The Los Angeles Kings went through a rebuild that essentially started in the 2018-19 season. They accumulated a lot of prospects and draft picks when they did this, which is the goal of any rebuild. They’ve added some young players to the lineup throughout the rebuilding years. Now the team is back to trying to contend every season, but they still have prospects that fans can get excited about when they reach the NHL level.
The Kings selected Brandt Clarke with the eighth pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. Clarke is a 6-foot-2, 189-pound defenseman that plays on the right side. He played nine games for the Kings in 2022-23, before being sent back to the Barrie Colts in Ontario Hockey League (OHL) after playing for Canada at the World Junior Championship. Clarke’s play in the OHL this past season was nothing short of outstanding.
In 31 games with Barrie this past season, Clarke posted 23 goals and 61 points. Those 1.97 points per game (PPG) were the most for any player in the OHL, an impressive feat for a blueliner. The next closest defenseman was Pavel Mintyukov of the Ottawa 67’s, who only posted 1.28 PPG. Clarke also added 23 points in 12 playoff games. His performance was good enough to earn him a spot on the Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) First All-Star Team.
The Kings could really use a dynamic offensive talent on their back end. Drew Doughty is still a capable offensive-defenseman, but Clarke’s ceiling is likely to be able to exceed Doughty’s 52 points from this previous campaign. His game has been compared to Erik Karlsson’s, which is a different skill set than what Doughty or any other Kings’ defenseman possesses. LA should look to get him in the lineup regularly next season and give him time to develop his defensive game while using his attacking skills. Doughty will occupy the right side on the top pairing, and it looks like it could be down to Clarke or Sean Walker on the bottom pairing if no changes are made to the defense.
Unlike Clarke, goaltender Erik Portillo was not drafted by the Kings. He was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 2019. He spent three seasons at the University of Michigan but indicated to the Sabres that he would not be signing with them. The Kings swooped in to make the move for him, acquiring him for a third-round draft pick. They then gave him time with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League (AHL) on a try-out contract, before signing him to an entry-level deal on April 22.
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Portillo’s best season came in 2021-22, his second year with the Wolverines. He helped them win the Big Ten Tournament and was named most outstanding player. He was also a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Award, given to the best goalie in college hockey. This really elevated his status and put him on the radar as a goalie to pay attention to as he reaches the NHL.
The Kings’ future in net is completely up in the air. It doesn’t look like Cal Petersen will be the goaltender of the future like the team had hoped. This leaves them in a predicament; they’ll need to figure out the position both in the long and short term. Depending on which goaltenders they go with for the 2023-24 season and how they perform, it wouldn’t be crazy to see Portillo make his NHL debut in the upcoming season. A cost-controlled goalie getting regular starts would go a long way for a team with little cap space.
More of an under-the-radar prospect for the Kings, Francesco Pinelli is an intriguing player at the center position. A second-round pick back in 2021, he has played for the Kitchener Rangers for the last two seasons. This previous season was his best to date, as he scored 41 goals. Sometimes it can be dismissed when a player dominates in his draft-plus-two season in the CHL, as he is much older than the competition. It’s better than the alternative though; if a player doesn’t show growth in that season, that would be a major cause for concern.
Pinelli racked up the goals last season, but he is more of a playmaking center, according to his scouting report. He also is a solid positional player and is responsible defensively. This could help his case to make the Kings in the 2023-24 season. Barring something completely unforeseen, the team’s top two centers will be Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault. The bottom two center spots could be more open, especially if Gabe Villardi and Quinton Byfield remain on the wing. These two spots were mostly occupied by Blake Lizotte and Rasmus Kupari last season. These players both had decent seasons, but in theory, Pinelli has more offensive upside than both of them.
In all likelihood, Pinelli will start the season with the Reign, unless he really impresses in training camp. Experience in the AHL could do him well to get some pro hockey under his belt. After this past season, there is reason for Kings’ fans to be optimistic about what he could potentially bring to the table down the line.
Lots of prospects don’t pan out, but it’s fun to get excited about what they could do in the future. Dreaming about all these players potentially playing together for a championship-contending team is what keeps the hopes up for fans. The Kings have had more to be hopeful about at the NHL level in the last two seasons than the previous handful, but there are still players to be interested in for years to come.