It has been an eventful year for Kale Clague, the Kings’ second round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
The smooth-skating, pacey and all-situational defender suffered a lower-body injury during a rookie game in Arizona last September before returning one month later to record nine points in his first three games for the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The terrific start prepared him well for the CHL-Russia Super Series, where he logged a goal and an assist over two games in a strong showing that placed him more firmly on Canada’s radar for the World Junior Championships even though he hadn’t been invited to Canada’s camp earlier in the summer.
By the end of world juniors, Clague had played himself onto the top pairing, where he earned a silver medal with a Canadian team that was a shootout goal or save away from claiming gold.
“When Phil Myers went down, you hate to see a teammate go down, but when he went down, my name was called, and I was honored and so excited to play with Thomas Chabot on the first pair and get that extra bit of opportunity, and I think it helped my confidence and it helped my game to continue to get better,” he said. “After that, through the medal rounds of the tournament, I thought I was myself, and I thought I was playing well.”
His interests are diverse. In addition to owning a hard, accurate slapshot that comes off heavier than would be expected from a six-foot, 177-pound defenseman, he also possesses a remarkable sense of style and fashion. His parents formerly owned a clothing store in his native Alberta, and Clague’s interests are clearly in line with both his parents and what might be purchased from the boutiques up and down Robertson Boulevard.
“I know hockey is pretty strict with what you can wear in terms of business casual and that kind of thing, so I like to keep it basic, but then I also like to go off the map,” he said. “You see guys in the NBA walking into games and stuff, I think that’s pretty cool. Different guys get to show off their personal styling, that’s a cool thing. I like crazy stuff like what Russell Westbrook wears when he walks into games and whatnot. So I guess the basics to a little bit outrageous sometimes, and I like to have fun with that.”
“It’s like the best basic clothing that you can get,” he said. “I know I’ve researched a bit, and when he was a kid, he started out in clothes, similar to me, and he had a vision, and he created this athletic wear but in a stylish way, so I think it’s really cool that he’s a sports fan. He loves basketball, but just that he’s a sports fan and makes clothes, I think that’s really cool.”
Though there are some outlying tastes, Clague tends to keep his fashion sense simple, as he stated. The same thought goes for a strong year, which concluded with five goals and 40 points in 48 games. This time around, he got the invite to Canada’s summer development camp – not as if there was really a question following his international showing this past December and January.
“I think it’s pretty cool for myself to look back on,” Clague said of the last 12 months. “Like I said, not getting invited to camp, it was going to be a long process. I knew I had to start out good, had to make the Super Series, play well there, and then continue to play well to get invited to Christmastime selection camp. So I think those were the positives for me throughout the season, as well as to be able to make the team and continue to grow and get better throughout the tournament.”
The Kings have been the NHL’s best possession team this decade, and for the fifth consecutive season led the NHL in raw Corsi percentage.
The ability to possess the puck in the attacking zone to a greater degree than their opponents has roots in what is being taught to those who attend development camp. Of course, Corsi is a simple measure of shot attempts, so any definite link between generating a greater percentage of offensive zone looks and teaching players to hold onto the puck may be somewhat overstated. Still, that ability to keep a play going is still being taught to the young skaters.
“We actually did that [Thursday],” Alex Iafallo said. “[Thursday] morning on the ice, [we were] just trying to protect the puck, getting it into the defensemen so we can keep the puck longer and just making sure we have our head up so we can make smart plays. Definitely that deception, I’ve learned that too this week, and we just want to keep the puck as long as we can and make the right play.”
That deception – whether in making plays or in shooting – is taught in development camp and other camps that feature skill retention, and Mike Donnelly and Mike O’Connell, two members of the club’s development staff, were teaching the skaters to curl the puck back into their wheelhouse before unleashing a quick shot during several drills this past week. Tyler Toffoli is quite good at this.
“They’re big on puck possession, and if you’ve got weight on your skates, you can protect the puck really well,” Matt Luff said. “Just working on my shot with Mel (Donnelly) was huge. Watching guys like Toffoli and Tanner Pearson here is big for me, and just see what they can do and improve there [is important].”
It was the first time on the ice in a Kings facility for defenseman Oscar Fantenberg, the former KHL all-star who signed a one-year, entry level contract with the club in late April.
A native of Ljungby, Sweden, Fantenberg had to learn Russian on the fly after already having taken up English as a second language.
“I was pretty lucky – every coach was speaking English, and some guys played in college [before playing in the KHL],” he said. “I had a couple of guys translate, and the assistant coach always translated into English for us imports. It had been hard with everybody talking in Russian, but hockey language is pretty much the same. You can pick up some words here and there, and you under stand a little bit of what they’re talking about, so it’s not that bad.”
It resulted in a 44-game, 23-point season with KHL-Sochi that will be remembered as a good experience that prepared him well for making the leap across the Atlantic.
“I learned to be in another country, being outside of a comfort zone, and [in] Sweden, it’s pretty comfortable to be back home and close to your parents and close to your friends and everybody’s speaking Swedish,” he said. “It’s more of an in-my-backpack experience to be outside of my comfort zone, and being in the locker room, nobody’s speaking English, but it was good. I played against a lot of good guys that played in the NHL, too. I think it was a good step for me going to the KHL and then coming here.”
And now, the transition continues. As he prepares himself for the North American game, he now has to contend with consistently playing on a smaller ice surface for the first time in his career. As a defenseman, this obviously affects the time and space he has to make plays, and the direction he heads when receiving the puck.
“Obviously the bigger ice, you have a lot of space, and I feel like if you have a guy on you, you can try and dangle him and take a longer curve, but here, if you try that, you’re into the boards and you have no room to go anywhere,” he said. “So that’s one point, and another thing is D-to-D passes, you can’t take a step up like you usually do. I felt the way I played today, I took a step out and almost hit the boards. That’s one big part of it, but I think it’s going to be good if I’m coming over here pretty early and realize a little bit more, I think I’m going to be more comfortable over here.”
The Kings are expected to kick the tires on some efensemen via free agency or trade, but Fantenberg will also compete for a spot. He’s clear on what his goal will be come September.
“I think everybody who’s coming to camp has to have a goal to make the team, otherwise I think you’re wrong coming here,” he said. “But if I’m ending up in Ontario, I’m going to work hard there and take it step by step and maybe make the team a little bit further down the road, but I want to make the team as soon as possible.”
Development camp photos, courtesy Jon Bradley: