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.
To the Kings fans who stood by and watched last season crumble apart as hastily as a freshly opened pack of Nature Valley, Oat ‘n Honey Granola Bars, now 22-year old forward Matt Luff’s brief rookie stint in L.A. was both a refreshing part-time addition to a listless Kings offense and a promising glimpse into what might become of the young right winger as a future Kings fixture.
Toward the beginning of a dismal 2018-19 season, Luff and several of his teammates in Ontario were shipped to and from the Reign as stop-gap solutions for a Kings team trying to gain a foothold as they plummeted to the bottom of the NHL standings. For Luff however, a 33-game sip of coffee in L.A. provided the perfect opportunity to break out of the American League mold and make a name for himself in a Kings sweater.
Although many Kings fans might not have pegged Luff to be a standout prospect for the Kings last season, the Oakville, Ontario native did just that, injecting a mixture of youthful exuberance, dependability on the right flank, and perhaps most importantly - an offensively-oriented toolkit that both coaches and staff know can contribute at the NHL level, into L.A.’s forward lineup.
Luff’s time spent in LA during 2018-19 likely caused him to snatch the number 12 spot on our Top 25 Under 25 list at JFTC, but it isn’t exactly going to be sunshine and roses for the young winger in 2019-20. In spite of a strong offensive upside pushing Luff toward a bottom six role out of camp, there is a serious case to be made against his defensive skill set as an NHL caliber forward. Not to mention, many mock lineups show Luff as a healthy scratch at right wing and coupled with the fact that he will be waiver exempt in 2019-20, per Capfriendly, there is a good chance Mike Stother’s offensive anchor returns to Ontario to start the season.
Yet, as a Kings fan, it’s hard to shake the impact Luff had last year on a sinking ship.
A goal-per-game through a four-game stretch, the second highest point total (8-3-11) out of all first-year Kings rookies who suited up for L.A. in 2018-19, and a respectable roll of film with some silky finishes and intelligent plays to boot.
In addition to the more tangible factors that Luff brings to the ice, rising from the relative obscurity of being an undrafted commodity out of the OHL inflamed a chip-on-my-shoulder mentality, which has become a necessary ally in the consistent development and forward progression throughout Luff’s professional career. Lest we forget, just over a year ago the six-foot-two, 195 pound prospect was merely an honorable mention on JFTC’s Top 25 Under 25 list and there is reason to believe he can continue on an upward trend given a fair shake in 2019-20.
Luff’s 2018-19 campaign withstanding, it’s not as if the budding forward won’t lace up his skates for L.A. next season. The right winger made his presence known amidst the King’s emerging rookie wellspring and with the advent of a new head coach in Todd McLellan, it’s not unreasonable to pencil Luff in as a 40-50 game player down the Kings lineup come next season.
Our writers and readers seemed to place Luff right on the cusp of the top ten 25 under 25 players in L.A. and I imagine that part of the reason Luff’s readout didn’t result in a higher ranking is partly due to his play seeming a bit sporadic given a relatively small sample-size. With any player, consistency is key and while it’s hard to ask a rookie for consistent production at the highest level of hockey, I believe next season will help sort out the question marks surrounding Luff’s ability to be a more consistent producer at the NHL level, for better or for worse.
For those who enjoy a more visual experience, I combed through an assortment of Luff’s game footage in L.A. this past season and highlighted some of the good and some of the bad from his first season as a King.
There is an inherent decisiveness and intelligence in Luff that is paramount to his offensive abilities away from the puck. Take a look here at how he hangs out around his own blue line watching a scrum develop along the boards and immediately swivels his hips toward Vancouver's net after realizing he has an chance to receive the puck up ice with both Canucks defenders out to lunch. With just enough deception to get the goalie to bite, Luff pushes the puck into the net behind a sprawled out Jacob Markstrom and makes it look effortless in doing so.
While Luff might not have gotten as much credit this past season for being a solid facilitator, his ability to string together high danger passes is an integral part of his offensive toolkit and played a large role in his ability to produce at the AHL level. Take a look here at how Luff makes a patient pass into line mate Austin Wagner after Wagner coughs up the puck in the high slot.
He’s an integral part of the goal both as the primary assistant and as the facilitator in Doughty’s absence at the beginning of the play to move the puck out wide with pressure moving his direction.
For all the innate offensive intelligence and skill that Luff possesses, there is certainly room for improvement in his own end. Take a look at how Luff’s blown coverage against Edmonton directly results in a goal. Notice how Kempe points his stick at the puck carrier for Edmonton as if to signal Luff toward him, but by the time Luff realizes and tries to double back to his man, Martinez has to squeeze down towards Oscar Klefbom, which leaves Alex Chiasson wide open in front of the net to score on a rebound.
While it is something that will likely come with an adjustment to the pace of play at the NHL level and a recognition of the caliber of player that Luff will face off against over the course of a season, take a look at how a Johnny Gaudreau dragback throws Luff off course in the defensive zone and allows Gaudreau to setup a high danger chance. Yes, I know its Gaudreau he was trying to dispossess, but a half-baked, back-turned effort on a poke check against a franchise level player isn’t a promising on ice choice when that player can tell you were hunting him from center ice. If Luff can turn plays like this into a more concerted effort to get turned around and squared with his target, he’ll be well on his way to a top line role for the Kings.