Welcome to the 2016 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. As we go through the Summer of 2016 I will be featuring a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). 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 this year. 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 2016-17 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as my darkhorse to make the NHL. 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.
TSP: Los Angeles Kings Prospects
The Los Angeles Kings had a strong season, but finishing second in the Pacific Division, and just a point behind the first place Anaheim Ducks. They faced a familiar foe in the first round, but with unfamiliar results. The Kings fell to their other California rival, the San Jose Sharks, who would go on to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. Along the way the Kings would pick up plenty of hardware, with Drew Doughty taking home the Norris Trophy; and Anze Kopitar taking home the Lady Byng and Selke trophies.
The off-season has seen change in Los Angeles. Free agents Milan Lucic, Luke Schenn, Kris Versteeg, and Jhonas Enroth have all moved on. Trade deadline pick-up Vincent Lecavalier retired. Added to the team are free agents Teddy Purcell, Michael Latta, Tom Gilbert, and Jeff Zatkoff.
Los Angeles Kings Prospects Scouting Reports
Top Prospect: Adrian Kempe
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born Sep 13 1996 — Kramfors, Sweden
Height 6’1″ — Weight 187 lbs [185 cm / 85 kg]
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in round 1, #29 overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
One of the youngest players in the AHL last season, Kempe had a strong rookie season in the AHL. He put up 11 goals and 28 points in 55 games for the Ontario Reign. He also added four goals and an assist in 13 playoff games. Kempe also represented Sweden at the World Junior Championships, scoring three goals and eight points in seven games.
Kempe is a very good skater, despite an unorthodox skating stride. His very wide stride doesn’t seem to take much away from his speed or his acceleration. It also gives him a little more balance and helps him to fight through checks, as well as to protect the puck in the cycle game. Kempe has decent agility but this is not the strength of his game, as he is more about power than finesse.
Kempe plays the game like a bull in a china shop. He drives the net hard, not caring who he has to bulldoze to get to the areas he wants to go. He is first in on the fore check, and just loves to punish defenders in the corners. Given his age and a need to fill out his frame, he is still remarkably effective in winning board battles. He protects the puck very well on the cycle and is a menace down low. His wrist shot is very hard and heavy. It also features a good release. Adrian Kempe also has decent vision and passing skills which he uses out of the cycle. His stick handling is decent, but he certainly plays a North-South game, choosing the direct route instead of trying to use too many moves to try and get by a defender.
Kempe plays a strong defensive game. He is an industrious forward who never stops skating, and his physical and gritty nature is apparent in all three zones of the ice. He supports his defencemen well, and works down low to keep his man and the puck to the outside.
Kempe is pretty close to NHL ready, but not quite there yet. The Kings have also shown that they are willing to be patient with prospects. He should be back in the AHL to start the season. If injuries hit, he could be one of the team’s first call-ups.
#2 Prospect: Michael Mersch
Forward — shoots Left
Born Oct 2 1992 — Park Ridge, IL
Height 6’2″ — Weight 218 lbs [188 cm / 99 kg]
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in round 4, #110 overall at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
In his second full pro season, Mersch broke out offensively. He scored 24 goals and 43 points in just 52 AHL games. Due to injuries, Mersch saw plenty of time in the NHL, but managed just one goal and three points in 17 games.
Mersch has a very unorthodox skating stride. This prevents him from generating a lot of speed, or acceleration. It is the weakest part of Mersch’s game and something that he has been working on. However, there is still quite a ways to go here. His agility and edgework is also about average. Mersch does have very good balance though. He has good core strength and excellent balance, allowing him to battle in front of the net, and in the corners.
Mersch goes to the net and creates havoc. He establishes position, and never gives up trying to make a play in the slot. It is very difficult for defencemen to move him from the front of the net. He battles for space, and uses it well when he gets it. Mersch scores goals by pouncing on rebounds, getting deflections, or quickly banging in a pass from a teammate. He has a decent wrist shot and release, but the majority of his goals come within 10 feet of the front of the goal.
Mersch is also willing to fight in the corners. He battles to get loose pucks and get them to teammates. His good balance allows him to protect the puck in the cycle game. Mersch plays a very straight forward game. He looks to find the open man, and continue possession; not really trying a lot of risky plays. He may never be the key guy on his line, but can be an excellent complimentary piece on a line with other skilled guys.
Mersch plays a solid two-way game. He supports the defence down low against the cycle game, bringing a physical and gritty game on the back check. He also works to provide back pressure against the rush. Mersch understands how to play his position, use a long stick to create turnovers, and quickly transition up the ice.
The Kings have some openings up front due to the off-season departures. Mersch is well-positioned to fill one of those vacancies. A strong training camp will give the Kings no choice but to make him part of the opening night roster.
#3 Prospect Kevin Gravel
Defense — shoots Left
Born Mar 6 1992 — Kingsford, MI
Height 6’4″ — Weight 200 lbs [193 cm / 91 kg]
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in round 5, #148 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
After finishing up at St. Cloud State, Gravel has now had two strong pro seasons at the AHL level. This past year he scored seven goals and added 13 assists to give him 20 points in 55 games. He added seven points in 12 playoff games. Gravel also got a short call-up to the Kings, playing in 5 games with the big club.
