With the 2021-22 season fast approaching, now is the time to begin speculating about what might happen in the coming season. With the Los Angeles Kings making some big additions this offseason, they will be looking to compete for a playoff spot. However, it will take more than just these additions to push the team back into postseason contention. They will need a few players to step up and breakout with career years. With several candidates to make this leap amongst the young Kings roster, I’ve targeted the two players that are most likely to elevate their play to a new level this season.
Every fan base has a player that is a “next year will be his year” kind of player — making fans sound like a broken record repeating the same phrase every summer. Adrian Kempe is close to becoming that player for LA, and some fans might think he already is that player. But, I truly believe that we will see the dynamic point-producer this season we have all been waiting. He is coming off his best season so far, statistically, and will be hoping to build upon that. He finished last season fifth on the team in points and second in goals — with 29 points and 14 goals. When adjusted for an 82-game season, he would have posted roughly 42 points and 20 goals, career-highs in both. But he will need to be even better to keep a spot on an improving Kings top-six moving into the future. Fortunately, there are signs that next season can actually be his year.
How he is likely to be used is a massive factor in my assumption that this will be a career year for Kempe. Last season, according to MoneyPuck.com, he never played more than 13 games on the same line. While this isn’t the only reason his production was inconsistent, it certainly played a role. Coach Todd McLellan is known for constantly shuffling his lines, particularly in-game — but as a mainstay on the team’s top-six, Kempe should see more consistent linemates. He will likely form a partnership with veteran center Anze Kopitar or newcomer Phillip Danault. His skill-set complements both centers well, so if he can develop chemistry with either player, the points should follow. He should also see plenty of power play time this season after finishing third on the team in power play points last year.
Another big reason I think he will have a big year for LA is a simple one; his talent is undeniable. Of course, you need more than raw talent to succeed at the NHL level, but it certainly helps. He combines a big body — 6-foot-2, 215-pounds, according to hockey-reference.com — and incredible speed, with fantastic puck skills and a solid shot. It is consistency, which I touched on earlier, and reading the game that hurts Kempe. Fortunately, those are things that can be, and often are, learned as a player gets more games under their belt. He will be 25 years old heading into the season, meaning he should be entering the beginning of his prime. I think we will see a player who has figured out how to succeed in the NHL during the 2021-22 season — I would expect Kempe to post 25 goals and 50 points at a minimum this season. Being on the last year of his contract, with plenty of young players ready to take his spot in the coming years, he should have no shortage of motivation to come out firing on all cylinders.
The other player I have pegged for a massive year is Gabriel Vilardi. Heading into his sophomore season, he is the most obvious choice for “breakout player of the year.” The 2020-21 season wasn’t the incredible rookie year that many were hoping for from him, as he struggled to claim the second-line center role. He did finish the year strong, though, finishing with seven points in his last 10 games. With Danault taking the second-line center role from Vilardi, there are some questions about what his role will be with the team next season. No matter what that role is, I’d expect a big year from the former 11th overall pick.
The pressure of being the team’s second-line center was obviously too much for him last season. Fortunately, that won’t be an issue in 2021-22. With Danault signed, Vilardi can step out of the spotlight and focus more on developing his game. He can slot in as the third-line center, giving him a more sheltered role to grow in. The addition of Danault, an elite defensive center, also means Vilardi will have far fewer defensive zone starts next season, hopefully down from his 44 percent defensive zone starts from last season. This will allow him to focus more on his biggest asset, generating offense. It’s also possible he is shifted to wing, where I think his future lies, at some point in the season — the right-wing spot on the second line should be up for grabs, and he can make that spot his own. I would expect him to start out as the third-line center and move to a second-line winger role if his play improves.
Another Injury Free Offseason
I think it’s fair to say that the main reason Vilardi isn’t a more established NHL player at this point has been constant injuries. After missing the majority of the 2018-19 season due to injury, he reignited his career in 2019-20, hoping to leave his injury history in the past. He seems to have been successful, with no major injuries plaguing him since then. It has also allowed him to finally take full advantage of his off-season, as he stated in his pre-season interview in January:
“It’s really big for me, this is the first time in three years now that I actually got to spend the summer working on getting better and not focusing on getting my body back to playing again.” From “Training Camp / Gabriel Vilardi on Jan. 7, 2021,” LA Kings
With the off-season being the time that players often make the biggest improvements to their individual games, having a second straight, healthy summer will be huge for him. It’s not unrealistic to think he can make a massive developmental leap this summer. The dominant player we all saw in juniors might finally be ready to emerge at the NHL level in 2021-22, as Vilardi continues to improve. Consistency and compete level will be key for him as he looks to take the next step. Like Kempe, a 50-point season isn’t an impossible ask from Vilardi, especially if he can establish himself as a second-line winger.
Improvements From Within
Many Kings fans are upset that the Kings haven’t gone out and made a big signing or trade this summer, wanting to see more improvements to this roster. I would argue the improvements will come from within. If we see players like Kempe and Vilardi take the next step to become impact players in the NHL, then more additions are unnecessary. There is a risk in banking on these players making big improvements this season; however, the reward outweighs the risk. There are several reasons that Kings fans should be excited heading into this season, and seeing players like these two blossom is yet another.
My name is Austin Stanovich, as a lifelong player and fan I’m hoping to bring my own unique perspective on the hockey world, specifically covering the Los Angeles Kings. As a SoCal native I grew up a Kings fan, and after graduating from Long Beach State in 2020 I’ve joined The Hockey Writers crew as a columnist for the Kings.