Insiders, welcome to the first in what will be an extended series over the next few months, Kings Season In Review.
We’ll take a look at each player to skate for the Kings this season, in varying levels of depth, with a deeper dive into those that spent the full season at the NHL level, and smaller bios on those who were either acquired midseason, split time between the AHL and NHL, or are not yet under contract for next season.
Our first article begins with the latter, as we take a look at the five skaters who made their NHL debuts with the Kings this season – Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev, Rasmus Kupari, Drake Rymsha and Austin Strand. All five spent the majority of their seasons either on the taxi squad or with AHL’s Ontario Reign, but made their respective NHL debuts throughout the course of 2021.
Also included for each player is an audio evaluation featuring Jesse Cohen and Daryl Evans, a feature that will continue with Cohen joined by different analysts throughout the series.
NHL Statline – 6 games played, 0 goals, 1 assist, +1 rating, 2 penalty minutes
AHL Statline – 32 games played, 8 goals, 12 assists, -9 rating, 24 penalty minutes
From an LA Kings point of view, the circumstances of this unique season set themselves up perfectly when it comes to Quinton Byfield. Byfield was coming off of a season in which he scored at a rate of more than 1.8 points-per-game at the OHL level, but at the age of just 18, he faced the uphill battle of earning a full-time NHL roster spot so early his career. Enter AHL eligibility. Due to the OHL’s delay and eventual cancellation of its 2020-21 season, Byfield was granted eligibility in the AHL under unique circumstances, which proved to be the best place for him in the development process.
Not only was Byfield able to skate under the watchful eye of Kings management each and every day, but he was able to challenge himself playing in the world’s second-best league, against men.
“For us, it has been such a positive to have those [Byfield and Kaliyev] here with us,” LA Kings Director of Player Personnel Nelson Emerson said. “The fact that we have them in our organization, being that age and being able to play pro hockey, it’s just added to their development. For us, we take it as a positive, we’re real fortunate and I think we’re taking advantage of the situation too.”
Like many of his first-year teammates, Byfield took time to adapt at the AHL level, with one goal from his first 15 games, and a -15 rating from those games. While plus/minus is far from the end-all, be-all of anything, it takes time for younger players to adapt to the 200-foot demands at the AHL level. Once it clicked though, Byfield took off. Starting in game 16, Byfield began a five-game goal streak, and seven-game point streak, with nine points from seven games played between March 13 and March 26. Overall, from Game 16 through his callup to the Kings, Byfield tallied 12 points (7-5-12) from 15 games played and a +5 rating.
From there, Byfield earned his first taste of NHL action, with a six-game sample size with the Kings, the longest available without activating the first season of his entry-level contract, which was a pre-stated plan from Kings management. Byfield collected his first career NHL point on May 5 in Arizona, and looked every bit the part of an NHL player. With the Kings, Byfield controlled 45.7% of 5-on-5 shot attempts and posted similar numbers in terms of scoring chances. While other metrics showed a bit lower, Byfield’s play earned the marks of Head Coach Todd McLellan, setting the stage for a permanent arrival in Los Angeles in the fall.
“We’re going to count on that right now,” McLellan said of Byfield cracking next season’s lineup. “He’ll have to come back and earn his spot, like everybody else does, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t play. A lot will depend on who’s around our roster and what it looks like, but he’ll need some support, certainly. I think he has the tools to do that.”
2021-22 Status – Byfield is eligible to play in the NHL or OHL and would activate the first year of his entry-level contract if he makes the Kings roster and plays at least 10 games. Signs from the organization point towards every opportunity to break camp at the NHL level.
NHL Statline – 1 games played, 1 goal, 0 assists, -1 rating, 0 penalty minutes
AHL Statline – 40 games played, 14 goals, 17 assists, +4 rating, 24 penalty minutes
For Kaliyev, we’ll start with his stint with the Kings, however brief it may have been. On February 2, Kaliyev scored in his NHL debut, becoming the second-youngest Kings player all-time, behind Anze Kopitar, to score in his NHL debut. Kaliyev was a massive bright spot for the Kings on a night when there weren’t many, and the offensive instincts he showed on his goal provided a glimpse into what the future might hold.
