EL SEGUNDO, CA — Around this time last year, Los Angeles Kings coaches really liked the speed and skill that rookie forward Adrian Kempe brought to their lineup. Indeed, they were impressed with his play on the offensive side of the puck. But as much as they were enamored with his offensive talents, they had concerns about his defensive play, or perhaps, his commitment to playing on the other side of the puck.
“We think he can be a responsible player and he has the ability to play wing and center,” head coach John Stevens said in late September 2017, just prior to the start of the 2017-18 season. “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,” Stevens 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.”
But after making the Kings roster out of training camp last season, Kempe got off to a fast start and to the surprise of many, something clicked for him, defensively. Indeed, it seemed like he flicked a switch and, all of a sudden, he was defensively responsible and consistently so.
Stevens bristled, just a bit, at that characterization.
“It may seem like that from the outside,” he said. “But he was here a couple of years ago in training camp. We thought he had a tremendous camp and we were really impressed with his commitment to stop on pucks and be on the right side of people. He really put in extra effort to get back defensively. He went down to the minors to continue to work with the staff down there and he worked to become a better player on both sides of the puck.”
“I played left wing for most of the previous year [with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League] and then I moved to center [last season] and defense is a big part of playing center,” said Kempe. “I had to improve. I had to prove to the coaches that I could stay in the middle and [remain with the Kings].”
“I got a chance in the middle at the beginning of the year and I knew that I had to step up my game,” added Kempe. “I want to get better and better [defensively]. I still have things to work on, but I thought I had a pretty good year, defensively.”
As Kempe noted, he had to earn the trust of the coaching staff if he wanted more ice time and in key situations.
“Sometimes, that part of the game is just a decision, not an ability,” Stevens noted. “He decided that he wanted to do it. He understood that it was important. He knew that it was important in Ontario when he played there. He knew that it’s important here. He realizes that there’s a real trust factor that when you can do those things, it gets you on the ice to do the things you like to do. We haven’t had any problem with his commitment to do those things.”
“Adrian Kempe really proved that he can be a really solid, 200-foot performer,” Stevens added. “He’s a guy we can trust, right out of the gate, where last year, we weren’t sure what we were getting. We like the fact that he proved that he could be a really good player in the league last year. We’re hoping that he can take another step further this year.”
As noted earlier, Kempe got off to a fast start last season. By early February, he had scored 16 goals. But on the down side, he scored his 16th goal on February 7 but went scoreless for the remainder of the regular season and in four playoff games against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I scored a lot in the beginning, but not so much at the end,” he noted. “But I still created a lot of chances. The coaches still thought I played well, even though I wasn’t scoring goals.”
“You try to watch to see what you can do better,” he added. “You can find things in your game—why you can’t score. But I just tried to move on from that. I just tried to not think about [his goal scoring drought] as much as possible.”
Kempe will get more opportunities to contribute on the score sheet this season, at least early on, as the Kings plan to use him in front of the net on the power play. But he’ll need to be more consistent if he wants to keep his spot on the power play.
“I want to be more consistent,” he noted. “But I think that comes with experience. Last year was big, but I have higher expectations for myself this year. Hopefully, I’m confident right away and I can be as consistent as possible throughout the season so I can help the team in all situations, including the penalty-kill.”
Face-offs were also a big issue for Kempe last season, when he won just 38.5 percent of his draws.
“As a center, I’d like to be better at face-offs,” he said. “I worked a lot on that over the summer and I was pretty good at that during the pre-season.”
Kempe was back home in Sweden for most of the summer, but he was able to consult with former Kings center and current member of the development staff Jarret Stoll on his face-offs.
“I’ve talked to him about face-offs and I talked to the coaches about it,” he noted, “I worked a lot on face-offs back home over the summer, That’s a big part of what I want to get better at this year.”
“You have to work on everything,” he added. “But as a center, if you want to play a lot, you’ve got to be good at face-offs. If I can get my face-off numbers up, I’ll get more ice time.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center Adrian Kempe, shown here during practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California on October 4, 2018. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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