Alex Turcotte’s first day as a professional was the Kings’ last of a pandemic-shortened season.
The No. 5 pick in the 2019 draft, Turcotte turned pro after a lone college season at Wisconsin and signed his entry level contract March 11. Less than 24 hours later, he arrived at the Kings’ El Segundo practice facility to meet with his future coaches and greet his soon-to-be teammates. He was supposed to play out the remainder of the season with the club's Ontario Reign minor-league affiliate.
Instead, the NHL season was suspended that afternoon because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“The poor kid,” Kings director of player personnel Nelson Emerson said earlier this summer. “The day he signs a contract and gets to L.A. is the day we’re closing up shop.”
Six months later, the team still hasn’t resumed full on-ice operations. With the 2020-21 season’s start date still up in the air, the Kings don’t even know when preseason camps will be allowed to begin.
Thus, at a time Turcotte and some of the club’s other top young players should have been returning to Southern California for rookie workouts and important development training, they’re heading across the Atlantic instead.
Turcotte, 19, was one of five Kings prospects lent on Tuesday to German club Eisbaren Berlin, where they will get to practice and play with the Deutsche Eishockey League side until the Kings can start hosting full on-ice workouts again.
“They shared the schedule that they’re using and it replicates what we’d be doing, maybe even a little more,” Emerson said Tuesday, reached by phone after helping coordinate the loan deals, which do not affect the players’ eligibility for the 2020-21 NHL or AHL seasons.
“They’re going to be able to go on the ice for practice, they will have the ability to work out, plus on certain days they’ll have games at night. We like the schedule because it’s going to be really useful.”
Both the Kings and Eisbaren Berlin are owned by AEG, a connection that Kings President Luc Robitaille cited in a statement as an important factor in the team’s decision.
“The players begin their professional careers at a very difficult time,” Robitaille said in a release that was translated from the Berlin team’s website. “This measure helps them to develop.”
Tuesday’s group of lent-out players — also including Akil Thomas (the team’s 2018 second-round pick), Tyler Madden (a former third-round pick acquired at this season’s deadline from Vancouver), Aidan Dudas and Jacob Ingham — are the latest Kings players to be sent to Europe for training while the NHL sorts out next year’s schedule.
Earlier this month, forwards Carl Grundstrom and Samuel Fagemo were lent to Swedish teams, while defenseman Jacob Moverare was lent to a Finnish club.
Those three, however, are temporarily returning to their home continent. All five players heading to Berlin are either American or Canadian natives.
So why are the Kings doing this?
In short, to re-create as much of the typical development process as possible.
In normal years, the prospects would have attended a summer development camp. They would have played in a preseason rookie tournament. They would have experienced extended hands-on training with the Kings’ development staff.
Instead, the team’s player development department, led by Glen Murray, has been limited to weekly virtual meetings with the players this summer.
“Definitely, it impacts them,” Emerson said. “We’ve tried to communicate in different ways. We’ve done a good job. But this is different for everybody. It hasn’t been easy. Hopefully, going over there to Berlin is a step in the right direction.”
Every NHL club is facing the same obstacles, and the Kings aren’t the only organization to have lent prospects to European teams in recent weeks.
But few franchises have as much of their future mortgaged on a crop of current teenagers and 20-somethings. For a group of players who are supposed to break into the NHL over the next several seasons, nothing substitutes for the experience of training in a controlled, competitive, professional environment.
Until the NHL can cement plans for next season, Europe offers perhaps the best available alternative.
“That will help every one of those guys,” Emerson said. “The fact that they’re playing against men, playing with men, being in that environment. They’re all first-year pros. It’s going to be very beneficial.”