The new rules and officiating changes introduced at the dawn of the NHL’s post-lockout era have already affected the methods by which teams approach the creation and assessment of organizational depth.
As the last two entry drafts have shown, teams are now placing much more emphasis on forwards with pure offensive talent, regardless of size or country of origin. Take, for example, the Flyers’ selection of Claude Giroux
last year (22nd overall) or the drafting of Swedish native Mario Kempe this past summer (fifth round, 122nd overall).
Kempe, in many ways, exemplifies the NHL’s “new age” prospect: smaller in stature (5‘11“, 180 lbs.), highly skilled, and skates like he has rocket boosters strapped to his ankles.
“That’s my makeup and that’s my game,” explained the 19-year-old forward, who recently began his second season of play with the St. John‘s Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). “I feel that I am very well-suited for the style of play that we see in the NHL right now, especially because there are a lot of players like me who are having success.
“I’m a fast skater; I rely on my quickness and always try to find the shortest way to the net. My main goal is to score as many goals as I can when I get out on the ice, every shift.”
Real Paiement, head coach and general manager of the St. John’s franchise, concurs.
“Mario is not an overly big player, but the new NHL allows him to be a very good prospect,” he said. “I see him being a very good offensive player with a lot of potential if he continues to progress as he is.
“I think he is a player that the Flyers organization and its fans can be very excited about, and one who has the potential to be a very good player for them in just a few years.”Born to Skate
Kempe was born on September 19, 1988 in Kramfors, Sweden, a working class town of roughly 20,000 centrally located near the country‘s eastern coastline.
Kramfors, which is situated on the western shore of the Angerman River, was founded in the 19th century as a main transportation line for lumber poles, supporting the many saw and pulp mills that sprung up in its vicinity.
It was in this quaint, scenic village that Kempe’s hockey dream began.
“In Sweden, the two most popular sports are soccer and hockey,” he noted. “Most kids who get into sports usually choose one of those two. For me, I loved watching the NHL on TV. I don’t even remember the first time, but I always watched and knew that I wanted to become a hockey player in the NHL.
“My first time on skates, I was probably two-years-old, very young. I started playing on a team at four or five years old, and have been playing ever since. It is all I have ever wanted to do, really. I still feel the same desire to [make it to the NHL] that I did when I was young, just dreaming about this stuff.
|Mario Kempe was drafted by the Flyers in the fifth round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. (Photo courtesy St. John's Fog Devils) |
“Now, I can sense that it is almost a reality.”
Kempe was only five when Sweden took the gold medal at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the country’s greatest national hockey achievement and an enduring source of civic pride.
“Hockey was always very popular in Sweden, but it really exploded after that,” he said. “I remember Peter Forsberg on the postage stamp (beating Canada’s Corey Hirsch with the clinching goal in a shootout) and all of the big celebrations. Everyone wanted to be Forsberg after that. Every kid in Sweden wanted to be the player who scored the goal to win the Olympic gold medal.”
Even so, the player he idolized as a youth may surprise some.
“Well, players like Forsberg, Markus Naslund, and Mats Sundin of course, they were heroes in Sweden. I looked up to a lot of players from my country, but my favorite player was Pavel Bure. He was the best to watch and the most exciting. I tried to model my game after his a little bit, especially the way he used his speed and skill, and how creative he was.
“Growing up, I also watched a lot of Mario Lemieux, like everyone else. He is one of the best offensive players ever, so it was important to watch all of the things that he did. I think I benefited a lot from that.”Stock on the Rise
As Kempe continued to grow and move through the ranks of youth hockey in Sweden, it became apparent that he was developing into a special player.
After an impressive showing for Höga Kusten at the Division 2 level as a 15-year-old, he joined the famous MoDo hockey program, based in Ornskoldsvik. The MoDo system is best known for producing talents such as Forsberg, Naslund, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Anders Hedberg, one of the first Swedes to make an impact in the NHL.
Kempe debuted for MoDo’s J-18 team in Allsvenskan in 2004-05, notching an impressive 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 14 games. He recorded six points (four goals, two assists) in six games for the team the following season before being promoted to the J-20 Superelit team, where he made a big splash with 32 points (20 goals, 12 assists) in 36 games.
Kempe earned his first taste of international hockey on a grand scale when he was tabbed to suit up for Team Sweden at the 2006 World Under-18 championships. He tallied just one assist and 27 penalty minutes in five games at the tournament, but took a great deal from the experience.
“That was an amazing thing, even if I wasn’t one of the top guys on the team, or if we weren’t the best team there. Just being around so many top players and seeing the best at that level really made me thing about the things I needed to do to continue to improve. It really made me think about my future, and what I should do next in my career.”
While still in Sweden, Kempe hooked up with the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), the world-renowned firm that represents various talents in film, television and sports, including Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, LeBron James and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was at the suggestion of several agents that Kempe ultimately decided to leave Sweden and MoDo following the 2005-06 campaign, to continue his training at the major junior level in North America.
