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Why 19-year-old Arthur Kaliyev was ready for his NHL debut with Kings

Kings' Arthur Kaliyev, right, defended by Arizona Coyotes' Cam Dineen
Arthur Kaliyev, right, shown in a preseason game against Arizona, made his debut for the Kings on Tuesday in a loss to the Ducks.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Steve Staios has seen this script before.

As president and general manager of the Hamilton Bulldogs in the Ontario Hockey League, Staios selected 16-year-old Arthur Kaliyev in the junior hockey league’s 2017 draft after the winger slipped through the top round.

Confident Kaliyev’s upside outweighed his supposed flaws, Staios watched him develop from a one-dimensional offensive threat into a complete all-around player.

Staios reaped the benefits of Kaliyev’s lethal skill set too. The teenager played a key role on the Bulldogs’ title-winning team in 2018, then led the club in scoring the past two seasons with 200 points in 124 games.

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“He loves being around the rink,” Staios said. “He works at it.”

It’s a path that’s starting to sound familiar to the Kings. They also drafted Kaliyev later than expected, selecting him 33rd overall in the 2019 NHL draft after he surprisingly dropped to the second round. They’ve helped him continue to craft a reliable defensive skill set to complement his potent scoring touch.

And Tuesday, they too began to prosper from Kaliyev’s ever-growing potential, as Kaliyev, 19, scored a goal in his NHL debut during the Kings’ 3-1 loss to the Ducks at Staples Center.

The Ducks and Kings are grooming young new talent for future success, but veteran David Backes gave a glimpse of his old dominant self Tuesday night.

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“You never forget one of those moments,” Kaliyev said afterward, his close-range rebound finish the lone bright spot of an otherwise disjointed performance from a shorthanded Kings squad. “A lot of nerves at the start of the game, but overall I tried to play my best out there. And, yeah, picked up a rebound goal.”

Less than five months shy of his 20th birthday, Kaliyev became the 20th-youngest Kings player to appear in his NHL debut. He was also the 20th player in franchise history to score in his first NHL game, joining Anze Kopitar as the second to do so while a teenager.

Kaliyev played almost 15 minutes, shuffling between the Kings’ third and fourth lines while also playing on their secondary power-play unit. Even though Kaliyev only registered the one shot and was on the ice for the Ducks’ first goal, Kings coach Todd McLellan said “there was nothing that I didn’t like” about his debut.

“He’s obviously dangerous when he’s got the puck in around the net,” McLellan added. “He had some other chances, more than that of our other forwards that played tonight. So a good start for him. He’ll learn his way through the league.”

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This probably isn’t the start of a full-time NHL gig for Kaliyev. The winger was called up after forwards Blake Lizotte and Andreas Athanasiou were put on the NHL’s COVID protocol list last week. Also, because he’s still 19, the Kings can save a year on his entry level contract if they limit him to fewer than seven NHL games this season.

But the fact that the club already felt comfortable enough to give him his debut is perhaps the biggest indication of how far Kaliyev has come in a short period of time. His heavy slap shot and wicked one-timer aren’t his only distinguishable traits anymore.

Kings right wing Arthur Kaliyev celebrates with center Michael Amadio.
Kings right wing Arthur Kaliyev, right, celebrates with center Michael Amadio (10) after scoring a goal during the second period against the Ducks on Tuesday at Staples Center.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

“There’s a noticeable difference in his play away from the puck,” Staios said. “His awareness in the defensive zone has certainly grown. I think that is probably the last part for him to expand on to become a solid NHL player.”

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A former 1,000-game NHL player, Staios was quickly sold on Kaliyev’s ceiling while scouting him as a youth player. During a Tuesday phone call, he recounted one game when Kaliyev not only tallied a hat trick, but “scored them in three different ways: one coming off the goal line, one on his one-timer, then another one off the rush.”

While other OHL teams questioned Kaliyev’s skating ability entering the league’s 2017 draft, Staios said, the Bulldogs remained high on the 6-foot-2 scorer. They strongly considered him with the 11th overall selection and were thrilled he was still available when they came up again in the second round at pick No. 26.

“The things we identified as his weaknesses at the time were all things that were correctable with either time, strength or a little bit of maturity,” Staios said.

Once he arrived in Hamilton, Kaliyev’s development was stark. To help sharpen his defensive tendencies, he became a fixture on the penalty kill beginning in his second season. Once a shy personality in the locker room, he grew into one of the team’s vocal leaders. And as one of the most prolific producers in all of junior hockey, he entered the 2019 NHL draft widely expected to be a first-round pick.

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Yet, questions about his defense and ability to consistently drive play from the wing persisted. Only 17 at the time, he became one of the most divisive prospects in his class. And as he plummeted out of the first round, even the Kings passed on him twice, using their two top-round selections on Alex Turcotte and Tobias Bjornfot instead.

Center Blake Lizotte became the second Kings player in two days to be added to the NHL’s COVID protocol list, while the Minnesota Wild’s Kevin Fiala was suspended for his hit on Matt Roy.

When Kaliyev was still available two picks into the second round, though, the Kings scooped him up. “We thought at 33 [overall], that’s where the reward trumps the risk,” Kings director of amateur scouting Mark Yannetti said at the time.

That calculation has looked better and better ever since. Just like he did in juniors, Kaliyev has made strides rounding out his game, especially after spending most of the long offseason in Los Angeles training with the Kings’ strength and conditioning staff.

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“I’ve been working on it a lot since coming on last season,” Kaliyev said. “Trying to do a lot of video. Trying to work hard in the D zone, neutral zone. Having good details. Being able to try to be the best 200-foot player out there, not just trying to score.”

At the World Junior Championship last month, Kaliyev helped Team USA to a gold medal, not only by contributing eight points, but also by registering a plus-nine rating on the team’s top line. He scored three goals in five preseason games with the Kings’ minor league Ontario Reign affiliate last week, yet received more praise from Reign coach John Wroblewski on his play away from the puck.

“I’ve liked him on the forecheck,” Wroblewski said. “He’s become increasingly more responsible defensively.”

Kings coach Todd McLellan sees Tuesday’s game against the Ducks an opportunity for players to step for missing key players.

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McLellan highlighted a different area of Kaliyev’s development Tuesday afternoon, praising his progress as a playmaker in the offensive zone.

“He’s probably always going to be known for his shot, but he does have good vision and nice hands, gets the puck off quick,” McLellan said, adding: “His creativity offensively will be an asset that he’ll always have and will need to take advantage of as the years go on.”

Tuesday was a good start. His goal-scoring instincts guiding the way, Kaliyev crashed the net in the second period just as Michael Amadio deflected Drew Doughty‘s centering pass, perfectly positioning himself to bury a rebound in the crease.

As the puck crossed the line, he rose both arms with a wide gratifying grin.

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“It’s a dream to play with them, it’s crazy,” Kaliyev said, still a little starstruck that childhood idols such as Doughty, Kopitar and Dustin Brown are now his teammates.


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