While the 2017-18 season ended with more of a whimper than Kings fans hoped for, we still learned a lot about the team, its players, and the direction for the future. Over the course of the next month, we’ll dive into the Kings’ roster and take a look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what things might look like in the coming season. Today’s first installment in our Year in Review series looks at three young players still looking to make their mark in the NHL.
With the terminations of Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi at the end of the 2016-17 season, the Kings organization made it clear that they knew that the status quo was unacceptable. The league was getting younger and faster, with an emphasis on speed and skilled play rather than physicality. With some roster turnover, a new coach, and a new focus, this past season was one where roles on the team were open for the taking.
Later in our Year in Review series, you’ll read about Alex Iafallo and Adrian Kempe, two rookies who earned spots on the team from day one and never looked back. Additionally, Mike Amadio worked his way into a mostly-regular spot on the team after putting up some eye-popping stats in Ontario.
Several other young players had the chance to make an impact with the team, but failed to earn a regular spot in the lineup. All of them hope to be roster mainstays next season. Let’s take a look at how they did.
The right shot defenseman has been one of the Kings’ more highly touted prospects over the past few years. Frequently, Paul LaDue’s name has come up as a player that other teams would want packaged in a deal, but under both Lombardi and now Rob Blake, the organization has been reluctant to move him. When LaDue’s at his best, you can see why. He’s a smooth skater with good offensive vision who’s shown at the AHL level that he can contribute on both sides of the ice.
While with the Reign this past season, LaDue put up 18 points in 36 games and often found himself taking on first pairing responsibilities. He was relied on to be an all-situations type player in the AHL and looked comfortable in the role he was given. Thanks to the proximity of Ontario to Los Angeles, LaDue was recalled multiple times, sometimes just as extra insurance or a seventh defenseman depending on injuries, but it helped get him more exposure to the NHL club and time in with their coaches. He got into 12 games with the Kings this season, recording three goals and one assist. With a surplus of defensemen, though, including the surprising rise of Oscar Fantenberg, LaDue often found himself the odd man out.
We delved into LaDue’s numbers when announcing his re-signing, but in the limited amount of minutes he’s logged, it appears that where he excels is in zone entries and exits. For a team that sometimes seems to struggle to break out of the dump and chase model, LaDue’s skills could be in high demand for the Kings. His game sometimes seems to lack the level of physicality that the team seems to like to see from its defensemen, and that could be a factor that’s holding him back.
By all accounts, though, the organization thinks this year is LaDue’s year to earn a roster spot, and he’ll be given every opportunity to do so. However, he’ll face some stiff competition from Daniel Brickley, who is widely viewed as an NHL-ready prospect, as well as from our next player on the bubble.
This time last year, no one knew who Oscar Fantenberg was, but his strong showing in training camp and the pre-season helped skyrocket him from a position as what was assumed to be a depth player for Ontario to a spot on the roster on opening night. Coming over from the KHL (and the SHL before that), he adapted easily to the smaller ice surface and different style of game play in North America and was an easy fit on the blue line, able to adapt to any pairing.
Fantenberg played for the Kings through January, but as time progressed, he was less noticeable and effective in his play, and so he was assigned to the Reign, where he was able to focus on his game. He had one goal and 13 assists during his time with Ontario, and was recalled to the Kings for the end of the regular season and playoffs.
Getting real familiar with the back of the net tonight— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) March 31, 2018
Oscar Fantenberg on the ice for all 6 goals tonight so far! Might be a new record! pic.twitter.com/Dy26obtxb8
In 27 regular season games with the Kings, Fantenberg recorded two goals and seven assists. He also appeared in all four playoff games, with one assist. In game two of the playoffs, the Drew Doughty-less double overtime marathon, Fantenberg played on the top pairing with Alec Martinez, logging 41:10. If anything earned Fantenberg a contract renewal, it may very well have been his performance in that game. He didn’t look out of place with the additional responsibility and played well alongside Martinez.
In his time with the Kings, Fantenberg found himself doing a little bit of everything. He started in the offensive zone 54% of the time and was used equally whether or not the team was leading or trailing in score. At even strength, Fantenberg sometimes struggled with shot and possession metrics, being on the lower end of the Kings’ Corsi rankings, at 47.39. He was on the ice for more shots against than shots for (151 against as compared to 132 for), which is an area in his stats the team would surely like to see improve.
Fantenberg and LaDue being the team’s six/seven defensemen in 2018-19 may not be the worst thing for the team, as both have shown in their limited stints with the team that they are not wholly in over their heads in the NHL. It would be better for both of them from a development perspective to have them playing regularly, but both require waivers to be sent down to the AHL. The risk of losing either to waivers seems high, so chances are that both will spend the season with the Kings.
There’s one other player who’s seen some limited time with the Kings but hasn’t been able to secure a regular spot in the lineup, and he’s a little more known for shooting the puck than these guys.
Part of the St. Cloud-to-Los Angeles pipeline, Jonny Brodzinski still hold the record at St. Cloud for shots per game (3.56 averaged out over his college career). He put up 112 points in 120 games in the NCAA, 107 points in 153 AHL games … and just eight NHL points over 41 NHL games. Brodzinski is a player who has shown that he has a good shot and skill with the puck at other levels, but hasn’t been able to catch on yet in the NHL.
Part of that may be due to his shooting percentage - he shot at 7.5% this past season in Los Angeles, which puts him in range with the terminally snakebitten Alex Iafallo, and Nick Shore, who also excelled at the college and AHL level, but couldn’t find his offense in the NHL. Iafallo made up for his lack of scoring by becoming a strong on-ice partner for Anze Kopitar and displaying good defensive awareness. Shore compensated for his lack of scoring by becoming a stronger defensive player, as well. Brodzinski as a winger doesn’t have quite the same opportunities to make a name for himself on defensive draws and two-way play.
He’s also been given limited ice time in which he can see himself succeed. Brodzinski’s season average was 9:11, and he found himself more often in the five to six minute range. Depending on your thoughts on coaching and player development, ice time generally needs to be earned, not just handed to a young player, even if they are a promising prospect.
But Brodzinski is a shooter and a scorer, and pairing him up with players like Andy Andreoff, Nick Shore, Torrey Mitchell, or Jussi Jokinen is probably not the best way to set him up for success. He had four goals and two assists over 36 games in the NHL this season; while with the Reign, he had 30 points (13G, 17A) in 29 games, playing often on a potent top line including Matt Moulson and Mike Amadio.
There’s a log jam in the top six, though, as it’s all but certain that the top line next year will be Ilya Kovalchuk/Anze Kopitar/Dustin Brown, and there’s no reason not to believe that the team will stick with Tanner Pearson/Jeff Carter/Tyler Toffoli on the second line. That means that if Brodzinski is going to remain with the team and not find himself as this year’s Nic Dowd (average play, healthy scratch, random late-night trade), he’s going to have to make the most of his opportunities on the third or fourth line.
A lack of depth scoring certainly hurt the Kings in both the regular season (where Anze Kopitar had to carry the majority of the offense for the team) and in the playoffs (where just a few well-timed goals from the bottom six could have changed the outcome of the series). If there’s no room for Brodzinski at the top, to earn the 15-17 minutes he may need to fully get into a groove and begin producing, then he is going to need to either start showing some stellar defense and play along the boards (like Iafallo) or he’s going to have to prove himself as someone who can still score even if he only gets 10 minutes a night.
These three young players could be a big part of the Kings’ future, if they find that they’re able to elevate their games to the NHL level. With some open roster spots available, it’s up to each of them to push and show why they deserve to be here.