Kempe’s Breakout Season Is a Testament to Kings’ Development Strategy

Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe has been simply incredible this season. While, at 25 years old, he is a little late to be experiencing a breakout season, there are many factors that can explain this, and a large portion of his recent offensive prowess is due to the Kings’ patience with him. Here is a breakdown of his career so far and what had led to his success this season.

Kempe Drafted in 2014

Coming off of their triumphant 2014 Stanley Cup victory, the Kings selected Adrian Kempe in the first round with the 29th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. It was an interesting time for the team as, in order to be competitive in the playoffs, they had traded away many of their top draft picks for proven players. This selection was the team’s only first-round pick from 2013 through 2016, but Kempe quickly became one of the team’s only top prospects.

Going into the draft, Kempe was still a bonafide center. Scouts described him as a speedy player and noted his defensive abilities when playing against men for the MODO Hockey of the Swedish Hockey League. At just 17 years old, the Kings were already high on his abilities, and after spending one more season with MODO Hockey, he was brought to North America to join the Kings’ AHL Affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs.

Minor League Career

Kempe joined the Monarchs right before they made their Calder Cup Championship run. He was a dominant force in the playoffs, scoring eight goals and nine points in 17 games, including a goal in the Cup-clinching game. While, typically, a competitive AHL team is indicative of a strong prospect pool, in the case of 2014-15 Monarchs, the team was built largely on older players and prospects that would never make it in the NHL. Kempe was, by two years, the youngest member on the team.

Following the Calder Cup victory, the Monarchs moved to Ontario, California, and became the Ontario Reign, the Kings’ current AHL affiliate. Having the AHL team so much closer to Los Angeles allowed to Kings’ development staff, management, and coaches to more regularly see the prospects in action. In a very tough, physical league, Kempe continued to put up solid offensive numbers during the 2015-16 season, scoring 11 goals and 28 points in 55 games played.

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At this point, the Kings were in a weird situation with Kempe: there were no other high-end prospects to develop with him, and he was in the awkward position of being too good for the AHL but not quite ready for the NHL. As a result of this, he split the 2016-17 season between the Kings and Reign. In a 25-game taste with the Kings, he posted two goals and four points while also putting up solid numbers with the Reign. By the end of the season, he had proven that he was ready to succeed at the NHL level.

Early NHL Career

Kempe’s first full season with the Kings was the 2017-18 season, a year in which they were looking to re-emerge as a competitive force under new head coach John Stevens. The Kings had a solid, albeit streaky season, en route to being swept by the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the postseason. It was a solid season that ended in a playoff series that was much closer than it looks on paper. Kempe, himself, also had a very strong rookie campaign, posting 16 goals and 21 assists for 37 total points in 81 games.

But since that rookie year, Kempe has never been able to match those numbers, as the identity of the Kings changed completely after the 2017-18 season. The team instantaneously went from a competitor to a rebuilding, bottom-dwelling team. His position within the Kings’ prospect and player depth chart became apparent: he was one of very few assets the team had for the future, and he would have to spend the beginning of his career on a team that was simply not competitive.

Adrian Kempe
Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Due to him being a first-round draft choice, there was a lot of pressure for Kempe to succeed. Given the composition and state of the team in his early career, it makes sense why he was struggling offensively. The Kings were aware that it would be hard for a young player to shine given the circumstances, and they were patient with him. By the 2019-20 season, now under head coach Todd McLellan, the team was beginning to take strides in the right direction, and a decision to shift Kempe from center to wing put him on the trajectory that he is on today.

Once he was shifted to wing, his offensive numbers, relative to games played, quickly improved, even in COVID-19 complicated seasons. The Kings also continued to develop their now deep prospect pool, and other young faces were beginning to appear in the lineup. Entering into the 2021-22 season, the Kings, as an organization, were looking to take a big jump, and Kempe heard the call.

Kempe’s 2021-22 Season

For the first time since his rookie season, Kempe is playing on a legitimately good team. As an already established NHL player, he’s had the unique opportunity to showcase his potential ability to be a star. At 51 games, he’s already posted a career-high of 25 goals, and he is just one point shy of tying his career-high of 37. He has found true offensive chemistry with linemates Alex Iafallo and Anže Kopitar while also proving that he has the defensive chops to play first-line minutes.

Things are just clicking for the 25-year-old. He is confident in his ability to play well in all situations, and his shot has just become absolutely lethal. People around the league are beginning to notice Kempe’s skill and major uptick in production. McLellan puts it best when describing the reasons behind Kempe’s recent surge:

“He’s entering the prime of his game, so we better see it now, and we’re beginning to. It’s the evolution of development. Not everybody is Auston Matthews. It takes time for some individuals to eventually get there, and Adrian’s getting there.”

Todd McLellan

Kempe simply needed some time to adjust his game to the NHL level. He was originally a late first-round pick, and his development curve was just longer than some other players. The Kings are certainly ecstatic to see how he’s blossomed from a middle-six forward to an All-Star caliber first-line winger.

What the Kings Can Learn From Kempe

Kempe was a prospect that was basically developed by himself. His recent success is a testament to the Kings’ patience with him. The team worked with him for several seasons to figure out exactly how he could best succeed at the NHL level. Now, the Kings are a team that is in the fortunate position of brimming with top prospects as they return to competition. It remains to be seen how many of these prospects will pan out at the NHL level, but if the team can have one takeaway from developing Kempe, it’s that being patient might have some very good results in the long run.

Adrian Kempe Los Angeles Kings
Adrian Kempe, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While the Kings’ position in the standings has changed from when Kempe was starting his career, the team is clearly attempting to implement an adjusted version of the strategy they used when developing him. Kings prospect Gabe Vilardi is finishing up a stint with the AHL’s Ontario Reign where, like Kempe, he has converted to wing. Being able to make that transition in the AHL, a generally tougher league than other pro leagues around the world, rather than the NHL might wind up being a positive for Vilardi as he seeks to re-insert himself in the Kings’ lineup.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to say if this season is just a fluke for Kempe or if he will continue to play at this level. However, considering the direction the Kings are heading in, it’s more likely than not that we are getting a glimpse of Kempe’s prime. His recent success did not come without a lot of hard work on his and the Kings’ development and coaching staff parts. The team can use his trajectory as a roadmap for developing their current prospects with patience and flexibility as the organization looks to put together a championship team.

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