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Slot Machine

by Doug Ward / Los Angeles Kings

Practice has been over for an hour and the Kings locker room at their El Segundo practice facility is empty when Tyler Toffoli bursts through a door, instantly taking center stage.

Popping up from out of nowhere is a knack Toffoli has been adept at early in his NHL career. The 21-year-old winger will go unnoticed, then, from out of the blue, slip through a seam and into the scoring area. Then the puck is on his stick, and soon it’s in the back of the net.

“I have always had the ability to find the open space,” Toffoli said.

That ability to find room in the scoring areas, along with a willingness to fight through traffic, a quick release and a way of putting the puck in the net, has led Toffoli to be compared to Kings Hall-of-Famer Luc Robitaille. Like Robitaille himself, the comparison is at once ultra-cool and tougher than you might think.

“It’s obviously really cool,” Toffoli said. “Luc Robitaille is an amazing hockey player. It’s definitely eye-opening to hear that compliment, but it’s my first year and I have a long way to go to get where he ended up.”

Like Robitaille before him, Toffoli has never gotten high marks for his skating, but has a way of making great strides without traveling far at all. What Toffoli lacks in skating ability, he makes up for in hockey sense. And he is a magnet for the puck.

Toffoli’s resume confirms his ability to finish, no matter where he starts out. He has left his mark on the score sheets from Ottawa to Manchester to Los Angeles.

He topped the 50-goal plateau in back-to-back OHL seasons, has 27 goals this year (combined with the Kings and Manchester) and had 28 goals with the Monarchs last season (his first pro season). Toffoli said his ability to score in the NHL is not the result of a magic touch so much as hard work.

“It’s a lot more difficult now that I am in the NHL because there is not a lot of space to be given,” Toffoli said. “You have to work for it. Sometimes I get away from my game and I don’t work as hard to get it, but when I am on my game, I find that I create my own space by hitting someone or being later in the play. I feel comfortable when I have the space and, when I have the time and space, I can make a play and get some shots on net.”

And when Toffoli gets his shots, he gets his goals. In four OHL seasons he scored 163 times, an average of 40.7 goals per campaign. The Kings don’t expect that kind of production, but they are counting on him to provide offense.

“Everybody has a role,” Toffoli said. “My role is obviously to score goals and be offensive. At the same time, you have to be responsible. You have to be a two-way player. I feel like I have been getting better at all aspects of my game and obviously getting better offensively, too.”

Toffoli has a reputation as a sniper, but there was a time when he was more of a facilitator. All that changed when he got to Ottawa to play junior hockey for the 67s, the OHL team that gave the NHL Denis Potvin, Gary Roberts, and the Kings’ own Jim Fox, among others.

“Once I got to junior, I started to be more of a shooter,” Toffoli said. “I was the go-to guy to score goals. I think I had 17 goals my first year, which is pretty good for a 16-year-old. My second year, I kept getting better and better and I ended up scoring 50 goals two years in a row.”

With the Kings, however, scoring isn’t enough to get ice time. The team is among the NHL’s best in goals against average per game under head coach Darryl Sutter and, if you don’t play defense, you don’t play at all.

“You have to find ways to stay in the lineup and you have to earn your ice time,” Toffoli said. “I think it’s been difficult and easy at the same time. Every day is different and you have to come to work ready to go, every day.”

Sutter, who scored 161 goals in 406 NHL games with the Blackhawks while playing honest hockey, is not given to lighthearted compliments or hyperbole, but he has always had a soft spot for Toffoli. Midway through Toffoli’s first NHL training camp last January, Sutter had already seen something in the 6-1, 196-pounder.

“Impressive young player,” Sutter said at the time. “He’s got all the attributes to be really good in the NHL. He’s got good instincts and the more you do game situations, you see where he is going to play at some point.”

By springtime, most everyone in Los Angeles saw the same thing; Toffoli had two goals and six points in 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

“It was incredible,” Toffoli said of his postseason experience. “Everyone wants to play in the NHL playoffs and getting the opportunity to play and help the team as much as I could was awesome. It was incredible and hopefully I can do that for many years to come.”

That seems like a good bet. Toffoli, along with forwards Linden Vey and Tanner Pearson, figures to play a prominent role in the Kings future.

“Me and Veysie played together at Manchester from the start and we work pretty well together,” Toffoli said. “We had a good year together and have had a few games together here. When Tanner was here, we were playing a little bit together and it was a pretty cool experience.”

One of Toffoli’s coolest experiences thus far came Nov. 14 on Long Island when his goal from the high slot at 18:33 of the third period capped a stirring Kings comeback. Trailing 2-0 after two periods, the Kings scored three times in the third to win, 3-2.

“It’s obviously fun to win games,” Toffoli said. “But to come back in the third and have a huge comeback was great. It’s tough playing on the road, especially when you are down two goals going into the third but we stuck with it the whole game. Got a couple bounces and fortunately, I tipped one in late in the game and we got the win.”

The Kings have gotten a lot of wins this season. Toffoli says the Kings expect to win every time they step on the ice.

“That’s the way the team is built,” he said. “The team is built to win games, to play heavy games. I think that’s what everyone in here prides themselves on, playing a complete team game. That’s the mentality every night and it’s fun. It’s fun to win and it’s fun to be around the guys when we are winning.”

A native of Scarborough, Ont., who grew up a Maple Leaf fan, Toffoli is feeling at home in Los Angeles. But he also has an affinity for Ottawa, where he spent four years playing junior hockey. Toffoli returned to the Canadian capital city Dec. 14 as a member of the Kings,

“It was good to get the win and it was great to go back to where you used to live, so it was a really good experience,” Toffoli said. “My billet mom was really excited and happy to see me, and happy to see me doing well. It’s a really good feeling to know that you can make someone extremely happy doing what you love to do.”

Toffoli is making a lot of people happy these days, not just in Ottawa, but in LA, too.

“He is going to be a really good player,” Sutter said, before correcting himself.

“He’s a good player now.”

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