For the younger players among the 23 who learned that they’d made the Los Angeles Kings out of training camp, there was no game-show reveal, no parents waiting off-stage with flowers and hugs. There’s just a brief chat, or as John Stevens put it, “communication and feedback in terms of what’s expected.”
“I mean, I think they’re pretty smart guys that can see the other guys aren’t [here],” said Los Angeles’ coach. “But we’ve sat down with them and just let them know what’s expected on a daily basis. Some of them, they change their number and those types of things that happen with the progression of getting a chance to play here.”
Alex Iafallo is one of those players, and his presence represents a slice of roster transition necessary for a team that needed to balance out its traditionally heavy style of play with better transition acumen and pure speed. Los Angeles had played with a good pace most of the time under Darryl Sutter – watch the Kings-Blackhawks series from 2014 before deeming the club “slow” – but will venture to make a concerted effort to use individual speed to attack the center of the ice and make plays under Stevens, who was hired to replace Sutter in late April.
Iafallo has speed to burn. He’s been able to use it on the forecheck, on the backcheck, and in dogged pursuit of the puck, as he demonstrated while stripping Nate Schmidt of a puck before feeding Brooks Laich for an overtime game-winning goal last Tuesday in Vegas.
“I feel like in juniors I had knee surgery, and then it just hit me,” Iafallo said. “I worked on my legs a lot and getting quicker every day. After that, juniors on, I just used my speed as my main asset for forechecking, backchecking, getting the pucks in the corners. Ever since then, everybody’s been saying just to keep my speed up, and I work on that all my time, as well as my weaknesses.”
That we’re even having this conversation is a big check mark in Rob Blake’s first season as general manager. Inheriting a roster with a terrific core but some aging talent and little cap room, Blake, while contending with the major issue of several large contracts that are difficult to negotiate around, has made moves to help transition the team to a younger, more high-octane team that should be better equipped to attack while on the rush. There’s still a need for additional skill, but that Blake has been able to infuse the roster with youth and speed while providing needed slack to the team’s cap constraints is a representation of several significant, positive steps that were necessary to take over the summer.Part of that was landing Iafallo, who said the marriage of his own skill set and the team’s needs was “a good fit” and helped him make his decision of who to sign with as an undrafted college free agent.
“Just play my game and give the team an opportunity, a chance to win, and just keep making plays and using my speed,” he said. “That’s what I’ve got, so I’m going to use it.”
Lines are never static, but on the first official post-camp practice, Iafallo, wearing a fresh 19 instead of his assigned prospect number 78, skated to the left of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown. If that was a “welcome to the NHL moment,” he didn’t let it show. Even when he was in Los Angeles over the summer and attended training camp, he got to know several of his new, future teammates.
“Got to know a lot of the guys, and even from watching them years ago, some of these guys, it’s pretty cool to finally meet them and learn from them every day,” he said.
“It’s an honor to be with them, and just learn every day. They’re great guys and always willing to help me and answer my questions.”
But it’s also possible he’s only holding the seat warm for Marian Gaborik, who was penciled in over the summer to skate alongside Kopitar and Brown but remains sidelined as he recovers from an in depth medical procedure he underwent early in the preseason. Gaborik last skated early last week.
Michael Cammalleri and Jonny Brodzinski also skated alongside Kopitar and Brown in the preseason; Iafallo also easily passed an eye test on Saturday against Anaheim with quality shifts alongside both Adrian Kempe and Nic Dowd as well as Nick Shore and Trevor Lewis.
It’s all part of a remarkable ascension for a player who became a major organizational target over the second half of the 2016-17 season, when Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Yannetti and Tony Gasparini and Ted Belisle, two of the team’s American amateur scouts, took turns planting themselves in seats upstairs for Minnesota-Duluth games. Iafallo, who turns 24 in December, totaled 21 goals and 51 points over 42 games with the Bulldogs last season even though he had never finished with more than 11 goals or 25 points in any previous NCAA season.
“He fits the mold of the type of young man that the Kings have had success developing into NHL players,” Gasparini said after Iafallo signed with Los Angeles. “He’s a very driven young man, and he’s very passionate about his game and very detail-oriented. I thought his attention to detail was outstanding this year and during his maturation process throughout college.”
The maturation process was also evident when he hardly blinked an eye relaying the feeling of skating alongside both Kopitar and Brown.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling to be up here and playing hockey. It’s a cool feeling,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL, and it’s finally hitting in, I think. Just got to keep playing simple and keep playing my game.”
Alex Iafallo, on whether it was formally or explicitly said that he made the team:
Not really. It’s just kind of working on my game and I just planned to try to make the team. If I’m up, I’m up. If you’re lucky enough to stay up here, just keep improving every day in practice and off the ice. It’s been awesome so far.
Iafallo, on his progress throughout training camp:
Honestly, just working hard and trying to take everything in. Coming from college it’s a different game, so I just tried to get used to that and used to the pace of play and the strength of guys and what I had to do to keep playing well and improving. That was pretty much it, I think. Systems, too. The systems were pretty much similar, but just to … know what I’m doing, going hard every time, doing everything right.
-Lead photo credit: Ethan Miller/NHLI