EL SEGUNDO, CA — After former Los Angeles Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi built a team that won two Stanley Cup Championships in the span of three seasons, his successor, current Vice President/General Manager Rob Blake, inherited a franchise that had just one first-round draft pick between 2013 and 2016.
But that is often a price teams that win championships have to pay. Unlike the building/re-building process when teams hold onto their first-round picks, those who are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders or recent Cup winners often trade away those picks in order to acquire the final pieces they believe would put them over the top. That is exactly how Lombardi used them, to varying degrees of success—the acquisition of Jeff Carter in 2012 was the final piece that team needed to win the Stanley Cup that season.
But in today’s National Hockey League, the hard, inflexible salary cap rules. As teams win, they creep up, further and further, to the cap ceiling, giving them less and less flexibility when the time comes to re-sign their top players, especially if they are stars, not to mention trying to sign top unrestricted free agents or even in retaining other players when their contracts are due to expire—the price of success in the NHL.
Given that fact that the Kings are up against the salary cap ceiling and have had few first round draft picks in recent years, the Kings have had to look elsewhere to find diamonds in the rough and although Lombardi had already begun the process, Blake has put added emphasis on prospects who have gone undrafted or were drafted but chose not to sign when the NHL team that had drafted them.
“Rob has talked, at length, about not having those top [draft] picks,” assistant general manager Michael Futa told Frozen Royalty in October 2018. “We’ve got to take some swings at kids, whether it’s college free agency—another avenue we look at is that 20-year-old player who may have slipped through the cracks.”
Indeed, the Kings have signed seven players since Blake became general manager who were undrafted or re-entered the draft after not signing with the team that originally drafted them, the most notable being forward Alex Iafallo, defenseman Oscar Fantenberg and goaltender Cal Petersen.
One of those players is 23-year-old forward Sheldon Rempal, who was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent to a two-year, entry-level contract on March 30, 2018.
Rempal has had two brief stints with the Kings this season, playing seven games in a bottom six role. He did not record a point and earned a -1 plus/minus rating.
But with the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League—they are struggling just about as badly as the Kings are this season—Rempal has been a bright spot, scoring eight goals and adding twelve assists for 20 points in 16 regular season games, with a -7 plus/minus rating. He leads the Reign in overall scoring, averaging 1.25 points per game.
“Offensively, he’s pretty dynamic,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers. “He’s shifty, he gets around the ice well, he’s really good at handling the puck and he’s got really quick hands. He’s also quick to jump into holes and make himself available.”
“He gets himself into situations where he can get some shots off and he’ll shoot from difficult angles,” added Stothers. “He’s not afraid to put pucks at the net and he’s had some good success with that. That part of his game has been terrific.”
Rempal started the season well, scoring two goals and contributing seven assists for nine points in his first eight games with the Reign. He been even hotter since, scoring six goals and adding five assists for eleven points in his last eight games, showing remarkable consistency for a first-year pro.
“I had a good start, right out of the gate,” he said. “Then, I was able to get an early call-up and get a taste of playing in the NHL. Things have been going well.”
“We’ve been able to find a lot of seams on the power play and stuff,” he added. “But I can’t pinpoint anything specific [that has led to his early success with the Reign]. I’ve had some good line mates—I’ve been able to have some success.”
“He’s been really good,” Stothers emphasized. “I don’t think there’s been any stretch this season in which he hasn’t contributed points and when you talk about young guys, you can usually point to [a lack of] consistency. He’s been pretty reliable for us.”
Virtually every young player coming out of major junior hockey in Canada or the college ranks has a lot of work to do at lower levels in order to make it to the NHL to stay and Rempal is no different.
“We’re still working on once we don’t have the puck, helping getting it back,” Stothers noted. “Sometimes, his size [leaves him] a little bit exposed in wall battles. But again, going back to his stick and his hands, he can be really good at stripping pucks from other players or protecting it himself.”
“You’ve got to be able to play on both sides of the puck,” Stothers added. “Every team wants to be a puck possession team, but there’s going to be times when you don’t have it and you’ve got to get it back. You need everyone contributing in that regard. There’s times where, in the past, that wasn’t required of him, as much. But at this level, it is, and it will be in the NHL, too. That’s the biggest thing he needs to work on. As much as he’s involved in our offense, he’s got to be actively involved defensively and he a hunter when we’re trying to get the puck back.”
Rempal acknowledged that his defensive game need work, but added that he has made progress in just the first few months of the season.
“For me, it’s about gaining confidence and getting better in the defensive zone,” he said. “Getting pucks off the wall—that’s such a huge part of playing in the NHL. You have to be able to get pucks out on the wall and be consistent in the defensive zone. Those are the things I need to focus on, but I knew, coming in this summer, that I would have to do that.”
“Going from junior to college, my defensive play made a big jump,” he added. “I worked a lot on that in my freshman year and already this season, from training camp and knowing the systems a little better—that was the big thing. You’re coming in and learning a whole new system which can be tough for a rookie, maybe overwhelming. So I’m just taking baby steps every day in practice, watching the veterans—that’s a big thing, watching the guys who’ve been through it.”
At 5-10, 165 pounds, Rempal is quick and agile, but at least for now, has some trouble dealing with the bigger, stronger players at the professional level, as Stothers noted earlier. That’s something he expected—this is the challenge for every young prospect moving up to the professional level. But they’re even bigger and stronger than he thought they would be.
“It’s the strength of the players,” he noted. “Everybody talks about that—everybody being bigger and stronger. But once you get out there and experience that—that was the biggest thing for me.”
“Part of it is that he’s got to figure out how to play in the tight areas and against bigger bodies,” said Stothers. “But usually, guys with his hockey sense and skill find ways to do that. He’s low to the ground, he’s good on his edges, he cuts back and forth. Sometimes, it’s hard for a bigger man to try to contain him. He’s utilizing those skills.”
If Rempal can figure out the defensive side of the pro game quickly and add more muscle to his frame, his stock could rise beyond expectations.
“We’re happy with where he is right now and we’re excites about where we think he’ll be,” said Stothers.
“The pace isn’t crazy here, but it’s a better league and you’re playing against guys who are often a lot older and more experienced,” said Rempal. “I’m just trying to play my game and not change too much from college last year.”
“Everybody’s better at this level, so you have to step your game up a little bit,” added Rempal. “That started last summer, getting bigger and faster and trying to keep up.”
Although statistics rarely tell the whole story, with Rempal averaging well over one point per game, he’s doing more in the AHL than just trying to keep up. If he can maintain, or even come close to maintaining, that level of play, it is conceivable that he could move up the depth chart and become a strong candidate for a top six role with the Kings. Time will tell, of course, but Rempal’s play with the Reign is certainly giving the Kings reason to be hopeful that he can exceed expectations, perhaps by a fairly wide margin.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings right wing prospect Sheldon Rempal, shown here during practice with the Ontario Reign on December 13, 2018, at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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