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Coming to America, Eventually

by John Hoven / Los Angeles Kings

With the NHL Trade Deadline quickly approaching, we’re once again reminded that while Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi is known in some circles as Dealin’ Dean, there is at least one thing he loves to hold on to – first round draft picks.

Since taking the head seat at L.A.’s table in 2006, Lombardi has selected at least one player in the opening round each year, with only two exceptions – 2011 (traded pick to Edmonton in the Dustin Penner deal) and 2013 (traded to Columbus in the Jeff Carter deal).

When the Kings returned to the podium for some first round fun last June, they announced the name of a then-17-year-old forward, Adrian Kempe of Sweden.

“When there were only two or three teams left to pick, I thought I’d need to come back the next day for the second round,” said Kempe, the Kings’ youngest prospect. “I talked to L.A. twice before the Draft. They told me they really liked me and I was the type of the player they wanted. [Even so], before the Draft, I wasn’t thinking, like, ‘Oh yeah, the Kings are going to take me.’ That made it a little bit shocking when it happened.”

Through 45 games this season, Kempe’s 16 points are only slightly above where they were last season, but it isn’t something he or the Kings are spending much time worrying about.

“He’s well on track,” stated Mark Yannetti, the Kings’ Director of Amateur Scouting, who just returned from a trip to Sweden, where he spent some time with Kempe. “He plays on the second or third line right now, depending on the night. At the [recent] World Junior Championship, he played a little more of a defined role, skating in the top-6, playing with like players. In the Swedish League, it’s such a defensive league on the big ice, it’s harder to make an impact shift in and shift out for everybody. He was solid though.”

For Kempe, having members of the Kings’ management team come to Sweden is a double-edged sword, yet one he welcomes.

“It puts a little extra pressure on my shoulders, but it’s also fun when they watch me,” he said. “When I’m out there on the ice, I don’t think about it as much. I try to relax and just play the same game that I always do. I play about 20 minutes a night and I think that’s good for me right now. I’m continuing to develop here, and getting better, until I’m ready to take the next step to the AHL or the NHL. That’s my dream, in the future.”

Which leads to the all-important question when dealing with non-North American players – when is he coming over?

“I had a really good talk with him while I was there,” Yannetti shared. “A lot of times, Europeans have a tough time rationalizing coming over to play in the AHL. They don’t understand how good it is. They get caught up thinking, ‘Well, I’m already playing in the highest league in Sweden, why would I come over to play in the minors?’ But Adrian, he’s well aware of where his next step on the development path is and what a challenge the American League is.”

To be clear, it is not exactly a done deal that the ultra-talented winger will suit up in a Reign jersey when the Kings’ AHL affiliate debuts in Ontario next season.

“I don’t think it’s fair to talk about that during his season,” explained Yannetti. “He’s playing for his team over there and his goal is to get that team as far as he can, do what he can to help them win. We talk about guys who are ‘Kings’ - guys that have the ‘it’ factor, the intangibles, to help you come back from being down 3-0 in the playoffs or help you win two Stanley Cups in three years. You have to be single-minded and focused on winning. If we’re going to preach that, it isn’t fair to [establish firm timetables right now]. You always want to have your future in mind, but in terms of formal discussions, that takes place once this season is over.”

Thus far, Kempe has only had just a brief taste of what the Kings’ staff has to offer, through his participation in the team’s annual Development Camp last July.

“I think off the ice, in terms of working and competing, in terms of developing, he took a big step last year,” Yannetti said. “He was over here working with our coaches – guys like Mike O’Connell and Nelson Emerson - and that’s an area in his game he has not always been committed to as a pro. It’s not as common. It’s just he doesn’t understand what a pro mentality is. So he’s learning that, and it’s the right step. However, to truly get there he’s going to have to come over here and spend the vast majority of the summer here… I think he understands what it is in theory. You saw it with [Tyler] Toffoli and [Tanner] Pearson, they understood it in theory. But until you actually get to practice that, day in and day out, you don’t.”

The week or so Kempe spent in Southern California may have started out a bit rough, but it’s all part of the process, as they say.

“It was a little challenging in the beginning because I was all alone. I was the only Swedish guy there, so it was really hard,” said the youngster. “After the first day, I started to get to know everybody a little bit better and the coaches took good care of me. It ended up being a lot of fun. I had a short meeting with Darryl Sutter, I liked him. In the end, they told me they liked my play and I had a good camp… I think they drafted me because I’m a big, strong player and I’m a good skater. I need to use that [to my advantage] and I need to improve in all those areas. Plus, I need to put on some more weight. I need to be stronger to take the next step. I’m working on my skating and I’m trying to be more physical.”

Overall, Kempe continues to reinforce the Kings decision to select him with their first pick in last year’s Draft.

“His skating is high level and it just keeps - each time I see him, the way he glides and the speed he’s able to maintain - you forget how fast he really can be,” Yannetti said, sounding part impressed, part amazed. “You saw glimpses of his skills at the World Junior tourney. You saw the way he cycles the puck, the way he created a line of protection. He was able to establish body position in danger areas and put defenders off his hip too. He has a good release. I’m not sure how much of a natural goal scorer he is, but he’s got an excellent shot and an excellent release. That’s where he’s going to get better and these are things he’ll work on once he spends more time with our development team.”

Again, much of it comes back to giving him full access to the people who will provide him the best opportunity to hone his game for the rigors of an 82-game NHL season, followed by the grind of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“It’s the same as talking with a junior kid or college kid,” continued Yannetti. “You don’t see a whole lot of college teams playing a half-court possession game… That’s why college quarterbacks excel in college and then they have to learn a whole new language. It’s obviously not the same amount of information they need to learn, but similar in that you have to learn a new game. You have to learn a new style. You do have to learn the vernacular, but you also have to learn to employ it. What Adrian needs to learn, the AHL does it for you. The development guys do it for you. They build the foundation and the AHL is where you get to employ it.”

Fine, but what type of timeline are we talking here? Just a ballpark, should people expect to see him in the NHL next year or three years from now?

“When he comes, I liken Kempe to somewhere between Pearson and Toffoli, two guys who figured things out fairly quickly. I think Kempe is in that same boat, where he has a lot of the tools. He has a lot of the foundation… I don’t think he’s going to take three years, like some guys did. I would expect him to have to play a minimum of a half to a full year in the AHL. Is it out of the realm of possibility he could make the team [out of camp]? He’s a hell of a player and, as a finished product, he is well along. There are a lot of things that will help him translate immediately to the NHL pro game. However, in my professional opinion, he most likely will still need a year in the AHL.”

And here we are again, back to the original question.

“Maybe next season,” Kempe said, when asked about his plans to play in North America. “I haven’t thought about it very much. We’ll see what happens after the season. We’ll see what the Kings want me to do, what my agent thinks I should do, and especially what I want to do.”

John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - previously named Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports and the Best Sports Blog by LA Weekly. As a past member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, Hoven has voted on the top NHL Awards. He has been active over the years on the NHL Radio Network, where he co-hosts the West Coast Bias show, and on Twitter as well (@MayorNHL).

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