Our seventh annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown has begun! The rankings were determined by a combination of reader voting and our staff’s own voting. We then combined the reader rankings and the staff rankings to determine the top 25. To be eligible for the countdown, a player must be 24 or younger on October 2, 2019, when the 2019-20 NHL season begins.
Oh, hi, Kale Clague. I wasn’t expecting to write about you so soon.
Last year, a slightly different group of Jewels from the Crown writers and readers voted, and Kale Clague was ranked as the #3 player under the age of 25 in the Los Angeles Kings organization. That’s right... among others, Clague finished ahead of Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari, and Cal Petersen in last year’s countdown. This year? #18, behind a whole bunch of guys he was ahead of last year.
Sure, it’s lower than I thought Clague would be, but I think it’s not a totally unsurprising place for him. Much like Sheldon Rempal and Daniel Brickley, who we wrote about on Monday and Tuesday, last year was Clague’s first full season as a professional and it showed in some areas of his game. Despite not taking long to make an impact...
He was outproduced in Ontario by unheralded defensemen Sean Walker and Matt Roy, older players who got a sustained look at the NHL level last season. Clague also jumped into a more prominent role midseason and — like most of his Ontario teammates — got scored on a bunch.
Having said that, I don’t think anyone would claim that there are 17 players in the Kings organization with a higher ceiling than Clague. Despite his occasional struggles, he was eleventh in the AHL in scoring among rookie defensemen, and seventh in points per game among rookies who played at least half the season.
Highest Points Per Game - AHL Rookie Defensemen
Clague’s offensive abilities, in particular, are enticing. Sean O’Donnell told LA Kings Insider that Ontario has focused on Clague’s defensive game, since his offensive instincts are natural and impressive.
He’s making plays at the offensive blue line that you really can’t teach. He’s doing shoulder shakes and shimmies and he’s leaving guys behind him, and you don’t do that if you’re squeezing your stick or you’re thinking too much.
Combine that with Clague’s skating prowess and you have a player very much capable of being a game-breaker for the Kings. Clague needs to make sure the game isn’t broken in his own end, though, and that’s the one barrier which will keep him from being a King right this second. So how’s he doing with that? Pretty well, actually! Zach Dooley’s exit interviews with Ontario coach Mike Stothers revealed that, other than missing the playoffs, Stothers’ biggest disappointment was not getting to see more of Clague after a broken foot ended his season on March 8.
He pointed to the strides Clague had taken in his game, and the opportunity for him to log top pairing minutes down the stretch. “It’s so disappointing, and we missed him. He really improved. Kale really came a long way from the start of camp, through the exhibition to the regular season and he was playing some real good hockey in the absence of those guys.” Clague had really began to take stride with recalls of other Ontario blueliners to the AHL, seizing minutes and roles, taking on the load and playing in all situations.
Clague might have gotten a brief look with the Kings in April if not for that injury, but he’s still set up nicely for the upcoming season. With the departures of Jake Muzzin, Oscar Fantenberg, and Dion Phaneuf, a roster jam-packed with left-shot defensemen now has some space. Derek Forbort and Joakim Ryan are the only LHD on the NHL roster as of now, while Clague, Brickley, and Chaz Reddekopp are the only LHD with a season in Ontario under their belt. (EDIT: There’s also Alec Martínez and Kurtis MacDermid, lefties who have primarily played on the right side for LA.) With the Kings not expected to contend for a playoff spot, Clague could very easily get the kind of extended look that Roy and Walker got last year, and it would be hugely beneficial for him.
Clague is low, sure, but a ton of readers ranked him higher than #18, seeing a lot to like in LA’s 2016 second-round pick. One thing is for sure: if Clague makes the big club and continues his development, he’ll jump right back up next year’s Top 25 Under 25.