Every year Scott Wheeler at The Athletic ranks the league's best prospect pools. And for the last few seasons, the Los Angeles Kings have been near the top of that list.
The Kings dropped five spots this season, moving from second in 2022 to seventh in 2023. Players like Gabe Vilardi, Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Akil Thomas graduated out of Wheeler's criteria, causing the fall. But the Kings have a prospect pool with a lot of depth and were able to stay in the top 10.
Wheeler was higher on the Kings' prospect pool than I would have guessed, ranking them one spot ahead of their SoCal rivals, the Anaheim Ducks. Wheeler still has a lot of faith in a few of the team's young players and that's reflected in their rankings.
To look at the players Wheeler listed, I'm going to split them into tiers instead of a traditional list. Just to touch on what Wheeler said and what I think of these players.
The Elite Tier
Brandt Clarke headlined the "elite tier" of prospects alongside Quinton Byfield.
Clarke sitting above Byfield in this list is both a testament to Byfield's struggles and the fantastic season Clarke is having.
After starting the season with the Kings, Clarke won a gold medal with Canada, playing a prominent role on that team. And gone back to the OHL, where he has been the best defenseman, and arguably the best player, since returning.
His 2.22 points per game are far better than any defenseman in the league and even better than fourth-overall pick Shane Wright.
He's on pace to finish fourth in scoring for defensemen despite playing half the games.
Wheeler's always been a fan of Clarke's game and this season has only reaffirmed that position.
Nothing has changed in Clarke's scouting report. He's a dynamic puck mover with quirks in his stride and defensive question marks. But, as Wheeler puts it, "different isn’t necessarily a negative."
Clarke has top-pairing defensemen potential, especially as he fills out his frame and learns to use his body effectively, and that's reflected in his ranking.
Another player Wheeler has stayed very consistent on his Byfield. He's always believed in the legitimacy of his potential, which hasn't changed. As he puts it, "He’s too good a skater and too big and strong and talented for his size not to put it all together." That really sums up why people are still so high on Byfield.
Add in improved play since moving to the wing, and the hype around him might be bigger than it was this time last season. The tools Byfield possesses are so unique that it's hard to see him as anything but a top-of-the-lineup player impact player.
The critiques of his game from Wheeler were fair. His processing is still catching up to NHL speed, he bobbles the puck too often and he needs to work on his catch-and-release shooting. But once that all comes, and it will, he's going to be a force for years to come.
Middle of the Lineup:
Jordan Spence kicks off the "middle of the lineup" tier. After playing 24 regular season and three playoff games with the Kings last season and dominating the AHL this season. It's clear that Spence has a bright future in the NHL.
Pinning him as a four-five defenseman who can be a second power-play unit is a fair projection, with the slight chance he becomes more than that.
He's a great puck mover who uses footwork and hockey IQ to make up for his lack of size. Spence would already be an NHL regular in a different system that wasn't packed with right-shot defensemen. Spending this season in the AHL won't hurt his development though. He gets to be a number-one defenseman and run the top power play. A good experience for anyone.
It will be interesting to see how the Kings make room for him this summer. They will have to either trade someone to make room for Spence or trade him while his stock is high. If I'm the Kings, I'm leaning toward the former.
I don't think many people would have expected Spence to be this high on a list when he was drafted in the fourth round in 2019, but that's what Spence does. He elevates his play and defies expectations. If I've learned one thing about him over the last few years, it's to never underestimate him.
Alex Turcotte's placement on this list was probably my biggest question heading into it. A former fifth-overall pick whose career hasn't panned out as anyone hoped, he could have been anywhere from top-five to out of the top 10 and I would have believed it.
He settled in at four, showing that Wheeler still has a lot of faith in Turcotte.
Injuries have been the story of his career, but it looks like he might finally be healthy.
After a slow start in the AHL, Turcotte found his game with six points in five games before earning a call-up to the NHL.
He's looked solid in the NHL despite no points in four games. And I'd expect him back in the AHL after the All-Star break.
Nothing's changed with Turcotte. He's a good two-way center with a motor that never stops to compliment above-average hands and playmaking. Despite a smaller frame, he's good in the corners and along the boards. His size does limit him when trying to make offensive plays in and around the net, but he's a highly intelligent player who finds ways to create despite this.
He won't be the star you want out of a fifth-overall pick, but he can be a Phil Danault caliber player if he continues to develop. And that's fine, he's shaping up to be a useful player for the organization if he continues to develop.
One of the biggest risers in the Kings' prospect pool, Alex Laferriere is putting together a stellar sophomore season at Harvard. His 1.29 points per game puts him 12th in the NCAA and second at Harvard behind Montreal Canadiens prospect Sean Farrell.
He's an engaged player with an above-average shot who relies on his motor and hockey IQ to generate most of his offense. He isn't the best skater in the world and lacks some size at just 6 feet. But he's produced at every level he's played at and has been excellent in college.
The question with him is, will his average skating and size, combined with no truly elite individual skills, hold him back in the NHL? It will hold him back from ever being a top-of-the-lineup player, but he can become a solid middle-six piece for the King.
It's an easy comparison, but Alex Iafallo or Trevor Moore seems like a good benchmark for him. A reliable two-way forward who can play anywhere in the lineup, but should probably hover around the third line. He has a better goalscoring touch than the two listed above but isn't the elite defensive player they are either.
I was very surprised to see Helge Grans so high on this list. Not because I think it's too high, but because most people had forgotten about him amongst the plethora of right-shot defensemen in the Kings' system.
Still, he's a player with a high ceiling who could emerge as a solid second or third-pairing option in a few seasons.
