EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the Los Angeles Kings having acquired two, top-six forwards this summer in center Mike Richards and left wing Simon Gagne, their top two lines appear to be set for the 2011-12 season.
Add to that the fact that the Kings have role players up front who are returning, it is safe to presume that all available positions on their forward lines have been filled, which means that, barring unforeseen circumstances, it is more than likely that there no available roster spots for any of their up-and-coming forward prospects.
Despite the astronomical odds against making it onto the Kings’ opening night roster, two of their young prospects, centers Jordan Weal from the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League and Tyler Toffoli from the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League, have their sights set firmly on the National Hockey League for the 2011-12 season.
“I’m going to try and make the Kings,” said Weal, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (70th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. “I’m going to come [to Southern California] in the Fall, and give it all that I’ve got. If it doesn’t work out, then I’ll know that I’ve given it everything I can, and that I’ll be that much better going back to Regina to help my team out there.”
“There’s been tons of guys who’ve come into [an NHL training camp fresh out of junior hockey], kind of [coming] out of nowhere for the organization,” Weal added. “If you don’t set your goals high, you’re just going to come in lackadaisical. If I set my goals to make the team, maybe I get into a couple of exhibition games and get some experience there.”
A noble attitude for a young prospect, no doubt. But before the 5-10, 170-pound native of North Vancouver, British Columbia gets a real shot at making the big club, even he knows he has a long way to go. Nevertheless, he spoke of making significant progress last season.
“I’m a little more defensively responsible, actually, I’d say a lot more,” he noted. “Last year, I learned a lot about the game away from the puck, watching video and stuff like that with my coach. It was an area I definitely needed to work on, and I think I improved [in that area] dramatically.”
On the other side of the red line, quickness will be a factor in Weal’s potential ascent to the NHL.
“Quickness, moving my feet in the offensive zone [are keys to his game], because it’s a lot harder to hit a moving target than someone who’s standing still,” said Weal. “If I keep my feet moving, and think the game a couple steps ahead of the other guys, I can stay on top of that and create chances.”
At his first Kings Development Camp in 2010, Weal, who is now 19 years old, was more than a bit surprised at the intensity of the physical training the team put their young charges through.
“The workouts…they’re extremely tough,” Weal said at the time. “Working out at the next level is a whole new ball game. You’ve got to push yourself that much more. I was a little shocked at the first workout, at how hard it was and how hard it has been [during the camp].”
“The warm-ups we do for workouts are almost harder than the workouts themselves,” Weal added. “[Kings strength and conditioning coach] Tim Adams pushes us really hard.”
Weal, who scored 43 goals and added 53 assists for 96 points in 72 games with the Pats before getting a brief stint at the end of the season with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate), where he played in seven regular season games, recording one assist, was not going to be caught off guard this time around.
“I’m a little more prepared this year,” said Weal, who will play for new Regina head coach and former Kings center Pat Conacher. “[The workouts have] been going really well. I’m just in the middle of training. It’s all about eating for me. If I eat enough, I can put on the pounds. But with that weight, I’ve got to keep my speed and my quickness, because that’s a big strength of mine. If I can do that, I’ll be successful.”
“You have to keep working hard because the ultimate goal is getting to the NHL—getting to the next level.”
Like Weal, Toffoli, 19, had a huge 2010-11 season, scoring 57 goals and contributing 51 assists for 108 points in 68 regular seasons games for the 67’s, leading the OHL in goals and overall scoring. He also scored three goals and added five assists for eight points in four playoff games.
Toffoli topped his 2010-11 numbers by a wide margin, adding twenty more goals and nine more assists.
“I think, as the season went on, I just wanted to get more and more,” said the 6-0, 181-pound native of Scarborough, Ontario. “I went into the season wanting to get more than 37, which I had the year before. I beat that, and, if I go back, my goal is going to be [to beat] 57.”
After being criticized for his lack of attention to conditioning the previous year, Toffoli took that criticism to heart last season, and the results speak for themselves.
“I think [the big improvement in his numbers is] just from being in better shape,” he said. “That’s all it was. In my second year of junior, I wasn’t in the best shape, but I still did pretty well. I just want to get myself into better shape. That’s what I need to improve on.”
“[The Kings] knew that I knew what I had to work on,” he added. “It was pretty simple—to workout, work on my skating, and just improve my whole game. I scored a lot of goals last year, but there’s always room for improvement—work on my shot, work on anything that I can.”
Indeed, Toffoli, who was selected by the Kings in the second round (47th overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, was likely still available when the 47th overall pick came around because of his sub-par physical conditioning.
“Tyler Toffoli—you’ll have to wait to see how things play out, but the knock on this kid was that he hadn’t started to take his conditioning as seriously as he could,” said Michael Futa, Kings Co-Director of Amateur Scouting, following the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Kings head coach Terry Murray has taken notice of Toffoli’s improvement, especially in terms of his physical conditioning.
“[I saw] a big difference from last year,” said Murray. “I’m seeing a player who’s dedicated himself to getting in better shape. We’re seeing a guy who’s got a high-end skill level. He’s a big goal scorer. He won the scoring [title] in the Ontario Hockey League, now he’s playing the pace of the game for the sixty minutes, and on both sides of the puck. He’s really working hard to do the right things without [the puck], so he can get it back on his stick and attack.”
“I just like the commitment he’s shown with his dedication over the last year,” added Murray. “He’s starting to emerge. He’s starting to become a guy who’s going to be what you, hopefully, want him to be, in [terms of] scoring, and being able to play at the pro level and the high pace.”
Like Weal, Toffoli was called up to Manchester at the end of his OHL season, scoring a goal in one regular season game. But while Weal sat on the sidelines during the AHL playoffs, Toffoli played in five games, scoring a goal.
“I finished my season [with the Monarchs] after my junior team got knocked out of the playoffs,” Toffoli noted. “It was a huge experience. I just went in there, hoping for the best. I got a lot of opportunities, and it was a lot of fun. The guys were really nice to me, coming in so late in the season. They let me step right in and play my game.”
Toffoli certainly noticed the difference between junior hockey and the AHL.
“The overall skill, the bigger guys [were a bit of an eye-opener],” said Toffoli. “It was pretty much the same step I took going into junior hockey [from lower levels].”
Last season, Toffoli was not on the invitation list for Hockey Canada’s evaluation camp for their 2010 World Junior team, but he used that snub as motivation.
“As soon as I didn’t get the invite to the main camp, I really stepped up my game,” he noted. “I tried to prove them wrong. Going back to junior next year, hopefully, I can make the team.”
Toffoli is already a step closer towards that end, as he is currently participating in Hockey Canada’s National Junior Team Summer Development Camp in Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alberta, which concludes on August 7.
Although Toffoli is working hard towards making Canada’s World Junior squad, like Weal, he has loftier goals in mind.
“I want to make the [Kings opening night roster],” Toffoli emphasized. “I’m going to work my hardest the rest of the summer, get myself into shape, and do everything possible I can play for the Kings.”
“You just want to come in here and show the progress you’ve been making,” Toffoli added. “You had to work as hard as you could, and come in here in the best shape possible to show that you’re really working hard. Then, you can come into the main camp and [make an even greater] impression.”
“The NHL isn’t just skill. The best guys in the league are the hardest workers. You look at a guy like [Sidney] Crosby. He’s probably the hardest worker in the league, and he’s the best player. You just want to work as hard as you can, and make as much of an impression as you can. You just want to keep getter better as the years go by.”
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