Kings Kupari the Latest Prospect to Level Up
He might be more than the Finnish Trevor Lewis comparison we see so often. There’s more offense to come.
The Los Angeles Kings have seen two of their brightest prospects take huge steps in their development this season.
Both Gabe Vilardi and Quinton Byfield are amid breakout seasons and have grabbed a lot of headlines because of it.
But under the radar, there's another prospect making huge strides this season.
After struggling through his first NHL season, 2018 first round pick, Rasmus Kupari has found his feet in the NHL.
He's carved out an important role as the team's fourth line center and has shown improvements recently that prove he can develop into more.
One of the biggest improvements from Kupari this season is in the faceoff circle. Last season, Kupari posted a dismal 42.6% in the faceoff circle. And is up to 54.2% this season.
And since Jan. 1, Kupari leads the team in this category, winning 58.38% of his draws. A total that puts him ninth in the league during that time.
He's gone from a liability in the draw to one of the best faceoff takers in the league this season.
"We've been working on those (faceoffs) a little bit," said Kupari. "Last year, earlier in the year. My first two years when I got into the organization, just probably the mindset to win every faceoff, every faceoff matters, even if it's in the neutral zone. I've done a little more pre-scout before games, who they have in there. Especially the third and fourth-line centers, who I play against the most, that's a big thing."
He's also become a reliable penalty killer, of forwards who have played more than 50 minutes on the penalty kill, no one's been on the ice for fewer goals against when down a man.
He's an excellent skater with a long reach and has learned how to use those advantages in penalty killing situations. The Kings have struggles on the kill for a while, dating back to last season, and Kupari's become a key part of solving that issue this season.
This isn't new for Kupari. He's been improving his overall game all season. He's cemented himself as the team's fourth line center and grown into that role.
But as a player who was drafted for offensive prowess, carving out a role on the fourth line doesn't feel like fulfilling his potential.
"He might be what he is," as Todd McLellan said earlier in the year. And if this is what he is, that's fine. He'll still be an effective player, but it would feel like there was always something missing from his game.
That offense has reared its head recently though. He has points in three straight games and has looked more involved offensively in the past few weeks.
That ability to skate and long reach helps him on both ends of the ice. And on thing Kupari seems to be realizing is that he's a big guy. Other players and coaches have referenced his ability to physically impose himself all season and Kupari is starting to realize it too.
Against the Calgary Flames, Kupari had a play that should be the blueprint for every rush he is on. After breaking out of the zone, Carl Grundstrom chipped the puck to Kupari on the left wing.
Kupari was able to attack Nikita Zadorov with speed and instead of cutting to the middle or pulling up to try and make a pass.
Kupari accelerated past Zadarov, dropped his shoulder and drove the net. Kupari didn't score, but he did draw a hold in the process.
Every single time Kupari comes into the zone, that should be option one.
The growth in Kupari's game isn't a coincidence either. Despite McLellan's assertations that we all might have to adjust our expectations on Kupari's offensive ceiling, it appears the coaching staff hasn't given up on his offense.
"Jimmy Hiller's done a lot of work with him (Kupari)," said McLellan after the Flames game. "One-on-one encouraging, sometimes stiff encouragement, and we're seeing more of that show up in his game. He's got outstanding legs, if he uses his legs and keeps it simple, he's got a pretty good shot. When he's playing with that pace and that tempo and not over stickhandling and turning back, he's a handful to handle. So, he's done that lately."
And the ability to drop the shoulder and drive the net is something they've worked on specifically.
"That's part of his game too and the role he's playing," said McLellan. "He's become a good penalty killer, there's more physicality in his game, important that you have more to your game, especially on the fourth line, than just a one-trick pony. And Kup's developing that."
Whenever a player breaks out, be it Adrian Kempe last season, or the two forwards I mentioned earlier. One word always comes up.
And Kupari's confidence is growing on both ends of the ice.
"It's (confidence) pretty good right now," said Kupari. "I've got some trust in the coaches, I play PK, that gives me more confidence. And I've had a couple nice plays in the last few games, that definitely helps. Defensive game is probably the most important thing right now, for our line. Just getting in on the forecheck, being solid all over the ice and bring some energy to the team. If we score a few goals that's a nice little extra. I know I have offensive abilities, sometimes it just doesn't show that well this year. Yeah, there's some struggles here and there and some shines too. When it's the time I like to make some plays and try to score goals, that kind of stuff."
On top of confidence, McLellan always mentions the importance of young players understanding that "things players don't really like to do," can translate into offense. Things like blocking shots, forechecking hard and playing solid defensively, something Kupari is learning.
"Yeah, obviously, we talk about defense." said Kupari. "Especially early in the year, we had some crazy, 7-6, 8-7 games and we talked about how important defense is, especially when we get into the playoffs, it will be the difference between winning and losing games. Yeah, for me too, I've realized those are big things, blocking shots, faceoffs like we talked about, and everything comes from defense."
It's a small sample size and I wouldn't expect Kupari to have a Vilardi or Kempe type breakout soon. But he's starting to add offense and doing a lot of things right.
He might be more than the Finnish Trevor Lewis comparison we see so often. There's more offense to come.