Matt Luff exudes a friendly and carefree innocence as a charm. He’s always smiling, he’s approachable and he possesses a boyish charisma similarly seen across junior hockey college dressing rooms. This is a player who’d otherwise be an upper-classman in the NCAA, a likely senior. He recently turned 22. 22-year-olds have lots of fun.
And why shouldn’t Luff? In short increments amidst last season’s overwhelming cacophony, he was living out his lifelong dream by scoring goals on NHL goalies with eight of them in 33 games, earning notice for his offensive awareness and hard, pinpoint wristshot. He was reminded of it earlier this off-season while at home with his friends when his first career goal – a game-winner scored on Jake Allen in a 2-0 win at St. Louis mere hours before Mike Yeo’s dismissal – was shown during the ESPY Awards as part of a montage depicting the Blues’ cellar-to-penthouse run.
It’s not bad being Matt Luff – and it’ll be even better once his NHL 20 ratings are updated.
“I’m hoping they’re better than last year,” he said in a phone call last week. “Like, I was working a camp this week for my old boss, and these little kids were like, ‘oh we were playing NHL 19 and you were like a 50, 55.’ I was like, ‘oh, that’s tough.’”
“Maybe some games up top will give me a better rating.”
That’s the type of quote one might expect from a younger, tweener-type of player – and there’s some weight and truth in it, too.
It’s an interesting year for Luff, who has forces tugging him in opposite directions. He’s only 22 and will remain waiver-exempt for the entirety of the season, so it’s easy to see him continue to add to the 105 games he’s played to date in Ontario. On the other hand, he possesses a skill set that’s manna to a team that has wandered through the offensive wilderness and has the gifts to be able to go out and earn a roster spot on his own.
That fun and seemingly carefree ease with which he found early success won’t matter once it comes time to battle for a roster spot. He’s no longer a rookie, rather one of a number of players responsible for the success of an organization that didn’t find much of it the previous season.
“Luffer can play, and will play, but like a good bottle of wine, or a fine cigar, you can’t rush the process,” Ontario Head Coach Mike Stothers said.
Luff has played for Stothers for the better part of two seasons and has performed well beyond the typical pay grade of someone in his situation. He flew under the radar as an underrated if winger who finished just one point shy of 30 as a rookie as a 20-year-old in 2017-18, posting the level of production Jonny Brodzinski offered as a 22-year-old for Ontario with a pretty good NHL showing mixed in.
“His body of work thus far in his young career is ahead of schedule as far as I am concerned,” Stothers said. Few, if any, would disagree. But a “body of work” is more than simple points and production – though those obviously play a major role. And while check-ins during Luff’s Reign rendezvouses told of a player putting in the work, adding detail and adapting well to going up and down between the two levels, the AHL club struggled, as did its parent club. Late in the season in Ontario, when Stothers was asked why his productive winger didn’t see the ice in a variety of third period situations, he responded that “Luffer needed an attitude adjustment. So he got one.”
That one incident drew a bit of outsized notice for perhaps a few Kings and Reign fans. Perhaps there was another breadcrumb here or there, but over two years of check-ins, it wasn’t really aligning with what we’d been hearing of Luff – that he had an attitude that was commended, maintained a tremendous relationship with the development staff, and that even as a 20-year-old AHL rookie he went a long ways towards earning Stothers’ trust. There had been a suboptimal Willie Desjardins evaluation shortly into his first call-up and the occasional reminders that he has the ability to be a good NHL player and needed to put in the work and focus every day towards achieving that, but at the AHL level, his attitude and approach were praised.
The one late-season incident was out of line, and even if Kings developers and evaluators are well aware of who he is as a person, Luff still took the onus to use the episode as a learning experience.
“I think it was just a tough season overall, but there’s really no excuse. I think I just got frustrated and had a tough time scoring. I was a top player there and pucks weren’t going to the net and we were losing games,” Luff said. “I mean, I’m taking it hard on myself and Stutts is kind of questioning what’s going on, so I think I was more frustrated at myself and didn’t really handle it too well, and at the end of the day, Stutts pulled me aside and said, “you’re a young kid, but we lean on you a lot.’ It was kind of a quick attitude thing, but Stutts knocked that one out pretty quick.”
Stothers’ candor with his players – regular meetings and lines of communication issued directly, occasionally complemented with honest appraisals in media sessions, the Bus Texts With Stothers series and, occasionally, the sharp on-ice directive – helps build a relationship strong enough to weather such an episode.
“Luffer’s attitude is terrific and my comment regarding ‘Luffer needed an attitude adjustment’ is a one-off and not that uncommon,” Stothers said. “He is a kid in the ‘tweener’ stage. Maybe, too good for the American League, and not quite consistent enough to be a regular in the NHL? He is up with the Kings one day, and down playing with the Reign the next day. It’s hard on your emotions as a guy in his early twenties. Hell, Jon, I’m 57 and have said things that I would like to take back, but you hope that you are not defined by that one incident, comment, or situation. It’s a part of life. You make mistakes, you learn from those mistakes, and you move on. Luffer is a good person who happens to be a good hockey player. He has a great sense of humor and is a character guy. Those attributes that make him popular with his teammates and coaches. That personality is welcome on any team and the Kings will benefit from it.”
This past year Luff billeted in Matt Moulson’s household, which meant there were a few mini-stick games against the Moulson children. But Moulson signed an AHL-contract with Hershey, which means their young bird will fly the coop and spread his wings in the wild. There will be… fewer mini-stick games.
