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Rookie watch: Kempe stepping up for Kings

Center producing on second line between Pearson, Toffoli

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

Adrian Kempe of the Los Angeles Kings knows the importance of puck possession as a young center in the NHL.

It's that understanding that has enabled the Kings (10-2-2) to carry on despite the loss of veteran center Jeff Carter to an ankle injury on Oct. 18. Kempe (6-foot-2, 195 pounds), 21, has been a second-line center with left wing Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli since Oct. 23, when he scored one goal on three shots in 12:25 of ice time in a 3-2 loss at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He has five points (two goals, three assists), a plus-7 rating and four shots on goal while averaging 14:50 of ice time in his past six games.

Video: LAK@MTL: Kempe tips Forbort's shot to open scoring

"If you want to play the middle of the ice, you've got to be good at protecting pucks; I've learned a lot from [Kings first-line center] Anze Kopitar," Kempe said. "He makes so many great plays down low, and I'll try to follow his lead of being strong on pucks and protecting it in order to make a play."

It seems to be working. Kempe ranks sixth among all NHL rookies with 10 points (six goals, four assists), is first with a plus-10 rating and tied for first with two game-winning goals in 14 games this season.

"I've been working with the Kings development guys on puck protection since coming over to North America and feel I've gotten better," he said.

Kempe worked his way up the prospect ladder while starring for Modo of the Swedish Hockey League for two seasons. 

"I was thinking about coming to North America and playing major junior (for Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League) but I got a spot on Modo as a 17-year-old and felt that would be a great place for me to start learning against older competition," Kempe said.

He earned a No. 6 ranking on NHL Central Scouting's final list of European skaters eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft, behind Kasperi Kapanen (Maple Leafs), William Nylander (Maple Leafs), Kevin Fiala (Nashville Predators), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals) and David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins).

"I remember I always liked Adrian's speed, drive and determination," said NHL director of European Scouting Goran Stubb. "At times, he was an agitator but always gave 110 percent, using his skating speed and quickness."

Video: LAK@OTT: Kempe dangles for terrific shootout winner

Kempe was considered a two-way forward who might need time to develop to one day play a big role in the League. The Kings selected him the No. 29 pick of the 2014 draft with that in mind.

"The way [Kempe] is playing right now would have been the best-case scenario of how we viewed his potential at the draft," said Kings director of amateur scouting Mark Yannetti. "But even if he only hit that level of potential as a third-line player with high level speed and energy, that's still one heck of a player to have in your lineup."

Yannetti recalls watching Kempe for the first time in person during the 2013 Hlinka Memorial tournament.

"[Kings European scout] Christian Ruuttu told me that his speed was something that was going to jump off the page," he said. "There was a glide and explosion to his skating, even in warmup. You're seeing it at the NHL level now. His speed through the neutral zone causes coverages to change, whether he's backing defenders off the line or forcing guys to come in early.

"He creates a vacuum and guys can either fill in the space behind or, in the event he's backing defenders off, he can carry the puck unimpeded into the zone."

Carrying the puck with confidence has made Kempe a better offensive player. In 39 NHL games, the Kings have generated 52.7 percent more shots with him on the ice. 

He's comfortable in his role under first-year coach John Stevens.

Video: LAK@OTT: Kempe intercepts pass, ties game late in 3rd

"I just want to gain his trust and be a more consistent player," Kempe said. "He's helped me a lot to improve my game in the defensive zone and I'm playing more minutes. I just try to use my speed and make plays to give [Pearson and Toffoli] quality chances."


Rookies on the rise

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders (2015 NHL Draft, No. 16): After getting five assists against the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, the right-shot forward (6 feet, 189 pounds) has 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) and 31 shots on goal while averaging 15:34 of ice time in 14 games. The 20-year-old has been working between left wing Andrew Ladd and Jordan Eberle. 

Yanni Gourde, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning (Undrafted): Gourde (5-9, 172), 25, made the most of his call-up opportunity with the Lightning last season with eight points (six goals, two assists) in 20 games and was signed to a two-year contract on June 26. He has nine points (four goals, five assists) in 15 games playing a top-six role with center Brayden Point and left wing Ondrej Palat

Video: CBJ@TBL: Gourde finishes Killorn's nice saucer pass

Anders Bjork, RW, Boston Bruins (2014 draft, No. 146): Bjork (6-0, 186), 21, got an opportunity to play on the top line with center Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand earlier this season, but is in a top-nine role averaging 14:29 of ice time. He has seven points (three goals, four assists) in 12 games.

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