On Valentine's Day, the Kings sent a surprise gift to sometimes-maligned 2014 first-round pick Adrian Kempe:
It's a surprise because as recently as last Friday, Ontario Reign head coach Mike Stothers laid into the winger:
[size]Nothing’s changed as far as I’m concerned. We still need some contributions from the offensive side of things.
So if you’re an offensive guy, you better put up some numbers.
(on Kempe's eight goals in 17 Calder Cup playoff games in 2015) He scored some goals, didn’t have any assists. Scored some goals, played with some pretty good players. Played with Nick Shore, he’s in the NHL. Played with Nic Dowd, he’s in the NHL. Played with Jordan Weal, he’s an All-Star, now he’s in the NHL. The list goes on and on. I might have been able to score seven. Geez. It’s a pretty good team. Brian O’Neill, MVP of the league. Jordan Weal, MVP of the playoffs. Colin Miller, he’s in the NHL.
You’ve got to do it consistently. I scored a hat trick once, OK, like I scored a hat trick in the American Hockey League. You’ve got to do it more than once. (Ontario Reign Insider)
Indeed, it's been an up-and-down season for Kempe after an equally uneven first full AHL campaign last year.
During the pre-season, he impressed, receiving unexpected praise from Darryl Sutter:
[size]Just straight maturity with him, and coming from a different type of game, with the hockey IQ that he has and the speed that he has, the only adjustment is experience. He’s adjusted to the ice. You can see that. He’s a fun player to watch. (LA Kings Insider)
One of the last cuts before opening night, the 20-year-old took the 10 to Ontario and netted just three goals in his first 18 games, drawing constructive criticism from Mike Futa:
[size]“He’s going to be fine,” said Kings Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Michael Futa. “It’s part of the process. Going down there, competing and scoring on a regular basis—that’s something we need from him.”
But as reported earlier, that is not what they’re getting from Kempe now, not even close.
“I think, ‘struggling’ is a good term [to describe Kempe’s play],” said Futa. “I think anytime a kid has success in training camp and then goes down to the minors there’s an adjustment, mentally, to challenge himself to play at the same level, the same caliber, every night.” (Frozen Royalty)
The 6'2" center-winger appeared to right the ship from mid-December on, firing seven goals in a 14-game stretch. Stothers offered this guarded compliment:
[size]I think he’s starting to play a little more like we were expecting.
I think there was a lot of hype [around] him during training camp and I don’t know if it was deserved or not. He showed flashes of speed and everything else, but the end result—there were no points to show for it. Now you’re seeing the end result. (Frozen Royalty)
This brings us to last Friday -- and the polarizing prospect mired in yet another slump -- this time, a lone marker in his last 11. Regardless, the parent organization saw enough to recall Kempe and his 11 total goals over the arguably more-deserving Jonny Brodzinski, who leads Ontario with 18.
Of course, it's not just about goal scoring. There's plenty of video which demonstrates why the Swede earned this call-up.
First, and perhaps foremost, that speed. It's no exaggeration to say that Kempe might be the organization's fastest skater -- though 2015 fourth-round pick Austin Wagner has a claim too -- with no disrespect to Jeff Carter.
You've heard it said here before that Los Angeles is not a slow team when they're moving the puck -- but Kempe can add a welcome element of pure foot speed to expand the team's arsenal.
Even if these skating displays don't necessarily lead to production, they can still make for effective hockey. If he can learn to forecheck like this regularly, the Kings organization would gladly bear more prolonged scoring slumps:
But speaking of scoring, what's particularly frustrating about these droughts is the talented prospect's skill beyond his feet:
That wrist shot is a legitimate NHL-caliber weapon. And while he's more of a shooter than a passer, wasn't that loft to Sean Backman lovely? Those are soft hands.
At his best, Kempe dominates the AHL. At his worst, he seems invisible.
The 6'2" forward appears to be the complete package in the highlights -- fast, big, hard shot, willing to get his nose dirty -- but it just hasn't come together yet on a consistent basis. On many nights, the parts seem to be greater than the whole.
Also, his decision-making with the puck and defensive awareness have left something to be desired at times.
"Consistency" (or the lack thereof) is the buzzword surrounding him.
All that said, it must be stressed again that Kempe is just 20. As the organization's only current prospect who was drafted in the first round, he's been under intense and perhaps unfair scrutiny.
But none of that matters right now. The big club is in the middle of a tight playoff race. They're gambling on Kempe's ceiling and are hoping the youngster steps up. Will he?
Truth is, I have no idea. The talent is real. So's the inconsistency.
There is some thought that he'll benefit from the more structured play of the NHL. This was a popular theme during his possibly revelatory pre-season. A more simplified approach from the Swede could certainly prove to be effective.
On the other hand, if Kempe couldn't bring it enough for Stothers -- how much patience will Sutter have with him?
From the looks of it though, he's going to hit the ground running:
Also, Tom Gilbert was just traded to the Washington Capitals for a conditional pick. Signed in the off-season to a one-year, 1.4 million dollar deal, Gilbert seemed like a solid candidate to handle bottom-pairing minutes for LA. However, the veteran puckmover failed to excel at what should've been his forte (puckmoving) and was quickly surpassed by youngsters Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel, and Brayden McNabb on the depth chart.
While the Caps stand a good chance of getting past the second round, Gilbert probably won't be a big part of it. He's solid, experienced depth for Washington and a potentially decent return for Los Angeles.
However, they don't get anything if both Gilbert and the Capitals fail to fulfill the above conditions.