Crowded bluelines have been a big part of training camp at both the NHL and AHL levels in the Kings organization this fall.
For its part, Ontario will likely begin the 2018-19 regular season with a group of eight blueliners, each of whom has shown reasons to merit playing time. While it can create a bit of a log jam on the back end, having depth is never a bad thing when injuries and callups come into play and Ontario Head Coach Mike Stothers called having eight competent blueliners a “good luxury to have.”
“If everybody’s doing their job and playing their roles the way they can, hopefully we’ll have some good success,” Stothers said. “It will be fun for those guys to play in front of our goaltending and I think our goalies will be very complimentary and welcoming of the fact that we’ve got eight guys that are very sound defensemen.”
Taking a deeper look at this group, let’s start with those returning to the Reign for another season with the team. Four of the eight blueliners played last season with Ontario, composing two thirds of the blueline for the Reign during the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs.
Sean Walker is the leading returning point-getter for the Reign on the blueline, having totaled 28 points (7-21-28), most amongst all Ontario defensemen last season. While he knows his own role as an offensive defenseman, Walker noted that he spent a large chunk of the offseason working on defensive zone positioning to be sure he’s taking care of his own end in addition to offensive play.
“I want to be as offensive as I can but defense comes first,” he said. “I think that’s one thing we worked on a lot over the summer was that my d-zone was solid so that I still had the ability to jump up into the offensive zone and make plays. I think offense is a great part of my game but obviously defense comes first.”
Stothers praised Walker’s skating ability as a major asset to his game, mentioning that his speed allows him to take more risks than the average defenseman because of his ability to quickly recover.
“I think he’s been most impressive in the fact that his skating ability, it’s unreal how he can make things happen out there,” Stothers said of Walker. “He can skate himself out of trouble, he can get up in the rush, he can get back and cover up if there’s something wrong or something’s gone haywire, and you know what, he’s a good hockey guy, he has a good hockey IQ.”
Alex Lintuniemi was Ontario’s only other defenseman to break the 20-point mark last season, finishing with four goals and 24 points. Lintuniemi’s career path has been a steady uphill climb as he now enters his fourth campaign, his third with the Reign. After he started in the ECHL with Manchester in 2015, Lintuniemi has steadily progressed from the ECHL into a regular on the Ontario blueline.
Stothers mentioned that it took Lintuniemi longer than many to take the necessary steps away from the ice to be a professional defenseman – off-ice workouts, nutrition, doing the necessary preparation – as well as adjusting to a new role with new expectations in a professional organization. Now that he’s been able to do those things, Stothers felt that Lintuniemi put it together last season.
“I think last year was a good example of what we all expected we’d see out of Lintu and it’s a credit to him,” Stothers said of the Finnish blueliner. “He got himself into good shape, he started looking out for himself as far as what he was putting into his body, giving himself every opportunity to play the way we thought he could play.”
When talking about his teammate’s game, Walker described Lintuniemi as “one of our most skilled guys on the back end” and as a guy that’s fun to watch play.
“Some of the passes he makes, some of us wouldn’t even think of trying and he’s out there making them every shift,” Walker said.
Joining Walker and Lintuiemi on the Ontario blueline is the right-handed shooting Matt Roy, who returns for his second professional season. Walker described Roy as a key part of the Ontario penalty kill – “he goes out there and blocks tons of shots” – as well as a guy that can contribute at the offensive end as well.
“He gets lots of shots through and we started to see that last year with him so I think he’s one of our top D as well,” Walker said of his teammate.
Stothers echoed Walker’s sentiments and added that Roy is a player that’s well liked by the coaches because of the way he approaches the game. He called the 6-1 defenseman a “quiet competitor” in the way that has a seriousness about his game that differs from his usual, happy-go-lucky personality.
“Royzie is very sound defensively,” Stothers said. “He plays a complete and composed game. He’s probably more comfortable in the role of looking after things in his own end but I wouldn’t limit him to just that alone, he does have some good, offensive upside. He’s got a real heavy shot from the point. He’s one of those guys that comes in every day and does things the right way, he works hard.”
Rounding out the returning blueliners is Kurtis MacDermid, who was assigned to Ontario on Monday after he cleared waivers. MacDermid has skated with the Reign in each of the last three seasons and made his NHL debut last October, splitting the 2017-18 campaign between Los Angeles and Ontario.
While with the Reign, MacDermid frequently paired with Walker on the back end, putting two different styles on the same pairing.
“I played a lot with him last year, he’s an unbelievable defenseman and a great d-partner and a great guy,” Walker said. “Playing with him is awesome, he’s such a big body out there and such a presence on the ice so it’s great to have him back on the back end with us. We really love having him around.”
The Ontario bench boss praised MacDermid’s intensity and passion that not many others possess and noted that his opponents “know who he is” when he’s on the ice. MacDermid isn’t a player to lose many battles and is a player that is able to get possession back for his team when he doesn’t have the puck. However, while the 24-year-old blueliner is noted more for his intangibles and toughness, Stothers was careful to point out that he offers significantly more than just his size and frame.
“His reputation is kind of hard-nosed, but he’s unique in the fact that he can make plays,” Stothers said. “He’s not just a big body that’s just rough and tumble, there’s some polish to his game and he’s worked hard at it. He spends a lot of time trying to get better and he wants to be an NHL regular and not just a depth guy or a guy that’s playing in the American Hockey League.”
