It’s no secret the Kings are banged up at the forward position right now.
Forwards Trevor Moore and Arthur Kalilyev remain out with a week-to-week designation and neither player is currently with the team on the road. Todd McLellan indicated prior to leaving that both would remain in Los Angeles, rehabbing on their own, as they work their way back from upper and lower-body injuries respectively. Shortly before the trip, the Kings also lost forward Carl Grundstrom during a practice, as the physical winger suffered a lower-body injury that will keep him out at least through the All-Star break. As of this writing, all three players are on injured reserve.
Forward Gabe Vilardi has also missed the last three games with an upper-body injury. Vilardi was previously labeled as day-to-day, and did travel with the team to start the trip, but he has now returned to Los Angeles and is not expected to re-join the team on the trip at this time.
The Kings dressed 12 forwards on opening night, as teams tend to do, and four of them are currently unavailable. The current prognosis looks like all four will remain unavailable on the team’s final four games heading into the All-Star break, barring anything changing. After the way last season went, the Kings are certainly adept at not only dealing with injuries, but overcoming them. Last season’s team saw the bulk of those injuries come on the blueline, with younger players like Sean Durzi filling in and becoming lineup regulars in their absence.
“He created incredible depth on our team, last year when we had all of the injuries, we didn’t know what we had,” Todd McLellan said of Durzi. “When he came up, he instantly belonged, he created depth immediately and gave us another player back there.”
When you look at it from a team perspective, it’s an issue to have four lineup regulars out of action. For those who are looking to step in, it’s an opportunity. That’s what Durzi did last year and it’s created options and depth where perhaps it wasn’t thought to be prior. That’s what the Kings are hoping someone else will do at the forward position this season.
Even when a player like Vilardi was thought to be closer to returning, others coming into the lineup had to be ready to go when their number was called. In that situation, play your game and make the coaches make a difficult decision.
“It’s their job to make it hard on us to take them out,” McLellan said of opportunity. “There are some forwards that probably aren’t coming out most nights, they get longer leashes for whatever reason and then there’s others. Know your internal target to stay in the lineup and outplay it. That’s what we want on a nightly basis.”
For someone who had already done that, look no further than forward Jaret Anderson-Dolan.
Anderson-Dolan didn’t make his season debut until October 25 and played just twice before November 14. Since that day? He hasn’t come out. When he was out of the lineup, Anderson-Dolan was regularly seen as the first player on the ice, working on various aspects of his game on his own. He’s earned the word “trusting” from McLellan, even when he was playing the role of 13th forward as opposed to a lineup regular.
Since that time, he’s played everywhere from the second line to the fourth line, factoring in recently on special teams as well. Anderson-Dolan provides a style of play that can fit with most of his teammates. He’s currently playing with the team’s leading scorer, Kevin Fiala, and buried two goals off of Fiala’s assists in yesterday’s win. He was also on the ice late in the game, protecting a lead, as he has been of late.
He embraces that side of the game and believes that his experience of doing those things even as a team’s relied upon, offensive player, can benefit him here as well.
“I think it’s easy for me [to adjust], because in the WHL, I was used in those situations and even though I was creating offense, I was penalty killing and I was out there at the end of games in juniors,” he said. “It’s obviously another level here, but I’ve been in those situations before, internationally and in juniors, so I feel pretty comfortable out there and I take pride in being relied on.”
Anderson-Dolan is the proof and he’s provided several others now with the blueprint to follow in his footsteps.
Yesterday evening in Chicago, the Kings rolled out a line of young bucks. Alex Turcotte made his season debut at center, with Rasmus Kupari and Samuel Fagemo playing on his wings. On the second half of a back-to-back, McLellan is always quick to point out the importance of having a fourth line that can play regular minutes and that line gave the Kings just over eight of them last night.
Together, they allowed exactly zero high-danger chances against, with McLellan noting they played “trusting minutes”. There’s that word again……trusting. They also spent a lot of time in the offensive zone, making plays both off the rush and along the boards, showing an ability to cycle the puck and maintain possession below the goal line. There wasn’t that one, standout play, but perhaps that’s even better. The Kings don’t need flash in the pan plays, they need consistent production to fill open spots in the lineup.
Last night, the young fourth line line provided exactly that.
“I thought they were really good,” McLellan said after last night’s game. “They played with energy, they hounded pucks, created some scoring chances, checked. We trusted them the whole night, there wasn’t a shift where you feel good about them.”
Speaking with Turcotte last night, he said he was more comfortable playing in his second go-around in the NHL than he was in his debut. It’s almost a carbon copy of Fagemo’s quote when he made his season debut earlier this year and, if memory serves correctly, it’s quite similar to what Kupari said when he came back for the second time. All three players came together through the system in Ontario and all three players are draft picks of the Kings.
When McLellan uses phrases like organizational depth, it’s meant to extend to players like Turcotte coming back up, and Kupari and Fagemo who have been there before. Not everyone steps into action right away and contributes. Sometimes its about the right role and the right opportunity. Look no further than Adrian Kempe’s timeline to his breakout a season ago and Vilardi’s breakout here this season.
The members of last night’s fourth line are much younger and much earlier in their development process than either player, but only Kupari has really had an extended run of NHL games, for various reasons. With an opportunity potentially available, it’s up to the players to show they’re ready to seize it.
“[Players] are given every opportunity to evolve at their own rate,” McLellan added. “We want them as fast as you guys want them, but the right rate is different for all of the pieces.”
The Kings are in Philadelphia today with a meeting against the Flyers on the docket for tomorrow. The team currently has seven defensemen and 13 forwards at their disposal, with veterans Alex Edler and Brendan Lemieux out of action last night. They could opt to work either player back in, or potentially roll back the group from Chicago in hopes of a repeated result. More to follow from what’s expected to be a full-team morning skate from Wells Fargo Center tomorrow!