The one game gave Kaliyev, and all of us, a taste, but as McLellan said the day after, it was about what was best for Kaliyev moving forward, not necessarily what was best for the Kings.
“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.”
What was best was to let Kaliyev play Top 6 minutes all season in the American Hockey League, under the same unique circumstances as Byfield. Kaliyev was impactful right off the hop and turned in an impressive season that saw him lead the Reign in goals (14) assists (17) and points (31).
Kaliyev’s 14 goals were tied for second amongst first-year skaters in the AHL this season, while he ranked fourth in total points and tied for fifth in assists. The rookie winger also ranked inside the league’s Top-10 in goals overall, tied for ninth amongst all players. The Tashkent, Uzbekistan native finished the season on a four-game scoring streak and had 12 points (6-6-12) from his final 10 games played. In total, Kaliyev recorded multiple points in a game nine times as a rookie, including a pair of three-point efforts.
We knew about the offense from Kaliyev, and the 19-year-old winger delivered in that regard. In the AHL, Kaliyev began to grow and improve his 200-foot game as well throughout the course of the season
“Arty has bought in completely on the idea of being a 200-foot player and he’s one of our more reliable players,” Reign Head Coach John Wroblewski noted in late-April. “In our defensive system, he’s still got some things to work on and our neutral-zone defense, and that’s a fine art. I think not many players have played in a 1-3-1 before.”
Kaliyev’s commitment to rounding out his entire game was commended by Wroblewski, and his offense was clearly able to thrive while improving the overall game. A fine first season for #34.
2021-22 Status – Entering his Age-20 season, Kaliyev is eligible to play in either the NHL or AHL. As an offensively gifted winger, improving his overall game, there are spots on the wing to be won in training camp, and Kaliyev is expected to challenge for one in the fall.
NHL Statline – 7 games played, 1 goal, 0 assists, -5 rating, 2 penalty minutes
AHL Statline – 32 games played, 8 goals, 15 assists, +4 rating, 18 penalty minutes
We saw two short stints of Rasmus Kupari in the NHL, with three games in early March and four more at the end of the season in early May, all of which were interwoven into his second season, but first without injury, at the AHL level.
Kupari began the season on an offensive tear, with points from 10 of Ontario’s first 11 games played on the season, with three goals and nine assists from that stretch. Kupari’s offensive prowess, at one point, had him atop the AHL in scoring, leading to a recall to the NHL, first on the taxi squad, and then to the active roster.
“He handled his first three games real well,” McLellan said. “An introduction to the speed, the intensity, the preparation of the National Hockey League is really good for Rasmus at this point in his career. He earned the right to be here for a short period.”
Back in Ontario, Kupari collected a point in his first three games back and tallied five (1-4-5) from his first five back, before his offensive production cooled a bit down the stretch. Still, Kupari finished with a much-improved .72 points-per-game this season, up from .30 as a rookie in 2019.
When he returned to the NHL, Kupari was rewarded with his first career NHL goal on May 8 against Colorado, as he continued to show improvements from his first stint with the Kings. Kupari flashed his combination of speed and skill more in his second stint than his first, and McLellan pointed to his role in the AHL this season as a big reason for his improved second callup.
“Obviously his game has improved, the more experience he gets at the American League level the better,” he said. “Fortunately for him, he’s playing on the power play there a lot, he’s been able to penalty kill, he’s one of the go-to guys, and that transfers over into confidence at the NHL level. That’s where we’re at as an organization. Some of these kids could be here probably a little bit longer, and a little bit more, but they won’t get what they need. Playing down there is a great thing for many of them.”
