EL SEGUNDO, CA — After spending the vast majority of the 2015-16 season on left wing with the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign, Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Adrian Kempe is playing center in the Kings’ 2016 Training Camp, which has been more than a bit of an adjustment for him.
“Until I was 15, I played center my whole life,” he said. “Then, mostly the wing. Last year, I played 15-20 games at center.”
“I’m playing center right now, so it’s tough,” he added. “I played left wing almost all last year, so it’s been tough to play in the middle. But I’ve felt more and more comfortable after each game. I got better and better in the defensive zone, and better in terms of puck possession, too.”
Kempe has played in three pre-season games so far in the training camp.
“I think they’ve gone well,” he noted. “The first game of the season is always tough after a couple of months off, but it’s really fun to be here and to be the games starting.”
“I think I’ve done well, so far,” he added. “I’ve played three [pre-season] games, and I think I played better and better every game. I felt better [and better] on the ice.”
Reign head coach Mike Stothers indicated that having to learn to play in the middle of the ice at a higher level isn’t easy for Kempe.
“I’m fortunate so I get to see him a lot, and I see that dynamic skill and speed that he has,” said Stothers. “I still see a guy who’s trying to find his way playing the middle of the ice. Sometimes, it looks like he’s a little unsure of what he’s doing. I think that’s going to take some time. I still think that we need to see a little bit stronger play—the one-on-one battles, making sure he comes out of them with pucks, and if he has the puck, giving it up [rather than holding onto it for a long time].”
Despite having to deal with learning how to play at center at the professional level, Kempe’s skill and speed are turning heads.
“If you were to evaluate a guy, he’s certainly opened a lot of eyes,” Stothers noted. “He’s drawn a lot of praise and attention from the coaching staff. He’s got something you can’t teach and that’s speed. He’s played very well, but there’s still a process where until he’s comfortable in that position and knowing that’s where he’s going to be, it’s going go take some time, but man. It’s been good so far.”
The aspect of Kempe’s game that has needed the most attention—defensive zone play—is getting better, although he still needs a lot of work. But he is well aware of that and has focused on it. He has also indicated that he wants the coaching staff to trust him enough so that he can kill penalties, which is significant.
“I look at it in the penalty-killing role,” Stothers observed. “Last year, he didn’t kill a whole lot of penalties for us. We made a conscious effort [in the pre-season] to include him in that, and in the early goings, we’ve seen that, because of his speed, he can cover a lot of ground. Because he’s got a good stick, he can be a good defender, and he’s also a threat shorthanded.”
“Learning the center position, face-offs are not a strong suit for him, but how else is he going to get the reps in unless he gets that opportunity, right? Then, you can see that there’s still—he tends to swing a little bit instead of stopping and starting in straight lines,” Stothers added. “Again, it’s just a matter of getting familiar with what’s expected of him, and when he brings that to his game? That’ll kind of morph into—killing penalties is a lot of what you need to do in the defensive zone, and stuff like that, and he wants the minutes. He wants that opportunity. He wants that role, and I know that from talking to him at the end of last year, so he’s come a long way. I’m really happy for him. I just love watching what he can do.”
“Most guys say that they want to be on the power play. Everybody wants to be on the power play. But when you get guys requesting time on the penalty-kill? That’s a good sign. That’s a good indication of where this kid wants to take his game.”
At this point in his young career, Kempe is better on the wing, where he has fewer responsibilities. But if he can make the adjustments and play center, with his skill, speed and physical abilities, he would be an even greater asset to the Kings. But when? Could he make the big club’s roster in a couple of weeks?
Reading between the lines, it seems likely that, at the very least, Kempe will start the season in the AHL with the Reign, even though Stothers was rather tight-lipped about where Kempe might start the season.
“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to,” said Stothers. “But [keeping him up with the Kings] goes against the process of doing the right thing and spending the right amount of time. But sometimes there’s guys who are ready sooner, and I’m not saying that he is. I’m not saying anything. But if I think back to my days in Philadelphia, there was a guy named Justin Williams, and that was the big debate. ‘Back to junior? Is he ready? Will we rush him? Will we ruin him,’ and we all know what Justin Williams has done, so sometimes, there is an exception to the rule.”
“Whatever way it plays out, it’s not going to hurt him,” added Stothers. “If he comes back to play for [Ontario], getting a lot of minutes, it’s only going to help. If he’s [with the Kings], playing with the elite and against the elite, who knows how quick he develops? Maybe it’s a quicker development process for him. You can surround him with guys who are a little bit more aware of the situations away from the play, away from the puck, in the defensive zone, and as he gets dragged along with that, he becomes a better student, a better player, sooner.”
“When you’ve got ‘that,’ and I call what he’s got, ‘that,’ he’s something. So I’d be looking long and hard. He’s got everybody talking and that’s what we wanted to see.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Adrian Kempe, shown here during their 2016 Training Camp at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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