The LA Kings, for a period, were a team inclined to invest deeply in their championship window at a significant cost of their draft picks and prospects. This was particularly emblematic in the 2016 NHL Draft, where the team the team had previously surrendered its first and third round picks as part of the Andrej Sekera and Vincent Lecavalier trades, and finished the afternoon with only four total selections. “This was kind of our take-our-medicine draft,” Mike Futa said at the time.
And that they did! Through free agent signings and the two drafts since then, the prospect pipeline has been reinforced by a number of load-bearing young assets, one of whom is defenseman Kale Clague, selected 51st overall that Saturday afternoon in Buffalo. Daniel Brickley, another defenseman poised to begin training camp Friday at Toyota Sports Center, is closer to earning regular NHL playing time. But Clague, an alternate captain for Canada’s gold medal-winning world juniors squad in his second go-around at the tournament, isn’t packing his bags to head back to Western Canada after training camp. Now 20, and in his third training camp in El Segundo, he’s expected to earn a spot with the Ontario Reign in his rookie professional season. He acknowledged a little bit of a hiccup one year ago but says this year has been his best camp, and that he’s been getting better each September. “This year’s a little different, obviously,” he said of turning pro.
An offensively-minded defenseman, Clague has prided himself on the work he’s put in to improve defensively, and over the summer shared how he’s improved in his angles and and points of attack. That’s through work with Mike O’Connell and Sean O’Donnell, who shared video clips of Nicklas Lidstrom’s poised and seemingly effortless ability to calmly end plays and turn the puck around in his defensive zone. Likewise, in his work with the staff at development camp over the summer, he continued to hone in on his fundamentals, using his excellent footwork and a good stick to win battles and stop plays in the defensive zone. And when the video clips of Lidstrom aren’t available, there’s always the readily available model of Drew Doughty, whom Clague will share the ice with beginning Friday. “I’m excited to get out on the ice with a guy like that and watch what he does out there and pick up some things,” he said.
At 5-foot-11 and 178 pounds, and with his skating ability and natural penchant for offense and moving the puck, his skill set aligns well with where the game has trended. But for his gifts in transition and in the attacking end to come to light, he’s going to have to have the puck to begin with. That’s where the defensive zone work and angles and stick work will come into play.
“Trying to stay in between the dots and never really getting out of position is a big key for me moving on this year,” Clague said. “I think I’ve improved a lot in the D-zone, and I want to show that in main camp.”
He’s looking to improve from the tops of the circles down. “Positional play, boxing out. Winning puck battles,” he said of his current focus.
The transition to main camp is coming at a good time, and Clague his happy where his game is at. But as it is for many 20-year-olds making the jump from junior hockey, there will be some improvisational and less structural habits that the coaching and development staffs will look to strip away. But it’s all part of the process of growing and maturing, a sometimes nonlinear process.
During the Vegas Rookie Faceoff, Stothers was asked about Clague’s development and alluded to some growing pains from his training camp one year ago. It’s all part of maturing, as stated by Stothers, who likes the added assertiveness in Clague’s game this year.
“Last year maybe he was taken by nerves or wasn’t feeling right or whatever, but that happens with guys,” Stothers said last weekend. “They come to a camp and there’s a lot expected of them, they put a lot of pressure on themselves. Maybe he came in a little bit more relaxed. He had a great year last year with Brandon-slash-Moose Jaw and representing his country, so there might be some maturity there, too.”
It’s in line with how Clague viewed his last training camp. For a young player, having a baseline from which to improve can be a good thing.
“I think I could’ve shown a lot better last year,” he said. “I think this year, every year you get a little more mature and you progress that way. I think I feel more confident this year. … I don’t think I was at my best last year.”
He was certainly playing at a high level for Moose Jaw and Brandon, combining for 11 goals and 71 points in 54 games, as part of a 195-game junior career in which he totaled 167 points and a plus-58 rating. He made his pre-season debut last fall and should get a few extra games in this time around.
“I’m here to play pro hockey this year. Obviously, my main goal this summer was to get stronger and put on some weight so I could have a chance at making L.A.,” he said. “I thought I played well in rookie camp.”
-Lead photo via David Becker/NHLI