Adrian Kempe is hoping for a big year with the LA Kings in the final year of his deal. His best fit, however, may not be in the top-six.

A player that LA Kings fans have been hoping to see some more consistent offensive production from is Adrian Kempe. The Swedish winger is entering his sixth season in the NHL (his fifth full season), and I think it’s fair to say the jury is still out on him as to where he best fits in the lineup.

He’s played as high up as the top line with Anze Kopitar to the fourth line with Blake Lizotte — and everywhere in between — during the past five seasons.

I’ve gone back and taken a look at his most common linemates during this stretch to try to get an idea of where Kempe best fits. Is he a top-six winger? Or is he someone that should be playing lower down the lineup?

First, a quick look at his statistical comparisons during his time as a prospect from Hockey Prospecting:

The reason I bring this up now is if you see the names on that list, his production in the SHL nor the AHL really suggested that he was going to be a legitimate point producer. Though, it’s fair to say he’s established himself as a legitimate NHL player.

Let’s take a look at his raw point totals over his career (per Natural Stat Trick, All Strengths)

Season GP TOI Goals Total Assists First Assists Second Assists Total Points S%
2016-2017 25 305.7 2 4 3 1 6 6.25
2017-2018 81 1079.8 16 21 10 11 37 13.45
2018-2019 81 1174.5 12 16 8 8 28 10.17
2019-2020 69 1104.8 11 21 14 7 32 7.43
2020-2021 56 948.2 14 15 13 2 29 11.02

This points-per-game production ranks him slightly above average in the NHL. The chart below from Quant Hockey shows that at various points during his NHL career, he’s been either average to above-average relative to the league:

This more or less falls in line with where he was in points-per-game in the SHL and the AHL:

It’s probably fair to say that his performance to date in the NHL is what could have been expected in a best-case scenario based on his career in Sweden and the AHL. Even in his younger days, he was never an elite shooter.

He never once spiked a shooting percentage above 13%, and twice in his entire career has he hit the teens in goals (16 in 2017-18, 14 in 2020-21). If Kempe was an average to slightly above average producer during his development, to expect that to be much higher as he gets to the NHL isn’t a fair expectation.

Now, is the fact that he’s a former first-round pick leaving people wanting more? Perhaps, but I think he’s developed just fine from a production perspective. The question is: is that worthy of top-six minutes?

Let’s now look a bit deeper into how he’s performed using possession metrics (data is 5v5 from Natural Stat Trick):

Season GP TOI CF% FF% xG% SCF% HDCF%
2016-2017 25 267.8 57.68 56.36 54.46 54.64 58.02
2017-2018 81 943.0 48.00 46.77 42.81 46.11 38.28
2018-2019 81 980.7 51.78 51.68 53.14 51.51 51.48
2019-2020 69 818.4 54.92 55.23 52.78 52.31 54.51
2020-2021 56 672.8 47.5 46.45 43.86 44.43 45.00
TOTAL 312 51.1 50.50 48.70 49.10 48.00

For his career overall, he’s been a fairly average player in terms of these metrics. Again, not really unlike his actual production to date.

This next part is where it gets fun. From 2017-18 through the 2020-21 seasons, I took the lines that he played with the most (by ice time) during each respective season to see how each of those particular lines performed in those seasons:

Year Player 1 Player 2 Player 3 GP TOI CF% FF% xGF% SCF%
2017-18 Adrian Kempe Tanner Pearson Tyler Toffoli 81 264.6 52.32 49.76 42.96 45.04
2018-19 Adrian Kempe Carl Grundstrom Tyler Toffoli 15 145 53.28 53.65 60.41 55.83
2019-20 Adrian Kempe Austin Wagner Blake Lizotte 60 287.2 59.35 60.25 61.68 59.64
2020-21 Adrian Kempe Alex Iafallo Anze Kopitar 55 88.4 51.02 50.47 51.85 52.94
2020-21 Adrian Kempe Gabriel Vilardi Jeff Carter 38 73.7 50.44 48.84 51.49 43.75

These numbers look better than the overall numbers shown above. But my biggest takeaway here is his best linemates (per these metrics anyway) were from the 2019-20 season, playing with Blake Lizotte and Austin Wagner. These are also the two he spent the most time with in his career in any one season. Lizotte is currently on the bubble of being the fourth line center or extra forward, and Wagner was just put on waivers.

It’s fair to assume that he was playing against the weakest opposition of his career during this time as well, but I do think this at least hints at how dominant he can be lower down the lineup – that’s not a bad thing. Great teams need dominant bottom six players to be a Cup contender.

Here’s how Kempe graded out in JFresh’s model last season:

I’ve noted in the past that this particular model will be weighted a bit more toward finishing, which is why his overall WAR is down in the 36th percentile. However, he is definitely a valuable piece to a lineup.

He played second-line minutes, so he faced a tougher quality of competition and graded out strong on even-strength defense as well as penalty killing. Where he is less a factor, however, is the offensive production. He is a poor finisher and isn’t someone that’d be considered a playmaker either.

If you’ve been listening to Making It Reign or read my most recent article on Gabriel Vilardi, I’ve long had questions as to whether or not Kempe can produce enough to be a top-six player. He has not so far.

That said, I think he’s a good player in terms of puck possession, on the defensive side of the puck and special teams. To me, he’d be a great fit on a line with Vilardi, who has his own struggles as a defensive forward.

The 25-year-old has one year remaining on his current deal and is an arbitration-eligible RFA after this season. Where he fits in the organization’s future plans will be interesting to see.

From JFresh’s WAR projection (again, weighted toward finishing), we could have already seen Kempe’s best in terms of production.

The 29th overall pick in 2014, Kempe has had his opportunities to produce in the past, and it just hasn’t come yet consistently. I don’t know that it’s wise to continue to expect this and give him top-six minutes at the same time, particularly when he was never a high-end producer prior to coming to the NHL.

Now, when there are more options at head coach Todd McClellan’s disposal with the likes of Vladimir Tkachev and Arthur Kaliyev, it’s time to get a fresh look.

Again, Kempe is still a valuable asset to a team, particularly a playoff team looking to fill the bottom-six of their roster, which is where he should slot in on a playoff-caliber team. Is he a potential trade candidate later this season if the Kings find themselves as sellers by the deadline?

With so many forward options coming up, I would pull that trigger if that scenario happens, but until then, move him down the lineup either with Vilardi – or with the center he’s had the most success with, Blake Lizotte.

Being a player who can dominate on a bottom-six shouldn’t be considered a bad thing (just ask Barclay Goodrow), especially when he’s shown the ability to contribute on special teams.

If the Kings are going to actually become a team with playoff aspirations, slotting players like Kempe, where they belong in the lineup, will benefit not only the team but also the player.

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