At this time last season, Matt Luff appeared to be in the midst of his big break.
After earning his first career call-up last November, the Kings forward scored in four consecutive games the week before Thanksgiving, tallied five points over an eight-game stretch in mid-December and entered the Christmas break with seven goals, three assists and a zero plus/minus rating while averaging more than 12 minutes of ice time.
With his easy smile and slicked-back hair, Luff quickly became a fan favorite, looking like a potential beacon of hope in an otherwise bleak season. While his name produced puns (“Luffer,” “What is Luff?” “What’s Luff got to do with it?”), his play showcased promise. As the Kings entered a rebuild, Luff briefly looked like a ready-made building block for the future.
But by the end of his rookie season, in which he had one point in his final 10 games before being sent to the minors for good, that reality never materialized.
“Going up and down, [you need] to believe in yourself the whole way and don’t lose confidence in your game,” Luff said this preseason. Last season, “I think sometimes I lost it.”
Now, Luff is getting a second chance. After being recalled Tuesday to replace injured forward Trevor Lewis, he’s bringing a more measured mind-set to what he hopes will be his second extended stint in the league.
“Getting this recall, it’s all about showing I can play here,” Luff said. “Each time I’m in that lineup it’s about sticking in it and giving them reasons they can’t take me out.”
After his 11-point, 33-game debut season, Luff returned to his hometown near Toronto and tried to reset his game. The 22-year-old undrafted winger trained at the same gym as NHL veterans Tyler Seguin and Michael Del Zotto, picking their brains on how they overcame dry spells in their careers. Luff followed the offseason plan Kings strength coach Matt Price crafted and came back to California for training camp feeling confident.
Then he was optioned to the Kings’ American League Hockey affiliate, the Ontario Reign, before the NHL roster had even been trimmed below 30 players.
“Getting cut that early kind of put me down a little bit,” Luff said. “But me and [Reign coach Mike Stothers] talked about it, used it as motivation. You can see in my play, it’s been a lot better since a little hiccup in Ontario. I think it put me back on the right path.”
Luff has been dominant in the AHL this season. His 10 points in 13 games ranked second on the team, and his plus-five rating was fifth (and best among forwards with at least five games).
“He probably didn’t have the camp he wanted to have, or at least we didn’t see it that way,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “[He] went down and got his game going. Got a bit of an awakening down there.”
Luff is rejoining a Kings team in the midst of another rough start. They go into Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild in last place in the league with a 5-11-1 record and struggling to score. Luff is expected to be in the lineup, replacing Lewis.
“Was it us missing some things at camp? Or him missing some things at camp? It really doesn’t matter anymore,” McLellan said. “What matters is, what are you going to do now? How can we use you? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Rob Blake gives injury updates
Kings general manager Rob Blake updated several injuries.
Blake said that former first-round pick Gabe Vilardi is scheduled to return to full practice with the Reign on Wednesday for the first time this season. Vilardi, a 20-year-old forward picked No. 11 overall in the 2017 draft, recently returned to individual skating sessions after a back injury kept him off the ice for most of the last year. Blake said Vilardi will likely need at least two weeks of full practices before being ready to make his season debut in the AHL.
“He’s done everything he can by himself out there, skating-wise,” Blake said. “He needs to be with a group, running into guys, having guys all over the place. Getting reps like that. That’s what we’ll incorporate this week.”
Defenseman Derek Forbort, who also hasn’t played this season because of a back injury, is a few weeks behind Vilardi in his rehab process. Blake said Forbort is progressing in individual skating sessions, but still needs a couple more weeks before returning to full practice.
Blake said Lewis, who went on injured reserve Monday because of a lower-body injury, is week to week.