Los Angeles Kings forward Arthur Kaliyev was widely considered one of the most offensively gifted players in his draft class. He led the OHL in scoring for under-18 players in his draft year, holding a commanding 27-point and 14-goal lead over the next closest players. Despite this, Kaliyev fell to the second round, where the Kings were able to grab him with the 33rd overall pick. Concerns over his skating, defensive play, and work ethic were the driving forces behind his draft day plummet. However, three years later, he has made huge improvements in some of these areas. In his rookie season, Kaliyev is slowly developing into a reliable NHL player.
Coming out of his draft, Kaliyev’s defensive play was arguably the biggest red flag. It wasn’t just that he was a bad defensive player; it was that he rarely played defense at all. When the puck entered his defensive zone, he shut down, spending most of his time puck watching, failing to move his feet and get engaged with the play. He also didn’t play strong enough along the boards. He displayed good puck protection skills in the offensive zone, but they seemed to disappear when he was in the defensive zone. Too often, he would fail to break the puck out because he has weak on the puck along the boards. These positional and effort issues in his own zone had several scouts worried that he would be too much of a liability at the NHL level.
These concerns about effort extended outside of the defensive zone as well. On the forecheck, he was even less engaged, as his two linemates were essentially forechecking on their own when Kaliyev was on the ice. This was also true about his backchecking, as he was a player who would be last in on the forecheck and still manage to be the last player back on the backcheck. Of course, when you’re scoring 51 goals and posting 102 points, it’s very easy for a coach to overlook these issues. But at the NHL level, it’s much harder to get away with being a defensive liability outside of a few select players. The Kings drafted a highly skilled player who they hoped could find the fire and drive to advance in these certain areas of his game.
While Kaliyev has made huge progress this season, it would be unfair to ignore the impact that head coach John Wrowbleski had on him last season with the Ontario Reign. Naturally, he led the team in points, but it was his commitment to developing in other areas of the game that excited the organization. So far this season, Kaliyev has continued to get better away from the puck, something coach Todd McLellan has mentioned:
“It’s improved immensely, when I say that, it’s improved incrementally this year. Game after game. Practice after practice. Looking back to his one game last year with us, he had a long way to go then and he’s closed that gap a ton. … He’s growing every day. The coaching staff, not necessarily me, but the staff that’s around him, sitting and having lunch with him a little bit more, the assistants. They all think he’s learning every day. He’s like a sponge. He’s absorbing.”
from ‘Kings 20/20: Quinton Byfield’s return, sputtering in Vancouver and Arthur Kaliyev’s improvemen’, The Athletic, 12/7/21
Last season, Kaliyev took the first steps of his 200-foot development, and this season he’s gone from stride to stride. Being used primarily in a bottom-six role, he has been one of the team’s most effective players both defensively and on the forecheck. According to the analytics, Kaliyev shows up extremely well league-wide too. According to TopDownHockey’s model, he scores in the 64th percentile for defensive impact, and according to Andy & Rono’s analytic model, he is scoring in the 89th percentile for defensive impact. While these models don’t tell the whole story, they do prove a point that Kaliyev is far from a liability defensively, and according to some models, he’s fantastic defensively.
Kaliyev has also been very effective on the forecheck this season, taking a quality over quantity approach. According to AllThreeZones.com, he is posting a below-average 2.29 forecheck pressures per 60 but is also producing an above average rate of 4.576 recovered dump-ins per 60. He is also generating most of his offense on the forecheck and through the cycle game, according to All Three Zones.
Being a pure goal scorer, Kaliyev really shouldn’t be the first player in on the forecheck looking to finish chances created off the forecheck instead, so his low-pressure numbers shouldn’t be too concerning. But it is encouraging to see how effective he is when forechecking. Recovering dump-ins with that level of efficiency requires one thing above else, hard work, and Kaliyev is providing that this season.
Kaliyev’s role as a bottom-six forward definitely plays a role in these numbers. It’s much easier to post positive defensive numbers playing against other teams’ bottom-six, and the greater emphasis on playing dump and chase hockey from his line aids in his forechecking numbers. Still, seeing a player who was labeled as lazy and a defensive liability buy into an unfamiliar role and find success is a great sign.
Where Kaliyev Still Needs Work
Even with his recent development, Kaliyev is still far from a finished product. His offensive numbers have been good given his role, his defensive numbers are good, and he has been excellent on the forecheck, so then why has he not been given an elevated role? The answer is his skating. It has gotten better since being drafted, It has gotten better since being drafted, but it still needs some work. He is still dragging his feet along the ice, leading to short choppy strides that rob him of speed and power. This lack of foot speed is killing him in transition, with his numbers for neutral zone play and zone entry looking pretty poor. It’s easy for the team to shelter this issue when he’s in the bottom-six. But against the league’s best, these deficiencies will get punished. He needs to get work in with a skating coach to fix his stride before he can truly reach his potential.
A Star in the Making
I’ve been a huge fan of Kaliyev since he was drafted and was shocked he was available for the Kings at pick 33, so seeing these improvements has been a joy. This is a player who has the offensive tools to be a game-changer at the highest level, but he needed to put the work in to develop his overall game, and that’s exactly what he is doing. His work isn’t finished. But seeing how willing he is to put in the effort, there should be no questions about his future as a star in the NHL.
My name is Austin Stanovich, as a lifelong player and fan I’m hoping to bring my own unique perspective on the hockey world, specifically covering the Los Angeles Kings. As a SoCal native I grew up a Kings fan, and after graduating from Long Beach State in 2020 I’ve joined The Hockey Writers crew as a columnist for the Kings.