As hockey bags and equipment crates were carried down a hallway and out of Great Park Ice in Irvine, Kings rookie team coach Mike Stothers found a quiet corner outside his team’s locker room Tuesday afternoon.
After three games and nearly a full week of practice with the prospects, Stothers had plenty of thoughts to share. Though the actual results — the team went 1-2 and was outscored 12-10 during the Rookie Faceoff Tournament hosted by the Ducks — might have underwhelmed, Stothers walked away impressed with several promising pieces to the franchise’s future.
Here were the standouts from the Kings’ 2019 rookie camp:
Blake Lizotte: Though he was never drafted and is always undersized at 5 feet 7 and 172 pounds, Lizotte had options at the end of his college season with St. Cloud State last year. After posting 42 points and a plus-28 rating in 37 games, the rookie free agent remembers being wooed by eight teams.
“You weigh the opportunity, where the organization is heading,” Lizotte said. “Ultimately, you go with what your gut says.”
His told him to sign with the Kings. After playing one NHL game with the club at the end of last season, the 21-year-old center looked like one of the franchise’s best young players during an active five-point (one goal, four assists) showing described by Stothers as “off-the-charts good.”
Lizotte recorded three assists in Sunday’s game, skating on a line with former St. Cloud teammate Mikey Eyssimont, then put together an even stronger performance in Tuesday’s finale. He buried a loose rebound for his lone goal, collected an assist after stealing a breakout pass in the neutral zone, and helped run a successful power play from the half boards. He also played an entire shift after losing his glove.
“He’s tenacious, he’s on pucks, he’s relentless,” director of player personnel Nelson Emerson said. “He just wants to compete.”
Tobias Bjornfot: After getting to see the Kings’ 2019 first-round pick up close, Stothers used one adjective to describe the smooth-skating, puck-moving 6-foot, 193-pound defenseman.
“There’s a quietness to his game,” Stothers said.
That’s a good thing.
Bjornfot, a Swedish prospect who was drafted 22nd overall this summer, appeared to easily adjust to life on the smaller North American ice sheets. His instincts translated, often leading the left-handed defenseman to jump into the play offensively. Twice on Tuesday, he glided down the left wing with the puck to take a shot. In his own end, Stothers didn’t have many complaints about Bjornfot either.
“He’s not flashy, it’s not always the end-to-end thing that brings you out of your seat,” Stothers said, “but you just see the calmness, the awareness he has on the ice, where everybody is, where he can throw his outlet passes. He defends pretty well too.”
Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Akil Thomas: Familiar faces to Kings prospect camps, Anderson-Dolan (a 2017 second-round pick) and Thomas (a 2018 second-round pick) showed up with renewed confidence and composure. They were impact players in all three games, including on special teams, and Stothers spoke of the two in a similar tone.
Anderson-Dolan, a 5-foot-11, 191-pound forward, played five games with the Kings last year before being sent back to juniors. This week, he was one of the most consistent players in all three zones. Stothers said that, upon posing a question during the first intermission Saturday night, Anderson-Dolan was the first to speak up — just one example of how the coach believes he is mature beyond his years.
“He pays attention to the details of the game,” Stothers said. “That’s going to make him a good hockey player. That’s going to make him a good leader.”
Of Thomas, the 5-foot-11, 177-pound forward who transformed from a pure playmaker to more of a scoring threat last season in the Ontario Hockey League, and did a little of both during the rookie tournament, Stothers said: “There’s just a different presence he has about himself, both on and off the ice. It’s really impressive. You can see this kid has matured, and he’s feeling good about himself.”
Anderson-Dolan this year is set to play either with the Kings or their AHL affiliate Ontario Reign, which Stothers coaches. Thomas will likely go back to juniors. Both, however, appear on track to reach the NHL full-time within the next several seasons.
European forwards: Three recent Kings draft picks from Europe continued their North American acclimation this week.
Rasmus Kupari (a 2018 first-round pick), Samuel Fagemo (a 2019 second-round pick), and Johan Sodergran (a 2018 sixth-round pick) showed flashes of potential in the rookie tournament after spending 2018-19 playing overseas.
“The rink is smaller and you don’t get a lot of time,” Sodergran said. “You really have to know what you’re going to do with the puck when you get it.”
Kupari, who totaled 33 points during 43 games in the Finnish Elite League last year, looked like the most developed of the trio, regularly able to keep possession and stick-handle through traffic along the boards.
Stothers was cautious of putting too much stock into the group’s performance this week.
“You come over here, have one practice, and next thing you know the games are being played,” Stothers said. “It is on a smaller surface than maybe they’re accustomed to.”
Blueline depth: While Bjornfot looks like Los Angeles’ defenseman of the future, another collection of blueliners showed this week they might soon be ready to contribute too.
Sean Durzi (a 2018 second-round pick by Toronto), Mikey Anderson (a 2017 fourth-round pick) and Jordan Spence (a 2019 fourth-round pick) received praise for their play during the rookie tournament.
Emerson mentioned Spence, a 5-foot-10, 177-pound right-handed shot who collected 49 points in his first season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year, by name when asked which players were pleasant surprises this week.
Stothers also liked the two-way play Anderson and Durzi displayed (which, in Durzi’s case, also included a fight at the end of Saturday’s game).
“It adds an element to our back end,” Stothers said. “We’ve got some guys that are puck movers, they’re mobile, they can play the game.