EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — One thing that has been virtually automatic with Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter is that he is a negative feedback kind of guy when it comes to talking about young players.
Indeed, Sutter chooses to tear them down rather than sing their praises, as his way of motivating them. In fact, he has stuck to this method of motivating his young charges so much that when he does say anything even remotely positive about a young player, it comes as a shock.
As such, when Sutter recently offered praise of defenseman prospect Kevin Gravel, who was recalled from the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign on February 11, without hesitation, shock and astonishment ensued.
“He’s got really good instincts, and he’s really athletic,” said Sutter. “I think the difference will be—he went from school, his whole four years. He came out as an older first-year guy. He plays one year in the American league and then you give him a taste of the NHL. [He] can see the difference in the strength of the players [he’s] playing against, the maturity and the skill sets.”
“He’s got good hockey sense and he’s an athletic guy,” added Sutter. “We’ll work with him and see where it goes.”
Gravel played four games with the Kings, making his NHL debut in Brooklyn against the New York Islanders on February 11.
“It was very exciting [to be called up to the Kings],” said Gravel. “We were in San Jose for a game against the Barracuda. I was about go to the pre-game skate when the word came in that maybe I was going to be [recalled]. They held me out that night, and I ended up meeting the team in New York.”
“It was kind of a whirlwind for me, but it was very exciting, something you dream of,” added Gravel. “So to be able to have that chance was pretty cool, and then to be thrown into the lineup—it was a really cool experience, taking that all in.”
Like just about every young player does when they get their first shot at the NHL, Gravel immediately called his parents.
“They were my first call, once the word became official,” he said. “It was a pretty exciting call to make. They were pretty excited. They’ve done a lot for me throughout the years. When I was in St. Cloud, they came every home weekend to watch the games. Hopefully, it meant a lot to them that I was finally able to get the call up to the Kings.”
“They weren’t able to make it out, but they watched all the games I played in on TV, so that was pretty cool,” he added. “I got a lot of text messages and calls from family and friends. That meant a lot to know that they’re all keeping tabs on me and rooting for me. It was kind of humbling, but it was cool.”
Going back to Sutter’s rather astonishing praise…given his usual reticence to offer any sort of praise for young players, they are a strong indication that the Kings are now very high on the 23-year-old, 6-4, 200-pound native of Kingsford, Michigan, who they selected in the fifth round (148th overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
But that wasn’t quite the case after his senior season at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, when the Kings decided not to offer him an NHL contract.
“Kevin’s come a long way,” said Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake, who also serves as general manager of the Reign. “He came out of college and signed an American league deal. He developed from that point on and he’s made tremendous strides coming out of college in a short time.”
“What he had was the trust of [Vice President, Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel] Mike Futa and [Director of Amateur Scouting] Mark Yanetti, guys who watched him,” Blake noted. “He kind of slowed down in his senior year in college, and I think that’s where the contract stuff came into play.”
Coming out of college and without an NHL contract, Gravel became eligible to re-enter the NHL draft—the vast majority of young players in that situation do just that, and are selected by other teams.
It is virtually unheard of for a draft pick to not re-enter the draft in that situation. But as Blake indicated, Gravel chose a different path, even though he wanted an NHL contract with the Kings.
“I was happy with L.A.’s organization,” said Gravel. “Their track record speaks for itself. I’ve spent four years in the organization so far, coming to development camps, and such. I put a lot of work in with them, and they put a lot of work in with me. Just the conversations leading up to that point, and after that, I felt the best move for me was to take the American league deal, go to Manchester, put my head down and go to work.”
“I had a chance to come in and play professional hockey, coming out of college,” added Gravel. “A lot of guys would want that opportunity, and like I said, it’s a great organization. It’s a great spot to be in. If you put in the work, they give you the right tools to succeed, and the right guys, with the development staff, and the coaching staff in Ontario—they’re very intelligent guys and they know how to help you succeed.”
Blake praised Gravel for the maturity and character he displayed in committing to the Kings organization and putting in the work when he could have re-entered the draft instead.
