2017-18 in Review: The Year of the Rookie

The Kings received an injection of youthful vigor under the new regime. Was their faith in these three rookies rewarded?

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. The next installment in our Year in Review series looks at three rookies who received an opportunity and mostly made good.

The Kings have been on the receiving end of plenty of internet snark in recent years, as the average age of the team continues to rise. This was not helped, of course, when they announced the signing of 35 year-old Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk earlier this offseason.

While the facts are indisputable, the critics fail to acknowledge the work Rob Blake has done in very short order to inject a youthful supporting cast around his veteran roster. The 2017-18 season saw no less than seven members of the Kings make their NHL debut, with two rookies playing prominent roles.

Adrian Kempe

Elected by our staff and readers as the Kings’ best player under 25, Kempe was virtually guaranteed a spot on the roster heading into training camp. To help maximize his skill set and fill an organizational need, new coach John Stevens surprisingly moved him to center, where he began the year on a line with veteran Michael Cammalleri and fellow rookie Jonny Brodzinski.

After that line failed to impress, coach Stevens tried multiple wingers to get Kempe going before things finally clicked. With the dark cloud of Jeff Carter’s injury looming over a mid-October game against the Canadiens, Kempe gave them the lift they desperately needed, recording his first career hat trick to lead the Kings to a 5-1 victory over Montreal.

That night kicked off the best week of his professional career, as he would score three times in his next four games, including single-handedly delivering the Kings a victory against the Senators with a late, game-tying goal and burying the shootout winner with one of the best moves of the year.

While he notably ended the season with a 28-game goal drought, he filled in admirably for Jeff Carter, with all 16 of his goals scored during his four-month absence. In all, Kempe finished his rookie season with 37 points, while learning a new position and burdened with a larger role than he was intended to receive.

Those added responsibilities likely added to his underwhelming possession numbers, despite favorable deployment (68.3 oZS%). It also did not help that he had less talented line mates once Carter returned to action. With a full year under his belt and a little added luck, it would not be a shock to see him harness his talents into a 20-goal season in 2018-19.

Alex Iafallo

As an un-drafted college senior, Iafallo entered training camp with considerably less pageantry than Kempe. Signed out of the University of Minnesota Deluth, Iafallo impressed enough in his audition to not only win a spot on the team, but on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.

While playing with the Kings’ two leading scorers did not result in Iafallo lighting up the scoresheet much himself, he still managed to make an impact with heady play and solid work along the boards. He brought speed and energy to the line, helping the two veterans to career seasons.

In sort of the reverse of Kempe, Iafallo began the season with a scoring drought, having several near-misses before finally converting on a Kopitar pass 14 games into the season. He found his comfort level in the second half of the season, scoring 7 of his 9 goals after the All Star break.

It is unclear whether he will be able to reach another level offensively. At times, he looked out of his league playing alongside Kopitar, overmatched by the speed at which play unfolds at the NHL level and failing to convert on several open chances. With Kovalchuk on board, Iafallo will likely see more time on the bottom-six, where his speed and defensive awareness should make him an asset.

Michael Amadio

While not a fixture in the line-up, the 21 year-old Amadio showed real promise in his limited opportunities. Playing fourth-line minutes (with fourth-line partners), he registered only four goals and four assists through 37 games. He did manage to create quality chances with that time, recording a 52.64% expected goals-for percentage. It would be fair to say his modest 48% Corsi rating was largely influenced by his line mates. It is also worth noting that percentage was roughly the median on last year’s Kings, who failed to drive possession outside the top two lines.

In 32 games with the Ontario Reign, Amadio assumed top-line center responsibilities, recording 35 points. Always known for his defensive play, his continued rise as an offensive threat should make him a viable option for a Kings squad desperate for depth scoring.

When asked if his time in the NHL made a noticeable impact on Amadio during the AHL playoffs, head coach Mike Stothers did not mince words: “You’re asking the wrong guy. I think everything he does is wonderful. I’m like his dad for crying out loud. Wrong guy to ask.”

Stothers’ gushing did not end there: “Amadio, he makes plays. Things happen. The puck follows him around. He’s got a great stick. Actually, if you’re a winger, he’s a pretty easy guy to play with. All you’ve got to do is find a spot, because he’ll find you.”

Amadio will likely compete with veterans Nate Thompson and Kyle Clifford for ice time, while offensive threats Jonny Brodzinski and Gabriel Vilardi also figure to be part of the equation. Amadio’s defensive acumen and ability to play a credible center would seemingly give him an advantage in the training camp competition.