It’s no secret that the 2019-20 Ontario Reign were substantially better than their predecessor, and a large reason for the jump were the improvements, development and overall production of their returning prospects.
Veterans are extremely important to the on-ice success of an AHL team, and the Reign were no exception, but we’ll cover that later. Today’s focus is on the growth of a pair of the second and third year forwards on the Reign, Matt Luff and Carl Grundstrom, who split the campaign between the NHL and AHL.
Starting with forward Matt Luff, who was perhaps a surprising early cut from Kings camp, as he was amongst the first group of players assigned to Ontario back in September.
“Luffer, throughout training camp, he probably didn’t have the camp that he wanted to have – or, at least, we didn’t see it that way,” Kings Coach Todd McLellan said in November.
An always dynamic offensive player at the AHL level, Luff collected an assist in each of his first two games, but had what he called a “hiccup” early in the season, and was a healthy scratch on the second weekend, in a loss to Tucson.
Following the “awakening”, as McLellan put it, Luff closed out the month of October with goals in three straight games, and five points across that span, as the Reign went 6-1-1 in the opening month of the season. Luff was a big driving force in those games, and went on to collect 10 points (3-7-10) from his first 12 AHL games, prompting a recall to the NHL in mid-November, corresponding to a Trevor Lewis injury.
“Once the points started coming, it kind of brought my confidence back, and it was just about going back to the details and making sure when I was out there I was working hard,” Luff said, following his recall. “I think that’s really where the points come from, is when you’re working hard, that’s when you’re not gripping the stick too hard or you’re not putting too much pressure on yourself to get them.”
An offensive revelation for the offensively challenged 2018-19 Kings, Luff was unable to establish the same sort of offensive prowess in 2019-20 with the Kings, as he scored one goal, and collected five points, across 18 NHL games.
“It was a little bit different this year versus last year,” Luff told Lisa Dillman of The Athletic. “Obviously, last year I had a lot of success with scoring. This year was a little slow on the stats part of it. But it developed me more, character-wise, and just understanding it’s not that easy to produce. I just had to get mentally strong and figure out what I do right and what I do wrong and become more consistent in my game.”
With the Reign, however, Luff was one of the most impactful offensive players on the team, as he collected nine goals and 24 points from 30 games played. Just Martin Frk, owner of hockey’s hardest shot, scored at a better rate than Luffs 0.8 points-per-game pace.
As he enters restricted free agency for the first time in his professional career, Luff will be expected to be in the mix for one of the open forward positions on next season’s NHL club, whenever that time may be.
In a similar boat to Luff is forward Carl Grundstrom. The now 21-year-old winger made the Kings out of camp, but was assigned to Ontario in mid-October after an in-and-out, up-and-down start to the season.
“He just needs to get a few reps and get a little bit of confidence there,” Kings Head Coach Todd McLellan said at the time. “He’s more a game player than a practice player, and he’ll get in some games there and then he’ll be back.”
If by reps and confidence, McLellan was referring to a torrid four-game stretch, then Grundstrom succeeded. The Swedish winger showcased his North-South style of play, and his lethal shot, as he collected four goals and seven points in four games, all victories, with the Reign before he was recalled later in the month.
Grundstrom found spells of success, amidst spells of inconsistency, during his second NHL stint of the season. He earned the nickname “The Tank” from McLellan, while Kings defenseman Drew Doughty had nothing but praise for the young forward.
“Carl’s a great player, man,’ Doughty said. “He plays hard, and that’s how the Kings have always been built – the guys that have played hard that are going to finish their checks. He’s really good around the net, got a great shot. We’re really happy to have him. He’s going to be a great player for us, and we’re expecting really big things out of him going on in the future here.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Grundstrom was a healthy scratch in 5 of the 13 games he was up with the Kings, before he was re-assigned to Ontario in November. With some stability around his role and situational usage, Grundstrom imposed his direct and physical style with Ontario, as he’s traditionally done over the past two seasons.
Though he had a slow readjustment on the offensive side in the immediate, statistically speaking, the young forward caught a hot streak in January and February, as he collected 12 points (4-8-12) from a ten-game stretch, sandwiched around his third stint of the season with the Kings.
While the season didn’t go exactly as he would have liked, Grundstrom finished on a high note with 12 points and a +7 rating from his final 12 games played with the Reign. The bowling-ball style of play was especially noticeable, and impactful, down the stretch as the Reign pushed towards an ultimately non-existent AHL postseason.
It’s not the offensive side of his game, however, that the NHL staff are necessarily looking for. Grundstrom has shown he can score in spurts – look no further than the start to his NHL career in March 2019 – but it’s contributing in other ways and establishing his game that McLellan is looking for.
“I don’t think that we should be looking for Carl Grundstrom to score our way into the playoffs,” McLellan said, following Grundstrom being assigned to Ontario for the final time in February. “It’s unfair to him. It’s not what he’s here for, but he’s got to find a way to contribute a little bit, and there are some other things that he’s got to do well. He has the nickname Tonka for a reason, and he’s got to use that body and get involved and create opportunities for other players, too.”
As we look ahead to the 2020-21 season, Grundstrom enters restricted free agency, and, similar to Luff, will have his sights set on establishing his role at the NHL level with the Kings, with roles and jobs up for grabs amongst the forwards in the organization. The hockey operations staff in LA has seen the growth with their young forward, and see him as being close to achieving that goal.
“Carl, he’s close,” Glen Murray, LA Kings Director of Player Development, said. “He’s so hard on himself for making mistakes, and doing this and doing that, but we’ve been working with him. Working on his game, he’s a great student. He wants to learn, he wants to understand what he needs to be able to do to stay in the NHL. I think he’s making great strides.”