We Three Kings of Orient Are…
Ok, let’s stay on topic.
Heading into the 2022-23 season, these three players need to show some improvement, some more than others here, but still critical to their development and the LA Kings‘ investment in their draft picks.
Let’s start with perhaps the most obvious.
Alex Turcotte made it into eight NHL games last, nearly potting his first career goal against Vancouver. LA Kings head coach Todd McLellan noted that the former fifth overall pick was on the cusp of making his NHL debut much sooner, but injuries have delayed his development.
After getting a mid-season look in Los Angeles, Turcotte was sent back to the Ontario Reign. He was limited to 27 games in the AHL, putting up 18 points (6-12=18). He had two assists in the first three games of the playoffs but went down with a concussion in the first game of Round 2.
To say that this year is critical to Turcotte’s development would be a massive undersell. However, he’s off to a shaky start after failing to pass his physical prior to the team’s annual Development Camp in mid-July.
To add insult to injury (no pun intended), when you consider that of the 2019 NHL first-round picks have made their NHL debuts and played in at least five games, only two have yet to record a point. One is Turcotte, and the other is Florida Panthers goaltender Spencer Knight.
Turcotte will likely have to transition to the wing full time, given the depth down the middle at the NHL level. There figures to be some competition for playing time along the wing. With two years remaining on his entry-level contract, Turcotte is fast approaching “now or never” territory, especially with where he was taken in the draft.
Quinton Byfield looked poised to get a full year of development at the NHL level before he broke his ankle in a preseason game against the Arizona Coyotes. After an 11-game stint in the AHL, the former second overall pick made his season debut in mid-January.
In his fourth game with the big league club, Byfield potted his first career NHL goal against the Islanders. He would finish with five goals and 10 points in 40 games. Lifted in place of more experienced players, Byfield was limited to just two games in the seven-game series with the Oilers.
The Newmarket, Ontario native spent much of the year playing alongside fellow first-round picks Gabe Vilardi and Rasmus Kupari. While the trio showed some flashes, they generally weren’t a productive group.
“They haven’t had to play in these types of games,” McLellan said of Byfield and Vilardi via The Athletic. “The level of competition has gone way up. The level of opponent has been very strong over the last little bit.
“Now, here comes the ‘but’ part. But there also has to be signs of production, and when I say that and they hear that, they think, ‘I’ve got to score goals and assists to be in the lineup.’ No, you don’t. You have to show potential of creating, and it hasn’t been happening.”
Going into this season, it’s imperative to get the right linemates playing next to Byfield so that he is well-positioned to take a monumental jump in his development.
If you look back at Joe Thornton‘s production from Year 1 to Year 2 in the league, he went from seven points in 55 games as a rookie to 41 points in 81 games the following year. A similar leap for Byfield would be a successful season.
Despite still just 21 years of age, Tobias Bjornfot has over 100 games of NHL experience. A defensive defenseman by nature, the young Swede showed more on the offensive side this past year than in previous seasons. On several occasions, I specifically recall Bjornfot skating the puck around the back of the net for a wraparound attempt.
Although he has just one career NHL goal, Bjornfot’s offensive upside has improved each year. However, he has continued to show defensive lapses in his own end. Defensemen typically take a little bit longer to develop, but remember that Bjornfot was a healthy scratch for the final few games during the regular season and the entire seven-game series with Edmonton.
Inconsistent is probably the best word to describe Bjornfot’s game at this point in his young career:
I would say his year was inconsistent,” Kings assistant coach Trent Yawney said via The Athletic. “His ‘good’ was really good but his ‘average’ wasn’t good enough. Why wasn’t it good enough? Because when he’s good, he’s a really really good defender. That’s what he prides himself on. His average was too inconsistent. That’s not abnormal for a young defenseman. But it was a big learning year for him.
“So I expect him to come back next year and compete hard for a spot. He plays his best when he’s involved with his skating. He’s such a good skater. That allows him to be such a good defender and we need more of that.
If you start to pencil in the defensive pairings for next season, Mikey Anderson and Alex Edler are good bets to get regular playing time on the left side. Also, consider that Jacob Moverare, who the Kings really like and played in 19 NHL games last year, is no longer waiver exempt.
Added, LA Kings GM Rob Blake noted that Sean Walker could see playing time on the left side this year to alleviate the logjam on the right side of the defense.
In short, the roster starts to fill up quickly, leaving speculation as to whether Bjornfot, who is waiver exempt, could start the year in Ontario. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for him to get some additional seasoning in the AHL if it meant a better product in the long run.
However, no one should expect Bjornfot to develop into a perennial 10-to-15-goal scorer from the blue line.