Both Schenn and Clifford, while impressive in camp, need to be impressive enough for the organization to willingly burn a year off their entry-level contract. If they didn’t overwhelm the coaching staff in camp, they would have already been sent back to Junior to continue their development.
Even though the regular season has started, their need to impress is just as important as ever. A bad read here, a lazy shift there, and they’ll be back in the CHL faster than you can say Trevor Lewis. Let’s be honest, there’s no shame in going back to junior hockey as a 19-year-old. And if you look at the Detroit Red Wings' model of grooming prospects, it might be the smartest thing for all parties involved.
But a funny thing happened on the way to sending the players back to Canada. Apparently, they don’t want to go back to junior hockey and are showing their desire to stay with their play on the ice. Kyle Clifford looked like a natural after playing only about 7 minutes in each of the Kings first 2 games to start the season. Aside from being the recipient of an elbow to the face, he played the physical brand of hockey that put him on the map to be drafted in the 2nd round last year. When you watch the normal flow of the game, he looks like he belongs out there. For a 19-year-old who wasn’t expected to make the team, that’s a huge compliment.
Now take the impression that Clifford has made and put it on Mark McGuire-style steroids. That’s what Brayden Schenn has been doing to the coaching staff, management, and Kings fans. He’s played the body, looked good on the power play by clicking with the likes of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, and has played a smart, responsible style of hockey that is a requisite for any center trying to make the NHL. He’s generated his fair share of succulent scoring chances and presumably will start burying them.
Forget rookies, Schenn and Justin Williams have been the best players on the entire team, and the only players consistently generating scoring chances through the first week of the season.
This brings us to the third member of the Kings rookie forward trio: Andrei Loktionov. Loktionov is in a completely different situation than the other two rookies because he’s not obligated to go back to juniors if he fails to make the team. Instead, he can either play with the big club or go back to Manchester and pick up where he left off last season in his development. On the flip-side, the organization does not have to weigh the entry-level contract issue with him. Like it or not, the clock is already ticking. It’s now a decision of where they want him to play. With their obvious problems in secondary scoring department, his incredible offensive potential fits the team’s needs. In Windsor, he showed the ability to make his linemates better with his incredible vision while still being able to bury his chances when given an opportunity. For a team needing to generate scoring, he fills the role nicely. That seems rather important.
A great upside for the Kings is that none of these three players were given anything—they all earned their spot on the roster to start the season. But make no mistake, there will be changes by the 10th game of the season. It has nothing to do with the potential or the skill they possess—it’s a numbers game and will be determined by what Lombardi/Murray want to do with the team THIS year. With the veterans in place who have earned their ice-time, there simply aren’t enough spots for all 3 players.
Whether the Kings planned on Schenn sticking around all season or going back to lead Brandon and Team Canada in the World Junior Championships, it’s going to be pretty hard to pull the trigger on his demotion. If they’re looking for the best line-up today, he’s a part of it. If they want to address their biggest weakness, then Loktionov gets an extended look with the big club to see if he can help improve their offense. If they want to increase their grit, have a guy on the 4th line who can both play and protect his teammates, and have no problem with Kevin Westgarth in the press box, then Kyle Clifford might be around longer than anyone expected.
For those looking towards the rest of the season, Tuesday’s home opener might be a glimpse into the future. For the first time, Clifford got a view from the press box while Schenn played on the 4th line with Richardson and Westgarth. Loktionov got a run with the big boys on the top line, which allowed Ryan Smyth to drop to the 2nd line and give the team some scoring depth. If they want to continue with that type of line-up, Clifford could be returned to Barrie (OHL) to continue to put on the muscle he’ll need to make the jump next season. Again, it’s a numbers game.
All the pieces seem to fit. Now we’ll see how long it takes for Terry Murray to move them around.