The Los Angeles roster rebuilt largely by GM Rob Blake and friends since they took over in 2017 is not exactly a typical National Hockey League assemblage.
It’s light on Canadians, heavy on undrafted free agents and has been hard on the Edmonton Oilers in this first-round playoff series.
It could be said the Kings owe their 2-1 lead over Edmonton mostly to the heroics of Finnish goalie Joonas Korpisalo, the 200-foot game of Slovenian captain Anze Kopitar, a series-high three goals from Swedish sniper Adrian Kempe and overtime power-play winners from American forwards Alex Iafallo and Trevor Moore, two of the five undrafted free agents who have dressed for at least a game.
And sure, Canadians Phillip Danault and Drew Doughty have been impactful for L.A., most noticeably by playing a disciplined defensive game that has limited Oiler captain Connor McDavid to zero points at even strength.
Canadians accounted for 42% of NHL roster spots on opening day last fall, but of the 34 players who dressed for at least one game with the Kings this year, only nine were Canadian; that’s 26%. The current 20-man L.A. lineup for the playoffs has featured between five and seven Canadians. By way of contrast, the Oilers’ 20-man lineup on Friday in L.A. boasted 12 Canadians and only one undrafted free agent, Derek Ryan.
The Kings’ roster is also made up of several interchangeable parts, and Iafallo typifies that characteristic. He’s a valuable member of the power play but skates most regularly on the third line, usually alongside centre Blake Lizotte, another undrafted American free agent signee. He didn’t play Friday due to injury.
“Alex is kind of our unsung hero,” head coach Todd McLellan said after Iafallo put the Kings up 1-0 in the series with his Game 1 OT snipe in Edmonton. “He cleans up. (Assistant coach) Trent Yawney always says he cleans up a lot of messes. Errors, mistakes, for teammates, he seems to be the clean-up guy. But on the other side of it, he has the ability to score. He can go up and down the lineup, penalty kills, blocks shots.
“A utility guy that is often forgotten when you roll into Edmonton or Calgary or wherever you might be going, but certainly isn’t forgotten in our locker room.”
If killing penalties, blocking shots and moving up and down the lineup sounds like something every NHL player should be able to do, it’s simply not the case. Not every bottom-six player has the bona fides for a spot on the power play. Not every top-six sharp-shooter is responsible enough defensively to kill penalties.
“I feel like I try to take pride in my defence, try to get whoever I’m playing with to adapt to that,” Iafallo said before Game 2. “(Lizotte) does the same thing, focus on defence, try and keep the puck out of your net. You want to score, too.
“Maybe that’s just how we grew as players when we were young or something, I guess. Just take defence as pride and go from there.”
Iafallo worked diligently for many years to round out his skill set, attending several summer development camps, in part because he wasn’t drafted and had to transform his game into one that would grab the attention of an NHL employer.
The payoff has been immense for him — he signed a four-year contract extension two years ago — and for the Kings.
In addition to the OT winner, Iafallo gave the Kings their first lead of the series by scoring the opening goal in Game 3, and it was his drive to the Oilers net in overtime on Friday that drew another Oilers penalty. Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was chasing and in a bit of a desperation move he chopped and broke Iafallo’s stick. It was an obvious penalty that had to be called. Moore cashed in on the resulting power play and the Kings had their 2-1 series lead.
Moore, a 28-year-old Californian, was originally signed as a free agent by the Toronto Maple Leafs and came home to L.A. in a trade. Iafallo signed with L.A. after two years with Fargo in the United States Hockey League and four more at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Alaska-born goalie Pheonix Copley and winger Zack MacEwen of Charlottetown, P.E.I. are other free agent signees who have dressed for playoff games with L.A.
Iafallo said the Kings’ commitment to his development was influential in his decision to sign with them after college, and they followed through.
“They did a great job with me development-wise. I wasn’t as young as the draft picks, obviously, but I was able to work with them. (Kempe) was young at the time and we worked together through everything. Just a great development process.”
The 29-year-old from Eden, New York has repaid their investment with a consistent if unspectacular body of work through six NHL seasons, averaging 14 goals per regular season. However, he already has scored four in 13 career playoff games.
“Everyone is chipping in the right way,” he said.
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