At 6’4″ tall, Gravel skates well for a big man. He has decent speed and acceleration in both directions. He also has good agility and edge work. This allows Gravel to cover a good amount of ice, and to be involved at both the offensive and defensive ends. He could stand to add even more muscle to his frame, making him even more effective at clearing the crease and winning battles in the boards.
Gravel has shown real improvements in his offensive game over the past two years. While he will never be a huge point-getter at the NHL level, adding a little offense from the back end will certainly help him going forward. Gravel has a strong point shot. He is able to get it on net, even when facing heavy traffic. Gravel does not join the rush often, but he does make a solid pass out of his own zone, and can even hit a streaking forward with a long breakaway pass. He also isn’t much of a play maker from the point, and is better in the role of shooter.
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. He also plays rugged and physical in the corners, using his size to lean on opponents and win board battles. Gravel 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. He has been used by the Reign in a role matching up against the opponents top players at even strength as well as playing big penalty kill minutes.
Kevin Gravel is very close to NHL ready. He may not have huge upside, but will go to camp ready to be a depth piece on a strong Kings blue line.
#4 Prospect Derek Forbort
Defense — shoots Left
Born Mar 4 1992 — Duluth, MN
Height 6’4″ — Weight 212 lbs [193 cm/96 kg]
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in round 1, #15 overall at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft
Forbort had his third full season of pro hockey, putting up 10 points in 40 games for Ontario. He also got his first call-up to the NHL, with a goal and an assist over 14 games
Forbort is a good skater for his size. He has good speed and acceleration and can cover a lot of ice. His agility and edgework are decent; and he makes strong pivots allowing him to quickly change directions. He is good but not great in these areas, and can struggle with exceptionally quick skaters. Forbort also has a strong lower body and good balance.
Forbort isn’t going to put up huge offensive numbers. He can make a good first pass out of the zone, but that is about it as far as the offensive skill goes. His point shot is decent but not overpowering, and he needs to work on getting it through traffic. One area that he really struggles in though is poise with the puck. Forbort is not a good stick handler. As a result he rushes plays, looking to move the puck as quickly as possible. This can lead to some mistakes.
Forbort is a big defenseman who plays a physical game. He is willing to play the body in the corners and in front of the net. He is also willing to sacrifice his body to block shots. Forbort has a long stick that he uses to cut down passing lanes.
Its now or never for Forbort, who was drafted six years ago. He needs to make the jump to the NHL roster soon, as it could be his final opportunity to do so with the Kings.
#5 Prospect Kale Clague
The Kings drafted Clague with the 51st overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Clague. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
Sleeper Prospect: Spencer Watson
Right Wing — shoots Right
Born Apr 25 1996 — London, ONT
Height 5’11” — Weight 170 lbs [180 cm / 77 kg]
Drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in round 7, #209 overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft
Watson really broke out in his final season of junior hockey. He scored 43 goals and added 46 assists for 89 points for the Kingston Frontenacs. He also added 17 points in just 9 playoff games.
Watson shows good skating ability. He has good jump in his first step, decent acceleration and above average top end speed. Dangerous off the rush, Watson beats defenders one on one. His speed forces defenders to back off. When they do he is able to take advantage of the added space to unleash his shot. Watson has very good agility and can make quick, precise cuts that allow him to elude defenders. Watson must improve his core strength though. He can be knocked off the puck and lose board battles due to a lack of balance and strength on his feet.
Watson is a pure sniper who has a fantastic wrist shot, and outstanding release. He also has a very good one-timer. Watson has a high hockey IQ; he sees the play developing, and is able to slip into openings in the defence in order to get open for a shot. At just 5’11” Watson is a little undersized, but he is willing to go to the dirty areas to score goals and has the soft hands to bury rebounds and tip-ins close to the net.
Watson’s play making game is underrated at this point because he’s such a great sniper. The passing skills and vision are also there to be a very dangerous player both off the rush and in the zone. He digs in corners, but he really needs to add more weight to his frame to be better at it. He developed his patience and poise with the puck. By taking an extra half second to evaluate his options, Watson is far more effective offensively.
Watson is inconsistent. There are times he supports well in back pressure, and anticipates the play well causing turnovers and starting the transition offence. However, there are other times he has a tendency to puck-watch and does not make the smart play. Maintaining a consistent effort level in his own zone will be something to work on. He made strides in this area throughout his junior career, but must continue to improve at the next level.
Watson should move up to the AHL this season. He may be a bit of a project, but he has the type of pure offensive skills that could be extremely valuable to the Kings if he is able to develop properly.
Years of drafting late, trading draft picks and prospects have started to catch up to the Kings. In the prospects named above, the only one who has blue-chip talent is Kempe. While the system has some good projects it just doesn’t stack up against other teams in the NHL.
The deepest position continues to be the blueline, where the Kings also added Jacob Moverare in the draft. They also have Erik Cernak, Paul LaDue, and Alex Lintuniemi in the system. Upfront the depth is bolstered with Austin Wagner, Alexander Dergachyov, Michael Amadio, and Jonny Brodzinski. The Kings lacked a notable goaltending prospect with strong potential to make the NHL in their system. They recently signed Jack Campbell once a highly touted prospect, but one who washed out of the Dallas Stars organization. Its a long shot, but they will hope a change in scenery will help him reach his potential.