While unfortunate, the injuries to the LA Kings roster this season have forced their prospects to elevate their game.
Sean Durzi has arguably benefited the most from increased playing time this season. Thanks to a rash of injuries along the blueline for the LA Kings this season, the 23-year-old defenseman has made a name for himself that likely extends beyond the 2021-22 campaign.
After Drew Doughty and Sean Walker went down with injuries earlier in the season, Durzi was recalled from the AHL’s Ontario Reign, where he collected four goals and 16 assists for 20 points in 39 games during the shortened 2021 season.
Acquired as part of the Jake Muzzin deal with Toronto, the former second-round pick is a terrific puck-moving defenseman with big-league talent. However, with a crowded right side that included Matt Roy, Doughty, and Walker, Durzi had nowhere to play with the NHL club. If you recall, he was buried in our preseason defensive depth chart.
Since being recalled, Durzi has made an immediate impact, accumulating three goals and 20 assists for 23 points in 49 games. He’s also shown some much-needed grit, dropping the gloves on a couple of occasions while standing up for his teammates. In Thursday’s loss to the Blackhawks, Durzi tallied three assists, tying a franchise record for a rookie defenseman in a single game.
”A big part for me, throughout my career, is finding that comfort space within your teammates,” Durzi said via LA Kings Insider. “I think, when you’re friends with your teammates, it’s a lot easier to play. You come in, you’re a young guy, you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, you don’t talk, you work hard, just trying to find your way through the team and where you fit in.
“As I’ve come along here, you get to know the guys, know their families, hang out a bit away from the rink, hang out with them on the road and you become friends and that’s made it easier for myself to play hockey and be confident out there,” he added. “Confidence is a big part of my game, competitive and confidence kind of drive my play and I think being friends with these guys allows me to be confident enough to make a mistake and they’ve got your back. That has really helped, I’d say. Down the stretch, you want to fight for your teammates, fight with your teammates and fight with your friends.”
Entering Monday’s game against Seattle, the 20-year-old sniper has 12 goals and ten assists while averaging 13:00 TOI. He’s also been an asset on the Kings’ power-play this year, an area where the team has generally struggled. Kaliyev has chipped in five goals and three assists with the man advantage.
The point is, Kaliyev has put up that kind of production predominantly as a fourth-line player. However, I think it’s fair to expect that he’ll spend the majority of his NHL career playing top-six minutes. Getting him acclimated in that role now has been crucial in his development.
“He might be one of the younger players we worry the least about because he’s found a good home, he’s delivering most nights, in all situations,” McLellan said of Kaliyev. “We’re not forcing him up the ladder, we’re not overdemanding, but he’s delivering and that’s a pretty good combination.”
Ability to Finnish
Staying on offense, Rasmus Kupari had an extended look with the NHL club to start the season, and the Finnish forward got off to a hot start.
However, after three points over the first seven games this season, Kupari was largely invisible from the scoresheet. In early February, the 22-year-old was sent back to Ontario for some additional seasoning. With the Reign, Kupari had five goals and eight points in 15 games before he was needed again in LA.
He was recalled after Dustin Brown took a puck off the hand on March 12 against San Jose. Playing alongside Quinton Byfield and Gabe Vilardi, Kupari has rounded out the “Kid Line,” scoring a goal in his first game back.
He had perhaps the best game of his young NHL career in the 6-1 win over the Nashville Predators on March 22nd. With one assist and a +2, Kupari was a terrific 200-foot player, displaying a good combination of size, speed, forechecking, and physicality. Everything you would want to see from a player drafted in the first round and hope will be part of your franchise for the next decade.
“Won a lot of races to the puck and then when he got there, he won the battles,” McLellan said of Kupari’s game against Nashville. “Played with authority. He really asserted himself tonight. He wasn’t taking a back seat to anything.”
Worth the suSpence
Recalled perhaps a year earlier than expected, Jordan Spence has been thrust into a playoff-like environment for a Kings team occupying second place in the Pacific Division. The 21-year-old was brought up from Ontario after Mikey Anderson landed on Injured Reserve.
Since then, the Kings have seen Doughty, Roy, and Tobias Bjornfot sidelined with injuries, although the latter returned to the lineup on Saturday against Seattle.
Spence has undoubtedly had some learning moments in a limited sample size. But he’s also shown plenty of reasons why Los Angeles drafted him in the fourth round as a puck-moving defenseman. He’s displayed a knack for defensive zone breakouts and a willingness to shoot the puck in the offensive zone while being asked to quarterback the second power-play unit. If nothing else, this time at the NHL level has forced Spence to elevate his game, and he was rewarded on Saturday with his first career goal.
“I’m not sure that he or us expected him to be a part of the NHL team this year and that’s not anything against Jordan, but he got his call and he’s made good on it,” McLellan said of his young defenseman. “Every night he seems to improve in a certain area, I think he’s understanding the pace of play, he’s asked to run a power play at this level right off the bat. He’s getting information that’s different than in the American League, the pace around him, 5-on-5 and 5-on-4. He’s adapted quite well. I think the sense of belonging has gotten stronger for him every game he’s been with the team.”
To put a bow on this – while the injuries are unfortunate and you hope never to see a player sidelined, this year has allowed the Kings to get a good look at a few players that may not have had a chance otherwise.
As for what next season holds, it’s going to be awfully tough to downright impossible to remove Durzi from the lineup if he continues to play as he had this year. The Kings had a crowded right side of the defense before the injuries, so certainly roster shuffling and/or potential trades are necessary to create some clarity.
The same can be said for the group of forwards as well.