EL SEGUNDO, CA — Although he could wind up back in the Ontario Hockey League this season, it seems likely that Los Angeles Kings right wing prospect Matt Luff will make the jump to professional hockey this season.
The 20-year-old, 6-2, 192-pound native of Oakville, Ontario has been turning the right heads among the Kings coaching and hockey operations staff. Although no decisions have been made yet, Luff has an excellent chance of starting the new season with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League.
“He’s been really good,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers. “He finds the soft spots in the offensive zone. He’s got a good, heavy, hard shot. He’s also pretty intelligent. We’ve been going through things off the ice, presenting some things from systems—you can ask him after practice, ‘what did we talk about before we went on the ice,’ and he can rattle everything off. Some kids are like, ‘I don’t know.’ That means he’s a student of the game. That’s only going to help him.”
“[Vice President/General Manager Rob Blake] is going to have to sit down with the group and decide if this kid is ready to make the transition to pro,” said assistant general manager Michael Futa. “If that’s the decision we make, we’ll be all in. In training camp, things can change on an hourly basis, but he’s done nothing to show us that he’s not ready to play pro hockey with the Ontario Reign, and play minutes that are going to be beneficial to him.”
Luff is yet another undrafted prospect that the Kings have taken a chance on.
“He played in Belleville, which has an Olympic-size rink, which is strange for junior hockey,” Futa explained. “It was the only rink in the Ontario Hockey League that was Olympic size. For a kid who, at the time, his knock was skating and quickness, that was tough on him in his draft year, being on a sheet that size and playing half his games there. I think a lot of people were a little scared off on his skating. They were never scared off by his work ethic, or his release.”
“He’s not where he needs to be yet, physically,” Futa elaborated. “When [the Belleville Bulls] moved to Hamilton, [becoming the Hamilton Bulldogs], a lot of his game started to translate better. All of our reports on him were borderline on a kid who probably should’ve been drafted the year before in the later rounds.”
“We’ve had a real good relationship with [Luff’s agent], Joe Resnick. I’ve known him very well through Jake Muzzin and Tanner Pearson. He told us that Matt was a great candidate. We gave him a free agent invite, and he came—the development staff really fell for what he brings to the table—his attitude, and he’s got a really good history of putting the puck in the net.”
As Futa indicated, the Kings invited Luff to participate in their 2016 training camp, and the unrestricted free agent made a good impression.
“We ended up signing him, and he put up pretty good numbers,” said Futa. “But then he got banged up, and missed a little bit of hockey. This [past] summer was really his first chance to train, full out. He spent some real, quality time with our development team, and we’ve seen the fruits of his labor here in camp. He scored in rookie camp, in our intra-squad game, and then, it wasn’t the most beautiful goal in Anaheim [on September 22], but we tell young guys how important it is to get the puck to the net. It ended up going in off of a defenseman sliding back, but it’s a good lesson, and he was rewarded with a goal in an NHL exhibition game.”
Coincidentally, Luff was signed to a three-year, entry-level contract on September 22, 2016, exactly one year prior to scoring in that pre-season game at Anaheim.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Luff said about his time in the Kings 2017 training camp. “You dream about it. Last time, it was rookie camp, and then back home for the start of my season [with Hamilton]. This is my first time [in the Kings training camp under contract], and it’s pretty cool.”
“You’re like a sponge,” Luff added. “You just take it all in because a lot of guys here were once in my position. You lean on them for their knowledge and experience.”
Like most young players, Luff has had to adjust to the skill, speed, and strength of the players at this level.
“I think it’s just how good everybody is,” he noted. “In the OHL, you have guys who are 16-20 [years of age]. Here, you have guys who’ve been in the pros for a while, and they know the game really well. It makes you have to think that much quicker, learn that much more, and want to be a better player.”
“It’s the strength of everyone,” he added. “They’re strong on their sticks, so when it comes to puck battles, you’ve got to put that much more weight on your stick, and know that they’re quick. You’ve got to move your feet that much quicker to get to that loose puck, or take the defenseman wide. You see the strength and speed here a lot more than you do in junior.”
After watching Luff in training camp, it’s obvious that he’s a goal scorer, first and foremost.
“I’m offensive-minded,” he said. “I like the puck on my stick. If I get the puck in the high slot, I’m not going to pass up that chance. I want to put it in the back of the net. I like to play fast, and move the puck with good vision.”
