LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Kings found themselves in a relatively new position at the 2022 NHL Draft. After qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2018 and acquiring left-winger Kevin Fiala in an off-season trade, the Kings were without a first round pick.
While the Kings still made seven selections, the earliest one came in the second round, 51st overall. This is in stark contrast to every draft the Kings have had since 2017, when their first pick never came later than 20th.
The Kings are now expected to be a playoff team. They are in the running for the Pacific Division title. A deep run wouldn’t be out of the question. And those expectations were reflected in their 2022 development camp.
In past years, players including Gabriel Vilardi, drafted 11th overall in 2017, Rasmus Kupari, 20th overall in 2018, Alex Turcotte, fifth overall in 2019, and Quinton Byfield, second overall in 2020, first came to development camp as the Kings were starting their rebuild. They were starting their NHL journeys at a place where they could grow with the franchise, with expectations of becoming key pieces of the new core.
Now, with the Kings challenging some of the top teams in the West again, players including Byfield and 2021 eighth overall pick Brandt Clarke return to camp knowing where they stand on the organizational depth charts.
The fresh class of draft picks, with no first-rounder among them, joins a team with a more established new core. They come to camp attempting to solidify themselves as depth pieces that have the potential to take the next step as opposed to becoming the Kings’ next number 1 forward.
These newest additions to the Kings organization feel minimal pressure. They want to perform well for the coaches and management, but a lot of them know the NHL isn’t their immediate destination. Some, like 2022 sixth round pick Jack Sparkes, have already committed to play at college.
Sparkes is headed to Michigan State University, but he’s not taking the experience of getting drafted and the opportunity of training camp for granted.
“I’m super thrilled to be here and (to) be picked by LA,” Sparkes said. “Just so happy.”
Sparkes and fellow defenseman prospect Angus Booth, a 2022 fourth round pick, also have opportunities at development camp to play with and learn from the top defensive prospects in the organization.
“It’s learning, you get more experience,” Booth said. “I’m just really grateful to be able to do that.”
Tobias Björnfot, a 2019 first round pick of the Kings, has played over 100 games in the NHL. Jordan Spence, a 2019 fourth round pick, has also played NHL games, including three in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“How professional they are. I’m always trying to learn from their game and study how they play,” Sparkes said of Björnfot and Spence. “Obviously those guys are very established and really good players.”
That experience is valuable to the youngest players at development camp. Especially in positions like defense, where confident offensive jump is considered as important as steady defensive reliability.
“I want to develop into someone who can also add that two-way to his game,” Sparkes said.
At 6 feet 8, Jack Sparkes, looming over everyone else at camp, including the coaches, was a good poster boy for the variety of experiences offered to the draft selections at development camp.
He was seen doing corner-battle drills with Kim Nousiainen, a Finnish defenseman drafted in the fourth round in 2019, and Matt Greene, a former Kings defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup champion who now works in the team’s Player Development department.
“It’s been an unreal experience,” Sparkes said. “I’ve learned so much from Greener (Matt Greene) and OD (Sean O’Donnell).”
Sparkes got tips on knee placement for effective board pins from Greene, and even some fighting lessons from Jeremy Clark, another member of the development staff.
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The work with coaches, along with the valuable lessons of playing with the prospects with NHL experience, will help Sparkes and other prospects like him as they enter the upcoming season with their junior or college teams, where they’ll use what they’ve learned to work their way up to the Kings’ minor league team, The Ontario Reign, and maybe someday the NHL roster.
“Everyone here is amazing,” Angus Booth said. “The staff, the facilities, LA’s a great place. It’s amazing so far.”
Of course, this wasn’t just true for forwards.
One of the biggest fan draws for this iteration of development camp was top center prospect Quinton Byfield. Drafted second overall in 2020, the highest pick the franchise has had since future Hall of Fame defenseman Drew Doughty, Byfield was at his second development camp, his first one completely open to the general public without a ticket purchase or COVID-related health check required.
Byfield is the quintessential piece of a new core, the presumed future number one center. He played 40 games with the Kings the previous season, as well as two playoff games. He was widely regarded as far and away the most skilled forward at the development camp.
“You want to keep on working on your strength and your speed cause you see how good these guys are,” 2022 fourth round pick Kenny Connors said. “You see guys like Byfield out there hitting his stride.”
Players like Connors, a center slated to play for Massachusetts in the NCAA next season, had the opportunity to play with Byfield and other regular NHL player Arthur Kaliyev, a winger drafted by the Kings in the second round of the 2019 draft.
“You can tell that this is a first class organization,” Connors said.
Like the defense prospects, the young forwards were ready and willing to soak up as much knowledge as they could while playing with the more experienced members in the Kings organization.
“You want to kind of pick up on the little things that they’re doing,” Connors said. “You can try and emulate them a little bit.”
Jack Sparkes added that “I’m trying to learn what I can from them and pick their brains.”
One player Connors specifically praised was Andre Lee, a seventh round pick in the 2019 draft.
“I think that Andre Lee’s been putting some really good games together,” Connors said. “He brought a lot of speed, a lot of good plays on the ice, so watching him has been eye opening.”
Lee is a pretty good archetype for what some of the forward prospects can hope to become. After he was drafted, Lee played college hockey at UMass Lowell for three seasons before making the jump to the AHL’s Ontario Reign for 11 games to end the most recent season.
That jump from getting drafted to playing college to turning pro is something many prospects at Kings development camp will try their best to emulate in the coming years. Playing with players who have already done it will certainly help with that.
“I feel my finished product is a long way away,” Jack Sparkes said. “I know I have a lot of work to do, but I’m gonna continue to get better and continue to put in that work.”
Byfield, Kaliyev, Björnfot and Spence are all expected to play substantial NHL games this season, if not make the Kings’ opening night roster. They are expected to be key contributors to another playoff berth, still a new reality for them as they were drafted when the team was near the bottom of the league.
The newest group of Kings prospects, only a few days removed from the NHL draft in Montreal, Quebec, when training camp began, doesn’t have this expectation. The players are only there to learn, take what they’ve learned, and apply it to their careers’ immediate next steps.
Sparkes, Booth, Connors and the other players drafted on July 8 at the Centre Bell will likely be back for development camp in 2023, with a year of college, junior, international or maybe even AHL hockey under their belts.
The next steps are clear. All they have to do is walk the path.