EL SEGUNDO, CA — One of the Los Angeles Kings forward prospects who draws a lot of attention because his of skill, speed and offensive flair is left wing Adrian Kempe, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (29th overall) of the 2014 National Hockey League Draft.
Last season, in his first full year in North America, Kempe joined the AHL’s Ontario Reign, moving to Southern California as the Kings swapped their minor league affiliates.
In 55 regular season games with the Reign, the 20-year old, 6-1, 187-pound native of Kramfors, Sweden scored eleven goals and added 17 assists for 28 points, with a -1 plus/minus rating and 27 penalty minutes.
In the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs, Kempe scored four goals and tallied one assist for five points, with a +1 plus/minus rating and two penalty minutes in 13 games.
“I thought it was a good season for me,” he said. “It was my first year over here. [The year before], I played in the playoffs for the Monarchs and then I came over this year.”
“I had a good start of the season [and played well] until Christmas,” he added. “After the World Juniors, I came back and had a tough time, but I think I bounced back before the playoffs. I think I played pretty well during the playoffs. The whole year was really important for me.”
But as his regular season numbers indicate, Kempe’s 2015-16 seasons did not meet expectations, given his talent level.
“You always want to put up better numbers and I think I could’ve put up better numbers, too,” he said. “I think I created a lot of chances out there and I could’ve scored more goals than I did. Those are things I’ve got to work on, but I created chances, so that’s good for me. I just have to bury it. I didn’t score enough goals last year, so I need to work on that.”
Indeed, last season, Kempe was a key player in some games, displaying his speed and skill. But in too many others, he was a non-factor.
“I think he has to be, consistently, more noticeable,” said Kings Vice President, Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Michael Futa. “When you’re that talented, when you can skate like that and shoot a puck like that, when you have shown the ability to compete at the level he has and score big goals, you’ve got to be noticeable a lot more often.”
“Too many peaks and valleys,” added Futa. “The peaks are amazing, but there’s got to be more of them. He’s got to challenge himself to be more consistent. This is an especially skilled player. I think he’s got to realize that he’s one of those guys—people talk about our lack of high-end prospects. This kid has all the ability to be a top six forward, when challenged.”
Although it may sound like Kempe was slacking off, his challenges are not uncommon among young players.
“[Consistency is] a part of being a pro in the American league,” said Futa. “You learn to show up every night to get to the next level.”
“It’s about challenging himself to be the best,” added Futa. “You don’t see him skate that way, produce that way, and shoot a puck that way and not be pushing yourself.”
Strength and conditioning—issues for just about all-young players—are also factors that are holding Kempe back.
“Coming over to North America for his first full season, there was a lot of hockey played,” Futa noted. “I think he was still a little tired—it was great to see him come over the year before, and then go on that tear and be part of that Calder Cup Championship. That was a lot of hockey that he played and I don’t think his body recovered, [in terms of] getting himself in proper shape to play a full season in North America. There was some fatigue to his game.”
“I think I’m [in better condition coming into training camp] than last year,” said Kempe. “I worked really hard this summer, and I tried to be on the ice as much as possible over the summer. I think that’s a big advantage early in the season. I tried to work on everything.”
Despite the hard work this past summer, Kempe still a lot of work in the gym ahead of him.
“It’s one thing to look good, physically, and it’s another thing to be physically ready to produce and play the style that he wants to against bigger, stronger men, and as much as he wants to be a lot better, the difference between the bodies of the younger players—he’s still a physically young player,” said Futa. “As big as he looks, all of a sudden, he’s standing next to Dwight King or Matt Greene—OK, he’s still a kid. He’s got to work that much harder in the gym to put that weight on so he can compete at the next level.”
Another hitch in Kempe’s game is that his defensive play is lacking, and he knows it.
“It was pretty tough at the beginning of the year, in the defensive zone,” he said. “It’s a smaller rink than back in Europe. But during the year, I got better and better, and at the end of the season; I played pretty well in the defensive zone. But you can always be better, and I want to be better there, too. I want the coach to trust me to play on the penalty-kill and power play, so I’m trying to work on that every day.”
“It’s really important for the coach to trust me,” he added. “I really want to play on the penalty-kill and power play. I only played on the power play last year, no penalty-kill.”
Indeed, Kempe did not see time on the Reign penalty-kill last season. That, and his -1 plus/minus rating on a team noted for its defensive play, are strong indicators of what is, arguably, his most glaring weakness.
“Particularly on a team [that stresses defense], with the way they play, you shouldn’t be a minus player,” Futa observed. “He’s got to work on his play away from the puck, no question. But what he can do with the puck makes him a special candidate to be a top six guy.”
“He’s got to be a non-liability without the puck and he has to produce offensively in every game,” Futa added. “He can’t have highs and lows in training camp. They’ve got to be highs and they have to keep getting better.”
Kempe will get ample time in pre-season games to show the Kings the improvement they’re looking for, and he knows what he has to do.
“A big part is my defensive play in our own end,” said Kempe. “I’m a fast guy, so I know I have that. I just have to try to be grittier in front of the net and try to play [more in the dirty areas] than I did last year. I just have to be better in the offensive zone.”
“This year is going to be really important for me,” added Kempe. “I need to be more of a leader out there, and I think I will be, too. After a year [here], you learn a lot, and I think I played well last year, but I want to be better this year. I’m just going to try to play better offensively and hopefully, play better on defense, too.”
Kempe isn’t likely to make the Kings’ 2016-17 opening night roster. Nevertheless, he needs to show improvement in all areas during pre-season games and get the Kings brass to really take notice.
“I think he’s going to open up a lot of eyes at training camp. He’ll make some people think about what his future is going to be like, and how close he is to actually being a part of the big team,” said Futa. “This kid is gifted. He’s a wonderful kid. They call him ‘Juice’ because he’s got something special. He’s got some juice to his game. But when you’ve got that swagger, you’d better back it up, because your teammates expect it, and your opponents dislike you because of your swagger and they know you can back it up. But you’ve got to consistently back it up. That’s the difference between and NHL player and a real flashy, streaky AHL player.”
“There’s no question that if he comes in in the right mindset, he should find a way to play NHL games [at some point] this year. How many he plays—we lost Milan Lucic. There’s jobs open.”
“I’m not focused on long-term season goals. I just need to make sure, day in and day out, that I bring the work ethic and that I’m getting better every day.”
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.
Frozen Royalty’s Adrian Kempe Coverage
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