A week of on and off-ice instruction wound down on Friday morning as the final session at Toyota Sports Center culminated not with a full-team scrimmage but rather with transition and puck management drills designed to get players to distribute the puck as units moving up and down the ice together.
While also opening a finely tread path to the parent club for a group of invitees scattered across a Northern Hemisphere scattering of high-level professional leagues, Los Angeles’ development camp is designed to reinforce tenets of the way the team plays while presenting a professional lifestyle for the junior and college-based prospects.
“We have certain staples that the coaching staff and players are mindful of, so we just kind of reinforce all of that that stuff that you see the big team do,” Senior Advisor/Development Coach Mike O’Connell said.
For a team with high shot volume that has shown success at operating in the offensive zone, that means drills designed to allow players the opportunity to succeed in the team’s systems.
“We do a lot of puck protection skills – we’re not just going to toss it off and let the other team get it,’ said Steven Johnson, a University of Minnesota defensive product selected in the fourth round in 2014. “They really emphasize not dumping it in once you get to the red line. It’s more curl back and make sure you come up with speed, and we also have games where you can’t just dump it in. You’ve just got to make sure that you pass it to other players and stuff like that. All that stuff transitions really well into the actual game.”
But any sort of systems teaching is only the tip of an iceberg that is mostly unseen, as much of the hockey instruction actually takes place off the ice – whether in the gym or a classroom. As with the big club, video clips reinforce what is being practiced in full gear.
“When we started this nine, 10 years ago, we were showing other players from other teams. Now we’ve got the best guys in the world that know how to possess pucks and protect pucks and are strong on the walls and make all the right plays,” Director of Player Development Nelson Emerson said.
“The young players now, they want to know ‘why.’ When you ask them to do something, they want to know why and how, and then they want to be shown through video and things like that of why it’s going to help them. We have to adapt that way. Now we try to adapt and we make things individualistic and we do things – fundamentals or whatever it is – as an individual, trying to teach them that way. Everything’s changing, and we’ve got to adapt.”
Many of the more advanced prospects aren’t participating in development camp – the bar was set below those who appeared in regular roles for Ontario this past season – which has allowed for some regular viewings of those who appeared in junior and college hockey in 2015-16.
One of those players is Austin Wagner, whose speed is apparent every time there’s an opportunity to find open ice. The 2015 fourth round pick has been able to blow past players in junior, but at development camp, using his speed as an asset in all situations, not only those in which he’s carrying the puck, has been accentuated. He’s learning the nuances between applying his gift at the junior and professional levels.
“Obviously when you don’t have the puck, you’re going to that white ice, trying to find that area that’s open behind the defense or in front of them,” who will return to WHL-Regina for his 19-year-old season. “Seeing the puck there, and then on the PK, especially, our systems in Regina, we pressured up-ice and that’s what our team wanted us to do, so I think the speed helped, especially with our team being a fast team last year – pressuring up-ice, pressuring the D up from behind and even at the points, so obviously the speed kind of helps just making people make plays quicker, and at the junior level it’s not as easy because players aren’t as skilled as the pros where if you’re attacking them as quick as that, they’ll just make you look foolish, right? I think back there it’s that way, but when I get called up here it’s different. You’ve got to play that one up and down the wing, two-way game, and work hard, and the speed will come when I get the puck, and when I don’t have it up and down the wing on the offensive … getting back on the backcheck here.”
Wagner showed growth in his game this past season, jumping from 20 goals to 28 and 39 points to 62. He skated on a line with Adam Brooks, who led the Western Hockey League with 120 points and could play as a 20-year old in Toronto’s system next year after being selected in the fourth round by the Maple Leafs at last month’s NHL Draft.
The chemistry he built with Brooks served as a backbone of his success, but his own constitution and inward thinking in stringing together a quality season after a slow start helped kickstart his 2015-16 campaign.
“Honestly, when you get out here practicing with the big guys at camp, you realize how much harder you have to work and you get used to that pace, and I think as bad as it sounds, I kind of had that “man’s” mindset going back to junior, like, ‘I’m keeping up with the pros, doing well with the pros, I should be able to keep up here,’” the Calgary native said. “I just got overconfident and didn’t have a good start, and then coach (John Paddock) kind of sat me down about six games in. ‘He’s like, ‘OK, Wags, we understand. I know you’re frustrated. You understand. You get back playing the way you do.’ So I think that helped, and after that I just started clicking.”
He’s confident that the year ahead will be a boon for both his own goals and the mindset of a team that should remain highly competitive after upsetting favored Lethbridge in five games in the opening round and taking Memorial Cup host Red Deer to the full seven games before falling in a second round series.
