Today was a development day for the Ontario Reign, which gave some of the younger Reign players the chance to work with the Kings development staff in a smaller, more close-knit basis – think the benefit of smaller class sizes in college that smaller schools used to try and get you to go there. Would estimate that approximately 2/3 of the Reign’s players were on the ice today, splitting up forwards and defensemen – today I’ll focus on the latter.
NHL veteran and current Kings development coach Sean O’Donnell is the resident defensive expert on the LA staff. O’Donnell had six defensemen on the ice today, including 20-year-old blueliner Kale Clague, skating in his first professional season with Ontario.
Clague has enjoyed a nice start to his rookie campaign, with seven points (1-6-7) from 10 games played so far this season. At today’s skate, the focus with the blueliners was at the other end of the ice, however, working on deception in their own end, as well as through the neutral zone.
“For D and forwards it’s a little different, we split up today,” Clague said. “On the D-side of things, we worked on our deception, skating up the ice, getting the net. Working on our deception, trying to freeze the forecheckers and we also worked on deception in the neutral zone too, trying to freeze the forecheckers again, faking like we’re going off the wall and going D-to-D and vice versa.”
Development days allow for players to work on specifics to their game that they might not be able to focus on during a team practice. As O’Donnell, a veteran of over 1,200 NHL games noted, development days provide players with a different experience as opposed to the traditional, systems-based practice, which allows them to work on particular skills.
“Coaches…can work with maybe all the defense or all the forwards, the penalty kill or the power play, but it’s such a fine line between most of the players in the NHL,” O’Donnell said. “I’d say 80% of the players in the NHL are good enough to play for any team. The other 15 or 20 percent, they have that one little thing that they do well, or it’s a good fit with that organization, and that’s the stuff that so specialized that makes these development days great. Austin Wagner’s not the same as Sheldon Rempal and Drake Rymsha’s not the same as Matt Luff. To be able to do this stuff, individually, one-on-one, I think it really beneficial.”
Clague echoed those sentiments, adding that it’s nice as a player to be able to work on things that he might not normally get the opportunity to do on a daily basis.
“These days are good for us, you just get the chance to work on things you probably don’t get the chance to at an in-season practice,” Clague said. “Today, it was good to work on deception for myself and working on the defensive zone, closing in on guys, ending plays, that’s a big part of my game that needs to continue to improve and it’s good to get a chance to work on that.”
And who better to teach him about defensive zone play than O’Donnell, a veteran of 1,224 regular season games in the NHL, as well as nearly 300 more at the minor-league levels. O’Donnell amassed 224 points during his professional career, an average of around 15 points per 82 games, but established a reputation as a steady, shutdown defenseman that was trusted against an opponent’s top forwards.
“He was a real big and strong shutdown defenseman when he played,” Clague noted. So it’s good to learn the little tactics that he used that helped him have such a great NHL career.”
O’Donnell explained that with many of the younger players he works with, it can take some time to “unlearn” some of the bad habits picked up in the college or juniors ranks, that were easy to get away with because of a player’s superior skill level. He agreed that it can, at times, be a humbling experience for some players, that have had a great deal of success as amateurs, when transitioning into the professional game.
“I think that for some, we’ve had times where we’ve had players that have been the best, even if they’ve had some of the mistakes they’ve made or bad habits, they were just so good that the coaches just kept putting them out there, because they needed to play, and you kind of have to unlearn that a little bit.”
O’Donnell was quick to differentiate what he and the other development staff are – they’re not coaches in his mind, but more so teachers. O’Donnell believes it’s his job to help make the players into the best possible players they can, so that way the coaches have better players to integrate into their systems.
“It’s just getting back to basics,” O’Donnell said. “We’re not coaches – The coaches are more about the systems and the way they want to play, we’re just trying to make them the best players that they can be in their system or any system. There’s certain staples that a lot of these guys have come from places where a lot of them are the best players in their respective league. Now, they’re coming to places where they’re either not the best players or everyone’s as good as them and some of the habits that they got away with when they were younger, we want to retrain or emphasize how important small things are and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s exciting, because it’s a good group, it’s a young group and they want to learn.”
The Reign hold development days on a semi-regular basis, traditionally around a bi-weekly basis. One benefit to the current practice situation, with the Reign practicing where the development staff works, is that players will, on a smaller basis, go onto the “pond” ice at TSC for one-on-one sessions with development staff before the Reign’s regular team practice.
The extra work and extra sessions are a part of the development process, but maybe unlike the students that your average school teacher might have, these students are all driven to reach their highest potential.
“At the end of the day, the best part about this job, it’s like you’re a teacher, but imagine if every one of your students wants to succeed and wants to pass and wants to be an honor student,” O’Donnell said. “That’s really what they want. Every single one of these guys wants to play in the NHL and I think they realize that we were fortunate enough to do it for a long time and they’re pretty receptive to most of the stuff that we say.”