For a defensive-defenseman, being compared to two-time Stanley Cup winner Rob Scuderi is high praise. Yet, during his first three years at St. Cloud State University, Michigan-native Kevin Gravel did just that and looked destined for a future spot on the Los Angeles Kings blueline.
Then, Gravel was left with a decision – sign a professional contract and turn pro, or return to college for another season and take one last crack at a NCAA National Championship. He chose the latter, serving as St. Cloud’s co-captain with fellow Kings prospect Nic Dowd during their senior campaigns. Ultimately, the duo fell short, as their team lost to the University of Minnesota in the NCAA Regionals.
Having completed his four years in school, Gravel made the transition to the profession ranks late in the 2013-14 season, alongside Dowd. While they had been roommates and great friends over their four years in St. Cloud, each arrived in Manchester facing very different situations.
Dowd, a 2009 7th round pick, was given an NHL contract. Gravel, on the other hand, was given a challenge.
Kings’ management was unhappy with the defenseman’s senior season, feeling his game hit a plateau and he lacked a high enough compete level. As such, the organization offered Gravel an AHL contract for 2014-15 and the opportunity to prove to the Kings that he was worth signing to an NHL deal.
The road wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy for Gravel, as this year’s Monarchs team is very deep on the blueline. In training camp, there were nine players competing for ice time and it’s been nearly as tough all season.
When Zac Leslie was returned to the OHL and Andrew Bodnarchuk was sidelined with a knee injury early on, things opened up slightly, but Gravel still had to fight. In the early months, Monarchs’ head coach Mike Stothers rotated defenseman in and out of the lineup, distributing ice time to all seven healthy bodies.
Now, 55 games in and approaching the end of the regular season, Gravel has established his game in the professional ranks, solidly sitting as the number six defenseman on Manchester’s depth chart.
“You want to play as much as you can, but we still have pretty good competition on the blueline here,” said Gravel. “Anybody can step in and play – we have eight good [defensemen] here. Whoever gets the nod is going to be ready. We all work hard in practice. It’s nice playing a little more consistently now, though – it’s always your goal. You just [have] to keep working, and hopefully it keeps going for you.”
Despite falling out of the Kings Top 10 Prospect Rankings, comparisons to Scuderi are still likely valid at this point. Even with questions about how Gravel might transition to the next level, both defensemen play a similar game. Standing 6-foot-4, the first-year pro has great reach and uses it to his advantage in his own zone, playing positionally sound hockey and utilizing an active stick. He’s also found a way to use his size to his advantage, playing with a more physical edge than he did during his collegiate career.
One of the more interesting aspects in his game has been an added offensive element over the past two years. After being known as a pure defense-first player, Gravel scored 10 goals in his senior campaign at SCSU, while only chipping in one tally during each of his first three years. That production has been carried over to the professional game, where he currently has four goals and eight assists with the Monarchs through 40 games played.
To be clear – Gravel will almost never be known for scoring, and likely won’t even earn the label of a two-way defenseman. He plays a strong defensive game, and his recent uptick in offensive output will only serve as a secondary benefit.
“I think it’s just the guys you play with – we have a lot of really good players on our team, and they give you the opportunity to join the rush,” commented Gravel. “If you step up, your forward is going to stay back for you. You have the opportunity to kind of do that stuff, and the freedom to do it, from the coaching staff. Whenever you get the opportunity to not force it, and maybe chip in here and there, it’s always helpful for your team.”
Still, Gravel knows where he is going to find success, and that is in his own zone. He plays a more patient game with the puck, making smart breakout passes and is now quicker on the transition. Along the boards, the lanky defender battles hard, but will still benefit from adding muscle to his frame. While his progress has been solid as a rookie in the American League, there is still work to be done to elevate his game to the next level.
“I think you just have to solidify defensively. There are a lot of good forwards out there, and they’re very good at making plays – little plays in small areas. I have to continue to improve on finishing plays in the corners, and ending plays when I get the opportunity, with either my stick or my body, and just becoming a shutdown guy out there,” stated Gravel, when discussing areas of his game still requiring improvement.
Overall, his rookie campaign should be considered a marked success. Even further, he has made a strong impression on those who matter most.
“[Gravel] has been great; he’s just improved immensely,” coach Stothers said of his young defenseman. “There’s a lot to like about him when you first look at him. You see his size and his reach, and his skating is underestimated. He’s [also] made some real progress in the way he reads the situations. He’s making great plays. He looks like he’s playing with some poise and confidence. He’s been real good.”
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