“Obviously for me, I had 28 goals last year, so I had a lot of chances, a lot of breakaways and stuff like that that I need to bury, so I want to get about 40 goals, 40-plus,” he said. “But for the path of the team, we’re going to be a good team. We’re losing three guys, that’s it. We don’t want Brooksie to come back, (he’s capable of sticking in Toronto’s system) but we do at the same time. If he comes back, it’ll be a big benefit. But we’re going to be one of the best teams in our division, and I believe in our team and I think honestly we can win our division and win the league.”
At the current juncture, a little infusion of speed isn’t something that would hurt the Kings. Does he see a natural fit between his own skill set, and the needs of a team several years down the road?
“It’s hard to say,” Wagner said. “I believe in myself that they drafted for me for a reason, and that was speed and size. I’m not fully grown into my body yet – I’m only 185 pounds – so I think once I get up to my 20’s and the higher levels I get, I feel like I’ll be gaining more weight but becoming even faster at the same time. So I believe that if I commit to the process and work my butt off every day to make my goal and play on the Kings, I believe I can get there if I use my skill set right and don’t try to change my game and become somebody I’m not.”
Which is exactly what development camp is for – the illustration, through hearing, watching and doing, that without cutting corners, skill sets are maximized and identities as a professional are developed.
“We just want to make sure they take everything they do seriously,” O’Connell said. “For the most part these young men have been the best in their respective areas, and we want to make sure that they understand that they’ve got a long way to go, and that we’re here to help them realize their dream. But it’s going to take a lot of hard work, and there are certain processes they have to go through to attain that.”
Erik Cernak, drafted in the second round by Los Angeles in 2015, remains massive. He has among the most athletic hockey bodies in the system and showed some proficiency in breaking up two-on-two rushes during a zone entry/denial drill on Thursday afternoon.
He was also sporting a stitched-up cut on his chin – a victim of a follow-through on one of Matt Schmalz’s shots – and the cut to his face aligned well with his favorite movie of the past year, Creed.
That Paul Bissonnette referred to him as “Drago” in a hilarious and purposely misleading Instagram caption when the two traveled to Winnipeg with Ontario this past season fits in well with his taste in movies.
But the movies and television shows take on added value for Cernak, who has had to learn English on the fly as his hockey career has progressed. He showed confidence in using his English earlier on Friday, crediting both Creed as well as his billet family in Erie, Pennsylvania, after having joined a first-place Otters team after practicing early in the year with Ontario.
“It was the first season in the USA. It’s really hard for me because my English was not really good last year,” he said. “Everything’s more new for me, and I need to learn English. I played in a small rink (comparatively with Olympic-sized rinks), and that’s really hard.”
He’s looking to build the bridge to a bigger arena and latch on permanently to the professional game this coming season. Because he was drafted out of the HC Kosice program in his native Slovakia and not a North American junior league, he’ll be eligible to play in the AHL this coming year as a 19-year-old.
That might be a sizable jump, but Cernak, who has already been signed to an entry-level contract, is doing everything he can to make himself ready for the leap.
“I want to play step-by-step, and my goal for next season is to play on the AHL team,” he said. “That’s my big goal for this year.”
GOLDEN YEAR FOR THE GOPHER?
As for Johnson, the Golden Gopher, he understands that a big year lies ahead.
As stipulated in the CBA, the Kings retain his rights through August 15, 2017. He already has two seasons under his belt in the Twin Cities and totaled three goals and 10 points in 33 games this past year after entering into only 11 games in his first NCAA season.
“I think confidence is a huge thing for me, and I thought I was a lot more confident as the year went on last year,” he said. “Compared to two years ago, I felt more comfortable. I was put in more roles, too – all-situation player – so I felt that the confidence and me being comfortable really transitioned to getting more points and just skating all around the rink.”
He acknowledges the importance of the upcoming year, not only for himself, but for a Minnesota team that finished atop the regular season Big Ten standings but lost in the conference championship to Michigan and did not qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010-11.
“In the back of my mind, obviously I want to play in the NHL,” Johnson said. “With that being said, it’s obviously in the back of your mind, but it’s really important to just take it day-by-day and not think too far out and just play every day and play every game, play every practice just like another day,” he said. “Work hard and get better every day.”
“We’re only here for five days, so I just kind of act like a sponge, so to speak, and I just try to learn everything I can. Just take it slow and see what OC’s saying and all the development guys, and just take it slow.”