the ice. He has also been noticed for less compelling reasons, struggling with penalties and at times looking a bit lost in the defensive end. Coach Stevens appears ready to live with those growing pains:
I mean, we certainly like his skill set and the speed he brings to your lineup. We think he can be a responsible player and we think he has the ability to play wing and center. We’d still like to see his defensive game continue to improve. It’s not that he can’t do it, we just want to see it at a more consistent level.
Though he is waiver exempt, the writing is on the wall that he will start the year with the team. The coaching staff loves the element of speed he brings to the table, matched perhaps only by Jeff Carter. Expect to see Kempe receive sheltered minutes and lots of offensive zone starts as he gets every opportunity to succeed.
Just a week after his 21st birthday, he occupies a spot on our countdown reserved by only two other players before today: Drew Doughty and Tyler Toffoli. While his rapid rise, boyish looks, and difference-making potential stack up pretty favorably with those two elite Kings, only time will tell if his play on the ice does the same.
Thanks for following along with our Top 25 Under 25 countdown! If you missed any entry on our countdown, you can find all 25 pieces right here.