Kings Should Move Kupari to Wing Amid Injury Crisis

The Los Angeles Kings were dealt another serious blow on Saturday, as they announced forward Andreas Athanasiou joined Viktor Arvidsson, Brendan Lemieux, and Mikey Anderson on the injured reserve list. After discussing some options for replacing Lemieux and Arvidsson earlier in the week, it appears the Kings need to find yet another replacement at forward. After being called up on Friday in what looked to be a paper transaction, it now appears that Rasmus Kupari could see some game time. Not only should he see the ice, but he should also get the chance to play at wing, the position he will most likely play in the future.

Using Kupari on the Wing Makes Sense

Switching Kupari to the wing is something I’ve discussed in the past, and something I still view as a necessity. I would expect his career path to follow a similar trajectory to Adrian Kempe, who was also drafted as a center before eventually making the move to the wing. Unlike Kempe, I want to see the Kings commit to the switch with Kupari much earlier. A big contributing factor to Kempe’s early career struggles was the lack of consistency in his role, as he was constantly moving up and down the lineup and from center to wing, making it impossible to find his rhythm. The team should not make the same mistake with Kupari and instead should commit to moving him to wing now, removing those years of uncertainty surrounding his role and position.

Los Angeles Kings forward Adrian Kempe (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo, File)

When Kupari was first sent to the American Hockey League (AHL), I incorrectly assumed that the organization would make the switch then, much like they’ve done with Gabe Vilardi and Jaret Anderson-Dolan this season. Instead, he has remained at center, playing most of his games on the third line. I think it was a mistake to send him down and keep him at center and now is the right time to rectify that mistake. Of course, he won’t draw in immediately Saturday night, with Lias Andersson set to play, but Arvidsson and Lemieux are considered week-to-week and Athanasiou is out for an “extended period” according to LA Kings Insider’s Zach Dooley.

Over the next few weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities for Kupari to play wing, and he should be given the chance to thrive, despite his early-season struggles. It’s also important to remember that Kupari at wing isn’t a new idea for the organization, as team insider John Hoven reported just before the season started, there was serious consideration about moving him to wing then. The organization knows this move is a good idea and now is the perfect opportunity to make it happen.

Kupari’s Skill Set Suits the Wing

There’s a lot to like about Kupari at center, he’s got a big frame which he can add muscle onto, he’s an excellent skater who can get up and down the ice well, and he has the puck skills to be a play driving pivot. Unfortunately, these haven’t translated to results in the NHL as his defensive positioning and awareness with the puck in his own zone were poor this season. He’s a highly-skilled player who likes to take risks with the puck which can lead to magnificent plays, but they can’t be done ten feet from your own net. He’s also struggled in the faceoff dot massively, winning just 42.9 percent of his draws this season. Yes, it’s very possible that he improves in all of these areas, but with the Kings’ logjam of centers, there’s really no need, instead, they should look to utilize his tools on the wing.

Rasmus Kupari Los Angeles Kings
Rasmus Kupari, Los Angeles Kings (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Kupari has a few skills that set him apart from other players, he’s an elite skater with magnificent hands, the word I always use when describing his play with the puck is “silky”. He also has an underrated shot that he gets off quickly and with power. He excels when he can gather speed through the neutral zone and attack defenders one-on-one, when in these scenarios his speed and puck skills make him very difficult to defend. One area he needs to improve on is his use of power moves, still lacking in strength, he needs to learn how to use his frame to effectively drive the puck to the net, much like Kempe.

Related: Kings Sending Vilardi to AHL Is a Win-Win Decision

All of these skills, speed, stickhandling and shooting will be better utilized on the wing, where he has less defensive responsibility and can focus on creating offense. There he will have more opportunities to attack defenders one-on-one and should have more space to work with in the neutral zone. As I said when discussing Vilardi earlier in the year, there’s no shame in having to move from center to wing. Playing center in the NHL is extremely difficult and few players can be effective 200-foot players through the middle. Given the current injuries, there’s also the possibility of playing him with Phillip Danault, who has seemingly improved every player that has been placed on his line. His stellar defensive play will give Kupari more freedom to take chances offensively and could bring the best out of him. At his best, Kupari is an electric, offensive force who can help his team score goals, and moving him to the wing will help facilitate these talents.

A Silver Lining to These Injuries

When I discussed replacing Arvidsson and Lemieux, I said that a silver lining of their injuries was giving young players a chance, and that remains true with Athanasiou’s injury. It opens the door for several players to shine, and that player could be Kupari. Some fans have given up hope on him as a future top-six forward but with a move to wing, and the chance to better utilize his skill set, his future still very much lies at the top of the Kings lineup. He is an immensely talented player and should thrive in this role if given the opportunity.