Elliott: After King-sized improvement, Adrian Kempe has shot at scoring milestone
The last time a member of the Kings scored 40 goals in a season, Wayne Gretzky was wrapping up the last of his 10 NHL scoring titles, bandana-wearing Kelly Hrudey was regularly performing his acrobatics in goal, and home ice meant the Fabulous Forum.
The season was 1993-94, and Luc Robitaille scored 44 goals to lead the team for the fifth consecutive season. He flirted with 40 by scoring 39 in the 1998-99 season and the magical Ziggy Palffy had 38 goals in 2000-01 and 37 in 2002-03, but no Kings player has scored 40 since.
“That’s crazy,” said Robitaille, whose exploits made him a lock for the Hall of Fame. “It’s about time someone does it.”
Enter Swedish winger Adrian Kempe. With a career-best 36 goals and eight games remaining in the regular season, Kempe has a good shot at reaching the prestigious 40-goal level.
At 26, Kempe wasn’t born when Robitaille recorded that 44-goal season. Kempe has heard a lot about it lately, but he’s not looking back at team history. His focus is firmly on what lies ahead for the Kings, who will face the Oilers in Edmonton on Thursday with second place in the Pacific Division and potential home-ice advantage in the playoffs at stake.
“It is a long time ago. It would be fun if I ever got to score this many. If it’s this year or another year, we’ll see,” Kempe said during a phone conversation Wednesday.
“It would be cool and I would be excited if that happened, but I don’t try to think about that. Right now I feel like my mentality is somewhere else other than that. I’m just trying to win games.”
Kempe’s performance on the top line with Kopitar and Quinton Byfield has gone a long way toward proving his 35-goal production last season wasn’t a fluke.
His breakout was surprising, considering he had scored 11 goals in 2019-20 and 14 goals in 2020-21, seasons shortened because of the COVID pandemic. But he rarely had gotten much time on a scoring line or on the power play in any season. He scored 16 goals as a rookie in 2017-18 but got lost in the Kings’ rebuilding shuffle and his confidence vanished.
When he finally got prime-time minutes, he fulfilled the promise that had led the Kings to draft him in the first round, and 29th overall, in 2014.
His emergence as a scorer has given the Kings scoring depth they’ve lacked for a long time. They’re averaging a healthy 3.42 goals per game this season, among the top 10 in the league.
“For sure, different players develop on different timetables. They’re put into different roles. I don’t think he saw the power play for his first four years here,” said Robitaille, a club executive for 16 years. “And the one thing to never forget for me, when I look at Adrian, a lot of young players, sometimes, you get nervous about their defensive game. We never had to worry about that with him. He was almost overly cautious.
“And then he developed himself into kind of a power forward, great shooter. If there’s definitely one thing for us to learn every day it’s to be patient. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint what happened, but he definitely got put into a different role. And he took off with it.”
Sustaining the success he enjoyed last season was a goal for Kempe this season.
“Being in the same range was important for me in terms of expectations and what people expected from me,” he said. “I always had high expectations for myself, and coming in from last year I felt like I could do the same things I did last year. I wasn’t sure it was going to go as well but the team is playing well, and that’s helping too.
“I’m just happy that I could live up to a lot of people’s expectations again and play well for the team. That’s all that matters.”
Kempe has made a point of speaking to 20-year-old Byfield about the heavy expectations the youngster carries as the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft. Byfield’s development has been delayed by injuries and illness and he has just three goals and 21 points in 45 games this season.
Other elements of his game have demonstrated his maturity and smarts, and Kempe has tried to help Byfield by correcting him when needed and reassuring him he’s on the right path — even if that path, as was Kempe’s, might take a little longer to travel.
“He’s been getting better and better throughout the entire time he’s been playing with us,” Kempe said. “He’s working so hard and he’s using his body so much more than maybe before, and winning puck battles.
“Maybe he’s not getting credit for all the work he does with points, but that will come. I think he’s happy with the way he’s playing right now, too, and I think everybody else is, as well. So it’s something that’s going to be big for this last stretch.”
There will be no chance to let up for the Kings, whose 2-1 loss at Calgary on Tuesday ended their 10-0-2 point streak. Their matchup with the Oilers is a potential playoff preview, a chance for them to measure themselves against the team that came from behind to beat them in a seven-game playoff series last spring.
For many of their young players, that series was their first postseason experience. Kempe played on the 2017-18 team that was swept by Vegas and said last spring’s tense, back-and-forth series was a different and valuable experience for him.
“We didn’t have as many expectations last year as we do this year,” he said, “but I feel like the team feels more comfortable once we head into the playoffs than we did last year.”
That they could head into the playoffs with a 40-goal scorer makes it all the more intriguing.