“[Moulson departing] was a little bit tough just because of the relationship I’ve built with him and his family over the last season and of course this summer,” Luff said. “I took a trip out to see him with Amadio, so I mean it sucks to see him go, but it’s close to home which I kind of expected to happen. But me, Sean Walker, and Cal Petersen are going to all live together this year, so we’re in the midst of looking at places. So, kind of a new start with those two and get back to living in California.”
Luff, Walker, Petersen. All three are waiver-exempt, and barring injury Petersen will open the year in Ontario, so there’s an outside chance there won’t be one regular season game in which all three are in the same team’s lineup together.
Luff has a fine shot at a roster spot, but there are a surplus of forwards at the NHL level and it’s possible his home game commute will be a touch longer at the start of the season. “Luffer has a bright future and it will be up to him to show Todd and the Kings coaching staff that he belongs and can contribute,” Stothers said. “If he has to start with the Reign because they are sorting out their roster, I will welcome him with open arms.”
Blake Lizotte, Carl Grundstrom and Austin Wagner are also waiver exempt, as are the young’uns like Rasmus Kupari and Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Michael Amadio would be waiver eligible but plays center, where the team isn’t in an ideal position to risk losing a player through waivers, though Nikolai Prokhorkin (waiver exempt) has center experience and could ultimately be a candidate to earn time down the middle.
If Luff is to make the strongest impression, it’ll be through improved checking and responsible play. He can score, he has a natural intuition to get to soft spots on the ice, he moves his feet and skates well. But the consistency was lacking last year, and it resulted in the Kings yielding an extreme rate of scoring chances against while he was on the ice. It’s part of the reason – along with Willie Desjardins’ lineup decisions – why he wasn’t able to regularly get back into the lineup. On the surface, it sounds ridiculous that a player tied for third on the team in goal scoring on January 5 would only see an additional 41 minutes of NHL action through the remainder of the season, but Luff had the seventh-lowest expected goals-for percentage in the league among players with a minimum 30 games and sported the lowest high-danger scoring chance percentage among Los Angeles forwards.
Again, that “body of work,” described by Stothers as being ahead of schedule, is impressive despite the need to grow as a professional and smooth out some bits of jagged detail that for a 21-year-old can be particularly sharp. It is not hard to find 21-year-olds with crooked shot, chance and possession-based metrics, but it is hard to find 21-year-olds who scored eight times in their first 33 games.
“He has made great strides with the Reign and is working on being a player the coaches can trust in all situations,” Stothers said. “He understands that it’s more than just scoring goals, he has to be responsible to the team and know the situations. That will all come with experience.”
There’s already the well-developed relationship at the AHL level, but up top, Luff enters the season with a clean slate under Todd McLellan, whose reputation will precede him to Los Angeles. Luff hasn’t spoken yet with his new coach but heard very good things about him from Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse, an off-season training partner.
“I think Todd’s a guy who just respects guys that work hard, and it doesn’t matter how old you are or what year you are,” he said. “If you’re a hardworking guy that can play your game that’s close enough to what he wants from you, I don’t think you’ll find yourself out of the lineup too much. But I think it’s being consistent and just being a hardworking kid and just wanting the puck. And when you don’t have it, making sure that you’re doing what it takes to win hockey games because that’s what it’s all about.”
“Nursie really liked him. Said he’s really tough, but he’s a fair coach – especially for the young kids. Darnell had him when he was just getting into the league, too, so it’s just ‘do your work’ and he’ll reward you with ice time. Just go about your day-to-day business and be a pro and at the end of the day work hard and he’ll respect it.”
Should that all come together in concert and Luff is able to demonstrate improvement and greater consistency in his all-around game – and there’s still plenty of work before that comes to reality – his offensive game should flourish. There are a lot of interesting young players vying for ice time, but among those to get a semi-regular shot last season, Luff is the one with the best top-six potential and the most ample headroom.
“For this season, I want to put up a lot more,” he said. “I want to be in the twenties, so it’s a big year. I wasn’t satisfied with 33 games and eight goals, I want to be the guy that’s a consistent scorer and that doesn’t just score in bunches.”
“When I get the puck or when I get out there, I’ve just got to come off with a statement and have a positive shift every time. So, going into this year, I’ve got my feet wet and I can walk into those games knowing that I can play in this league and believe in myself and believe in my abilities. I think that’ll help my consistency.”
Matt Luff, on any relationship with Arthur Kaliyev, who followed him at OHL-Hamilton:
The year I made Ontario, it was his first year, so I went to camp just to do fitness testing so I kind of got to meet him there and then just since the draft, just kind of messaged with him a bit, and just talked about it. Now I see he’s putting some numbers on the board, so good for him and he’s a nice kid and he’s a pure goal-scorer, so I like that.
Luff, on returning to Ontario in the summer after scoring eight times as a 21-year-old:
It’s a little different. I think all my buddies are a little into it more. They just talk about it more and then a little bit of the AHL. Day-to-day, it’s just going from 33. I want to play 82, so in the gym or on the ice it’s making sure I’m wearing that Kings uniform and playing 82 games with them. It’s just getting ready for that and for my first impression of what Todd the new coach is. [Reporter: Developing that kind of maturity and understanding that and learning, is that tough? Is it a bumpy process?] No, I mean at the end of the day, I’m a big believer that you have to be a sponge and you might not like what they’re saying to you, but at the end of the day they’re trying to make you better and Stutts is honest in what he thinks and he’s brought a lot of guys up to the Kings. Anything he’s saying to me, I’m listening to and I’m going to try to add to my game, because he’s a really respected coach throughout the league and really respected when guys from up top ask what kid to call. Any time I hear something from him, I take it to heart and try to change my game.
–Lead photo via Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images