This season: 49 games, 1 goal, 6 assists, 7 points, 6 penalty minutes, +3 rating, +1.4% CF%Rel, 23:04 time on ice
The good: Returned to AHL-Ontario after training camp in part because he wasn’t yet waiver eligible, Kevin Gravel returned to Los Angeles one month later and turned in a season that continued to show some promise even though it was interrupted at times as other young defensemen also stated their case to stay in the lineup. Essentially, he’s a valuable and versatile defensemen in the modern game who has size, the ability to close gaps quickly and use his stick and angle to shut off plays, and retrieve pucks in his defensive zone before pushing them quickly up-ice to the forwards. There are some shortcomings, but Gravel was more often than not able to show off these attributes while adding nearly two and a half minutes to his time-on-ice average from his five-game stint with the club the season prior. For a good representation of Gravel when he’s on his game, watch the March 16 game against Buffalo. He played confident in closing on defenders quickly and plugging up rushes into the Los Angeles zone. “He uses his reach really well, he’s got a great stick,” Matt Greene said in November. “He turns over pucks and he moves them up the ice really fast for us and that’s what Darryl and the coaches want us to do, and he’s done a great job of it.” That’s in line with the new model of NHL defensemen, who must be stronger skaters than in previous generations and more equipped to exchange the puck into the hands of the forwards and leave the zone quickly. Calls for Gravel to add more of a sandpaper-type element will probably continue, but with three minor penalties in 49 games – he drew more penalties than he took, which is very impressive for a defenseman – he’s done a good job of staying out of the box. It’s a testament to his positioning and skating. “Kev’s a big guy that skates well, so we want him to use his mobility to defend and his mobility to move pucks and I think he’s really starting to have confidence in doing that and we just want him to have a little more firmness to his game, and I think that’s probably where he’s made the biggest strides,” John Stevens said in January. “I mean, especially with our division the way it is, you play a lot of division games. He’s got to establish himself in the league and I think he’s starting to do that, so we’re happy with what he’s done. He’s played a little bit of special teams, both power play and penalty kill. He’s played both sides of the ice and he’s earned a spot in the lineup, at least for now, so we’re happy with where he’s at.”
The bad: Gravel still doesn’t have the firmest grip on a spot in the lineup, and while the team has been happy with his direction, he’s still not a player who appears to have a ceiling beyond that of a second pair defenseman. “He has to play a firmer game,” Darryl Sutter said in February, and Gravel, a good learner, understands that as well. He was happy with the work he did in the gym last summer, and he’ll need to continue that this off-season to continue to add firmness along the perimeter and in closer quarters than those in which he’s shown a good proficiency using his stick and reach. While Derek Forbort commanded a spot in the lineup and appeared in all 82 games, after Paul LaDue’s recall, there simply wasn’t a regular space for Gravel, who appeared in 11 of the team’s 29 games from that point forward. As a young player, he’s still learning the league and his opponents; as an intelligent young player who absorbs instruction well, that should come naturally as he continues to add games to his name. Experience is certainly key, and though the 25-year-old has a Calder Cup title to his credit, he has only 54 games to his name at the NHL level, and is yet to play an NHL playoff game. Though he finished above water in CF%Rel, he still got quite a bit of kid glove treatment: Gravel wasn’t exactly facing the Ryan Getzlafs and Connor McDavids of the world, and had zone starts skewed more to the offensive end of the ice than any other player on the team. (Only four other players across the league with a minimum of 400 5×5 minutes had as high of a percentage of offensive zone starts.) “We’re just trying to get him to be more consistent, a more mature player on the ice,” Sutter said in November. “I’ve said it before, we’re playing two guys with very little NHL experience, and there’s hiccups, and we’re seeing it. What’s not allowed is lack of compete or lack of work, and he’s tried to be strong on both those.”
Going forward: Defensemen with size who can skate, move the puck, close off plays, play with pace on both sides and avoid penalties are valuable, and Gravel, who is exempt from the expansion draft and due an inexpensive new contract as an RFA with a shade over 50 games of NHL experience, will be an important piece of Los Angeles’ defensive depth, barring any unexpected player movement. A very good-case scenario that’s 60% optimism and 40% realism has Gravel playing 70-plus games and becoming a player who can log 17-18 minutes per night while contributing some intermittent special teams work. He’ll look to continue to develop his role and understanding of the division and his opponents, add that “firmness” that we’ve heard about, and, if all goes well, put a higher percentage of shots through. (Gravel, whose sneakily heavy shot from the point was effective at the AHL level, has 54 shots in 54 career NHL games.) In the fall, it was written that the Kings were “coolly high” on Gravel, and that remains the case. He’ll turn 26 in March, two days after Derek Forbort, and should continue to give the Kings mostly effective minutes as a versatile third pairing defender capable of serving as a stop-gap option on the second pair.
Player evaluations: ANDREOFF | BROWN | CARTER | CLIFFORD | DOUGHTY | DOWD | FORBORT | GABORIK | GRAVEL | KOPITAR | LEWIS | MARTINEZ | MCNABB | MUZZIN | NOLAN | PEARSON | SHORE | TOFFOLI | BISHOP/BUDAJ/CAMPBELL/QUICK/ZATKOFF | THE OTHERS