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Kings’ Iafallo has potential to become a sophomore surprise

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    The Los Angeles Kings’ lone free agent splash came with the signing of former NHL goal-scoring king Ilya Kovalchuk, a move that was made with the hope the 35-year-old winger will make his return to the NHL after five seasons in the KHL a triumphant one. But to say the Kings’ hopes of adding to what was a slightly below league-average offense are tied to Kovalchuk and Kovalchuk alone would be misguided.

    True as it may be that the Kings’ wagon is at least somewhat hitched to Kovalchuk scoring a bushel of goals next season, adding to an offense that already includes Anze Kopitar, Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, a hopefully still-resurgent Dustin Brown and healthy Jeff Carter, Los Angeles is also expecting to see more from some of its youth. For instance, the expectation is that Adrian Kempe will take another step forward in his development. There’s also hope Michae Amadio and Jonny Brodzinski will make the leap and chip in offensively. And if all goes according to plan, the Kings are forecasting one of last season’s surprise standouts, Alex Iafallo, will prove that his successful first foray into the NHL was no flash in the pan.

    Iafallo was an interesting case last season. Signed in April straight out of University of Minnesota-Duluth on the heels of his breakout college campaign, the versatile forward caught the eye of the coaching staff in development camp, impressed in the rookie portion of training camp and continued to rise to the challenge when he made the big club to start the season, earning himself a spot skating alongside Kopitar and Brown on the Kings’ top line. And while Iafallo’s nine-goal, 25-point performance in 2017-18 leaves plenty of room for offensive improvement, Los Angeles coach John Stevens saw signs of a player who has plenty of room for growth thanks to the attention to detail in his game.

    “He hounded pucks, he turned pucks over, he forced teams into mistakes where that line could have a lot of success,” Stevens said. “We think he can score more than he did (last) year, but it was all the little things in his game. We trusted him. That kid was playing big minutes for a young kid and he was most of the year just a 5-on-5 hockey player, he wasn’t a special teams player.”

    That assessment of his role is by no means a stretch. Though he skated upwards of 1,100 minutes last season, the disparity between his even strength ice time and special teams is roughly 997 minutes. He averaged just 33 seconds per game on the power play, a grand total of 41 minutes across the campaign, and he skated 27 shorthanded minutes, which breaks down to 22 seconds per outing. No other forward in the NHL last season saw 1,000-plus minutes at evens with a pair of special teams ice times as low as Iafallo.

    It’s not as though that ice time is going to be any easier for Iafallo to come by this season, however. The addition of Kovalchuk makes the top unit a virtual no-go for Iafallo, particularly if Los Angeles runs a three-forward, two-defenseman unit consisting of Kovalchuk, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin. Even the four-forward group — with Muzzin swapped out for a Jeff Carter or Tyler Toffoli — likely leaves Iafallo on the outside looking in on the top unit. But with potential for a spot to open up on the second unit, Iafallo knows getting consistent minutes with the man advantage comes down to making some noise when his number is called.

    “I can step it up there,” Iafallo said. “When it’s my opportunity to go, I have to make sure I give 100 percent and I know I have to score more goals obviously — everyone is going to say that — but I have to focus in on the offense.”

    Earning a spot on the second unit would certainly be one way to boost his numbers. There’s more to it than where and with whom he skates, however. To Stevens’ eye, improving offensive totals comes down to Iafallo getting stronger, which has been one of his off-season goals. There may also be an element of natural growth involved, too, as Iafallo continues on the learning curve that comes with the next step in every career. “He’s a kid, if you look at his college career, he was a single-digit goal scorer for his first three years in college and then he exploded in his senior year, scored over 20 goals, which is a big deal in college,” Stevens said. “He’s done it at a high level.”

    It certainly didn’t hurt Iafallo’s development, either, to play alongside Kopitar and Brown last season. From the former, Iafallo said he learned patience with the puck and how to better use his body to get to the net. The latter taught the 24-year-old to stick with his game through the ups and downs. And Stevens was there the whole way through to guide Iafallo even further. “He was always going over video and stuff with me, helping me be able to elevate my game to the next level,” Iafallo said. “He was a great asset throughout the whole year.”

    But a new season will bring with it new challenges, new opportunities for soon-to-be NHL sophomore Iafallo. The hope is, too, that he can surprise once again, this time adding to all the little things he does right with some added offensive punch. Said Stevens: “I think with him having a year under his belt — and he got a lot of chances last year and didn’t capitalize — he understands the next step for him is making good on the opportunities that he creates with his detail.”

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