For those fans outside of Los Angeles and Sweden, the name Adrian Kempe may not be super-familiar. But Montreal Canadiens partisans in particular got to know the talented youngster when he hung a hat trick on the Habs in a 5-1 demolition of the fragile club on Wednesday night.
Kempe isn't new to the Kings, but like many of his older teammates, this season promises a fresh start. The center/left winger played 25 games for the squad last year – thereby retaining his rookie eligibility for this season – with the balance of his campaign spent with the AHL's Ontario Reign. His impact at the NHL level was minimal, but last season was the final stand of coach Darryl Sutter – meaning that very few Kings played well.
Now with John Stevens running the bench, Los Angeles looks like the big-time threat the franchise had been just a couple years ago and players are finding their offensive grooves once again. L.A. is the only team in the league without a regulation loss this season (5-0-1) and the Kings have scored 21 goals in through six games.
In Kempe, Los Angeles has a well-built forward (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) who goes to the net and isn't afraid to do the dirty work to get a goal. With his blazing speed, he's looking to break out and establish his NHL identity. The fact that Kempe seems to have found early chemistry with veterans Mike Cammalleri and Trevor Lewis certainly bodes well for the future, too.
This is all great news for the Kings, who lost reigning top scorer Jeff Carter during the game against Montreal. Carter, who is expected to miss multiple weeks, was apparently cut on the leg by Jeff Petry's skate blade during a hit. Now, I'm not saying that Kempe is going to step right up into Carter's spot and immediately replace the veteran's production, but at least the Kings have someone who appears to be on the cusp of realizing their NHL potential at a time when the franchise needs it.
Kempe always seemed like he was a sure-fire NHLer, but his ceiling was a fair question. Back in the early stages of his career, he was impressing the coaches in Sweden with his skills, earning more time with MoDo's top club than was initially expected. He was a first-round draft pick in 2014, albeit 29th overall – a draft slot that is far from sure-thing material. On the other hand, then-Kings GM Dean Lombardi and his scouting staff were adept at maximizing draft position during that time, nabbing Tanner Pearson 30th overall in 2012 and Tyler Toffoli 47th overall in 2010, to give two examples.
Kempe's solid 2014-15 campaign with MoDo saw him head to North America at its conclusion, where he joined the AHL's Manchester Monarchs. As part of a collective that also included Jordan Weal and Nick Shore, Kempe helped the Monarchs to the Calder Cup championship.
The points didn't really come in his next two years, mostly with the Kings' new Ontario affiliate in California, but the skill set was there.
Kempe played less than 12 minutes against the Habs, but still had the hat trick – with all three goals coming in the third period – and four points. In doing so, he became the first Kings rookie to score a hat trick since Vitali Yachmenev on March 2, 1996, and the first Kings rookie to record a four-point game since Rob Blake on March 16, 1991. Coach Stevens mainly kept Kempe away from Montreal's top scoring threats and he certainly has that luxury with two-way top-line center Anze Kopitar at his disposal.
With Carter out, the Kings will need players to step up if they want to build on their excellent start to the season. Could Kempe be that guy? He's certainly off to the right start.