In this week’s edition of Los Angeles Kings news & rumors, I’ll be discussing Andreas Athanasiou’s return to the lineup, the scratching of Gabe Vilardi and Quinton Byfield, and a check-in on the Ontario Reign.
Andreas Athanasiou Returns
The Kings surprised many people when they re-signed Athanasiou last summer, as many expected them to let him walk. Instead, he was signed to a one-year, $2.7 million contract, as the team felt he could provide goals from a middle-six role. He’s done that when healthy this season, but that hasn’t been very often. He’s played in just 23 games this season, registering nine goals and 14 points in those games.
Be it injury or COVID-related absences, he has been in and out of the lineup all season. Healthy once again, Gabe Vilardi made way for Athanasiou Saturday night, as the speedy winger was thrust into a first-line role. He’s made a habit out of big games in his return to the lineup and the Kings were hoping he could provide that magic again. Unfortunately, that did not happen, he wasn’t bad by any means, he had a fairly uneventful game and looked a little rusty.
The team has been searching for a top-line winger to play with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe all season, and Athanasiou is the latest experiment. A former 30-goal scorer, he certainly has the potential to play in this role. We haven’t seen him consistently play at that level for the Kings, but alongside Kopitar and Kempe, he might rediscover his best hockey. I have reservations about this line, Kempe and Athanasiou look to create offense in the same way, using their speed to attack defenders one-on-one, while being high-volume shooters. I’m worried that these two will be trying to do the same thing and will leave the line with no versatility and very little defensive solidity, with both players posting poor defensive numbers. Of course, two players with Athanasiou and Kempe’s skill and speed can be a lot for teams to handle and it might work out great, but I’m not confident in this line.
Vilardi & Byfield Scratched
On Saturday morning, Kings fans woke up to the news that Vilardi and Byfield would both be healthy scratched against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Obviously, this was disappointing news for many fans who want to see two high draft picks succeed, but it’s hard to argue they deserve their spot in the lineup right now. Vilardi has just two points in his last 10 games and zero in his last five, while Byfield has one point in his last 10 and zero in his last five. As I mentioned in an article last week, those two, alongside Rasmus Kupari, have been exciting to watch recently and shown flashes of brilliance, but have simply not been productive enough.
While I’m sure everyone in the organization would like the chance to give these young players more game time, the team is in the midst of a tight playoff race and need to play whoever gives them the best chance to win. I’d be surprised if neither player saw the ice for the remaining five games, but they need to take advantage of the chances they’re given. When coach Todd McLellan was asked about scratching the two forwards he was clear that a lack of production was why, and he expanded on that saying it isn’t just a lack of goals and assists.
“Now, here comes the ‘but’ part. But there also has to be signs of production, and when I say that and they hear that, they think, ‘I’ve got to score goals and assists to be in the lineup.’ No, you don’t. You have to show potential of creating, and it hasn’t been happening.Todd McLellan (from ‘Dillman: Kings’ suspenseful win over the Blue Jackets, Quinton Byfield’s lack of production and more’ The Athletic, Apr. 17, 2022)
“You can be physical, you can win faceoffs. You can be a real good defensive player. You can find ways to change the momentum of a game. You can hand off a real good shift, time and time again, so that the momentum goes your way. You can be a penalty-killer impact guy. You can be a power-play impact guy. There’s a lot of things individuals can do. I ran that list off really fast.”
While I don’t agree with everything McLellan said there, in the sense that Vilardi, in particular, has created plenty of high-danger chances, according to All-Three Zone’s micro stats. Also, it’s hard to get mad at either player for not being an impact player on the power play when they aren’t given the chance to be. Vilardi is being used on the second unit which doesn’t get much time, while Alex Iafallo still gets a ton of power-play one time, and Byfield is often not used at all. At the same time, he mentioned being a really good defensive player, well Byfield has posted excellent defensive metrics this season, and surprisingly, so has Vilardi since his return to the lineup.
Again, I have no problem with those two being scratched, but I did want to nitpick what McLellan said a little bit. The production hasn’t been there from them and the Kings need more from their bottom six. However, I do think McLellan missed the mark on a couple of his points. We’ve seen what a break from the lineup can do for players, as Dustin Brown has returned looking like a new player, so hopefully, a few games out of the lineup will reinvigorate both players.
Since the last Reign check, the Reign have played three straight games against their rivals, the San Diego Gulls. They managed to sweep the Gulls, solidifying their second-place spot in the Pacific Division. Rookie forward Samuel Helenius grabbed his first American Hockey League (AHL) goal in Saturday’s game, driving the net and tapping home a Jacob Doty feed after Andre Lee carried the puck into the zone.
Helenius, Doty, and Lee have made up a massive fourth line for the Reign, with Doty being the smallest player at 6-foot-3, and they were able to provide offense on Saturday. Helenius is a player I’m very excited about, so I was happy to see him get on the board. The massive Finn is still finding his feet in North America and is likely a few seasons away from the NHL, but he can be an anchor on the King’s bottom six. I’m interested to see if he picks up a few tips from his dad, Sami Helenius, who was an NHL enforcer during the 90s and early 2000s. Adding the ability to fight to his game would make him the ideal bottom-six player. A big, mean forward, who can fight and chip in with goals. I wouldn’t say adding that element to his game is a must, but it would certainly be nice.
Another Reign rookie to capture the attention of many has been Taylor Ward. The undrafted free agent out of the University of Nebraska Omaha has been excellent since joining the Reign. He had a point in each of the three games against the Gulls, including two goals, bringing his season total to nine points in 12 games this season. He’s been a nice surprise edition to the Reign and can play a big part in the team’s Calder Trophy push. Goalie David Hrenak picked up a shutout in his first career AHL game. The St. Cloud State standout made 25 saves in the Reign’s 3-0 win, giving him a dream start to his professional career.
The Reign also signed University of Wisconsin defensemen Tyler Inamoto to a professional tryout. The former Carolina Hurricanes fifth-round pick becomes a free agent this summer and it appears that the Kings will try to sign him. He’s a big, shutdown defenseman who doesn’t bring much offensively. He loves to block shots, has a nice first pass, and is apparently a great team player. Like Ward, he’s likely a signing which only affects the AHL team, but if he can help the Reign win, it is a smart signing.
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.