“I talked to a lot of people and felt that the best way to continue to improve and reach that goal [of making it to the NHL] was to come to North America and play in the junior level here. It’s a smaller rink and a much more physical style of hockey here than in Europe, with a couple of different rules. I wanted to get used to that as much as possible.
“There is good hockey in Europe, but everyone knows the NHL is the best. So, I wanted to get the best training and be as close to making the league as possible. My agents with CAA helped set everything up and I have been very happy with the way it all worked out.”
In June, following their inaugural season in the QMJHL, the St. John’s Fog Devils selected Kempe with the 31st overall pick of the 2006 CHL Import Draft.
“Mario was a very promising player in Sweden, for his junior team over there and at the world junior championships,” said Paiement. “He was a good acquisition by the Fog Devils for our second season, and we were very anxious to get him in, have him over here and see what he could do.
“Obviously, we’re very happy with that particular selection.”“Newfound” Opportunity
As is always the case with European players making the jump to North American hockey, especially at such a young age, Kempe endured a period of adjustment upon arriving in St. John’s, Newfoundland for the 2006-07 season.
In addition to learning about the intricacies of the game and style of play on this side of the pond, he was also being introduced to a new culture in a completely foreign setting, while still lacking a confident grasp of the English language.
|Mario Kempe returned to St. John's of the QMJHL this season after taking part in Flyers training camp in September. (Photo courtesy St. John's Fog Devils) |
“It was a little tough at first, especially with the language problems,” he recalled. “I wasn’t very good at English at first, but I learned pretty quickly. It took a couple of games, maybe, to get used to the different style and the speed, especially with the smaller rink. But, soon, I felt very comfortable. It felt very normal after about a month, and that’s how it is now.
“My teammates did so much to help me during this time, as did coach Paiement. It can be tough when everything is new. It’s something that I never want to forget, because I want to be the type of player who helps young players who will be going through the same situation. It’s always so much easier when you have help, and I had a lot of help and support.”
Kempe played to mixed reviews in his rookie season with the Fog Devils, based on some projections that he would immediately become a top scoring threat in the Q. Under more realistic expectations, his season was a success.
As an 18-year-old, he finished fourth the team with 42 points (23 goals, 19 assists) and 51 penalty minutes in 62 games. He was, however, held off of the score sheet in four postseason games, as the Fog Devils were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“Mario turned in a good year,” said Paiement. “He did very well for his first season, and made a lot of adjustments. He didn’t finish as consistently as we would have liked at times, but he created a lot of chances for himself and his linemates. He was also really good on the power play, as we thought he’d be.
“Overall, he got off to a very good start. There are still some things to work on, some work to do in the defensive end also. But he understands what he has to do, and I think he will continue to make those adjustments.”
Kempe admitted that his offensive production fell short of what he felt he was capable for the season, and that it played on his mind at times.
“Last year, I had a pretty good season. I didn’t really have a lot of points, but I tried not to think about [numbers] too much. Sometimes, though, I did. I was mostly trying to help the team win any way I could, play well defensively and away from the puck. I think I did pretty well.
“It was a good start, and I got the attention of some scouts who came to see me play. I went to the NHL scouting combine after the season and talked to some teams, but really didn’t know if I would be drafted, or what would happen from that point on. My focus was mostly on training and starting to get ready for the 2007-08 season [with St. John’s] as early as I could.” Feeling the Draft
It came as something of a surprise then when Kempe learned that he had been selected by the Flyers in the fifth round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, in Columbus, Ohio.
“Oh man, that was just amazing,” he recalled. “I really didn’t expect anything for the draft at all. I knew I was on a couple of team’s lists, but I was just hoping some team would pick me because it is my dream to play in the NHL. When I saw that the Flyers picked me, I was almost shocked, but very happy. I was not expecting that at all.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t even remember if I talked to anyone from the Flyers before the draft. I talked to people from so many NHL teams at the combine, but it all happened so fast. It didn’t matter, though, because I was just very pleased to become a member of the Flyers organization.”
And the Flyers were very pleased to welcome him.
“Mario was rated by our scouting staff as a highly skilled player that is also very competitive,” explained general manager Paul Holmgren. “He’s fearless when he goes into the offensive zone and attacks the net. Also, his skating is tremendous.”
The selection proved to be the self-described high point of the talented forward’s career, and also marked the beginning of what would be a very eventful offseason, leading up to his eventual return to St. John’s for the 2007-08 season.
In September, Kempe was invited to take part in his first NHL rookie camp, joining a roster full of Flyers prospects for a week of intense training at the team’s practice facility in Voorhees, New Jersey.
“It was a very hard camp, but a good experience,” he said. “We practiced every day, very hard, and with lots of training, even away from the rink. I finished feeling very strong and had a lot of confidence. I think it was good to meet so many other players at my level in the Flyers organization. There was a good sense of being a team and working together.
