The 2019 NHL Rookie Faceoff kicked off at a new venue yesterday, as the Ducks welcomed five other teams to the brand spanking new Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine. Unfortunately, the Ducks were not welcoming hosts, as the Kings took a bit of a walloping on Saturday night.
We try not to read too much into preseason games, we try to read even less into rookie games, and we try to read less than that into rookie games where one team is clearly outmatched. Having said that, it was the first chance for us to see several of these Kings in a game situation. For me, it was the first chance to see most of them in a game situation in person, so you KNOW I am gonna read too much into this game anyway. Let’s run it down.
- Matt Villalta looks ready for a dose of AHL action. The 2017 third-rounder came in at #22 in our Top 25 Under 25 countdown after a difficult OHL season and a shaky playoff performance, and giving up four goals in this rookie game won’t inspire a ton of confidence on its surface. Make no mistake, though: this scoreline could (and probably should) have been a lot worse. Anaheim had several NHL-ready forwards suiting up for this game, and Troy Terry, Maxime Comtois, and Kiefer Sherwood (32, 10, and 50 NHL games, respectively) regularly broke in on odd-man or one-man rushes against Villalta. Villalta wasn’t perfect, and a pinpoint shot by Max Jones on the power play should have been stoppable with a decent view. But Villalta regularly stopped high-blocker shots from the slot, was strong on resisting a few double attempts on breakaways, and only made a couple errors in puck-handling while regularly getting swarmed. It remains to be seen how he’ll respond to regular AHL action but if he faces a ton of shots as the Reign often did last season, he should be able to hold up.
- Rasmus Kupari was the Kings’ best forward. As we covered on Friday, Kupari has had relatively exposure to American Kings fans, and there’s a hunger to see what he can do on home ice. If his 15-20 minutes of action yesterday is anything to go off of, he’ll take to this continent quite nicely. Kupari’s speed is a known quantity, but that wasn’t the part of his game that stuck out to me yesterday. Rather, it was his puck control. On a squad that frequently lost the puck in their skates or panicked under duress, Kupari was calm and almost never gave up the puck. LA is getting faster and smaller, but they’ll always have a slot for someone who can hold the puck in the corner. If Kupari keeps that in his game and can still keep his vision, LA will have him on their bench sooner rather than later.
- He also linked up nicely with Jaret Anderson-Dolan early on. Their line (with 2019 draftee Samuel Fagemo) had the best volume of chances for LA, although Blake Lizotte probably showcased the best ability to make something out of nothing. That came in handy, because most of the game was a whole lot of nothing.
- Tobias Bjornfot and Sean Durzi showed some flashes on defense. The two blueliners weren’t the top defensemen in this year’s Top 25 Under 25 rankings — Mikey Anderson edged them out — but they were the two most visible against the Ducks. Anderson was pretty subtle, and that’s not a bad thing, but Durzi was the most physical, and Bjornfot had the most visible defensive contributions. Midway through the first Bjornfot blocked a point-blank chance, managed to shepherd it himself into the corner, and made one of several confident passes to exit the zone. Everyone might even remember how to spell his name soon.
Updates: Comtois fought Sean Durzi, the Ducks held on fairly easily, Villalta kept it from being worse, and they fixed the spelling on Tobias Bjornfot’s “BJORFOT” jersey by game’s end. Plenty to work on for the Kings!— Jewels from the Crown (@JFTC_Kings) September 8, 2019
- The Ducks have pretzels shaped like their logo. This isn’t relevant but the pretzels looked tasty.
- Arthur Kaliyev scored. He could fit the Kovalchuk best-case scenario of “he scores even when he’s invisible” if we’re lucky; he had a handful of excellent chances despite not really standing out as much.
- The expected scraps didn’t materialize until late, which is refreshing. The photo of Drake Rymsha and Kiefer Sherwood at the top of this article is from last year’s preseason, but you could’ve been fooled, as both players attempted to antagonize their opponents repeatedly. However, the era of players having to fight to show their worth has largely passed, and the late fight between Comtois and Durzi was borne mostly out of accumulated tension and not a desire to impress the coaching staff. The third period was chippy, but while the game was still in reach, both sides mostly set the sideshows to the side.
- There’s plenty of room for improvement, but the adrenaline-packed first ten minutes were excellent. The team had a system, they controlled possession at levels we haven’t seen much since 2017, and the players showcased some individual creativity. The next 40 minutes were essentially devoid of chances after Kaliyev’s goal, and they looked pretty outmatched. Again, though, that showing against a team chock-full of 2019 NHLers wasn’t half bad.
After one period, it’s 2-1 Anaheim. First ten minutes were clean, fundamentally sound, and exciting from LA’s perspective. Last ten minutes were... less so.— Jewels from the Crown (@JFTC_Kings) September 8, 2019
- There were definitely nerves with a big crowd and a tough opponent. Most of the offensive plays died with pucks getting tangled in skates or thrown aimlessly to the side, and Anaheim’s goalie played well but didn’t have much to do in tight. Tomorrow might not be as exciting for the players or fans, but the second game will be a better indicator of where these rookies are at. (So far, it’s gone better.)