In a hockey year filled with uncertainty and routine curveballs, at least one thing has reached its final conclusion – including playoffs and crowning a champion – the NCAA season. When all was said and done, the Kings had two prospects qualify for college hockey’s 16-team post-season extravaganza, including one of them even backstopping his team all the way to the title game at the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
From an LA perspective, it’s more about development and progression than team success. Sure, they want their prospects to experience winning, and to be key contributors in the process. Yet, when looking more at the big picture, those years are about said players continuing on a path that will hopefully lead to a pro hockey career at some point in the future.
This current crop of Kings’ collegiate prospects, while limited in number (there were only four), brought a plethora of variation to the table and not just because one was from Sweden and another from Slovakia. There was a goalie, a forward, and two defensemen. One was a senior, another a sophomore, and a pair of true freshmen.
Among that group, 18-year-old Brock Faber was undoubtedly the star attraction. Selected by the Kings in the second round (45th overall) at the 2020 NHL Draft, he was clearly a player they were targeting. At the time, LA dealt two picks for a chance at Faber, wheeling the 2020 second rounder (No. 51) they received from Vancouver in the Tyler Toffoli trade and their own fourth-rounder (No. 97) just to move up six spots and ensure he joined the organization.
In doing so, it allowed Mark Yannetti and his staff the ability to provide GM Rob Blake just what the organization was looking for – a young, right-shot defender. From that weekend in October until the present, Faber’s stock has been on a steady incline upward.
“What a year he has had,” said Nelson Emerson, LA Kings Director of Player Personnel, during a recent visit to Kings Of The Podcast. “It’s not usually like this, where everything goes so smoothly and a player has so much success, but that is what he has done. He’s just won everybody’s heart over because of how he plays.”
Over the course of 27 games with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Faber had 12 points (1G, 11A) and was a plus-17. He was also named as a finalist for the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, as well as one of two defensemen named to the All-Freshman Team.
“I was just looking at what I could do to help the team,” said a humble Faber. “I’m so thankful to be nominated for that award, but I was more focused on doing what I could do to help the Gophers win a National Championship.”
Unlike Drew Doughty in 2014, who won a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold in the same season at the professional level, Faber only came close. After taking home gold at the World Juniors, his Minnesota team wasn’t able to advance to the Frozen Four and play for that NCAA title.
“The season didn’t end how we really wanted it to, so it’s definitely tough to sit here thinking about that for so long,” Faber continued. “All in all, though, it was a really good year. It was a big year for our team and World Juniors was a really special moment, so I’m starting to digest it a little bit. I’m definitely looking forward to next season.”
When it comes to Faber, one thing that impressed the Kings brass was how he quickly found ways to earn additional minutes and work his way up the depth chart, both at Minnesota and with Team USA.
“You have to love it,” Emerson continued. “He goes into the U.S. program and they had him on maybe the bottom pairing; he goes into the University of Minnesota and they don’t expect much because he’s a freshman. And then, in a short matter of time, the coaches are going ‘holy crap, I have to get this kid out on the ice all the time. I have to have him playing with my other best D.’ That is what he has done. From Sean O’Donnell to Mike O’Connell, the development guys who go to watch the players work, we don’t have enough good things to say about him.”
Earning those extra minutes and taking on additional responsibility is something Faber certainly doesn’t scoff at or brush under the rug.
While the true hockey player in him talked up the team side first, Faber talked about the focus he puts on the defensive side of the game and his focal points on those areas.
“I think that says a lot about the way I try and play,” he noted. “I’m never going to be a super flashy player, but I take pride in the things that matter most. That’s the defensive side of the game and that’s helping and contributing any way I can offensively…maybe stepping in as a lower-end guy, but doing the things that matter most, maybe that helped me play a bigger role in the biggest games.”
His first year in the Kings pipeline has definitely been a unique one.
It started with the NHL Draft being held virtually, something he had to experience from his living room. Then, with the absence of a summer Development Camp, he also missed out on meeting and training with other Kings prospects. When it came to the World Juniors, at least he was able to spend some time connecting with Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev.
“That definitely brought some normality into the picture,” he said. “It allowed me to feel like the Draft did actually happen and they could be my teammates. Those two guys were awesome and provided me some excitement about the future.”
The more immediate goal involves Faber returning to the University of Minnesota for a second season and making another run at a shiny trophy.
“We all had the same thing in mind ever since we were kids, the goal has been to win a National Championship with the Gophers,” he said. “We’re definitely really excited for next year. We can learn from this. It’s hard to sit with because we are all so competitive. At the same time, it was good for us. It was definitely a step in the right direction and hopefully next year we can just take another step forward.”
Before campus life ramps up again in the fall, Faber has plenty he’s looking to accomplish this offseason, including a trip to Development Camp in Los Angeles.
“Everybody has referred to it as a family,” he said while daydreaming about what it might be like. “We’re all there for the same reason, to hopefully put on an LA Kings jersey in the years to come. Those guys are going to be teammates of mine in the future, so it’s definitely exciting. It’s another step in the right direction. I’m super excited to get down there and meet all of the staff and meet all the guys.”
