It was a dynamic debut for Kings forward Arthur Kaliyev last night at STAPLES Center.
Really, if you take out the fact that the Kings lost the game, it could not have gone much better for the 19-year-old forward.
Kaliyev joined exclusive company, in more ways than one. The talented winger became the 23rd teenager, and 20th youngest player all-time, to debut for the LA Kings when he was officially listed on the team’s game roster. Early in the second period, Kaliyev made history yet again, as he became the 21st player to score in his LA Kings debut, making it three times in as many seasons the Kings have had a player do so.
A whirlwind moment. A whirlwind day. One that Kaliyev will never forget.
“It was a really special moment, getting the first one,” Kaliyev said. “You never forget those moments, getting your first goal. I thought it was a pretty good game, a lot of nerves at the start of the game, but I tried to play my best out there and picked up a rebound goal.”
The whole event moved quickly for Kaliyev, who wasn’t even on the team going back as few as four days.
This past weekend, he was a member of the AHL’s Ontario Reign. Kaliyev tallied three goals from five preseason contests with Ontario, and the team was coming off of a 4-2 victory over Bakersfield in the preseason finale, in which the Uzbekistan native tallied a goal and two assists.
Kaliyev’s offensive game has gotten the headlines throughout his junior career, but it’s been more than just the goals, more than just the points, that has stood out in his early debut with Ontario.
“Going into Arty’s game, I’ve really liked his 200-foot progress, in our brief training camp,” Reign Head Coach John Wroblewski said. “I’ve liked him on the forecheck, and he’s become increasingly more responsible defensively. I didn’t fully appreciate Arty’s work on the walls either, he does seem to advance the puck and appreciates momentum as well.”
Fast forward a day, and Kaliyev was recalled by the Kings. The rookie forward switched locker rooms at Toyota Sports Performance Center and took the ice on Sunday as the NHL club returned to practice, following two off days.
At first glance, Kaliyev was recalled to the taxi squad, rather than the active roster, and the prospects of him making his NHL debut that week didn’t seem quite as bright. As the days passed, however, it began to look more and more as if we might be throwing an Arty Party in Downtown Los Angeles.
The day before the game, it appeared to be pretty solid that Kaliyev would play, with Todd McLellan saying that he was trending that way in the morning’s media availability. Kaliyev seemed to have a good sense too.
When talking about his night before, he said that he was definitely thinking about the prospects of making his NHL debut, though he noted he was still able to get a good night of sleep on Monday evening. From there, Kaliyev took morning skate with his team, did the standard “I’m probably making my NHL debut pre-game media availability” and was on with his day.
“Really excited, really pumped to play that game, my first game,” Kaliyev said, the morning of his debut. “It’s going to be a bit nerve-wracking, but I’ll just take it one shift at a time and try my best out there.”
The focus for Kaliyev was to put in a hard-working effort, honing in on just being good in all three zones and not trying to do too much. McLellan began Kaliyev on the fourth line, though in-game adjustments switched things around midway through the game.
On his goal, Kaliyev was on the ice with Michael Amadio and Dustin Brown, and also saw time with Carl Grundstrom and Gabriel Vilardi. The Los Angeles Head Coach called it common practice to see a younger player break into the lineup in the bottom six, to help ease the transition a bit.
“A lot of the kids coming in start in that bottom six, normally, it gives them competition that’s a little less strenuous to play against, whether that’s the top pairing or top line on another team,” McLellan said. “To break into the league, it’s often done that way.”
Kaliyev skated 14:42 in last night’s game, including some time on the second power-play unit, and his play saw him used late as an extra attacker with the goaltender pulled.
On his goal, Kaliyev showcased the natural nose for the net, and goalscoring instincts, that have been touted of him at the amateur levels. It wasn’t the highlight reel, top-shelf snipe that we’ve seen in videos, but it was a goal scored by a player who knows where to be getting to the right areas on the ice. And, in some ways, that’s even more encouraging.
“Drew was skating down the wall, and I saw that I was the third man high,” he said. “I saw [Amadio] get it off the pad and I thought I was going to see a rebound there. Next thing I knew, I got lucky enough that the rebound popped right to me and I was able to bury it.”
McLellan had praise for Kaliyev’s play during his debut, on a night when praise was in short supply. The debutant made some positive impressions in his first time out with the big club, as he created his share of chances offensively, and didn’t look too out of place in the rest of the rink, either.
“He’s a young player, he was excited to play and the guys were excited for him and that gave us a little bit of life and a little bit of energy,” McLellan said, of Kaliyev. “When a 19-year-old can come in and do that, he’s obviously dangerous when he’s got the puck in and around the net, he had some other chances, more than a lot of our other forwards that played tonight. A good start for him and he’ll learn his way through the league.”
Looking forward, Kaliyev’s next steps are unclear. McLellan admitted that Kaliyev still has work to do rounding out his game, but that’s to be expected of a player fresh out of the OHL.
There’s the impending reality that the Kings will have a surplus of forwards as Martin Frk and Matt Luff rejoin the lineup, followed at some point by Andreas Athanasiou and Blake Lizotte. That certainly creates a situation where something’s got to give, and in many instances, regardless of whether or not a player has earned the right to stay, what gives is the player who does not need to clear waivers to be assigned to the AHL.
There’s also the contract element, in that the first year of Kaliyev’s entry-level contract would kick in if he plays more than seven NHL games this season with the Kings. General Manager Rob Blake said at the beginning of the season it was something to be mindful of with several young players, with guys like Quinton Byfield, Tobias Bjornfot and Alex Turcotte in the same boat.
There’s also the thought process, the most important of the three, of what’s best for Kaliyev’s personal development, versus the LA Kings in the here and now.
“As far as moving forward, we’ll have to make some decisions over the next day or two, what’s best for him,” McLellan. “It’ll be about him right now, it won’t be about our team. It’s more important that he gets what he needs, and we’ll make those decisions over the next couple of days.”
Perhaps what is determined is that what’s best for Kaliyev is to continue to work with the NHL club, gaining valuable experience in practice every day and playing his role during games, fighting to earn a larger one. Or, perhaps, what’s best is to give Kaliyev first-line minutes in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, as he adjusts to the professional game in all areas of the rink. With the Kings back in action on Friday, and the Reign opening their regular-season the next day, the decision will come quickly.
Regardless of what Kaliyev’s immediate future holds, we all enjoyed what the present brought us, for one night. Despite being one of the youngest players to ever wear a Kings jersey, Kaliyev gave us all a glimpse of what he might bring to the table moving forward.