ONTARIO, CA — Unless you’ve been following the National Hockey League from under the proverbial rock over the last four years, you know that the Los Angeles Kings have won the Stanley Cup twice during that span. But what you may not be aware of is that they didn’t do it by signing top-tier unrestricted free agents or by making a plethora of trades to bring in skilled veteran players.
To be sure, this is the salary cap era, a time when loading a roster with a bunch of unrestricted free agents and veteran players acquired via trade isn’t really possible. Rather, the Kings built their 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup Championship teams through the draft and by investing heavily in player development.
All one has to do is look at the rosters of those teams to see that the vast majority of the players were drafted by the Kings and/or were developed in their minor league system. Few players were hired guns—unrestricted free agents or established, skilled veterans acquired via trade.
Fast forward to the 2015-16 season, and that formula remains in place for Kings President and General Manager Dean Lombardi. Indeed, when you look beyond the big club’s roster, you see that what is arguably the NHL’s top team in terms of drafting and development has a number of prospects who are likely to make an impact at the NHL level in the future—that’s a formula for maintaining Stanley Cup contender status year after year after year.
If there is a downside to winning the Stanley Cup, it’s that your team selects last in each round of the draft. But credit goes to the Kings’ scouting staff as their work led them to target left wing Tanner Pearson with the 30th overall pick in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, a player who was a key cog in their 2014 Stanley Cup Championship.
Don’t look now, but the Kings may have an even shinier, brighter gem down on the farm who was also a near-last-in-the-first-round draft pick.
In the 2014 NHL Draft, the Kings had the 29th overall selection (New Jersey picked 30th due to NHL sanctions), and they used that pick to select left wing Adrian Kempe, 19, a player who is showing signs that he has the potential to become an elite NHL talent.
The 6-1, 187-pound native of Kramfors, Sweden can skate like the wind, has a quick, powerful shot, is a deft playmaker and can hold his own in physical battles along the boards and in front of the net.
Last season, Kempe came over from Sweden to join the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (they’re now the Kings’ ECHL affiliate) late in the year for the playoffs, and he was more than impressive.
“You know what? Man! He came in and did a heck of a job for us,” said then-Monarchs head coach Mike Stothers, who is now the head coach of the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ AHL affiliate. “I mean, he can skate, he’s got good hockey sense, and he’s a unique player in that he can skate at the same speed while carrying the puck, which is fast. Most guys can’t do that.”
Kempe’s strong play, including eight goals, helped lead the Monarchs to the AHL’s 2015 Calder Cup Championship, and he did that despite getting plenty of attention from their playoff foes.
“When I [got] out there for my first couple of games, they were really physical,” Kempe noted. “I had to keep my head up, every shift.”
Despite the intimidation tactics, Kempe pushed right back.
“They gave him extra shots, they pushed him after whistles, and they got in his face,” Stothers observed. “He held his ground. He pushed back. I think he proved to them—and the goals he scored—he scored by going to the net. He was not a perimeter player at all. He was not the least bit intimidated.”
“He’s got a powerful stride, he’s a great skater, he’s got a great release in stride [on his shot], and he’s a big guy,” Stothers added. “He played hard, he played physical. They tried to intimidate him, but he didn’t take any backward steps. He’s got a big frame. He’s a big, strong guy for his age, and his skating—he’s fun to watch. He can get up and down.”
Along with tremendous skating ability, Kempe has a quick, hard wrist shot.
“He gets it away in a hurry,” said Stothers. “His goals, this year, have been a classic example of being puck-ready.”
“I’ve always had a good, hard shot, but I want to improve my release all the time,” said Kempe, who recently played for Sweden in the 2016 World Junior Championships. “When I was a kid, I had a hard shot, but I didn’t have that quick release. But I worked to improve my release, and I’m still doing that. That’s something you always have to work on. In professional hockey, you’ve got to move the puck right away, and if you want to be a good goal scorer, you want to shoot a one-timer, or get it off as quickly as you can.”
