With the removal of taxi squads after the All-Star break, the Los Angeles Kings had to return players to the Ontario Reign. The team decided to make their decision early, sending Rasmus Kupari down on Tuesday. The 21-year-old forward spent the entire six-game road trip as a healthy scratch and had seen his ice time dwindle recently. After Quinton Byfield was recalled, it seemed inevitable that Kupari would be returning to the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Reign, as Byfield took the third-line center role. While getting sent to the minors often has a negative connotation attached to it, especially after playing all of this season in the NHL, some time back with the Reign should be good for Kupari, as he’s struggled plenty this season.
Kupari’s Season So Far
Before the seasons started, the plan was for Kupari to move to the wing, as the team felt he wasn’t ready to play center in the NHL. Unfortunately, the injury to Byfield in preseason and Gabe Vilardi’s return to the Reign forced a change in plans. The Kings quickly moved Kupari into the third-line center role, where he would see a revolving door of wingers and never really looked comfortable. It’s also worth pointing out that his line is the third line in name only. With the success of the Kings’ “fourth line,” Kupari’s line has often been used more as a fourth line and has regularly seen the least amount of ice time. I’ve seen his line referred to as a testing line, one where the coaching staff likes to try out new combinations and players to see how they do, often with little success.
I’m not saying this to deflect blame off Kupari; he hasn’t been good enough, but it is important to contextualize some of his struggles. He’s been in a fairly inconsistent spot all season, with his only consistent linemates being Trevor Moore and Carl Grundstrom, who played 13 games with Kupari, to relative success.
Now that his season has a little bit of context, I have to cover his struggles. In almost every statistical measure, he has been a negative on-ice impact. The only stats I could find on him which were even league average are his primary shot assists and controlled zone entries. He scores right at league average for both stats, but after those, everything is very much in the negative. It isn’t just his offensive numbers that look poor, either. His defensive numbers are as bad, as he’s posted a -0.3 even-strength defense goals above average, according to Evolving-Hockey’s model. Essentially, you have a player who is generating zero offense, and at times, is a negative impact offensively and a liability defensively. When looking at the numbers, it isn’t surprising the Kings sent him to the Reign.
Explaining Some of Kupari’s Struggles
After spending two paragraphs berating him over his poor play, it seems unfair to not defend him at all. First of all, he’s still very young, at just 21 years old. There are less than 100 players who are under 22 that have played in the NHL this season, while less than 50 have suited up in more than ten games. He also sits in 22nd for games played in his draft, so this isn’t a case of someone who should be in their prime struggling; he is going through the normal trials and tribulations that most prospects go through.
The biggest defense for Kupari is that he shouldn’t be playing center in the NHL. He was drafted as a center and has played there at every level leading up to the NHL, but it’s clear he is not capable of doing it in the NHL, and that’s fine. Plenty of players have to make the switch over to wing, as playing center is extremely difficult and carries responsibilities that not a lot of players can handle. A lot of people have compared Kupari’s career trajectory to Adrian Kempe‘s, and I’ve been a big fan of that comparison for a while.
Like Kempe, one of Kupari’s biggest struggles this season has come in the faceoff circle. He’s won just 42.9 percent of his faceoffs this season, similar to Kempe’s career 82-game average of 41.1 percent. Both players also possess incredible speed, which is better utilized on the wing, where it’s easier to attack defensemen wide and take the puck to the net. It’s that last part where Kupari needs a lot of work, though; he is often not taking advantage of his speed and length, instead peeling off or trying to make an extra move instead of driving to the net. This is likely a consequence of his age, as he lacks the strength and confidence to successfully make power moves at the NHL level. Once again, like Kempe, it will take Kupari time to develop that part of his game, and that’s okay.
Kupari’s rookie season has seen a lot of the same struggles as Kempe’s Kupari’s -0.2 wins above replacement is identical to Kempe’s in his rookie season. Both players proved that they were not centers and found the faceoff circle very difficult, and both players needed more time in the AHL. A permanent move to wing should come quicker for Kupari than it did for Kempe, which will be great for his career, as he can commit to learning the position and discovering how to be effective from the wing.
Kupari in the AHL Makes Sense
I view this AHL reassignment, as I viewed Vilardi’s, as a win-win situation for the team and player, even if it seems disastrous for the player. Things clearly weren’t working out for Kupari as the third-line center, and he needs a move to wing. He also desperately needs some confidence. At his best, Kupari uses his skating and stickhandling to take over whole shifts at a time. He has the ability to carry the puck that few players possess, and when he’s playing with confidence, he can skate circles around the other team. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult to do in the NHL, and it’s clear that his confidence has tanked, as he’s been unable to affect games. At the time of his call-up last season, he was leading the Reign in points and was arguably their best player, and a return should see him become an important player again.
General manager Rob Blake mentioned that the organization wanted Vilardi to regain confidence and become a point-per-game player in the AHL again before getting called back up, and I would assume it will be the same with Kupari. Add on the benefit of getting to learn a new position in a more manageable role, and this is a net win for him and the organization.
Don’t Panic Over Kupari
I’ll repeat a lot of what I said about Vilardi here: do not panic over Kupari returning to the AHL. This is hardly a death sentence for his career with the Kings, and he will end up a better player because of it. With the Kings looking to make a postseason return, he may stay with the Reign for the rest of this season, and that’s okay too. Struggling in a position he shouldn’t be playing was of no benefit to him, and he’s better off in the AHL now. This is still a player with a very high ceiling, who is very much a future top-six forward, and it will be exciting to see him at his best in Ontario for a while.