By now you’ve probably already heard the big news: Adrian Kempe and Paul LaDue have been recalled by the Kings. This is the first recall for Kempe, the team’s top offensive prospect. As for LaDue, well, You May Remember Me From Such Games As The 5-0 Loss In Tampa And The 6-3 Win In Florida.LaDue’s assignment to AHL-Ontario was made so that he could get work in during the team’s bye week. He returned to the Reign but did not register a point in the 4-1 loss at San Jose on Sunday, and was back on the ice with the Kings practicing upon the resumption of team activities Wednesday morning. He spoke of “a level of confidence” of playing AHL games after having made his NHL debut the previous week.
“I knew the speed of the game, so it was pretty easy to hop right back in to it but it was just great to get down there with the guys and play with those guys again,” he said. “It’s a great team down there so any time you’re around them it’s a good time.”
The two games LaDue had played – both determined by at least three goals – were obviously not carbon copies of each other, though LaDue said that he picked up on a little bit of an A-to-B-type process between games one and two.
“I think once I settled in a little bit the game started to slow down, and it’s still a learning process and hopefully it just keeps getting better as I keep getting in and I’ve just got to keep moving forward and keep trying to play my game.”
In 37 AHL games, LaDue has six goals, 18 points and a minus-one rating. In two NHL games, he has one assist and a minus-one rating.
Kempe, who practiced on Tuesday with Ontario before learning he’d be called up, has 11 goals, 19 points and a minus-seven rating in 43 games with Ontario, where was still the youngest player on the team prior to Wednesday’s roster move.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him. You know what? We need some speed in our lineup, I think. Put Kopi in a spot again. Another winger. He’s been through a lot of ’em this year.”
Selected 29th overall in 2014, Kempe burst onto the scene in the spring of 2015 when he scored eight times in 17 playoff games as an 18-year-old with AHL-Manchester during the Monarchs’ run to the Calder Cup. That helped raise the profile of the teenager who, along with having recorded seven goals and 16 points in 13 World Junior Championship games with Sweden in 2015 and 2016, emerged in a full-time AHL role with lofty credentials and expectations.
He did not always show a linear, step-by-step ascendance towards those expectations, and even this season, the forward with blazing speed who has seen time at both wing and center has shown flashes of brilliance intermixed with longer periods of inconsistency.
“It’s up to him obviously, but if there’s a perfect storm for somebody to make a statement and be a player up there for the remainder of the season, I think this is a great opportunity for him,” Reign Coach Mike Stothers said Wednesday. “Happy for him. Happy for all those guys.”
There are even those in Los Angeles hockey operations who aren’t quite sure exactly what they have in Kempe. He’s a player who skates tremendously well, operates with a strong constitution and hasn’t backed down from the more physical North American style – even as a teenager – and stands 6-foot-2. At 202 pounds, the Kramfors, Sweden native has filled out well for a 20-year-old but hasn’t yet transferred a gifted skill set into consistent production at the AHL level, where he has 22 goals and 47 points in 101 regular season games.
“I said the other night that my dream is to have every single guy get called up,” Stothers said. “It’s a great opportunity for [Kempe]. I think a guy like Juice, he might even be a better player up there than he is here, just because there is a little more structure, the players are obviously a higher level and it might bring out his natural attributes or showcase them or maybe capitalize on them better than down here. It’s not as easy to play in the American Hockey League as everybody thinks. You can send guys down from the NHL and they play in the American Hockey League and you go, ‘oh,’ that’s tough. It’s a little bit chaotic at times and the players aren’t quite as polished as they are up top. I think it’s a great opportunity for him. This time I didn’t have to send him a text, I was able to do it face-to-face. Same thing I told LaDue, I said ‘don’t dare come back,’ ‘don’t come back through these doors.’ ‘This is your opportunity.'”
The thought that the structure of NHL play could provide a better canvas with which Kempe could illustrate his talent will be put to an inconclusive flash test quickly. At practice on Wednesday, he was slotted to the left of Anze Kopitar and Tyler Toffoli. (Kempe said that Kopitar, who played youth hockey for Sodertalje, hasn’t yet spoken Swedish with him on the ice.)
“It’s different because you’re playing against the best players in the world, obviously, but I don’t know,” Kempe said. “Some players say it’s easier to play in the NHL, but I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Kempe, of course, is a player who impressed Darryl Sutter during an extended stay through the entirety of training camp. The Kings’ coach complemented Kempe’s speed, intelligence and maturity at Frozen Fury this past October. The next key development was for the young forward to continue to gain experience.
With that in mind, was Kempe ever frustrated that he had to wait a little bit longer to get his chance to show his wares at the NHL level – a somewhat crazy question in itself considering he’s still 20 years old, but one worth asking – when fellow 1996-born Swedish nationals William Nylander and Gustav Forsling had already debuted and were working to carve out an NHL identity?
“Sometimes you’ll of course think about that,” Kempe said. “I mean, LA has a really good team and I know it’s not the same with every other team, so it’s hard to take a spot here, and I didn’t really get frustrated, but I was just trying to play the game and I knew sooner or later I’d probably, hopefully get the chances, so I was just waiting for it and hoping it was coming soon.”
It was expected, based on conversations with Dean Lombardi and other hockey operations executives that the team would operate with a high level of patience and judiciousness over when to recall its top prospects – Kempe would appear to have the highest ceiling of any offensive prospect, and LaDue is the top professional-level defensive prospect – though conversations earlier in the season did indicate that the team would be inclined to make moves around the time of the All-Star Break and the bye week.
For Kempe, this invitation to play with the Kings is open-ended and based, in part, because of his speed and the resumption of a compacted schedule.
“Nothing has changed much,” Sutter said. “He hasn’t had a great year down there, but he had a good training camp. We’ll see. Quite a few games at home here and a tight schedule, so we’ll see.”
Adrian Kempe, on whether he got any sleep last night:
Well, yeah, I got some sleep. I mean I was really happy when they told me, so of course you get a little bit nervous when they tell you but I mean, the guys are really nice and I’ve known them since before, too, so that’s really good for me and yeah, I came up here last night so it’s good. I’m really happy to be here.
Kempe, on whether he spoke to Sutter before practice about any expectations:
No, I haven’t talked to him yet about that but I know that I’m a really good skater, I think that’s a big part of why they brought me up, too, because they want me to use my speed and other things, but we’re probably going to sit down and talk before the games start.
Kempe, on any differences between high-level leagues:
I think when you have the puck you have a little bit more time in the AHL, I think. Like, if you get the puck in the NHL, in the preseason they were right on you and you have to skate all the time. You can’t just stop and take some seconds off, you have to move your feet all the time, and especially for me. So I think that’s one big thing and I mean, loose puck battles and everything like that, I think that’s a lot tougher up here. So I just have to play my game and stay focused every shift and every second.
Kempe, on where his game has improved the most since being drafted by Los Angeles:
I think defensively I’ve been improving a lot since I came. I know they didn’t trust me when I came over first for my defensive play and I think yeah, as I said, you lose puck battles and everything, protecting the puck and everything in the O-zone and I think that’s a huge part of my game, too. That I’ve been a lot better since I came first so yeah, and I think that I try to work on everything. My skating, my shot and everything so I think that’s been better since I came, too, but improving all the loose puck battles and other things have been really good.