“It made me want to get back to Philadelphia to play for the team someday soon, hopefully with many of the new friends I made there.”
Kempe’s mini-camp performance was highlighted by a terrific outing in which he scored twice in a 5-3 scrimmage win against a team of Washington Capitals prospects at the Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone. Afterward, he stayed in Voorhees to take part in his first NHL training camp with the Flyers.
“The mini-camp and scrimmage were great, but the big camp was even more amazing,” he said. “Watching players like [Danny] Briere and [Simon] Gagne, and all that they can do. The passes were on the tape every time and the speed of the game was much greater than in juniors. Everyone was very helpful.”
Holmgren came away impressed by Kempe’s performance and the way he handled himself during his time in the area.
“I thought he was outstanding not only in rookie camp but in the main part of the camp that he took part in,” assessed the GM. “He did exactly what we thought he would do, in terms of attacking the net with the puck and playing strong and gritty along the boards. For a guy that’s not very big, he’s a hard-nosed kid.”Operation: Fog
Kempe was reassigned to the Fog Devils on 9/18, but not before earning a taste of what the NHL is all about. It is a taste he wants to regain and savor.
“The organization for the Philadelphia Flyers is so professional,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. Up in St. John’s, it is run very well. But in Philadelphia, it’s like they have one guy for everyone, all of the stuff is taken care of. It’s good to feel like a part of that, and they do a very good job of making [young players] feel like they are part of their system, and part of their goals.”
The Fog Devils have done well as an expansion franchise in the Q, qualifying for the playoffs in each of their first two years of existence. However, the team has failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs to this point.
Kempe, who is serving as an assistant captain this year, is one of the players St. John’s is counting upon to help the squad reach the next level. He missed the first two games while at camp with the Flyers, but has been very strong since returning to Newfoundland.
In nine games thus far, Kempe leads the Fog Devils with 11 points (four goals, seven assists), six penalty minutes and a -3 rating. Thus far this season, he has played primarily on a line with center Luke Adam and left winger Jean-Simon Allard. The trio has accounted for a combined 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) to lead the team in the early going.
“We play very well together,” said Kempe. “I played on a line with Allard last year, and we find each other easily on the ice. We know where each other are, and it’s easy to play like that. Luke Adam plays in the middle and has more of a defensive role, but it’s a very good mix. It’s going very well so far, but we are all very comfortable together.”
Roughly one month into the campaign, the Fog Devils sit in seventh place in the QMJHL’s East Division standings at 4-6-1-0. It’s a disappointing start to a season full of promise for the organization, one that Kempe plans to help turn around.
“We’ve struggled a bit so far, but it’s early,” he said. “At this point, we are still trying to figure out what kind of team we are, but we feel we will turn it around and become a very strong team in this league.”
In the meantime, Paiement remains confident that Kempe will continue to emerge as a top two-way leader for the team.
“Though we want him to be strong in all areas of the game, Mario’s role with us will be primarily offensive,” he said. “We need him to produce goals and points for us first. He didn’t get much time on the [penalty kill] last year, so that’s also something we will have him doing more.
“We’ve seen a lot of leadership qualities in Mario since he got here at the start of last season. Actually, we had him serving as an assistant captain on an interim basis over the second half of last season. This year, he gets an “A,” full time. This isn’t something you often see, especially with players from Europe so early, but we feel he has earned it.”Looking Ahead
Kempe’s focus this season will remain on his development in the Q, as well as the effort to get the Fog Devils back into contention (and, hopefully, beyond the first round of the playoffs).
Back in Philadelphia, the Flyers will continue to monitor his status, looking for improvement in the areas and aspects of his game they have targeted as vital to his progression.
“When I left camp in September, I was told to continue to do the things I have been doing,” Kempe said. “Finish more consistently, work on getting stronger, playing better in the defensive end, those kinds of things. Just basically do what I can to help the team in St. John’s and become a better all-around player.
“But I also feel that I have to become more of a leader because this is my second year with the team. I have to help out the younger players and teach them about some of the things I learned last year, on and off the ice. It’s a situation I feel very comfortable with, though. I enjoy that role.”
Holmgren went into further detail on what the team is hoping to see out of the talented young forward, this season and beyond.
“Well, just like any other young player, he needs to build up his strength,” he explained. “He has a lot of room to grow, and I think a lot of that will just come with the maturation process of getting older.
“Hopefully he’ll become a productive player in terms of putting points on the board. Last year was an OK year for him. I think he has to become more or a point producer in his league this year.”
Like most 19-year-old prospects, Kempe’s potential is difficult to accurately assess. One thing he has going for him is his versatility.
“The thing is, Mario is dedicated and smart enough so that, if his offensive game doesn’t develop, he has an opportunity to play in specialty roles,” noted Paiement. “He can be good on the PK because of his speed and anticipation of the game. He definitely has more than one asset he can offer the Flyers.
“If he doesn’t succeed in one role, there is still a chance he can make it doing something else. I’m sure they will eventually find a place for him.”