Welcome to my new series, the Ontario Reign Recap. In this series, I will be highlighting four Los Angeles Kings prospects who played with the Ontario Reign during the 2020-21 season. I will be doing a deep dive into their seasons focusing on their progress and what areas of their game they still need to improve upon. Today’s article covers Rasmus Kupari.
Rasmus Kupari 2020-21 Season
Where He Started
Heading into his 2020-21 season, Rasmus Kupari needed to make up for some of his lost time. He was making his highly anticipated jump from Finland to North America the season prior, yet it did not go as planned. His 2019-20 season started slowly as he was beginning to adjust. He really started to pick his game up right around the World Junior Championship. He was penciled in to be a top player for Finland at the tournament, but unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game.
Kupari recovered successfully though and came into the 2020-21 season ready to work. While he had a strong foundation to his game, there were still areas he needed to improve upon, especially after missing so much time the season before. The biggest goal for Kupari was to improve his overall defensive game. To round him out as a potential top-six forward, he needed to become efficient on both ends of the ice. The Kings and coach Todd McLellan, in particular, are sticklers for their forwards being defensively responsible. If a player isn’t, earning ice time can be tough, especially if that player is young.
Another area Kupari needed work on was simplification. It’s no secret that he is a very skilled player with the ability to make highlight-reel plays. However, it’s not always about making those kinds of plays. There were too many instances in Finland and his first AHL season where Kupari would try and get too fancy. Simplifying his game would increase his possession and options, making it an important area to focus on. Similarly, Kupari’s playmaking was in need of a bit of work as well heading into the year. Simplifying his game presented an opportunity to make plays more effectively as well though, making the two fairly correlated.
Rasmus Kupari 2020-21 Season Overview
Rasmus Kupari had a very strong and promising 2020-21 season. He came out of the gate red hot and played a key role in the team’s offence. He finished third on the Reign in scoring. Kupari totaled eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points in 32 games played. For a large chunk of the season, Kupari was the leading scorer on the team and one of their most dependable producers. He was rewarded with two call-ups to the Kings for his performance.
Kupari’s first call-up was not intended to be permanent. Its main intention was to give him a taste of NHL action so he could better understand what he needed to work on in the AHL. This, in turn, would help him to become a more well-rounded player. The call-up went exactly as planned, with Kupari returning to the AHL to work on his defensive abilities.
After spending some more time down with the Reign, the Kings finally thought Kupari had worked enough on his game to warrant another call-up. Here, Kupari played out the remainder of the Kings’ season. In seven games with Los Angeles, Kupari finished with one goal and no assists. He also posted a Corsi percentage of about 54 percent at all strengths and 51 percent at five on five.
Kupari’s NHLe (NHL equivalency) provided by Byron Bader’s Hockey Prospecting model shows steady growth. In his draft plus one season, Kupari’s prospect stock was very high. He had just come off of a strong season in the Liiga in Finland. That year he had an NHLe value of 32. The following season where he struggled and suffered his knee injury, it had dipped down to 14. A very encouraging sign, however, is that this season, Kupari’s NHLe is back up to 34. This shows that he can still produce at the level he did in Finland while on North American ice.
One area where Kupari was able to improve his game this season was playmaking. Kupari has always been a crafty and creative passer, but he was able to shore up some of the less flashy passing plays. A major part of this was the fact that he was able to simplify his game a little more this season. Instead of working on complex, hard-to-master plays, he chose to improve the fundamentals he already knew.
This improved his playmaking a good amount, specifically on zone entries. Rather than entering the zone and trying to make a flashy deke on a defender risking losing possession, he was able to retain possession of the puck. This allowed him to scan his options more, and make more plays with newfound passing lanes.
After his first NHL call-up, Kupari was sent back down to work on his defence. He was able to focus on this, as he later earned another call-up. With Reign head coach John Wroblewski’s team in the AHL, Kupari made himself a trusted defensive player. He proved to be responsible in his own zone, having solid positioning. He also started learning to use his speed to cover all 200 feet of the ice, rather than only using it to make a push towards the offensive zone.
Over the course of the season, Kupari saw his strength increase. While this is not necessarily an aspect of his game, he was able to use it in parts of his game to make him a better player. For starters, Kupari was stronger on the puck. When protecting the puck, he seems more comfortable using his body to shield off opposing players, a result of the strength he has added. Similarly, he seems more confident and successful in battles, either net-front or along the boards. As he evolves, building on his strength will be key to prevent him from getting out-muscled on the ice.
What Still Needs Work
Although Kupari was able to simplify his game this season, he would benefit from doing it more consistently. He still tries to make unnecessarily complicated plays a little too frequently when a simpler, safer play would be a better option. He also has a habit of over-stickhandling sometimes, causing him to risk possession. Once Kupari can fully understand when it’s appropriate to attempt a high-skill, flashy move and when it’s better to just make a safe, routine play, he’ll come a long way in his offensive zone play.
Overall, this season was very strong for Rasmus Kupari. He proved that he could work on his game and two-way play while still being a productive player at the AHL level. In his NHL stint he didn’t necessarily stand out, but he also didn’t seem out of place. As a 2018 draft pick, Kupari has had a few seasons now to really hone in on his development. While you can always nitpick areas of his game that need improvements, in the grand scheme of things, Kupari’s game has become pretty fine-tuned. He appears deserving of an NHL roster spot come the 2021-22 season. Earning it, however, will be his biggest challenge yet.
The Kings only have one or two spots up for grabs, and Kupari will be competing with some high-level players for it, but he should be right in the mix. Even if he doesn’t get the roster spot come opening night, Kupari should see at least a handful of NHL games next season.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images