Kings’ turnaround gets big boost from undrafted free agents

EL SEGUNDO — NHL fans salivate over their team winning the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery or acquiring a world-class player via trade, but the Kings’ turnaround has been fueled in significant part by undrafted free agents.

Their contributions might not have risen to the level of undrafted stars like 2020 Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin or 2019 Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano. But consider that the undrafted Kings – four of whom they unearthed in Alex Iafallo, Blake Lizotte, Cal Petersen and Sean Walker, along with second-half standout Trevor Moore, who was signed originally as an undrafted free agent by Toronto – have contributed more to the Kings’ about-face, by any measure, than the five young lottery picks in their organization thus far.

“It always makes a difference, of course, when you have something like that happen and when you feel like you’ve found something that nobody else did, it gives you the upper hand,” said team captain Anze Kopitar, adding that those players brought “quite a bit” of character and hunger to the roster.

And while the day will likely come for some combination of higher-profile prospects Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Brandt Clarke, Gabe Vilardi and Lias Andersson, the Kings are also hoping that their quartet of unsigned finds have another redemption song in their repertoire.

Perhaps the most arduous road was traveled by Walker, who played in low-level junior leagues and received just one scholarship offer, from Bowling Green University, on his path to the NHL.

The two words every hockey player dreams of hearing in back-to-back seasons are “Stanley Cup,” and not “reconstructive surgery.” Unfortunately for Sean Walker, a slap shot to the face broke his orbital bone and rendered him all but unrecognizable before he underwent facial surgery during the 2020-2021 season. He fully recovered and finished that campaign, only to see an awkward fall late in the same calendar year end his 2021-2022 season after just six games when he tore his ACL and MCL, requiring another reconstructive procedure and much longer recovery.

“Unfortunately it’s just kind of another stepping stone in my career. It’s been trying at times but I’ll get through it,” Walker said. “I know I can come back from this and hopefully be better than before. I’ll come out the other side, contribute to the team and hopefully we’ll go deep in the playoffs this year.”

Walker has looked solid during training camp, including when he scored a nifty goal off a faceoff during a scrimmage. But he has also been managing his injury diligently and communicating constantly with the Kings’ staff. Coach Todd McLellan said he almost had to remind people what Walker had been and could be again soon: a swift, active defenseman who played with a “bulldog mentality” while providing scoring prowess.

Iafallo, 28; Lizotte, 24; Petersen, 27; and Walker, 27, all arrived in the organization at a time when the gleam of the franchise’s unprecedented success was dimming in its rearview mirror and dark days loomed on the horizon. They remained with the team last season when it fell a solitary point shy of 100 and returned to the playoffs.

“That generation that came, there weren’t a lot of draft picks in the organization at that point, because of their runs and the pieces that were used to acquire (talent),” McLellan said. “The focus then was ‘okay, if we don’t have the draft picks, we’ve got to find some guys that maybe slipped through the cracks,’ and the Kings have done an outstanding job there.”

McLellan also said that both management and the coaching staff had been careful to treat each player fairly, regardless of their draft standing. When asked about his three bigger-name centers last week, McLellan went out of his way to mention Lizotte. He has credited the diminutive pivot with lending identity and heart to the team before, but offered a plaudit of his play last season when he said Lizotte had “a helluva year.”

Like Lizotte, Iafallo went from under the radar to woven into the fabric, reaching the rank of a first-line player for multiple seasons who was highly trusted by Kopitar and McLellan, among others.

“Obviously being undrafted, you’ve got to work your (butt) off, you know, and the organization does a great job of putting everybody in. You trust them and they trust you,” Iafallo said.

McLellan also spoke of Iafallo, who maintained a relatively torrid 35-goal pace early on but then went through a seemingly interminable scoring slump during which he went 23 straight games without a goal while contributing just four assists. As the season progressed, Iafallo endured physical wear and tear and contributed four points in seven playoff games despite a separated shoulder that limited him considerably, which McLellan commended.

“We need a full season from him. He’s that important and we believe in him that much,” McLellan said. “His downturn in production didn’t coincide with an injury, it started prior to that, but when you’re not producing or maybe not playing at the level you’d like to play at, an injury just adds onto it.”

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Petersen, originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres then later signed as a free agent by the Kings, might be the most key figure on a quest to transform from unlikely NHL’er to resurgent force in the Kings’ dressing room. He entered last year armed with a new contract extension at a No. 1 goalie’s salary that was set to kick in this season, which is the final year of veteran netminder Jonathan Quick’s current contract.

He was the Kings’ opening-night starter, unseating Quick for the first season opener in more than a decade. But in the springtime the much more familiar Quick, he of two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy, was back between the pipes. In the interim, Petersen’s save percentage dipped below .900 for the first time in his NHL career.

“Numbers are numbers. I improved my win stats, which was good, and that’s the most important thing for me,” Petersen said. “My goal was to be the goalie that started the playoffs and that was obviously a goal that I, um, but again it’s one of those things that I can look in the mirror and feel that I put everything into it and learned a lot in my kind of first full season in the NHL.”

With Walker returning to the mix on defense, Iafallo poised to take his top-trio experience to the third line, Lizotte continuing to persist and Petersen’s opportunity to further solidify the Kings’ situation in goal, the Kings’ former lesser-knowns could make the difference for their team yet again.

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