April 21, 2019

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Former Jet Emerson has key role in Kings rebuild

LOS ANGELES — Nelson Emerson finds himself strapped tightly into the front seat as the L.A. Kings endure the rough ride of rebuilding in the NHL.

The former Winnipeg Jets 1.0 forward is in his first season as director of player personnel for the lowly Kings, who occupy last place in the Western Conference and are just a step up on the Ottawa Senators from the NHL basement.

The Kings raised Stanley Cup banners at Staples Center in 2012 and again in 2014 but appear light years away from regaining their championship form.

The Kings were 25-38-8 and had lost two straight prior to Monday’s matchup with the Winnipeg Jets at Staples Center.

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LOS ANGELES — Nelson Emerson finds himself strapped tightly into the front seat as the L.A. Kings endure the rough ride of rebuilding in the NHL.

The former Winnipeg Jets 1.0 forward is in his first season as director of player personnel for the lowly Kings, who occupy last place in the Western Conference and are just a step up on the Ottawa Senators from the NHL basement.

Former Winnipeg Jets 1.0 forward Nelson Emerson is in his first season as director of player personnel for the Los Angeles Kings. (Adam Pantozzi/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI VIA GETTY IMAGES

Former Winnipeg Jets 1.0 forward Nelson Emerson is in his first season as director of player personnel for the Los Angeles Kings. (Adam Pantozzi/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Kings raised Stanley Cup banners at Staples Center in 2012 and again in 2014 but appear light years away from regaining their championship form.

The Kings were 25-38-8 and had lost two straight prior to Monday’s matchup with the Winnipeg Jets at Staples Center.

Since winning their second Cup, the Kings have qualified for the post-season twice (2016, ’18) — winning just one game through two series — and they won’t be there to try and sweeten those numbers this spring, either.

"It hasn’t been easy. I was through it before when we first started way back. When we drafted (defenceman) Drew Doughty (in 2008), we’re obviously drafting where we were for a reason. We weren’t great then, either. But that team got built up the right way, we took our time. Now, we have to do the same thing," Emerson said, in conversation with the Free Press.

"There’s been a lot of difficult nights but we’ll get through it. (L.A. general manager) Rob Blake is very smart. He’s very patient, he knows what we need to do. We’ve gone a long way with our veteran players but now we know where we need to go. Rob is definitely on that path, and that’s exciting, too, because now we get to watch some of our young players grow up."

Emerson, who hails from Hamilton, works closely with youngsters already within the organization, and he also helps L.A.’s scouting staff figure out who within the next crop of draft-eligible players might be difference-makers as the team overhauls its aging roster.

Right wing Nelson Emerson gets ready for a face off with the Kings in 2002. (Robert Mora / Getty Images / NHLI)

Right wing Nelson Emerson gets ready for a face off with the Kings in 2002. (Robert Mora / Getty Images / NHLI)

While the good times have faded in L.A., the current group at the helm is committed to seeing the necessary evil of a major rebuild through to a success end, he said.

The Kings will have a lofty first-round pick in this summer’s draft in Vancouver and also own Toronto’s selection in the opening round, one of the assets picked up when blue-liner Jake Muzzin was moved to the Maple Leafs.

"(Draft and develop) is tough and you have to be patient. The draft is critical, developing is critical and you need a whole stable of young players because you’re hoping that all of them will hit, even though realistically they don’t," said Emerson, 51. "When you get a plan in place you have to follow it through."

The Kings have an aging lineup. All-star captain Anze Kopitar, who just hit the 50-point mark for the 12th time, turns 32 this summer. Forwards Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter, blue-liner Dion Phaneuf and starting netminder Jonathan Quick are all 33. Ilya Kovalchuk is 35 and still has two seasons left at US$6.25 million per year.

The organization has a substantial pool of Grade-A prospects, led by 2018 first-round pick Rasmus Kupari, a centre currently with Karpat in the Finnish Elite League, centre Gabe Vilardi, a first-round pick in ’17 who had a brilliant junior career in the Ontario Hockey League and is now the Kings AHL affiliate, the Ontario (Calif.) Reign, and defenceman Michael Anderson, selected in the fourth round in ’17.

Emerson travels extensively monitoring the progress of players on the Reign, as well as players at the junior and college levels. He’s doesn’t scout but needs to be familiar with players who might fit the bill at the June draft.

"When you can work with these young kids at 18 or 19 when they’re drafted and you see them striving to make (it), it’s so rewarding because there’s this piece of you in them," he said. "To see them achieve their dreams and how excited they are and how successful they become, it’s really rewarding. I really enjoy that part of the job."

Emerson played 11 season in the NHL, including two highly productive campaigns (1993-95) with the Jets. He scored a career-high 33 goals and 74 points during the ’93-94 season, sharing the ice with young stars such as Teemu Selanne, Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhamnov.

He had been dealt by the St. Louis Blues that fall to Winnipeg along with blue-liner Stephane Quintal for hall-of-fame defenceman Phil Housley, the architect of much of Selanne’s early goal-scoring wizardry.

"Phil was a tremendous player and did so many great things in Winnipeg, but that made it quite a task when I came in there and I know everyone was thinking about that," Emerson said. "But my teammates and the community, we had a really good thing going. We were so young and that made it so much easier for me and Stephane. Even now still working in hockey, I talk about that group all the time."

Emerson said he was wowed by Selanne, watching the Finnish Flash up close — and not just because he could fill the net.

"My first game in Winnipeg after coming over from St. Louis, it wasn’t even a goal. But it was his speed down the wing, forechecking a defenceman. The guy was coming around the net and Teemu just hammered him and the guy went like 20 feet back and I just looked over, I can’t remember who I was sitting beside on the bench, and I was like, "Oh, my gosh,’" he recalled. "Everyone forgets that Teemu was maybe 210 pounds then and fast. My first game, I see him do that."

Emerson played for a seven NHL teams finishing up in 2002 with the Kings. He stepped away from the game briefly before was wooed back to coach. He spent three years (2006-09) as an assistant coach — two under Marc Crawford — and worked alongside current Jets associate coach Jamie Kompon.

"There’s your example of a guy’s dedication and hard work right there. When I was learning how to be a video coach, it was almost like Jamie was doing two jobs. He had his job behind the bench and running one of the special teams and he basically moonlighted, helping me do all my work on video," he said.

Emerson moved into player development in 2010 and was promoted to director of player personnel last summer. He and his wife June and their four children make their home in Manhattan Beach. His twin sons have both committed to play college two years from now at Bowling Green, his old alma mater in Ohio.

Rarely does a day go by when he doesn’t begin the morning with an hour of surfing.

"It’s one of the best things I can do to clear my mind. I go about 7 (a.m.) and it’s just the best thing before you head to the rink," he said. "Some days you go out there and forget about everything, or sometimes it’s a great place to think. It makes you feel so good. The days I don’t surf are the days I’m grumpy and irritable and I’m not enjoying myself.

"I start my day (in the ocean), and then I’m exactly (five kilometres) from the Kings' training facility. It’s a good life."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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History

Updated on Monday, March 18, 2019 at 4:51 PM CDT: Updates photo.

5:27 PM: Adds photo.

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