Paul LaDue was navigating the web of Southern California freeways en route to Ontario at the conclusion of the AHL All-Star Break when his phone rang earlier this week. On the other end, Rob Blake was the bearer of good news: The first-year pro was going to be recalled.
“I was really excited,” the 24-year-old defenseman said. “It kind of took me by surprise a little bit, but right after I got off the phone I called my parents and they were ecstatic too, and it’s an exciting time, but the work starts now, so it’s time to really get to work and prove that I can play, and hopefully I get the chance here soon.”
If there was anyone who didn’t mind making an extraneous trip to and from the Inland Empire, it was LaDue, who practiced with the Kings for the first time since the preseason during an optional skate at Toyota Sports Center on Thursday.
“I didn’t really expect it, but there’s no better time, so it’s good and I’m ready for this road trip,” he said.
As Darryl Sutter noted on Thursday, the Kings recalled the right-shot defenseman in the wake of Matt Greene’s injury and Tom Gilbert not seizing the playing time while competing for a role alongside players such as Greene, Kevin Gravel and Brayden McNabb. Greene and Gilbert are right-handed shots, while Gravel and McNabb shoot left-handed, and the Kings were in need of another righthanded shooter with Alec Martinez and Gravel often playing on their off-sides.
“Well, we had him all summer and all training camp and every exhibition game,” Sutter said. “We played him in all of Drew’s situations when Drew was gone for the World Cup, so that’s way more important than what somebody says or what the video shows. … First off, he’s in the same age group. He’s gone through most of his school and he’s in that Forbort-Gravel-McNabb – those guys’ age group – so we expect him to be able to compete with those guys for a spot.”
The defenseman showed an aptitude for handling the opposing forecheck and making reads and plays while under pressure and by moving his feet. By averaging greater than a half a point per game over three seasons at the University of North Dakota, he’s also probably capable of posting respectable offensive numbers. In 36 games with the Reign, LaDue has six goals, 18 points, an even rating and 76 shots on goal.The Kings had made a strong push to sign LaDue in the spring of 2015, but despite Rob Blake’s trip to North Dakota in an effort to sign the 2012 sixth round draft pick, the Grand Forks native decided to remain in college for his junior season, where he won an NCAA championship alongside fellow NHL rookies Troy Stecher of Vancouver and Drake Caggiula of Edmonton. The Kings were supportive of that decision, citing the comfort with the program’s coaching staff and developmental process. At the time of the 2015 courtship, North Dakota was coached by Dave Hakstol, who now coaches the Philadelphia Flyers.
It does not appear as though LaDue will make his NHL debut against one of his former college coaches, however. The 6-foot-1, 186-pound defenseman skated as an extra during the team’s practice at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday in Philadelphia.
Still, there’s a good chance the defenseman will make his debut on this road trip, which would represent a significant step forward in his first year pro. Once Tyler Toffoli is activated, he’ll be one of six 1992-born skaters on this Kings team and the second youngest player on the team, edging out September 26-born Nick Shore by 20 days.
“[Making the Kings this season] was definitely the goal, but I try not to think about it too much,” LaDue said. “[In Ontario] I just tried to go about my day and I tried to get better each day and help the team down there, but overall the year’s been great. We’ve had some success down there and personally I’ve had some success, so hopefully I can keep that going up here.”
Paul LaDue, on Kings teammates such as Nic Dowd and Kevin Gravel who were rivals at St. Cloud:
The rivalries, there’s no tension anymore, but back in the day us and St. Cloud, we had some good battles. I remember playing Gravs and Dowd and Brodzinski all the time and those were some tough games. I think my first couple losses at UND, I think they swept us at home so I’ll never forget that, but yeah, it’s good to see guys from around the league and guys you played with in college hockey. I think it’s growing as the years go on, it’s good to see.
LaDue, on getting regular shifts with the Kings during the preseason:
It was huge. Obviously you want to get in as many games as possible before the season just to get used to the pace and get used to the speed of things and I think it helped out a lot and it definitely made it easier going down there and starting the regular season off, so I’m glad I got in and I think it helped out a lot.
LaDue, on his play this season in Ontario:
I think it’s been good. There’s been some ups and downs, but I think that’s expected your first year. But as far as the team, we’ve got a great team down there and we’ve been winning a lot so it’s been a good year.