A quick release on his shot gives Kempe a great offensive weapon. But, as alluded to earlier, what makes him even more formidable is his speed.
“That’s one of the biggest weapons I use—my skating ability, and I can use that even more here [with the smaller rinks in North America],” Kempe noted. “I really like the smaller rinks here, especially because one of my biggest strengths is that I can skate at full speed with the puck. Many players can’t do that, and I want to be even better at that, because it’s such a big advantage here, on the smaller rinks.”
“It’s speed and skating with Kempe,” Stothers emphasized. “He’s a real powerful, free-flowing skater, and I think that’s the best asset that he has. His hockey sense is very good, his overall skill and talent is really high. The only thing he’s really lacking is experience.”
Despite his obvious gifts, Kempe, who is in his first full season in North American professional hockey, still has a lot to learn.
“We’re looking at a kid—he’s still a teenager, for crying out loud,” Stothers emphasized. “There’s a lot of work to be done yet with Kempe. But it’s more along the lines of experience. His consistency needs to be there, and his defensive responsibilities can be improved. But when you look at the natural gifts that he has, they’re all things that you really can’t teach.”
“There’s times when he could be harder and heavier on pucks, and making sure that pucks are getting out of our zone,” Stothers added. “There are times when he can come back and support better. He’s kind of like a thoroughbred. He wants to get into the gates and wait for the starter’s whistle to get going the other way. But prior to that, you’ve got to make sure that you’re positionally sound and accountable on defense. Otherwise, coaches aren’t going to trust you to be on the ice, especially in an organization that prides itself in how they play in their own end. That’s the biggest thing, but it’s not something that’s unusual for young players.”
Kempe acknowledged that his defensive game needs work.
“I’ve shown that I’ve been better, but I’m still trying to improve my defensive play,” said Kempe. “I want to play more. I want to be a guy who can play everything—penalty-kill, power play, five-on-five, too. I want to be better in everything. I want them to trust me so I can play on the penalty-kill, and at the end of games. I want to be better there, for sure.”
With great speed and skill, Kempe could easily develop into a star, not just the prototypical power forward. In fact, when he walked into the Kings’ 2015 training camp last fall, it was obvious that he had put on a considerable amount of muscle since last season—adding strength is going to be a key to his development.
“He’s a big, thick, strong kid, but yet, he’s a teenager, so I’m not even sure if he’s growing, developing, or filling out,” said Stothers. “I think he’s probably going to continue in that aspect. As you get older, you mature and you get stronger, physically. You know what? There might be [more and] better yet to come, just in terms of the overall specimen that he’s going to be.”
“He’s not a guy who hangs around out on the perimeter,” added Stothers. “He can battle with anybody. He’s strong on his skates, he’s hard on pucks when he wants to be, and truly, he hasn’t even finished growing or filling out.”
Stothers indicated that although Kempe still has work to do, especially on the defensive side of the puck, he is definitely not behind the curve.
“[Attention to detail in the defensive zone is] part of the consistency aspect,” said Stothers. “It can’t be a selective thing. It’s got to be automatic. But again, we’re dealing with a teenager here, so there’s lots of time for that to improve. There’s no hurry to fast track him anywhere. You know what? He’s developing, and the future looks bright for him, and for the Kings. He’s ahead of the curve. He’s an interesting kid to watch, a fascinating kid to watch, and a thrilling kid to watch, because of the flat-out skating ability.”
“He’s got so much, there’s so much there that you can’t help but be excited when you’re talking about him, you can’t help but be excited watching him,” added Stothers. “The Kings have got a real good future with this guy in the organization. He’s an exciting guy. He makes things happen. He’s not one-dimensional.”
“He’s got the makings of a pretty complete hockey player, when it’s all said and done. You know what? I think he’s going to be a top six guy in the NHL. That, in itself, puts you in pretty good company.”