EL SEGUNDO, CA — Although we’re just one month into the 2017-18 National Hockey League season—it’s still early—young forward Adrian Kempe has gone from a player who did not often display good hockey sense, nor did he earn a whole lot of trust from his coaches, especially on the defensive side of the puck.
During the Los Angeles Kings 2017 training camp, on September 28, head coach John Stevens indicated that although Kempe had skill and speed, more was needed from him on defense.
“We got him up here last year, and we liked some of the things he could do,” he said. “We certainly like the skill set and speed he brought to the lineup. We think he can be a responsible player, and he has the ability to play wing and center. We’d like to see his defensive game continue to improve. It’s not that he can’t do it. We just want to see it on a more consistent level.”
“I still think he can do a better job of staying on the right side of the puck,” he added. “I think he gets a little loopy in his game, at times, but the center position is fairly new to him. He’s done a good job of trying to gain the concept of what’s expected of him there, but there’s still some work to do.”
As reported in this space on September 29, Kempe began the pre-season by taking four minor penalties—two slashing penalties, one hooking penalty, and one high-sticking minor—in an exhibition game against the Vancouver Canucks on September 16. But even with the new emphasis on slashing, all those penalties didn’t sit too well with Stevens.
“We went back and looked at those penalties to get a handle on what’s being called,” he noted. “The thing we liked is that he’s been in a lot of puck battles that’s led to some of those penalties, but we’ve got to clean some of his game up.”
But once the regular season began, and with center Jeff Carter lost to injury, the 21-year-old, 6-2, 195-pound native of Kramfors, Sweden has exploded onto the scene, not only by scoring six goals and adding three assists for nine points, with a +9 plus/minus rating and eight penalty minutes in 12 games, but it’s also how he’s been able to contribute at a higher level.
Indeed, Kempe is displaying the hockey sense, anticipation, ice vision, physical play, and defensive awareness to go along with his skill and speed. In other words, again, it’s still early, but evidence suggests that Kempe has turned a corner in his development, and is starting to put it all together.
Kempe said that increased confidence is powering his improved play.
“When you find the back of the net, you play with more confidence, and you get to know the game better,” he said. “I’m also playing a lot more minutes now than I did last year. That helps me get into the game, and you get the flow going a lot more. That’s a big thing, too.”
After experimenting with Nick Shore centering Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, Stevens turned to Kempe to try to get some production from his second line, and so far, the move has worked wonders.
“We put him with Tyler and Tanner because he got the same M.O. as Jeff Carter,” said Stevens. “He carries a lot of speed in the middle of the ice. He can come from underneath and create numbers on the rush. He’s been a good fit there. Those guys are used to playing with a guy with speed in the middle. I think those guys have enough experience in the league to be able to help a young guy like Adrian, and they seem to have some good chemistry together.”
“I thought that line was really good the other night,” added Stevens. “They’re really showing signs of good chemistry, and starting to create like they hoped they would. Hopefully, that can continue.”
“I just want to play as much as possible, and keep making plays that I know I’m capable of,” said Kempe. “I’m playing with very good players, too. They’re helping me a lot. We’re all good skaters. I want to build speed through the middle, and create opportunities for them. We’ve been great on the forecheck. We’ve created a lot of chances from that, I just want to create as much space as possible for them. They’re very good goal scorers.”
Last season, Kempe was a late-season call-up, playing in 25 games for the Kings, scoring two goals and tallying four assists for six points, with a -3 plus/minus rating and four penalty minutes. But what stood out was that, like he showed at the American Hockey League level with the Ontario Reign, Kempe had trouble finding the open areas of the ice, and with creating space for himself to generate scoring opportunities. He also wasn’t very strong along the boards and, as Stevens indicated, he was often lackadaisical in his defensive zone play.
But now, it’s like you can see the light bulbs flashing over Kempe’s head.
“I know I’m capable of [making plays],” he noted. “I’ve done it before. Last year, it was my first year in the league. It was going to be kind of tough. When you get more confidence, you feel like you can make more plays. Last year, if I got the puck at the blue line, I chipped it in, nine out of ten times, instead of trying to make a play. Now that I have that confidence, I can make those plays. Sometimes, you’re going to make a mistake. But then you’ve got to get the puck back.”
“It’s the best league in the world, and it’s tough to get into this league and have a great start, right away,” he added. “I played hard last year, but now, things are falling into place. I started making more plays, and I’m feeling better out there. This is the way they want me to play, and I just want to keep it going. I want to keep playing this game and get better every day.”
As Kempe indicated, when he was called up late last season, and even during the 2017 pre-season, he was somewhat hesitant to try to make plays. But not now.
“You can’t be afraid to make plays,” he emphasized. “I’m just trying to make the plays that I should be making. I’m doing that now, and I’m playing better and better. I’m trying to be more consistent, game-by-game.”
As reported earlier, during training camp, and even early in the season, Kempe did not have the full trust of the coaching staff, in terms of playing a solid, 200-foot game. But given his play to begin the season, that too has changed.
“Number one, he’s a really competitive guy, and his competitiveness has allowed his skill to come out,” said Stevens. “We’re really happy with how hard he plays. He’s been one of our best forecheckers, and he’s really hard along the wall. Because of that, he ends up with the puck a lot.”
Kempe has also improved in the defensive zone. But he does have one nagging problem: a very poor 30.6 percent face-off winning percentage.
“For sure he has [become more consistent on the defensive side of the puck],” Stevens observed. “We trust him in a lot of situations. The work-in-progress for him is going to be the face-off circle, but [center] is a new position for him.”
“If you’re a young center coming up, it’s a big challenge,” Stevens added. “But for somebody for whom the position is new, that’s an area where we want to continue to work with him, because if we can start with the puck a little bit more, that’ll be big for us.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe (foreground). Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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