LA Kings: The time is now for the Kings to let the kids play

LA Kings (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images)
LA Kings (Photo by Chris Tanouye/Getty Images) /

It’s a well-known fact that the LA Kings have one of the top-rated prospect pools in the National Hockey League. The time has come to see what they’ve got.

Building this prospect pool came at the cost of having to endure the dreaded “rebuild.” The dark days of losing seasons and not making the playoffs have been made more palatable for Kings fans by the glowing promise of the prospects bringing better days ahead. The big, looming question now is, how much longer is the wait?

Kings management has made it perfectly clear that they are in no hurry to rush their prospects to the NHL. The slow, patient approach was further solidified in May 2020, when the club fired Ontario Reign Head Coach Mike Stothers and replaced him with then USNDTP Coach John Wroblewski.

On the surface, it was a surprising move, considering Stothers was very popular with the players and was well-liked within the organization. In fact, the move was made because of Wroblewski’s ability to develop young players, which aligns with management’s plans to develop what they hope will be future LA Kings.

In a normal season, the LA Kings would already have several prospects playing in the AHL.

This plan would already be in motion in a normal world and a normal season. Players like Alex Turcotte, Samuel Fagemo, Akil Thomas, Aiden Dudas, Tyler Madden, Rasmus Kupari, Sean Durzi, Cole Hults, and Jacob Ingham, among others, would already be about three months into their AHL season. The original plan for Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev was to send them back to the Ontario Hockey League.

Yet, here we are.

The AHL has yet to play a game, although the league plans to start play on February 5th. The big variable is no one knows how many games they will play as a schedule has not been released yet. Reports indicate the Pacific Division — the Reign’s division — might only have 24 games for each of its teams. This would amount to be about one-third of a normal season, leaving very little time for player development.

There is even more uncertainty surrounding the OHL (Ontario Hockey League). Province of Ontario health officials are developing a plan that they feel would allow the league to start safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which might include no bodychecking. However, no plan has been announced, and time is ticking away. The silver lining here is if the OHL does not have a season, both Byfield and Kaliyev will be eligible to play in the American Hockey League.

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Amid all of the chaos in the lower leagues, the Kings are presented with a golden opportunity. This opportunity will require some deviation from the slow and patient prospect development approach. If indeed the Pacific Division teams of the AHL only play 24 games, does that really do a lot for player development? Even a 36-game season, while better than nothing, probably won’t provide enough time to fully determine if some prospects would be better off getting acclimated to the NHL instead.

The first two prospects that come to mind are Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev. They are the ones that are in limbo with the OHL’s plans and would be ideal candidates to go to the Kings right now. Players on their entry-level contracts can play seven games in the NHL this season before burning that dreaded first year of their contracts.

Let’s say the Kings bring in Byfield and Kaliyev starting with their January 21st game against the Colorado Avalanche. Including this game, the next seven games will take the schedule to February 5th – the date the AHL is slated to begin. If management feels they aren’t ready to play at the NHL level, Byfield and Kaliyev can be sent back to the AHL — assuming the OHL isn’t playing yet — without missing a beat.

The seven-game rule could also be used to give NHL trials to players like Turcotte, Fagemo, Kupari, Thomas, and others who could be close to taking the next step. If they prove they can play in the NHL, that’s great. If not, they can be sent back to the AHL for more seasoning. This is a similar plan to what the Kings have for defensemen Tobias Bjornfot and Kale Clague this season.

There are two drawbacks to this path. Should more of the prospects prove they can play at the NHL level than expected, that means room on the roster has to be made. Players like Michael Amadio, Matt Luff, and Trevor Moore would have to be placed on waivers to be sent to the taxi squad. The Kings would risk having another team claim them as they have value as depth forwards. It’s an acceptable risk, though, because if the prospects are playing, chances are these guys wouldn’t be anyway.

Drawback number two is the one Kings management could be more concerned about, and that is using the first year of the prospects entry-level contracts – especially in a shortened season. It is perfectly understandable for management to want to get the maximum “bang for their buck” by having them play a full season on their ELC, but not all the players given a seven-game trial in the NHL will stay with the Kings this season.

There’s another aspect to look at in all of this as well. The hope is that many of these high-end prospects will become regulars on the big club soon, meaning they won’t be spending too much more time developing in the minors. If they are all brought up around the same time, then the clock starts ticking on their entry-level contracts at the same time. It could be beneficial for the Kings to start a couple of them this season, thereby staggering out the ELC’s and preventing a logjam of having a lot of them expire at the same time.

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The reality is a playoff run is not expected from the LA Kings this season. It would be nice, but contending expectations won’t start until next season. There will be no fans in the stands this season to express their displeasure if things don’t go as well as expected, and there really isn’t a lot of pressure to make the playoffs – making this an ideal time to start getting the prospects used to the NHL game.