ONTARIO, CA — When Frozen Royalty last looked in on Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Adrian Kempe almost two months ago, he was struggling mightily with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League.
Indeed, the 20-year-old, 6-2, 202-pound native of Kramfors, Sweden had scored just three goals with two assists for five points in 16 games.
But now, with 36 games under his belt, Kempe has picked things up of late, scoring ten goals and contributing seven assists for 17 points, with a -4 plus/minus rating with 34 penalty minutes.
If you do the math, in those first 16 games, Kempe, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (29th overall) of the 2014 National Hockey League Draft, averaged a paltry 0.31 points per game. But over his last twenty games, he is averaging an improved 0.6 points per game.
“I’ve started to play better,” he said. “I’m trying to play my game more and try to do the things I’m good at to help the team. I think I’ve done that a lot lately. Then you get some points, [score] some goals. Your confidence [grows] and you just keep playing.”
“Confidence is a really big thing and that’s important for me, too,” he added.
Kempe’s coach pointed to confidence, as well.
“I think he’s starting to play a little more like we were expecting,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers. “I think there was a lot of hype [around] him during training camp and I don’t know if it was deserved or not. He showed flashes of speed and everything else, but the end result—there were no points to show for it. Now you’re seeing the end result. He had two assists tonight, numerous chances to make things happen, and that’s what Kempe can do for us.”
“He’s really, slowly, gotten himself—I don’t know if it’s a confidence—a quiet confidence, or if he just feels better about himself,” added Stothers. “He’s taking advantage of the situation. He’s been very good, and he’s only going to get better, too.”
The added confidence is apparent in Kempe using his most formidable weapon, speed, a lot more than he was earlier in the season.
“I’m trying to use my speed more and I’m a really good guy with the puck,” he noted. “That’s one of the things I [have to use] to help my team, offensively. I’m trying to challenge the defense more with my speed.”
“It’s a simple game,” he added. “You just have to work [hard]. Then you’ll get some goals and points.”
But as skilled as Kempe is offensively, he remains rather deficient on the defensive side of the puck, a weakness that plagued him last season and has continued this year. That said, things appears to be looking up for him on that side of the red line.
“My defense has to be better, too,” he said. “I wasn’t good enough at the beginning of the season. Now, I’m playing better in the defensive zone.”
But Kempe has to be good enough on defense that he can be used on the penalty-kill, something that he is not yet close to achieving.
“We have really good [players] on the penalty-kill, so it’s hard to take a spot there,” he noted. “I just have to be better in the defensive zone. If you’re good enough there, you’ll play on the penalty-kill. I’m still trying to be better. Hopefully, I’ll get some time on the penalty-kill before the season is over.”
Stothers put it much more simply.
“He has to earn my trust,” he said, bluntly, declining to elaborate.
To be sure, it is plainly evident that Kempe has not earned Stothers’ trust. In fact, he is not getting ice time in critical situations—first or last minute of a period, important even strength situations, and, as reported earlier, the penalty-kill. But even though none of that can be considered to be a good thing, given that Kempe is in just his second full season in the AHL, it is too early to be overly concerned about his development. Add to that the fact that he played in Sweden, on the wider, international ice surface—moving to the narrower ice surface in North America is often a challenging adjustment for European players—the fact that his development has been slower than hoped should not come as a surprise.
“I try not to get too excited about guys like Kempe because there’s always going to be that young guy-consistency thing,” said Stothers. “Now he’s improving in each and every game, and you know what? He’s been moved around a lot, too [between left wing and center].”
“If we can just get him to the point where we feel comfortable having him killing penalties, then I think we’ve got a legitimate shorthanded threat.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Adrian Kempe (right), shown here while playing for the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League during a game against the Charlotte Checkers at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California on December 3, 2016. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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