Welcome to Today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2013 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will go team by team through the NHL bringing you a look at each Teams Top Prospects. I will be following the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in the 2013 draft, as there have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed. What I will be doing is linking you to those articles, as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2013-14 roster of the NHL team in question. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances (especially due to the fact that the latest NHL season was only 48 games).
Coming off their 2012 Stanley Cup Championship, the Kings did an excellent job of avoiding a Stanley Cup Hangover in the 2012-13 season. Sure things didn’t start off as well as hoped but the Kings never hit crisis mode and were able to quickly turn things around after a mediocre first couple weeks of the season. They would finish 5th in the Western Conference before taking out the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks to once again reach the Conference finals. Unfortunately they were unable to repeat their 2012 heroics and would fall to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite this loss, it really shouldn’t be seen as an unsuccessful season, as with all the parity in the NHL, we have not seen a repeat champion since Detroit in 1997 and 1998. The Kings remain a top club with a number of relatively young stars and should continue to compete year in and year out for some time. Ask any recent cup winner and they will say that there was at least a little bit of luck and some good bounces that went their way in their magical season. With a little puck luck, it’s not hard to imagine the core of the current Kings lineup bringing a second Stanley Cup to Tinseltown in the coming years.
Top Prospect, Tyler Toffoli, Right Wing
Born Apr 24 1992 — Scarborough, ONT
Height 6.00 — Weight 186 — Shoots R
Selected by Los Angeles Kings in round 2 #47 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Since being drafted Tyler Toffoli has turned into a real offensive force. He spent two seasons right at the top of the OHL scoring leaders, finishing 1st in goals in both 2011 and 2012, and 1st in points in 2011 and 2nd in 2012. Moving on to the pro game, he put up 51 points in 58 games for Manchester in the AHL, extremely impressive numbers for any 20 year old rookie and even earned himself 22 games with the Kings between the regular season and playoffs where he put up 11 points.
Toffoli is a natural sniper who has an NHL ready wrist shot and snap shot, including absolutely incredible release speed. If given an opening he is just lightning quick with his shots and they are in the back of the net. He also has soft hands and good stickhandling and puck control skills. Toffoli can leave defenders reeling with a dangle or can bury the puck in close to net. While he’s a natural sniper, he brings more than just that as Toffoli has the good vision and passing ability to be a playmaker off the wing. He has excellent hockey sense in the offensive zone as he has a real ability to slow the game down and make smart decisions. Toffoli has the ability to spot openings and set up for a good shot in the offensive zone. He’s the type of player who just craves goals and shows a tenacious work ethic in the offensive zone, being willing to work along the boards and battle for pucks. He is also willing to get to the front of the net and take the punishment necessary to score from the dirty areas of the ice.
Toffoli has really worked hard on his skating. While once a weakness, he has made it back to the area that I would now call him “average”. While his skating stride is still a bit choppy and unorthodox, you can certainly see that he has taken steps to improve it from what was seen in the OHL. While he’s no burner, he has shown improvements in both his speed and acceleration. He does show good balance and lower body strength as well, which makes Toffoli difficult to knock over with a check.
Defensively Toffoli continues to be a work in progress. Criticized in the past for not giving the same effort in his own end that he shows in the offensive end, he has improved that aspect of his game. However, he still needs a little more polish and work on his positioning and defensive fundamentals going forward. We have seen that he has been willing to work hard to improve his game over the last few years and so I would expect that he will be capable of doing so with the proper coaching.
While the Kings have a very good group of prospects on the wing, they don’t have a lot of prospects who are both as close to NHL ready as Toffoli is or who can provide the scoring punch that he can. This is not to be a knock on other Kings prospects but is rather the fact that I hold Toffoli in very high regard and think he can be a very good player for LA. With a good camp he can make the big club full time and be a real contributor at the NHL level this year. Even if he regresses slightly, he will likely be the first call-up due to injury and will have an NHL impact very soon.
Prospect #2, Tanner Pearson, Left Wing
Born Aug 10 1992 — Kitchener, ONT
Height 6.00 — Weight 192 — Shoots Left
Drafted in the First Round, 30th Overall, in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings.
