Kitchener Rangers head coach Mike McKenzie discusses LA Kings prospect Francesco Pinelli and what to look forward to.
In what LA Kings management described as “quality over quantity,” the 2021 NHL Draft was a raving success for the silver-and-black. Unlike in previous years, the LA Kings had fewer draft picks — four, to be precise — but they chose wisely. After selecting defenseman Brandt Clarke with the No. 8 overall pick, the Kings used their next selection — No. 42 overall — to select center Francesco Pinelli.
Beginning his major-junior career in 2019 with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, Pinelli played as if it was his second go-around, scoring 18 goals and 23 assists in 59 games in his rookie campaign. He even proved to be an overall asset on the ice, earning a plus-15 rating. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic suspended the remainder of the OHL season and the playoffs, forcing the youngster to adapt.
I recently had a chance to speak with Mike McKenzie about Pinelli. For the Kitchener coach, though, the excitement for his centerman was palpable, especially since the OHL is scheduled to return for the 2021-22 season.
A Standout Rookie Campaign
While he is eager for a return to normality this coming fall, there are ulterior motives for Mike McKenzie when the OHL does re-open for business. Among those ulterior motives is the hope that Pinelli can pick up right where he left off in 2019-20.
“He had a really good 16-year-old season for us before the season got suspended,” McKenzie said. “He showed that he was a top player in our league at that age. It’s not often 16-year-olds can come in and jump right in on a pretty good team with a lot of older players and play in our top group of forward to really produce well and fit in well. He showed very early that he was capable of that, just took the ball and ran with it.
“It was great to see, and we kind of realized pretty early that he has a really nice combination of hockey sense, skill, work ethic to make him a pretty special player. So, that was apparent right from when he arrived in Kitchener, pretty much.”
Making the Best of an Unpleasant Situation
Unfortunately, like so many up-and-coming players, Pinelli was forced to adapt to the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. As a result, the 2020-21 OHL season was canceled, putting a screeching halt to Pinelli’s progression at the major-junior level. For the Hamilton, Ont., native, he wasn’t content to sit around. Instead, he took his game to Slovenia, playing professionally for HDD Jesenice. Still, the 18-year-old kept in contact with Mike McKenzie, his coach from his Kitchener during this time.
“Francesco was pretty fortunate that he got a chance, an opportunity, to go over to Slovenia, which was, I think, a really good experience for him on the ice and off the ice,” McKenzie noted. “We did stay in touch along with all of our players. Definitely talked to Francesco through Zoom calls, just checking in, and different things like that. So, definitely, a lot different than a regular hockey year looks, but it was great that he could go over and play some competitive hockey in Slovenia and also get to play at the Under 18s with the other top players in the world. So, he was pretty fortunate that way, and we kept in touch even though we weren’t playing [in Kitchener].”
Pinelli made the most of his time in Slovenia. In 13 games for HDD Jesenice, he scored five goals and six assists in 13 games. Heck, with tougher competition and a bigger sheet of ice, the 6-foot, 185-pound center received a good dose of professional life, despite playing a baker’s dozen amount of games.
This coming fall, you can bet that Francesco Pinelli will be at Kings training camp battling for a spot with the big club. Time, however, is definitely on the 18-year-old’s side and will likely be back in Kitchener for the 2021-22 season.
As for what to work on in Pinelli’s game, his coach is confident that his centerman is well on his way as far as preparing for the next level goes.
“He’s a pretty well-rounded player, so nothing really stands out,” McKenzie said of Pinelli’s deficiencies. “He doesn’t have a major flaw or anything like that, but he could definitely get a little bit quicker off the hop. Once he moves to pro, the game’s obviously a little quicker, a little bit faster, so I think that’s one area that he can continue to work on and improve at.”
The Kitchener head coach continued.
“I think the other is to just continue to grow on the defensive side of the game if he’s gonna play center moving up into pro,” McKenzie pointed out. “Those guys have a lot of responsibility on the defensive side of the puck and are expected to really know what they’re doing with the pucks in their own end and their responsibilities. So, that’s definitely something we’re going to work with him on even though he has a pretty good understanding of it already, I think, to get to that pro level, that’s an area where he can really improve. So, those would be the two biggest ones, I would say. But, he is a pretty well-rounded player, so not a lot of major flaws — just some that need to be fine-tuned.”
Among other areas in Pinelli’s game to feel excited about is, as McKenzie mentioned, his hockey sense. Having developed a sharp knack for finding open ice, the Hamilton, Ont., native is a natural at putting opponents on their heels. Heck, in addition to his success in Slovenia, Pinelli put his talents center-stage at the Under 18s, scoring four goals and seven assists in 11 games, helping lead Canada to gold.
As for his major-junior career, that will most likely continue. After all, Pinelli is in good hands with Mike McKenzie, a hockey-lifer who has helped develop notable NHL talent from Josh Leivo, John Gibson, and one-time King Tobias Rieder.
The future is bright for the LA Kings but even brighter for Francesco Pinelli.