EL SEGUNDO, CA — Los Angeles Kings rookie left wing Alex Iafallo didn’t score a lot of goals to start the 2017-18 National Hockey League season. But his speed and uncanny ability to force turnovers and come up with loose pucks made him a valuable asset on a line with Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar for most of the season—he played very well, despite not putting up gobs and gobs of points on the score sheet.
In 52 games, the 24-year-old, 6-0, 185-pound native of Eden, New York has scored six goals and has added 13 assists for 19 points, with a +8 plus/minus rating and four penalty minutes.
Indeed, Iafallo was rather impressive, right off the bat. But like so many young players, that didn’t last.
“He had a really good first half of the season,” said head coach John Stevens. “I thought there was a little dip around the holiday season.”
“He’s a young guy coming into the season,” added Stevens. “He was playing big minutes for a young guy, and this schedule is entirely different from anything he’s experienced before. His game is always built on speed, quickness, and puck pursuit. We just thought his game lacked the energy, compared to when he was really playing well.”
“We moved him up and down our lineup. We thought about taking him out for a game—I think it was after the Vancouver game that we decided. We talked to him about getting his energy back, and really focus on working back to pucks.”
Between the NHL All-Star break, and other breaks in the Kings’ schedule, Iafallo got some time to rest. But he was also a healthy scratch on February 4, when the Kings skated at Edmonton (a 5-0 win), and at Calgary on February 6 (a 4-3 loss).
“It’s just understanding my role, too—I feel like I was just playing and playing and playing,” Iafallo noted. “I didn’t have time to think and re-evaluate my game, so [being a healthy scratch] was good.”
“I feel like I gained a lot of energy, and got prepared, mentally,” Iafallo added. “I learned a lot of things from a lot of the guys, in terms of preparation.”
Steven indicated that the breaks in the schedule certainly helped Iafallo recharge his batteries.
“I think the breaks have been good for him,” said Stevens. “He’s back to playing good, sound, detailed hockey, which is what we expect. It’s all the little details in his game that make him a really good player, and I think that the [two games as a healthy scratch] helped him, as well as the other breaks we’ve had along the way. That really helped him get his energy back and play with the tenacity that allows him to be a really good player.”
“He’s not a big guy, but he’s hard to play against because he’s so tenacious on the puck,” added Stevens. “When that tenacity is in his game, it feeds the rest of his game, because that results in him [forcing turnovers], and he ends up with the puck a lot, challenging with his speed.”
Rest is usually a good thing, and Iafallo certainly benefitted from the added downtime. But evidence strongly suggests that it was sitting out those two games that turned Iafallo back in the right direction.
To illustrate, in the 39 games prior to his two games as a healthy scratch, Iafallo scored two goals and added eight assists for ten points, and earned a +4 plus/minus rating, even though he was trending down with a +3 plus/minus rating in the last 17 games of that stretch.
In stark contrast, Iafallo has played in 13 games since he was a healthy scratch, scoring four goals and adding five assists for nine points while earning a +4 plus/minus rating.
“I just watched my position,” he said. “Every time the puck came to where I thought I would be, I tried to think about what I would do with it, and what I could do to help the team [in those situations].”
“What we’ve talked about before was my wall play—being able to come up with pucks and beat the first defender,” he added. “Always having a good stick on the forecheck is a pretty big key to my role, so staying with that, and being positive are big.”
“I’m just trying to get the puck and possess it. Instead of just ripping it to the net, I want to make sure that I know what I’m doing with the puck before I get it. That’s what I kind of went into the last couple of weeks with—knowing what I’m going to do with the puck before I get it.”
Iafallo indicated that the drop-off in his game had little to do with fatigue.
“I do think it was a mental thing,” he observed. “It’s just being mentally prepared for every game. I feel like now I’m hungry to get out there. Now I understand what I have to do in order to do that, every day. I took a lot from that, being able to kind of relax out there instead of gripping my stick too tight. All that has really helped me the last couple of weeks.”
Part of this is due to Iafallo reaching that point that all rookies eventually do—the game has begun to slow down for him, so to speak—he is more aware of what’s happening around him, giving him more time to make plays.
“You take a second look before you get the puck, [in part, because] you understand that there’s a little more time than you previously thought to evaluate each situation,” he said.
Stevens credited Iafallo for taking full advantage of his time as a healthy scratch—He did more than just watch those two games.
“We ask our players who aren’t playing to be good students of the game,” Stevens noted. “Don’t just sit out a game. Watch the game. Try and learn from it. The challenge for a young guy is learning the league—learning the players, learning the teams. That’s a big part of it.”
“The other thing with Alex is that if he works back to pucks, and is available early, he’s usually open,” Stevens added. “But if he gets ahead of the play too soon, trying to create space, he usually ends up standing still. That’s the one tell-tale of his game that we’ve tried to fix, and he’s been a lot better at that, lately.”
“He does have the ability to score, and create some offense for us, and we trust him in a lot of situations. He looks more like that player now than he did, mid-season.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings rookie left wing Alex Iafallo (right), shown here during a recent practice with forward Adrian Kempe (left). Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.