“He was 100 percent open to the idea of an American league contract and working his way into it,” said Blake. “He ended up getting rewarded with an NHL contract, and won the 2015 Calder Cup Championship. He was a big part of that.”
“They said that if I put my work in and things go well, I have a chance to earn that NHL contract, and that’s what I did,” Gravel noted. “I went [to the Manchester Monarchs], and the team had a great year. We ended up winning the Calder Cup, so I have no issues with anything that happened last year. It was a great year for me. If anything, it made my work that much harder, and it all ended up working out, so it was good.”
This season, Gravel has been a standout on the blue line for the Reign.
“He has an unbelievable stick, he gets up and down the ice quickly for a big guy, and he can shoot the puck,” said Blake. “He has a strong desire to play, and he’s a good kid to be around. He brings an excitement to the game.”
“He can skate, he can shoot, and he’s competitive,” added Blake. “That’s been his biggest change—his competitiveness, over the last year-and-a-half.”
Blake also pointed to Gravel’s leadership qualities.
“He comes back this year, and almost took over the whole leadership in Ontario,” said Blake. “He’s doing that at such a young age, too, as a pro—he’s an older prospect, coming out of college, but in terms of being a pro, he’s still very young.”
As high as the Kings are on him, Gravel still has work to do.
“My overall game has improved [since coming out of college],” he said. “I think I’ve become harder to play against. That was one of the biggest things they stressed with me—in the defensive zone. I needed to be harder to play against, whether that’s using my stick, or finishing guys in the corner, or in front of the net.”
“That was something that was lacking in my game, and it’s something I’m still improving on,” he added. “I’m working to get better at it. I worked a lot with [then-Manchester assistant coach] Chris Hajt [now the assistant coach of the Reign] on that last year—body position, working on the corners, pinching guys off, finishing plays, and not letting forwards cycle around on you.”
“[The Kings development staff] outlined things that I could improve on, and I’ve worked on them, trying to take away some of the deficiencies in my game, and that’s an ongoing process, of course. It doesn’t go away just like that. It takes time. I’m still trying to improve on all those things.”
With the Reign, Gravel’s offensive skills have improved, as well. In fact, he has earned time on the power play, and during 3-on-3 overtime situations. Nevertheless, he remains focused on his defensive zone play.
“If I’m going to be successful at the professional level, my emphasis is going to be on the defensive side of the puck,” he emphasized. “That said, I’ve gained more confidence over the past few years with the puck on my stick, whether it’s in the defensive zone or the offensive zone, just trying to make plays. That facet of my game has improved a lot from where I started off in college. But taking care of the defensive zone is my number one job out there.”
Aside from all that, Gravel’s top priority is to add muscle to his frame.
“The only thing he’s really got to horn in on is strength,” Blake noted. “He needs to be stronger and put a little weight on so he can battle guys at the NHL level. That’s 100 percent the number one thing for him, going forward.”
“With my body type, there’s room to add some muscle,” said Gravel. “That’s something I’ve continued to work on. That’s a process, but it’s one of the main things I have to do—add some weight to my body. That’s still coming for me.”
In the four games he played with the Kings, Gravel did not record a point and averaged more than ten minutes in time on ice. Despite the limited ice time, he made an impression.
“The way he plays in Ontario, getting 20 or 25 minutes of ice time, and then coming up here, but only getting ten minutes—his game doesn’t change, and that’s what you want,” Blake observed. “It’s impressive to see.”
Gravel was assigned back to the Reign on February 26, but the brief stint in the NHL should prove to be invaluable.
“The best thing for him is that he got a taste of what it’s like at the NHL level, and now he understands the strength of these players,” said Blake. “His development, from now to the start of next season, is going to be so important for the next step.”
“I think he knows now that he can play at the next level,” added Blake. “That might have been a far reach for him, coming out of college—he wasn’t sure of himself. But he’s done enough at the American league level, except that he needs to gain strength in order to battle the bigger guys at the NHL level.”
“If we’re asking a guy to get better hockey sense, that’s tough to do. But we’re not asking him to do that. He’s got all the tools, and you know what? Keep an eye on this guy over the next couple of years. He’s going to be part of [the Kings].”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Kevin Gravel. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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