The Ducks fans that filled FivePoint Arena on Saturday didn’t care that they were watching a rookie tournament. They still booed when the Kings took the ice, fell silent when their Southland rivals took an early lead, then celebrated – again and again and again and again – as their prospect squad stormed back for a 4-1 win.
Proud franchises for most of this decade, the Kings and Ducks plunged into coinciding nose dives in 2018-19. They both made mid-season coaching changes, watched once-successful veteran cores seemingly age before their eyes, and finished as two of the bottom three teams in the Western Conference.
Both clubs are now approaching apparent crossroads, reevaluating their rosters while staring down potential rebuilds. Saturday’s meeting between their rookie teams provided a glimpse into their futures. And on this night, the Ducks’ more-experienced roster, which included 13 players with NHL or American Hockey League experience compared to the Kings’ four, was decidedly better.
Down 1-0 early, the Ducks struck twice late in the first period with Max Jones tapping in a rebound and Max Comtois deflecting a blast from the point past Kings goalie Matthew Villalta. Anaheim added on in the second. Kiefer Sherwood slipped the puck through Villalta’s five-hole on a breakaway. Sam Steel scored a power-play goal on a glove-side wrist shot.
“Their size and physicality got them going and maybe took a little of the legs out of us,” said Mike Stothers, the coach of the Kings’ AHL-affiliate Ontario Reign and bench boss for this week’s tournament.
“[Our] guys, all they need is a little experience themselves … The only thing I didn’t like was the scoreboard.”
Akil Thomas, a 2018 second-round draft pick, sprung the Kings’ only goal. Midway through the first period, he carried the puck down the leftwing and through the neutral zone before dropping it just inside the blue line to Mikey Eyssimont, who flung it toward the goal. Arthur Kaliyev, a second-round pick in this year’s draft, was able to hack it in through traffic.
Some of the Kings’ other top prospects – part of a pipeline considered one of the best in the NHL – flashed as well. First-round 2018 draft pick Rasmus Kupari and second-round 2017 pick Jaret Anderson-Dolan broke for a two-on-one in the first period. Kupari’s initial shot was saved by Ducks goalie Lukas Dostal, and Anderson-Dolan couldn’t jump on the rebound.
First-round 2019 draft pick Tobias Bjornfot recorded two shots during his first game in a Kings jersey, though finished with a minus-one rating.
“They were all good,” Stothers said. “They all had moments of showing us what we expected, then they had moments of showing their inexperience.”
The rookie rosters also played with the type of intensity their NHL counterparts too often lacked last year. Both sides traded hits before Comtois and Kings defenseman Sean Durzi dropped the gloves in the third.
“It felt really fast, it felt like a real game,” Anderson-Dolan said. “That’s what you want. It puts you back into game shape. Get that competitive spirit back.”
Indeed, the results of this week’s rookie tournament don’t matter as much as the development displayed. Team personnel and league scouts ringed the top of the stands inside the Ducks’ new practice facility Saturday – trained eyes trying to decide how far along the teams’ talent pools look.
“It’s a chance to get to see these guys in live-game action,” Stothers said. “It’s part of the process. There’s a lot of people here to evaluate everybody. It’s not just me.”
Kings goalie Jack Campbell signs two-year extension
The Kings announced Saturday that goalie Jack Campbell signed a two-year contract extension, locking up the 27-year-old backup through the 2021-22 season. According to Cap Friendly, Campbell’s $675,000 cap hit won’t change this season. When the deal kicks in next year, it will be worth $1.65 million in average annual value.
“He works, he wants to get better,” Stothers said of the netminder, who has played 80 career games in Ontario in addition to his 37 appearances with the Kings. “He’s never satisfied with where he’s at. The fact that he just signed a contract extension, you won’t see a change in Jack.”
The Kings acquired Campbell, the Dallas Stars’ 11th overall pick in the 2010 draft, in a June 2016 trade. After failing to progress through the Stars’ organization, Campbell rose to the Kings’ full-time backup role behind Jonathan Quick last season. In a career-high 31 games, he recorded a .928 save percentage and two shutouts.
“He’s come through a lot of challenges,” Stothers said. “He didn’t get off to a great start in what was supposed to be a promising career. He needed a change of scenery. He got it.”
By locking up Campbell, the Kings might have better prepared themselves for the 2021 Seattle expansion draft. When the new franchise enters the league, the Kings will only be able to protect one goalie. Los Angeles will now have three notable netminders under contract – Quick is locked up through 2022-23 and prospect Cal Petersen through 2021-22 – when the expansion draft takes place in two years.