Wheeler also has my favorite description of Grans' potential. "The appeal of Grans, in the past, has been anchored in the legitimacy of his individual tools more than the sum of his parts."
And that appeal is still there, as are the tools. He's a 6-foot-3 blue liner who can skate, move pucks and uses his reach and size to defend. Another big reason he could have a future with the Kings is his playstyle compared to others in his position.
Ahead of him are Clarke, Spence and Sean Durzi, all of whom play a similar game. They're all puck-movers with defensive question marks who want to run a power play. Having three players who all play the same role just doesn't work, the Kings will need some diversity on the right side and Grans can provide that.
The fact that he's still a few years away from being NHL-ready helps him too. As mentioned with Spence, the Kings have a big logjam on the right they have to figure out, with more NHL-caliber players than spots. The fact that they can comfortably leave him in Ontario without risking his development helps a lot.
Based on conversations I've had with people close to the Reign. He's still a project and needs to work on his consistency. But there's a player there. He's still just 20 years old and made the transition to defense late in his career, so there should be no rush for him. He's become somewhat of a sleeper in the Kings' pipeline and could become a reliable minute-muncher for them in a few seasons.
Francesco Pinelli has been one of the OHL's most productive forwards this season with 55 points in just 37 games. His 1.53 points per game places him sixth in the OHL. He's also by far the most productive player on the Kitchener Rangers, he leads the team by 18 points and is their go-to player.
Pinelli is a creative player with the puck who can both create for himself and finish chances. He reminds me of a smaller, less skilled version of Vilardi. A dual-threat offensive weapon that uses his size to win board battles and create from there.
I'm always cautious of getting too excited about a productive draft plus two season from an OHL player, but Pinelli is making good progress. We'll learn more about his NHL potential next season as he steps into the Ontario Reigns lineup. But there are a lot of tools in his game to like.
I've never been on the Martin Chromiak hype train like some and I think his ranking on Wheeler's list had a bit of recency bias to it.
That's not to say Chromiak isn't a legitimately good project with NHL-caliber tools. He definitely is, but I wouldn't put him above a few players with more significant NHL experience.
He can shoot, stickhandle and skate at a high level and has begun producing at an impressive rate in the AHL. There is no questioning his offensive talent. My big question is, what's his "B" game?
It's something Todd McLellan has talked about a lot this season, particularly when discussing Vilardi, the importance to play well when the production isn't there. Chromiak has a good motor, but he's just okay defensively and isn't a great forechecker. He doesn't have the talent to be an all-offense player like Kevin Fiala and that's my concern.
If he can develop a "B" game, he'll be an excellent middle-six piece for this team. If he can't, I question if he can stick in the NHL. He's a high ceiling low floor kind of prospect. I'm also concerned that his skills a redundant within the Kings' system. They have a lot of goal-scorers already and if he can't beat out those players there isn't much need for him.
A player I'm surprised is below Chromiak. Rasmus Kupari has played 101 games in the NHL, and despite questions about his ceiling, there's no questioning whether he's an NHL-caliber player or not.
The criticisms of Kupari's game are fair. He hasn't found an offensive role as a playmaker or scorer, excelling more as a puck transporter and defensive penalty killer.
The concern about him being pushed out of a meaningful role by other prospects is a fair one, but similarly to Byfield, there are too many tools for him not to succeed. With his skating, size, puck skills and shot, it's hard for me to believe his offense won't come at some point.
The overall evaluation, that he tops out as a middle-six forward who can serve as a complementary piece is fair. There's still a slight chance he has an Adrian Kempe type late bloom, but that looks unlikely right now.
I was very surprised to see Samuel Fagemo so low on this list. But his low ranking doesn't reflect Wheeler's analysis of his potential.
While ranked as the tenth-best prospect in the system, Wheeler also describes him as a potential 20-goal-scoring middle-six winger. A fair assessment.
He's a bit one-dimensional, but that one dimension is elite. Few players can shoot the puck like Fagemo and in a system that doesn't include Arthur Kaliyev he would be the best shooter in the organization. He's been a prolific scorer at every level and has added two NHL goals to his resume in nine NHL games this season.
He's improved his compete and defensive game a lot and is a more complete player than he's been. There's still a lot of work to be done, but he's getting there. He also gives the organization a future threat on the second power-play unit to back up Kaliyev on the first unit.
He'll never be a true offensive superstar, but can be a consistent 20+ goal-scorer at the NHL level. He'll be a nice complimentary piece for the organization.
The analysis of Tobias Bjornfot is the only one I have any real disagreements with Wheeler's ranking. Not because his analysis of Bjornfot's game or his ranking on the list is off. But his assessment of where the Kings see his future. "Kings have come to terms with him being more of a No. 7/8 than a true top-six guy."
Based on my conversations with people within the Kings' organization, this isn't true. In every conversation I've had with people within the organization, he's still viewed as a future top-six and even top-four piece moving forward.
Wheeler's evaluation is accurate, he's a tough player to evaluate and isn't nearly aggressive enough in his play. Not in the offensive, or defensive zone. But his tools, the skating, hockey IQ and passing are all good.
He just needs to play with more confidence.
There are four more players on this list I won't go into depth on. Jack Hughes, Kenny Connors, Kasper Simontaival and Otto Salin round out the rankings.
He gave an honorable mention to Samuel Helenius, who I would have had higher than some of the above listed. Helenius' ceiling is fairly low, but his floor is higher than some listed above.
Despite some players not having the start to the career you'd want; the Kings still have one of the best prospects in the league and should be excited about their future.