LOS ANGELES — With left wing prospect Michael Mersch having been called up to the Los Angeles Kings for fill-in duty with veteran left wing Kyle Clifford out of the lineup due to an upper body injury, for the time being, Adrian Kempe is now the top left wing prospect playing for the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Ontario Reign.
Kempe, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (29th overall) of the 2014 National Hockey League Draft, burst onto the scene last season, when he was a late-season addition to the Manchester Monarchs, a team he helped lead to the AHL’s 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
This season, the 6-1, 187-pound native of Kramfors, Sweden is off to a very solid start. In 19 games, Kempe has scored seven goals (four of them on the power play) and has added seven assists for 14 points, with a +2 plus/minus rating and ten penalty minutes.
“I think the season is going good, so far,” he said. “I came over last year, and it was pretty hard when I came over, so it felt really good this year. I got into it right away, and it’s a really good group. Our defense has been good, so far, and I think I’ve played well. I’ve scored some goals already, and I think I can keep doing that, and be better at it. Everything can always be better, but so far, for the team, and for me, it’s been good.”
Kempe, who was named to the preliminary roster for Sweden’s 2016 World Junior Championship team earlier this week, earned a reputation as a playmaker while playing in Sweden. But after crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play on the smaller rinks in North America, Kempe’s game has been more balanced.
“I’ve always been a playmaker, putting up more assists than goals,” Kempe noted. “But when I came over [to North America], it’s been a little different. I’ve had more shot opportunities, and I think I’ve become a much better goal scorer since I came over last season. I want to become even better, but I want to make plays, too.”
A key reason for Kempe’s goal scoring success is his very quick release.
“He gets it away in a hurry,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers. “His goals, this year, have been a classic example of being puck-ready.”
“I’ve always had a good, hard shot, but I want to improve my release all the time,” said Kempe. “When I was a kid, I had a hard shot, but I didn’t have that quick release. But I worked to improve my release, and I’m still doing that. That’s something you always have to work on. In professional hockey, you’ve got to move the puck right away, and if you want to be a good goal scorer, you want to shoot a one-timer, or get it off as quickly as you can.”
A quick release on his shot gives Kempe a great offensive weapon. But what makes him even more formidable is his speed.
“That’s one of the biggest weapons I use—my skating ability, and I can use that even more here [with the smaller rinks in North America],” said Kempe. “I really like the smaller rinks here, especially because one of my biggest strengths is that I can skate at full speed with the puck. Many players can’t do that, and I want to be even better at that, because it’s such a big advantage here, on the smaller rinks.”
“It’s speed and skating with Kempe,” said Stothers. “He’s a real powerful, free-flowing skater, and I think that’s the best asset that he has. His hockey sense is very good, his overall skill and talent is really high. The only thing he’s really lacking is experience.”
Indeed, Kempe is just in his first full season in professional hockey, and despite his obvious gifts, he still has a lot to learn before he will be ready for the rigors of the NHL.
“We’re looking at a kid—he’s still a teen-ager, for crying out loud,” Stothers emphasized. “There’s a lot of work to be done yet, with Kempe. But it’s more along the lines of experience. His consistency needs to be there, and his defensive responsibilities can be improved. But when you look at the natural gifts that he has, they’re all things that you really can’t teach.”
As Stothers noted, like most young prospects, Kempe needs to work on the defensive side of his game.
“There’s times when he could be harder and heavier on pucks, and making sure that pucks are getting out of our zone,” Stothers noted. “There are times when he can come back and support better. He’s kind of like a thoroughbred. He wants to get into the gates and wait for the starter’s whistle to get going the other way. But prior to that, you’ve got to make sure that you’re positionally sound and accountable on defense. Otherwise, coaches aren’t going to trust you to be on the ice, especially in an organization that prides itself in how they play in their own end. That’s the biggest thing, but it’s not something that’s unusual for young players.”
“He needs to work on the fact that it’s a big part of the game,” Stothers added. “It’s more important than the other side, because if you can’t get out of your end, and you’re spending a lot of time in your own end, or you’re getting scored on every time you’re on the ice, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of the other side of the game.”
For his part, Kempe acknowledged that his defensive game needs work.
“I can be much better [in the defensive zone],” he said. “I think I’ve improved a lot since last year, but I can be much better. I want to be better. I want them to trust me so I can play on the penalty-kill, and at the end of games. I want to be better there, for sure.”
“I’ve been better in our own zone, [this year],” he added. “That was a big thing last year. In most of the games, I didn’t play at the end of games, because the coaches didn’t trust me in our own end. I’ve been much better this year, [compared to] last year, but there’s still a lot to learn.”
Kempe detailed what his coaches are looking for from him in the defensive zone.
“When pucks go to the boards, I have to learn to protect the puck better,” he explained. “Sometimes, I try to make plays and end up turning the puck over. I’ve got to be better there. That’s a big thing that I have to be better at. I have to make the simple play more often, just chip the puck out, sometimes. That’s one of the big things. The simple plays are often the best plays.”
“I think I’ve been much better with the puck this year, [compared to] last year,” he elaborated. “I’m more calm out there, I [make the simple plays, like] chipping the puck out [of the defensive zone].”
With great speed and skilled hands, Kempe could develop into more than the prototypical power forward. In fact, when Kempe walked into the Kings’ 2015 training camp this fall, it was obvious that he had put on a considerable amount of muscle since last season.
“I’ve got a guy who I trained with all summer, a professional guy,” Kempe noted. “A couple of Swedish NHL players train with him, too. I worked with him all summer. We focused on the conditioning, strength and power. I also want to [improve my speed]. It was a great summer for me, and I’ll be working with him next summer, too.”
At 19 years of age, Kempe’s skills aren’t the sole focus of his development.
“He’s a big, thick, strong kid, but yet, he’s a teen-ager, so I’m not even sure if he’s growing, developing, or filling out,” said Stothers. “I think he’s probably going to continue in that aspect. As you get older, you mature and you get stronger, physically. You know what? There might be [more and] better yet to come, just in terms of the overall specimen that he’s going to be.”
“He’s not a guy who hangs around out on the perimeter,” added Stothers. “He can battle with anybody. He’s strong on his skates, he’s hard on pucks when he wants to be, and truly, he hasn’t even finished growing or filling out.”
Stothers indicated that although Kempe still has work to do, especially on the defensive side of the puck, he is definitely not behind the curve in his development.
“[Attention to detail in the defensive zone is] part of the consistency aspect,” said Stothers. “It can’t be a selective thing. It’s got to be automatic. But again, we’re dealing with a teen-ager here, so there’s lots of time for that to improve. There’s no hurry to fast track him anywhere. You know what? He’s developing, and the future looks bright for him, and for the Kings. He’s ahead of the curve. He’s an interesting kid to watch, a fascinating kid to watch, and a thrilling kid to watch, because of the flat-out skating ability.”
“He’s got so much, there’s so much there that you can’t help but be excited when you’re talking about him, you can’t help but be excited watching him,” added Stothers. “The Kings have got a real good future with this guy in the organization. He’s an exciting guy. He makes things happen.”
“He’s not one-dimensional. He’s got the makings of a pretty complete hockey player, when it’s all said and done. You know what? I think he’s going to be a top six guy in the NHL. That, in itself, puts you in pretty elite company.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings left wing prospect Adrian Kempe, shown here during a game with the Ontario Reign of the AHL. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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