NHL

With 4 regular forwards out, Kings are relying on others to step up

It’s no secret that the Kings are jacked up at the forward position right now.

Forwards Trevor Moore and Arthur Kaliliev remain out with a week-to-week designation, and neither player is currently with the team on the road. Todd McLellan indicated before departing that both would remain in Los Angeles and rehab on their own while working their way back from upper and lower body injuries, respectively. Shortly before the trip, the Kings also lost forward Carl Grundstrom during a practice when 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 past three games with an upper body injury. Vilardi was previously labeled day-to-day and traveled with the team to start the tour, but he has now returned to Los Angeles and is not expected to rejoin the team for the tour 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 for the team’s final four games heading into the All-Star break, with nothing 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 blue line, where younger players like Sean Durzi filled in and became lineup regulars in their absence.

“He created incredible depth on our team, last year when we had all the injuries, we didn’t know what we had,” Todd McLellan said of Durzi. “When he came up, he belonged right away, he created depth right away and gave us another player back there.”

Looking at it from a team perspective, having four lineup regulars out is a problem. For those who want to step in, it is an option. That’s what Durzi did last year, and it’s created opportunities and depth where it might not have been thought of in the past. That’s what the Kings hope someone else will do at forward this season.

Even when a player like Vilardi was thought to be closer to returning, others who entered the lineup had to be ready to go when their number was called. In that situation, you have to play your game and make the coaches make a tough decision.

“It’s their job to make it hard for us to take them out,” McLellan said of options. “There are some forwards who probably don’t come out most nights, they get longer strings for one reason or another, and then there are others. Know your internal goal to stay in line and act it out. 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 did not make his season debut until October 25 and played only 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 has gotten the word “confident” from McLellan, even when playing the role of 13th forward as opposed to a regular lineup.

Since then, he’s played everywhere from the second line to the fourth line, and he’s also recently accounted for special teams. Anderson-Dolan provides a style of play that fits most of his teammates. He currently plays with the team’s leading scorer, Kevin Fiala, and buried two goals off of Fiala’s assists in last night’s win. He was also on the ice late in the game, protecting a lead that he has had of late.

He embraces that side of the game and believes his experience doing those things, even as a team’s trusted 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 made attacks, I was a penalty kill and I was out there at the end of games in juniors,” he said. “Obviously it’s a different 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 trusted.”

Anderson-Dolan is the proof, and he has now given several others a blueprint to follow in his footsteps.

Last night in Chicago, the Kings rolled out a number of young bucks. Alex Turcotte made his season debut at centre, with Rasmus Kupari and Samuel Fagemo playing on his wings. In 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 “confident minutes”. There’s that word again…trust. They also spent a lot of time in the offensive zone, playing 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, outstanding game, but it might be even better. The Kings don’t need flash in the pan games, they need consistent production to fill open spots in the lineup.

Last night, the young fourth line delivered exactly that.

“I thought they were really good,” McLellan said after last night’s game. “They played with energy, they chased pucks, created some scoring chances, checked. We relied on them all night, there wasn’t a shift where you felt good about them.”

Speaking with Turcotte last night, he said he was more comfortable playing in his second round 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, it’s very similar to what Kupari said when he came back for the second time. All three players came together through the Ontario system and all three players are draft picks by the Kings.

When McLellan uses phrases like organizational depth, it’s meant to extend to players like Turcotte coming back and Kupari and Fagemo who have been there before. Not everyone takes action immediately and contributes. Sometimes it’s about the right role and the right opportunity. Look no further than Adrian Kempe’s timeline of 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 any of the players, but only Kupari has really had a longer streak of NHL games for various reasons. With an opportunity potentially available, it is up to the players to show they are ready to seize it.

“(Players) are given every opportunity to develop at their own pace,” McLellan added. “We want them as fast as you want them, but the right rate is different for all the pieces.”

The Kings are in Philadelphia today with a game against the Flyers on the schedule tomorrow. The team currently has seven defensemen and 13 forwards at their disposal, with veterans Alex Edler and Brendan Lemieux out last night. They could choose to work either players back or potentially roll the group back from Chicago in hopes of a repeat result. More to come from what is expected to be a full team morning skate from the Wells Fargo Center tomorrow!

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