2021-22 Status – After entry-level slides in 2018-19 and 2019-20, Kupari will enter the second year of his three-year deal in 2021-22. Kupari adds to the depth and competition for center spots on the Kings roster moving forward, though with a number of players vying for the four center ice positions next season, versatility to play both wing and center would bolster his chances moving forward.
NHL Statline – 1 game played, 0 goals, 0 assist, +1 rating, 0 penalty minutes
AHL Statline – 1 game played, 0 goals, 0 assists, -1 rating, 5 penalty minutes
Drake Rymsha was your LA Kings feel-good story for the month of May.
With the Kings down to their final game of the season, and a few players battling nagging, late-season injuries, Rymsha earned the opportunity to make his NHL debut in Colorado, following a season spent mostly on the team’s taxi squad. Outside of one AHL game, in early-March with Ontario, Rymsha spent the bulk of his 2020-21 practicing with the Kings on a day-to-day basis on the taxi squad.
Always just an injury or a COVID test away from game action, and a couple of close calls, the moment finally arrived on the final day of the season for Rymsha, a player well-liked by teammates and coaches alike for his contributions to the team this season. A great moment, on a two-day spell in Colorado that lacked many others.
“He’s kind of been an unsung hero around our group, he’s been with us all year on the taxi squad,” McLellan said. “He’s worked as hard as anyone that dresses every night, he just sat back quietly and did his thing. Everything we asked of him he did, and we got banged up here at the end, a couple of players, and he got his opportunity. The group was so excited for him, I think he motivated us a little bit tonight to pick our socks up and I couldn’t be happier for him, he’s so deserving of it.”
2021-22 Status – Rymsha’s entry-level contract expired at the end of this season, and he will be a restricted free agent for the organization this summer, one of several the Kings will need to make a decision on moving forward.
NHL Statline – 13 games played, 0 goals, 1 assist, +2 rating, 8 penalty minutes
AHL Statline – 19 games played, 1 goal, 4 assists, -2 rating, 6 penalty minutes
Few players in the organization made larger leaps than Strand did, from offseason to offseason. Entering the season, you could have pegged Strand in the double digits in terms of his place on the overall depth chart amongst defensemen, maybe just sixth amongst right-shot defenseman in line for NHL minutes. Injuries at the NHL level led to his opportunity in early February and the 6-3 blueliner seized it.
At a time when several fringe players or young, up-and-coming defensemen were trying to carve out their own roles, Strand was one who did his best to show he belonged. The 24-year-old defenseman showed poise, a crisp, hard outlet pass and good skating ability for his size. These were all traits he had coming in, but he did not show the same level of consistency over his first two seasons in the minors that he seemed to with the Kings.
“For an inexperienced player, he seems to have a high level of poise,” McLellan said of Strand. “His panic point is fairly low, he puts himself in pretty good situations to have simple success, he’s not overplaying his position or his role and he’s defended perhaps better than we thought he might when he came up. As a result, he’s become a pretty steady defenseman back there.”
Possession metrics weren’t particularly kind to the pairing of Strand and Olli Maatta in their first go-around, though Strand was on the ice for just three goals against over his first spell of seven games with the team. The second stretch him at just over 50% in terms of CF%, and exactly 50% in terms of goals for and against, trends you tend to see as a player gets more comfortable at the NHL level.
In the AHL, while his offensive numbers took a step back from last season, the Reign were much more stabilized on the backend with Strand in the lineup, going 10-7-2 in his 19 AHL games played. The addition of players such as Strand and Kale Clague helped to solidify the pecking order in Ontario, putting others into better positions to find success.
2021-22 Status – Strand made a big jump this past season, playing NHL games and turning some heads in doing so. As a right-shot defensemen, his road to a regular spot is blocked by three established NHL defensemen, but his strides have provided organizational depth. Strand is a restricted free agent this summer.
Coming up, we’ll take a look at players who split their seasons between the AHL and NHL, midseason acquisitions and restricted free agents, before we examine the players under NHL contracts for next season on a one-by-one basis.