With two preseason games separating a crop of 28 healthy and available players from the start of the regular season, forward prospect Adrian Kempe and tenured camp tryout Devin Setoguchi understand the stakes inherent in preseason games against Dallas and Colorado at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas this weekend.
For many players guaranteed a roster spot, the end of the preseason schedule serves as a final tune-up in advance of the season opener Wednesday in San Jose. Neither Drew Doughty nor Anze Kopitar are expected to play in tonight’s game – they’re likely to dress tomorrow – and Jeff Zatkoff will start against the Stars in lieu of Jonathan Quick.
For others, including players on the team’s prospect and depth chart, there are still future NHL opportunities that would be expected to present themselves were they unable to claim a roster spot. For Setoguchi, a veteran of 471 NHL games who has attended training camp on a PTO, there’s a little bit more on the line than just getting ready for the season.
“I think it comes down to these last two games, and obviously I’m still here and have done something to this point to maybe keep them a little intrigued,” Setoguchi said. “Definitely I feel like there’s a lot riding on these next two games that I have to play.”
That Setoguchi was even invited to camp gravitated more towards a favor from management, including ex-Sharks teammate Rob Blake, than a clear opportunity to claim a roster spot. After having come up short in his attempt to make the Maple Leafs as a camp tryout a year ago in the wake of his struggles (and recovery) from alcohol and substance abuse and depression, Setoguchi, who said he had slimmed down by 28 pounds to best compete for a roster spot a year ago, has had a more thorough conditioning regimen that has allowed him to withstand the rigors of a hockey season, and not just shed pounds. He’s nearly 20 months sober.
Throughout this process, he’s kept a zen-like approach that conveys a sense of open-mindedness. Asked whether there’s pressure entering these final games, he said, “there is and there isn’t.”
“I really have nothing to lose,” continued Setoguchi, who had 11 goals and 24 points in 30 games with Switzerland’s HC Davos last season. “I wanted to come in and give it one last shot, right? It’s kind of what I was hoping for and I was able to do that. I was able to turn a couple heads and now there is pressure, but I feel like the people that can handle the pressure are the people that are playing in the league. For me, I’ve got to play my game and I’ve got to show up on the board offensively and I’ve got to play the way they want defensively and be physical. There’s a whole [list] of things that run through your head but all you’ve got to do is just go do it. That’s kind of my theory and if it happens it’d be a great story, and if it doesn’t happy it’d still be a great story. It’s kind of where I’ve been laying my hat on things.”
And though Setoguchi and Kempe, the 20-year-old selected in the first round of the 2014 draft, are among the more high-profile roster hopefuls, they’re not the only ones. They’re not necessarily competing against each other for the same spot. It’s much more complicated than that. Setoguchi is a wing, where he faces competition from a player like Michael Mersch, whereas Kempe can play both wing and center, and is also competing with players such as Nic Dowd and Michael Latta. There’s also the question over whether the team will keep seven or eight defenseman – something that was likely to come into clearer focus this week – so defenders on the cusp of a roster spot also factor into the ultimate decision.
But there are openings here that weren’t really visible at the outset of camp, when Marian Gaborik (broken foot) and Nick Shore (undisclosed, but necessitating “protocol”) were healthy and Tanner Pearson hadn’t been suspended for the first two games of the season. Kempe, who has impressed management and the coaching staff with the camp he’s had, was asked whether he expected to be going into the final weekend of the preseason with an opportunity to earn a roster spot. “Not really” was his answer, though a roster spot at some point in the near future did motivate him.
“I came over really wanting to take a spot and that’s my goal,” said Kempe, who totaled 11 goals and 28 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old with AHL-Ontario last season. “That’s been my goal the whole last year. It’s going to keep being my goal till I make it. I made a good camp, I think I played good in the games too and I’m still up, so I don’t know what’s going to happen after this weekend, but we’ve got two games left here and we’ll see what happens, but I feel good out there, so that’s good.”
Kempe isn’t the only person upbeat about his game. Darryl Sutter, who isn’t quick to lavish rookies with praise, more or less did so for the player who turned 20 less than two weeks before training camp began.
“I think he’s in some ways flown under the radar here,” Sutter said. “I think that there are players that have been given credit or assumptions that he’s clearly outplayed.”
Sutter also noted Kempe’s speed and called him a “smart player,” and noted some of the inconsistencies in his game last season game when he shifted from center to wing and became acclimated to the smaller ice than he was familiar with in Sweden.
“You know, he’s just a year older. That’s all,” Sutter said. “Just straight maturity with him, and coming from a different type of game, with the hockey IQ that he has and the speed that he has, the only adjustment is experience. He’s adjusted to the ice. You can see that. He’s a fun player to watch.”
One aspect of Kempe’s game that management has liked has been that he doesn’t shy away from contact. Even as an 18-year-old during AHL-Manchester’s Calder Cup run in 2015, opposing teams in Portland, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Hartford and Utica targeted him with acute physicality and some chippy play, and the now-6-foot-1, 187-pound forward hardly flinched, instead totaling eight goals in 17 postseason games.
Of course, there’s a big jump between the AHL and NHL, and Kempe knows that in order to continue to impress Sutter, his defensive game will have to continue to mature, as well.
“As I’m playing center now … you have to get to D-zone if you’re going to play center, get your guy and play more physical and get under sticks and don’t make them create chances against you,” he said. “I think that’s one big thing, you’ve got to be strong in your own zone. I know I’m good offensively, so defensively I just try to be better and I think that’s what they want me to be better on too. You’ve just got to be stronger down there.”
Though he played in the preseason split-squad opener a year ago, he wasn’t really a factor in the parent club’s immediate plans, and no eyes were raised when he was assigned to Ontario, as expected. This year, though he’s been held scoreless through three games, he’s served as a more noticeable presence over a wider area of the ice.
“It was my first year last year and I think that was important for me to come over last year to get one year under the belt before this year, so I think that’s really important – to get to know the game more and everything like that,” Kempe said. “I tried to improve everything this summer. I’m a good skater but should have put on more goals last year and so I try to be a better shooter and try hit the net more and that’s one thing I worked on a lot last summer.”
He’ll skate alongside in between Setoguchi and Dustin Brown for tonight’s game against Dallas. Considering this is the Stars’ preseason finale, a veteran lineup should be expected, providing Kempe and Setoguchi a good test.