With two of the first three players already revealed in our LA Kings Top 10 Prospects list coming to the organization via free agency, No. 7 on the list comes from the more traditional NHL Entry Draft route.
For those catching up, this is article four in our multi-part series. Part I included a deep dive on a trio of players labeled as having bright futures – Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Mikey Eyssimont, and Cole Hults. Then, Part II provided key insight in the futures of players like Justin Auger, Kurtis MacDermid, and Michael Mersch. And the first two players to make the Top 10, Mikey Anderson and Matt Luff, have their full scouting reports up here; plus you can read up on No. 8 Oscar Fantenberg here.
If you’re unfamiliar with our rankings, for nearly a decade this content has become a vital source of player information, as nobody outside the Kings organization talks to more coaches, scouts, and General Managers about LA’s top prospects on a regular basis than the team at MayorsManor. Endless hours go into evaluating players in the Kings pipeline and preparing our write-ups. Additionally, the final slotting of players is influenced by hundreds of hours of game action and debating the team’s prospects with a myriad of well-respected hockey people, including our key sources inside the team’s front office.
MAYOR’S MANOR 2018 MID-SEASON PROSPECT RANKINGS
7. AUSTIN WAGNER: Forward, Ontario Reign (4th round pick in 2015, WHL)
To properly set the tone here, a little context is important. It was the last weekend of June 2015, with all of the NHL’s top managers and scouts gathered in Florida for the league’s annual Entry Draft. Coming off a trade with Boston a few days prior, the Kings were without a first round pick, having dealt it away to the Bruins as part of a package of assets for Milan Lucic. This left then-GM Dean Lombardi and his lieutenants with very little to do on Friday, which is reserved for the opening round of picks. By Saturday, though, they were itching to get to work. Following selections of Erik Cernak in the second round and Alexander Dergachyov in the third round, the Kings were holding pick No. 104 in the fourth round. As things moved along, right before pick No. 99, a trade was announced. And who had the Kings reached out and made a deal with – Philadelphia, of course.
Lombardi and crew – read: Mike Futa and Mark Yannetti – used a future asset (sixth round pick in 2016) as a tax to move up five spots, acquiring the pick previously held by the Flyers. So… if the Kings were already short on draft picks and needing every available pick they had to re-stock the prospect pool, why trade away a pick just to jump the line by a few selections? Simple answer; that’s how bad they wanted Austin Wagner.
At 6-foot-1 and 180 lbs., Wagner wouldn’t normally strike you as that typical, big-bodied LA Kings player. However, this is an evolving league. As one Kings executive told MayorsManor, Wagner is almost the perfect third-line player in the new NHL. Although traditionally that would be the spot reserved for a bigger player; somebody who plays more of a shutdown, checking role. That isn’t the case anymore. Third-line players now need speed, and Wagner has an abundance of it. In fact, it’s the type of speed the Kings haven’t had in their system for quite some time. One scout even told us he isn’t sure there are five better skaters in the NHL right now. Add Adrian Kempe – who arguably could already be one of the league’s best skaters – into the mix, and it’s easy to see why the LA brass gets chills when talking about Wagner.
This past summer was a difficult one for the 20-year-old forward. Coming off of an incredible run with the Regina Pats, where he picked up 21 points (16G, 5A) in 22 post-season games, Wagner needed off-season shoulder surgery. Not only would he need to go through a long rehabilitation process before being cleared to skate again, he also lost a tremendous amount of momentum with his on-ice play. Additionally, there were questions about what to do with him for the 2017-18 season. Should he return to junior hockey or begin his pro career with AHL Ontario? After much discussion, including input from Reign coach Mike Stothers, it was ultimately decided to keep him in SoCal. There was a condition, though. He needed to play once healthy, despite it being a tall ask to expect a first-year player to get in the lineup every night, and when he would join the team months into the season. However, it was necessary for his development. Management didn’t want him sitting three, four, or five games in a row. They wanted him playing.
Among the deciding factors to have him graduate up a level was that aforementioned speed. As it was put to us, “He was fast enough to get past the WHL; he wasn’t going to get any faster there.”
Even so, Wagner is still a work in progress. He needs to learn to process his speed. His mind has to catch up with his feet, allowing him to use his speed in a beneficial way. This year has been a great first step in his ongoing evolution. Breaking in with the Reign has allowed him to learn the pro game; the grind of it all. Wagner plays physical, and recently had his first AHL fight (something he had nine of over four WHL seasons). While seven points in 28 games thus far doesn’t scream offensive dynamo, it takes time to ramp back up following an extended layoff. Understandably, his strength and timing might be lacking after sitting out so long (not to mention how tough it is to be a first-year pro), yet other aspects are already shining through, like his aggressive forecheck.
Wagner’s game, both with and without the puck, is predicted on his skating ability. It’s his elite speed that creates issues for opponents when he has the puck in transition and without the puck on the forecheck and penalty kill. Both he and his game have matured over the past few months. Still, he doesn’t process the game quickly enough in the offensive zone to compliment other offensive players over the long run. Over a five-game run, he could definitely fill-in for a bigger role. Similar to Trevor Lewis in that regard.
When looking ahead, Wagner is a big part of that next group of future LA Kings who will play and create through their speed. He’s a highly competitive player, who could easily slot into the bottom six, providing good energy and adding 10-15 goals. His breakaway speed will give him plenty of opportunities to chip in with secondary offense at the NHL level.
With four players from the Top 10 highlighted already, No. 6 on the list will be up next. The only hint we’ll give you is he is currently teammates with Wagner in Ontario. If you just can’t get enough of the former Regina Pats forward though, here is a LINK to last year’s Prospect Ranking report on him.
Like always, many thanks to the numerous hockey sources who contribute to this series – especially Andy Tonge, our longtime correspondent, and Cody Warner, who has been covering the Ontario Reign for us since the AHL arrived in California. Their ongoing input regarding prospects continues to be invaluable throughout this process. Do yourself a favor and give them both a follow on Twitter right now.
If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, click here to catch up.
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