He also plans on putting in any amount of work necessary to round out his game.
“I’m excited to get to work this summer and hopefully become even better next year,” remarked Faber. “I’m still working on better gaps, smarter plays offensively, things like that. On the offensive side of things, I think I’m starting to take over more and control the game more. I have the puck on my stick more. Not just making defensive plays, but also making plays that lead to offensive chances. Last year at this time, I was still young, I was still feeling out the defensive side of the game. From then to now, I think the biggest step I’ve taken is being able to make plays offensively. I still want to build on those things too. I think next year is going to be a super fun year for me.”
Not only is Faber scheduled to return to Minnesota for his second season next fall, he will most likely once again be a featured player for Team USA at the World Junior tournament.
“We’ll see how the summer goes and then he has another big year ahead of him next year,” Emerson noted, with an understandable degree of cautiousness. “Obviously, he can get better at some things. There’s more there offensively for him, it’s in him. He is a smart enough player, plays with his head up, passes are terrific. He can’t change the way he plays, though, just a solid hockey player. He does all the right things, you want him out there. You want him out to start the game, you want him out at the end of periods, you want him out there when your team is up 2-1 at the end of the game and you want him out there if your team is tied. That is pretty damn good.”
Ben Meehan (@LAKings) had himself a night on Sunday for @RiverHawkHockey, adding three assists to the cause to bring him up to a point per game pace.@RidertownUSA alumni.https://t.co/FmMGHgRMjl pic.twitter.com/Gs37UJXta8
— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) January 5, 2021
Among the same 2020 Draft class was another American-born defenseman, Ben Meehan. And similar to Faber, Yannetti and crew traded two draft picks to move up about 20 spots so they could select their guy.
In his first year at UMass-Lowell, Meehan recorded eight points in 17 games played. Not necessarily the same offensive output he had shown the year prior in the USHL, where he put up 18 points (8G, 10A) in 25 games with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders.
“For a young player, and a defenseman, going into college is not easy,” explained Emerson. “It’s almost like when guys turn pro, going to the AHL is tough. He had to acclimate and he was in the lineup most nights on a pretty good team. Next year, he’ll be back with a whole bunch of confidence, and he’ll be a better player. They’re just grooming him to have a great college career. When you watch him play, he moves around the ice very well and he always has his head up. We saw a couple of highlights where he’s able to find stretch plays, find the open man, he can play on the power play. He had a year like most young college kids have, it’s a positive for him.”
When any of the Kings brass chose to watch Meehan this season, they actually were able to double dip. His teammate, forward Andre Lee, was taken by LA the year prior at the 2019 NHL Draft.
Born in Sweden, Lee is listed at 6-foot-4, but he mentioned he had grown past that when he was a guest on Kings Of The Podcast several months ago. He was third on his team in points as a freshman and led the River Hawks in points this past season as a sophomore.
“He’s quietly had a good college career,” Emerson noted of the team’s seventh-round selection. “It’s only his second season, but even last year he got our attention. Give him all kinds of credit. He had a really good year this year. When you talk to him, he is so mature. He looks straight in your eye, he has his stuff together, I love it. He knows what he wants to be, he knows what he wants to do. He is in a good situation there at UMass-Lowell. The Coach loves him, puts him in responsible situations. He’s leaned on as one of their top players, and he is. That is where, all of a sudden, our attention is right now. We have a lot of excitement about this player. Big, strong, has a whole bunch of length to him, meaning he can get his stick on pucks, has an offensive side. Being that big and having that offense is very exciting for us. When we met with him virtually a couple weeks back, there was a lot of excitement from him and from us. The coach speaks very positively about him too. Just a terrific kid.”
Meehan and Lee will also be returning to school in the fall.
That isn’t the case with goaltender David Hrenak, though.
Selected by the Kings at the 2018 NHL Draft, as an overage player, Hrenak just completed his schooling at St. Cloud State and now the Kings have a decision to make. They either need to sign him by mid-August or he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. Ironically, that’s how the Kings acquired Cal Petersen in the summer of 2017 after he left Notre Dame after his junior season and didn’t sign with the Buffalo Sabres.
Hrenak’s end to his college career nearly came with the perfect ending. Despite St. Cloud being ranked in the Top 5 for most of his time there, they experienced some major upsets come playoff time. Not this season. The Huskies rode Hrenak all the way to the NCAA Championship game, before eventually falling in the title game against UMass.
“For that program, going to the Frozen Four and to get into the finals, that’s very exciting, good for him,” added Emerson. “He stayed four years, he’ll graduate, he’s been a good college player, a good college goalie. He’s had a steady career there.”
Now comes the tough part. Will it be enough to earn him a pro contract?
“We’re in conversation with him, we’ve talked to him,” Emerson shared. “We have until August to try and figure that all out. We have the two other young goalies right now, [Matt Villalta] is in Ontario and [Jacob Ingham] is in the East Coast league. They’re just rookies, they’re very young. Ingham is a rookie and Villalta is only in his second year. We just have to weigh everything and see where we’re at there.”