Every team has one or two prospects who always look on the brink of breaking out. Flashing moments of high-end talent they rarely capitalize on.
For the Los Angeles Kings, that prospect is Rasmus Kupari.
From an individual tool’s perspective, there aren’t many prospects who are more impressive than Kupari. He’s an elite skater, has soft hands and a good shot. But he’s been unable to put those tools together and become an impactful player for the Kings.
Kupari’s Season in Review:
Despite the harsh opening, it wasn’t a terrible season for Kupari. He made significant improvements in his overall game and became a trusted center for Todd McLellan toward the end of the season.
He took a massive step forward in the faceoff circle. Increasing from 42.6% in the dot in 2021-22 to 54.6% last season. And the biggest improvement came in the second half of the season. From Jan. 1, onward Kupari was the ninth-best faceoff taker, by percentage, in the league, winning 57.92% of his faceoffs. That number also put him above Anze Kopitar and Phil Danault.
He became a trusted penalty killer too. Finishing third on the team in shorthanded defense score according to Evolving-Hockey.com.
Solid defensively at five-on-five, he finished with a positive even-strength defense score according to Evolving-Hockey as well.
He became the epitome of McLellan’s saying that you don’t need stats to stay.
While that’s true and he did become a useful player on the Kings’ fourth line, you do need stats to become an impact player. And Kupari didn’t have those stats.
Three goals and 11 assists in 66 games, with zero goals in his last 40 games is less than ideal.
Especially for someone with the talent to be so much more. If Kupari was an under-skilled player who was making an NHL career out of outworking opponents and grinding out shifts, those numbers wouldn’t be an issue.
But he’s not, he has too much talent and not enough snarl for those numbers to be acceptable.
It doesn’t help that he, and his line, fell apart in the playoffs. When the Edmonton Oilers switched to 11 forwards and had Leon Draisaitl matched up against Kupari, it was a big problem. That’s not solely on Kupari, defending a player like Draisaitl is a five-man job, but he did shine in the series either.
Kupari certainly made some steps in the right direction last season, but despite McLellan’s comment that he “might be what he is” Kupari can’t settle for being a fourth-liner with almost no production.
A pending RFA this summer, Kupari will almost certainly be re-signed and slotted back into the fourth-line center spot.
There aren’t many openings in the top nine for Kupari right now, especially if Quinton Byfield moves back to center next season. But he can have an impact from the fourth line. And if the Kings trade a forward or two for cap reasons, he has to be ready to seize an opportunity higher in the lineup.
There isn’t one skill that Kupari needs to work on this summer, he just needs to add some muscle and a lot of confidence. He needs to be more assertive with the puck and confident in his ability to make plays at the NHL level.
Too often last season he would break into open space or beat a defenseman one-on-one and seemingly panic when he had an opportunity. Passing when he should have shot and shooting when he should have passed. And he either missed the net or hit the goalie in the chest when he did shoot.
It’s possible that he never develops that finishing touch to make him a productive NHL player, but we’ve seen it at different levels so I wouldn’t write him off yet.
More muscle will be big for Kupari. It will allow him to get in and around the net more and win battles down low, and adding some power to your shot never hurts. I don’t like going back to the same examples, but we’ve seen what physical maturation does for players like Adrian Kempe and Gabe Vilardi.
As one King employee told me regarding Kempe’s explosion over the last two seasons, “Adrian looks like a man now, not a boy, and he plays a man’s game. That’s the difference.” Don’t expect Kupari to have a Kempe-like season anytime soon, or ever, but I think natural physical growth can have a similar impact on Kupari.
When you’re big, skate fast, stickhandle well and shoot hard, points usually follow. Not always, but usually.
I know some people point to Austin Wagner as a worst-case scenario for Kupari, but they aren’t similar. Wagner never killed penalties, took faceoffs or had a history of production at any level like Kupari.
There’s concern that the sheer number of players on the Kings’ roster keeps him low in the lineup and never allows him to be more than a fourth liner. But if he can put it all together, he has the talent to force his way into the top nine.
I don’t think he’ll become a top-six player for the Kings, but he has a future as a solid 3C who can flex to wing and carve up defenses on occasion.