Even amongst the Los Angeles King's deep prospect pool, 2019 second-round pick Arthur Kaliyev stands out as a prominent figure in the team's future.
Kaliyev was a top-20 prospect in the eyes of several scouts, however, major questions about his overall game saw him drop to the second round. Concerns surrounding his effort level, defensive play and skating meant teams felt he wasn't worth the risk in round one. Three years later, it's clear several teams made a mistake.
Defensively, it wasn't an easy transition from juniors to the NHL for Kaliyev. And, according to Todd McLellan, Kaliyev had a lot of work to do when he first got into the NHL.
"I would say that Arthur worked on his defense," said McLellan. "I'll tell you a story about Arthur. The first time he was called up was against Anaheim, he scored a goal, we lost what 4-1 or something? He's the only guy who scored a goal, I think he kicked it in or went in off his ass or something like that, but it wasn't a pretty goal. And we're all excited because that's what Arthur was going to do. And then you go watch and he had one d-zone shift where we took a marker and just followed him on the whiteboard. We had the whole zone almost painted, he was everywhere, needless to say, I think we were scored on. So, Arthur wanted to be good, he needed to learn a lot of things defensively, he still is but he's improved."
The work has paid off for Kaliyev in his own zone and he's produced good results in his first two seasons. He produced the highest even-strength defense score of any Kings forward last season according to Evolving-hockey.com last season. And while that number has dropped this season, that seems like a product of him taking on a more offensive role.
Teammate Blake Lizotte has played more hockey with Kaliyev than any other player at the NHL level, and he's noticed a significant difference in his game this season.
"He (Kaliyev) made a huge difference from this year to last year," said Lizotte. "He is way stronger on the puck and better in his own end. I think he's committed to playing (defense) a little more than he was his first year. And that's just a sign of maturity."
The word committed sticks out in Lizotte's comment. One of the biggest question marks surrounding Kaliyev was his commitment to playing a defensive game. To pull a quote from Kaliyev during his draft year.
"Technically, Kaliyev has played in the defensive zone. Realistically, he rarely does."
This is just one of many reports that allude to Kaliyev's unwillingness to play a 200-foot game. The general feeling was that he wasn't just a subpar defender, but an unwilling one. And this isn't to disparage those who made this assessment of him in 2019, it was likely accurate. But it is a testament to the work Kaliyev has put in to change that part of his game. And for him, it is very much a mental change.
"You've just got to be more responsible, playing more (defense), not just trying to go out there and be all offense like it was in juniors," said Kaliyev. "Yeah, just way more responsibility, you play against the best players in the world so you always have to be responsible and that's the one thing I had to work on to transition from junior to the NHL."
These improvements gave Kaliyev the first taste of extended top-six hockey in the NHL too. During the team's most recent road trip he spent a large chunk of time with Anze Kopitar and Kevin Fiala. Minutes that McLellan feels are important for Kaliyev and minutes he earned.
"He's very capable of playing there (in the top six)," McLellan said. "Sometimes it works better with other guys in given moments but I think Arthur is way further along in assuming that top role. When we made the change and flipped Kempe into that position, we were down 2-0 to (Boston) with 10 minutes left, didn't have a lot on goal and were shut out the night before, so we were trying to shuffle things around. Instantly they scored, got a couple goals and it was instantly rejuvenated so we stick with it for a little while, but Arty is very capable of playing there."
"He wasn't just given the top six role; he earned it by doing some of the things we asked him to and he was rewarded for a good period of time. And he made good on his end of the bargain, it's just that it wasn't clicking offensively and we made that change," McLellan added.
It was an experience Kaliyev learned from as well.
"You just have to be always ready to play against top guys," said Kaliyev. "You have to be ready to go out there at any time. I think I did pretty good, we just didn't bury, didn't get the wins. We didn't bury enough pucks, I thought we had our chances, didn't give up much. We just didn't finish much."
Surprisingly, it's been the finishing Kaliyev mentioned that's been a struggle for him this season. Particularly at five-on-five. Just two of his nine goals this season have come at even strength and he has scored -3 goals above expected at even strength.
The chances are there, as is the power-play production, but for him to assume a top-six role permanently the five-on-five production has to be there.
It's been a good start to his sophomore season for Kaliyev. He's continued developing in areas that were weaknesses and has increased his production with increased opportunities. There's still work to be done for him to assume the top-six role expected of him. But he's close, and fans won't have to wait much longer for him to meet their expectations.