Our annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown is rolling right along! 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. A new arrival, at #18: Boko Imama.
2016-17 Team: Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
2016-17 Statistics: 66 GP, 41 G, 14 A, 55 P
Current NHL Projection (via NHLe): 82 GP, 13 G, 4 A, 17 P (based on AHL total)
Jewels Reader Ranking: 18
Jewels Staff Ranking: 18
Bokondji “Boko” Imama is a 6-foot-1, 221-pound native of Montreal, Quebec. The Kings acquired the stocky winger for a seventh round selection in the 2018 draft after he failed to come to terms with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who drafted him in the sixth round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
As a 20 year-old in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, it was imperative that Imama dominate the league if he wanted to land a professional contract. Before last season, Imama was known primarily as an enforcer, scoring only 20 goals across his first four seasons in the QMJHL. After a challenge from Tampa Bay to round out his game, he held up his end of the bargain, posting 55 points across 66 games in his overage season. His 41 goals were seventh in the league.
“From the first day they released me from camp, it was clear: they don’t want to see me fight, they don’t want to see me get suspended,” Imama said. “They want to see me on the ice, working on my game, scoring goals obviously, making some good plays, being an effective hockey player for my team.”
Imama hired a skills coach that offseason, working on his hands and power skating. While not unusual for a young player to work with a coach in the offseason, he deserves credit for putting in the work and transforming his game. The son of immigrant parents from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Boko cites them as inspiration for a strong work ethic and humble approach to the game.
"That's the way I was brought up," said Imama. "My parents came from far away and they didn't always have it easy here or (in the Congo). I always tell my mom and dad that I’m grateful for this and that I love them for this (opportunity).
"I'm lucky enough to be playing hockey and living my dream, so I know when things are not going well I don't have any excuses – I just have to make sure I go up the hill and not down it."
Imama has not completely abandoned his trademark physical play. He still racked up 105 penalty minutes, 13th in the league. The Kings organization has a history of embracing those who play on the edge. Their hope is Imama brings his new-found scoring prowess with him in his first year as pro, while maintaining the feistiness that made him one of the fiercest competitors during his junior run.
For his part, the humble Imama seems prepared to take on more of a complementary role upon turning pro. In his interview with William Douglas in The Color of Hockey:
“To be realistic, when I’m going to pro level, I’ll have to come back to myself, to be more of a grinder, more of a fighter,” he told me. “Right now, as a 20-year-old, I have the chance to play a more offensive dimension. So I’m pretty grateful and I’m having a lot of fun. But once I start playing pro, I have to get back to the old me, if I can say that.”
Signed to a three-year entry-level contract, the 21 year-old Imama should start the year with the Ontario Reign in the AHL. Expectations will be low, as the jump from the QMJHL to the AHL can be overwhelming. In a Kings’ system already well-stocked with rugged left wingers, Imama will have to push himself once again to learn their system and separate himself from the pack. He already has proof of concept that coach-ability can improve your results, which bodes well for Mike Stothers and his staff with the Reign.
The Kings are notoriously patient with their prospects, so Imama still has time to show he can develop into more than a grinder. While his big offensive season in junior is not necessarily indicative of things to come, it is worth noting that many of the players who scored at a similar clip last season were roughly the same age as Imama, but had already established themselves as goal scorers in previous seasons. A player improving his play to that extent is rare and should not be discounted when assessing what he may become as he matures.
Whether that is a fourth-line grinder or a middle-six power forward with a scoring touch, it seems well worth the price of a seventh-round pick. The Kings’ system is as barren as it has been in many years, but credit Rob Blake for finding creative ways to try and re-stock the pipeline.