Moving onto those joining the Reign roster, 6-3 blueliner Daniel Brickley headlines a group of four new faces looking to make an impact in their first seasons as professionals. Brickley gained valuable experience last season practicing daily with the Kings, in addition to making his NHL debut in April after he spent his junior season of NCAA hockey with Minnesota State-Mankato. Through a week with the Reign, Brickley noted the ability the defensive unit has, specializing in puck moving and skating ability as a whole.
“It’s a solid group, we have with a lot of talent and good skating defensemen, guys who can move the puck and I think I’ll fit in pretty good just because it kind of fits my identity,” Brickley said. “I’m a puck moving defenseman, I like to jump up in the play occasionally and contribute offensively. Overall I think it’s a solid d-core.”
Stothers pointed to Brickley’s time last season with the Kings as being important for his development and noted that he’s looking to Brickley to be a stabilizing factor for the Reign both offensively and defensively.
“He’s got a quiet composure about him, he’s efficient,” Stothers said. “It doesn’t appear that too much rattles him. He’s got some good size, he’s a pretty good skater and he’s got some good puck handling skills and puck movement skills as well. It’s more in tune to the mold of defensemen being more involved in all areas of the ice.”
With the aforementioned four blueliners joining him as teammates this season, Brickley has quickly picked up on some of their habits as professionals as he looks to improve his own game.
“They come here every day, preparing, getting their rest, eating right, stuff like that,” he said. “It just shows good character on their part and even if they don’t have a letter on their jersey, it shows leadership to the first-year guys like myself of what it takes to stay in the league.”
Joining Brickley this season will be rookie defenseman Kale Clague, a second-round draft pick of the Kings in 2016. While Brickley noted that it may not be likely that he and Clague partner frequently this season, with both players being left shots, he has been impressed with Clague’s game and offensive skillset.
“He has a lot of tools that some guys might not have and it’s fun to watch him offensively,” Brickley said. “I like to learn from him as well. I’m excited if we get the chance to play together – might not be likely because we’re both lefties – but it’s fun to watch him like I said.”
Stothers noted that Clague had his best training camp yet as a professional and said that it appears that the Regina native is now more comfortable on the ice than he was in past years as he begins his first pro season.
“I think there’s a maturity that he’s come into camp with and his skating is a real asset for him,” Stothers said. “His vision, his puck skills, his playmaking ability, he’s more known as an offensive defensemen, he likes to get up in the play. He’s a big part of the way the game is going – I shouldn’t even say that it’s going that way, that’s the way it is. He’s going to be a special player.”
Clague’s former WHL foe, Austin Strand, is now a teammate as Strand begins his first professional season. Strand scored 25 goals in the WHL last season, the second most in the WHL amongst defensemen, and as Stothers remarked, “he seems to have a knack for finding a way to find the back of the net”, something he showed with his power-play goal on Monday in Anaheim.
“He finished up his junior career with some pretty impressive stats – now is that going to translate into those kinds of numbers in pro hockey, you never know for sure, but again, he’s another guy that skates pretty well and he’s a puck mover, he’s a puck rusher. I think he actually feels more comfortable when he has the puck in his possession. He’s going to have to work on the other areas of his game, the defending and the other parts of being a true defensemen, but his natural instincts and natural abilities are the things that are virtually impossible to teach.”
Brickley, while noting he only saw Strand play once at the Rookie Tournament in Vegas (and only for one period at that, after Strand left the game with an upper-body injury), liked what he saw from Strand’s game, pointing out his abilities to pass and shoot the puck as well as “block shots and be physical when he needs to be.”
Speaking of physicality, rounding out this group of eight is Chaz Reddekopp, an 6-4 defenseman. Reddekopp, who made his professional debut with Ontario at the end of the 2016-17 season, fits the profile of a stay-at-home defenseman, the kind of guy that you don’t notice when he’s playing well as Stothers pointed out.
“He’s a big, quiet guy, he might appear as a gentle giant but when push comes to shove, he’s a very tough individual,” Stothers said. “He keeps it simple, he’s a guy that’s going to take care of his own end first, he’ll look after his teammates and he’s going to be a good fit.”
While the defensive and physical sides to his game are his calling card, Brickley noted that Reddekopp also brings a very hard shot from the point – “I noticed that when I blocked a shot from him and it didn’t feel too good.”
As a whole, Stothers seemed cautiously optimistic about his group of defensemen.
“We’re hoping it’s going to shape out to be good. There’s going to be some growing pains with the younger guys, there may even be the dreaded “sophomore jynx” for guys that might have had a little bit of success in their first year and how do they match it and exceed it this year so hopefully they haven’t put too much pressure on themselves.”
While each defenseman has his own, distinct skill set, Stothers emphasized that he views the defensive unit as a whole, rather than individually, which he believes keeps things simpler for his young blueliners.
“We, as a collective group, don’t ask anything of one individual, we prefer to have our defense as a group, so you only have to contribute to the group, you don’t have to separate yourself as an individual.”
From top-to-bottom, the Reign’s defensive depth will be sure to prove fruitful when the time comes – Having eight defensemen that can all step in and do the job when called upon will be a necessity in the dog days of a long season and Walker feels that he and his fellow defensemen can take the ice each game, regardless of who is alongside them, and feel good about what’s going to happen.
“I think you can go out there every night and, no matter who’s going, we all have the confidence in each other that we’re going to do the job right and do it to the best of our abilities,” he said. “Night in and night out, we’re looking forward to going out with each other.”