Passed over twice in the NHL Draft, Tanner Pearson exploded as a 19-year-old in the OHL and ended up being taken in the first round by the Kings. Given the fact he turned 20 in August, he was eligible to play in the AHL this year and continued his progression with Manchester picking up 47 points in 64 games in his first AHL season. He did enough to get called up and play in a playoff game for the Kings this year.
The greatest improvement in Pearson’s game has been in his skating. In 2011 his poor technique and slow skating was the biggest knock on him, probably the biggest reason why he went undrafted. Pearson has worked extremely hard the last two years on improving this aspect of his game. Much like Toffoli his skating stride is not picture perfect as it’s a bit choppy and unorthodox, however Pearson has greatly improved his speed and acceleration. While he’s not a speed demon, he’s now above average in his skating. He also has decent agility which certainly helps him to be shifty in the offensive zone. Pearson has good lower body strength and good balance, making him difficult to knock off the puck.
The strength of Pearson’s offensive game is as a playmaker as he shows excellent vision and the ability to thread passes through tight openings. He has excellent hockey sense and he’s able to create both off the rush and by setting up in the offensive zone. Pearson has good size and stickhandling and uses these effectively to protect the puck as he is an effective player down low on the cycle game. As a goal scorer Pearson has a hard and accurate wrist shot and has really worked to improve his release. His best goal scoring attribute though is his soft hands as he’s able to convert goals in tight with slick moves and quick reactions leading to tip in and rebound goals. The hard work and dedication to improve that Pearson put into his game has certainly paid off and is evident in how quickly he has improved from an undrafted player to a first round pick and now a top prospect.
Pearson is a decent defensive player as well. He works hard in his own end of the rink and has become an effective penalty killer. Pearson has good positioning and is able to use his size to keep opponents to the outside. He’s a hard working dedicated player and is willing to do whatever his coaches ask. He’s a willing shot blocker.
Pearson could challenge for a spot on the Kings in training camp, but I see him as a little bit behind Toffoli in terms of development at this point. He would likely be best served with a season spent playing big minutes and continuing to develop in the AHL. That said, he isn’t far away from being NHL ready and could develop into a top six winger in his prime.
Super Sleeper Prospect, Kevin Gravel, Defence
Born Mar 6 1992 — Kingsford, MI
Height 6.04 — Weight 200 — Shoots Left
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in round 5, #148 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
A look at the stat sheet might not give you a lot of information about Kevin Gravel, the Kings fifth round pick from 2010. Playing for St. Cloud State in the NCAA, he certainly isn’t lighting up the scoresheet, or taking a huge number of penalties, or putting up eye-popping plus/minus numbers. In fact if there is one word to describe his stat sheet it would be “nondescript”. However what you don’t see in the stats, and what many casual hockey fans even might miss when watching his game is how good Gravel is in the defensive end of the rink. Quite simply, Gravel has become one of the best pure defensive defencemen in the NCAA.
Gravel has ideal NHL size for a defensive stalwart. His big body and long stick give him big advantages in the defensive zone. Add to that excellent positioning and you have a player who does a great job of cutting down passing lanes and blocking a lot of shots. He battles hard in front of the net and helps to clear the crease for St. Cloud State. He also plays rugged and physical in the corners, using his size to lean on opponents and win board battles. He doesn’t throw a lot of those big hits that will get him on highlight reels, but he certainly isn’t afraid to throw his weight around and play a physical game. These skills mean he has been used by St. Cloud State in a role matching up against the opponents top players at even strength as well as playing big penalty kill minutes. He skates well for a player his size and this mobility is a big asset.
In addition to Toffoli and Pearson, the Kings have a number of nice prospects on the wing adding Zykov and Fasching to a group that includes Nikolai Prokhorkin, Tomas Hyka and Maxim Kitsyn. Meanwhile the defence also features depth in Derek Forbot (the Kings third best prospect in my opinion), Gravel, Nick Ebert, Colin Miller and Nicolas Deslauriers. While those spots are well filled, the Kings need to look at adding centre and goaltending depth in future years. Up the middle Linden Vey and Nick Shore are projects and there isn’t much in terms of high end potential behind them.
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