Luff has learned quickly, however, that he must focus much more on the defensive side of the puck.
“I do have to work on my defensive play—be more reliable when the puck is on the wall,” he noted. “That means not just getting it and chipping it out right away. I want to take a few strides, open up the ice and find passing lanes.”
“Being a two-way player is probably the biggest thing about being a King,” he added. “You’ve got to be good in your own zone because if you’re not, you’re going to be spending too much time in your own zone and not in the offensive zone, where we want to play.”
As a young player, there is much more that Luff still needs to work on.
“For a 20-year-old trying to get into pro hockey, there isn’t an aspect of the game that he doesn’t need to get better at,” said Futa. “Play away from the puck is huge. Attention to detail. You can’t be one-dimensional—‘I just score goals.’ Taking pucks on the wall, hanging in there on the wall.”
“The play I really liked in Anaheim was a second effort play,” added Futa. “The goal [he scored] was nice, but on the first goal, he was battling hard in the corner—building physical strength is going to help with his wall play—when he dove to keep the puck alive, getting it back to [defenseman Kevin Gravel]. That’s the kind of second effort play that’s going to catch the attention of the coaches.”
Futa also indicated that Luff needs to add muscle, but that he’s also still growing into his 6-2 frame.
“He’s also got to get stronger,” Futa observed. “It’s not that he hasn’t put the work in. He’s not done growing yet, physically. His body has to get coordinated once he adds muscle, not losing his speed with added weight. He’s got a good stride, too, so as he gets stronger, he’ll get faster.”
“This is a guy who, if he started growing a playoff beard right now, he might have it ready for the 2019 playoffs,” Futa added, with a smirk. “But that’s a good thing when we see all the positives, and there’s still some natural growing time for him, [physically].”
For his part, Luff is working hard on his game in training camp.
“Skating is big for me,” he noted. “I grew rapidly, so I have to pick up my speed. Overall, not giving up chances to shoot, and getting in the lanes of shots. If it hits you, that’s one less shot the goalie has to [make a save on]. Then there’s puck battles. You want to be the first guy to it.”
“For me, I’ve been watching the guys, and how they shut things down right away, and then, getting right back on the attack, whether it’s a three-on-two, or they chip it in, and get it going from there,” he added. “I have to work on getting my head up right away, and not look at the puck, thinking the defense is coming down on me. Having more confidence in the defensive zone would be big for me, too.”
“I also need to work on 50/50 pucks, keeping my stick on the ice with a good, bottom hand. That’s big, and when I get into puck battles, I need to be better on getting good body position.”
Character also appears to be a strength for Luff.
“[Luff’s character is] Off the charts,” said Futa. “That’s never been an issue. Sometimes, when kids don’t get drafted, they go the other way. There’s a little bit of the ‘o woe is me,’ attitude. They start to build excuses for why they didn’t make it, or [what teams] missed them. He’s never been like that.”
“He saw a team that really believed in him,” added Futa. “He saw our plan for how hard he was going to have to work, and he just kept doing everything asked of him, every chance he got. He came into that training camp, knowing that he had to make an impact on us and earn a contract. He did that, and since then, other than the injury, it’s been a really nice story to follow, and he just continues to grow and develop.”
“[Former Kings right wing] Glen Murray, [a member of the Kings development staff], really loves working with him. I think Glen, having been a goal scorer, sees a lot of good things in the way the puck comes off his stick, and his work ethic. That’s a positive when you’ve got guys who believe in you off the ice, as well.”
As reported earlier, it does appear that Luff is more likely to start the season with the Reign rather than return to Hamilton for an over-age year. But that will only happen if he’ll play quality minutes with the Reign.
“We’ve got a big decision coming up,” Futa noted. “Any time you have a kid with an over-age year left, you want to make sure he’s ready to turn pro, physically, mentally, and most importantly, the opportunity must be there for him. There’s no point having a 20-year-old in the American Hockey League who’s sitting in the crowd watching when he could be back in Hamilton playing 25 minutes a game, and Steve Staios runs a great program there.”
Naturally, Luff indicated that he’s ready to make the jump to the next level.
“I’m a kid who has put in the time and the work to make the jump from junior to pro,” he emphasized. “I have the option to go back to junior for my over-age year, but I don’t want to go back, so I’m showing them that, this [past] summer, I did put in the work, and I’m ready to make the jump. I want to be a pro. To start in the AHL and work my way up would be huge.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings right wing prospect Matt Luff. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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