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Hockey

For Rasmus Kupari and the Kings, the future could be now

Rasmus Kupari, of Finland, adjusts his cap after being selected by the Los Angeles Kings during the
Rasmus Kupari adjusts his cap after being selected by the Kings during the 2018 NHL draft in Dallas.
(Michael Ainsworth / Associated Press)

It was hardly surprising that Rasmus Kupari was the main attraction on the first day of the Kings’ development camp this week. A group of reporters surrounded the teenager’s locker before he even took his skates off.

Kupari, 19, represents the future of the Kings, and perhaps the immediate future if he adapts to the North American game and appears in an NHL game next season. That’s a fairly ambitious plan, but it’s certainly possible after his precocious play in the World Junior Championships, combined with his year of growth since he was drafted 20th by the Kings last year.

In that regard, Kupari also represents a do-over for the Kings because Gabriel Vilardi, their 2017 first-round pick, has seen his career stalled because of back issues. Kupari, a center, could make it to the NHL faster than Vilardi, and it could happen in September when training camp provides an opportunity to make the big club out of the gate.

“That’s the plan,” Kupari said. “I’m here to try and take that place. It’s not easy. But I’m doing my best to take a [spot]. Let’s see how it happens in camp, but that’s my [goal], to do my best.”

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Kupari says he is bigger and stronger. He is listed at 6 foot 1 and 188 pounds, up from 183 last year, and he looked less lanky and more sturdy on the ice at the Kings’ practice rink. Kupari may have gained more confidence, too, from playing for gold-medal winner Finland in the World Junior tournament. He had five points in seven games.

“He took a step up,” said Mark Yannetti, the Kings’ director of amateur scouting. “We have high hopes for him.”

One of Kupari’s Finnish teammates was Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft, by the New York Rangers. The two have played with and against each other — Kupari played in a pro league at 17 — and are ready for headier competition.

Kupari will get that here. He is eligible to play in the American Hockey League at 19, and he could be a regular for the Ontario Reign, the AHL affiliate of the Kings. The first step in that transition is playing in the smaller North American rinks. Christian Ruuttu, head European scout for the Kings, says Kupari has to move the puck around quicker on the rush, shoot more on the rush and “be ready for a grind of a season, which he actually had” in order to adjust.

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Kupari is often compared to countrymen Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes in terms of his skating ability and slick puck skills. The more modest comparison is probably Kings teammate Adrian Kempe because the two have similar trajectories. Kempe was drafted at 17 and played against older professionals in Sweden, then for two seasons for the Reign.

“I would say that Rasmus is six months ahead of Adrian, which is more than it sounds at this age,” Ruuttu said.

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Ruuttu cited Kupari’s bigger roles with his Finnish team, Karpat, and on the World Junior team. Kupari would have “most likely” been invited to play for Finland in the World Championships, against NHL players, if an injury hadn’t prevented him from playing in a prior tournament, Ruuttu said.

For now, Kupari is adjusting to America. He says the plan is to move to Southern California for rookie camp in September. Kupari has a car in Finland but says he’s driven sparingly, and not in L.A.

As far as hockey, he’s prepared for the transition, which will be closely watched by Kings fans.

“I know it’s a little bit different game,” Kupari said. “It comes faster and you don’t have that much time with the puck, but I realized I’m ready for that.”

curtis.zupke@latimes.com

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Twitter: @curtiszupke


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