Southern California is a place many dream of calling home, and few have the privilege to do so.
For John Wroblewski, new head coach of the Ontario Reign, it is almost an after-thought when it comes to his new role.
“(Southern California) is a nice bonus,” he explained to media during a conference call yesterday. “But, the reason that I was ultimately so excited about this opportunity was the responsibility of taking on these players and helping Todd McLellan and the LA Kings realize the potential of these young men, and make the most of it. That’s the big intrigue of this job.”
Wroblewski has spent the last four years honing his coaching skills not only on a game-by-game basis, whether it is an exhibition game or a world championship gold-medal game, but also in terms of player development. As head coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Wroblewski not only led his teams to medal-finishes or unprecedented playoff runs, he has watched over 30 of his former players hear their names called at the NHL Draft.
And even while he’s been developing future NHL Draft picks, the Kings were impossible to ignore.
“I have seen a lot of these young men on the rise to being drafted or acquired by the Kings,” he said. “I have a pretty broad and widened scope on how these guys have come along. Whenever you’re reading publications on prospects, it’s difficult not to read about the Kings.”
The Kings already have what is widely considered the deepest prospect pool in the league. In October, when the 2020 NHL Draft takes place, the Kings will only add to that with its 11 draft picks.
That is why for Wroblewski, who holds coaching experience at the AHL, ECHL and USHL levels, this role is more than just the head coach of a hockey team.
In many ways, he has been entrusted with the keys to the Kings future.
The opportunity to work with so much talent is why, as Wroblewski mentioned, the Reign head coaching position was so intriguing.
But having such a potentially deep roster, at the AHL level, brings the challenge of not only coaching a competitive team but also ensuring the development of each player. For Wroblewski, his past four seasons facing that exact challenge with the NTDP is perhaps why he became the ideal candidate.
“There’s a lot of respective young players who will be making their pro debut (this season), whether it’s with LA or the American League,” Rob Blake, general manager of the LA Kings, said during yesterday’s media conference call. “John’s been around the younger kids and star players in the organization that he’s been in and having the ability to coach them. We fully understand what we’re going to assemble in Ontario and eventually develop those prospects into the next Kings’ players.”
For a refresher, the NTDP ices two teams (Under-17 and Under-18) that compete in the United States Hockey League and against international and collegiate opponents. The incoming 16-year-olds skate on the U-17 team under a head coach and his staff with the idea that the following season, the players and coaching staff will return as the U-18 team. That gives a head coach, like Wroblewski, a two-year window to develop these players before they go off to college, junior or professional hockey in their pursuit of their NHL careers.
With rosters comprised of the nation’s best 16- and 17-year-old players, almost every player that arrives at the NTDP is used to having top line minutes or being the key contributor. That leaves every NTDP head coach and his staff with the challenge of not only turning this all-star roster into a competitive team, but also finding ways to give every player the chance to develop.
Over the years, the program has, to no surprise, developed prominent American NHL stars like Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and current Calder Trophy finalist, Quinn Hughes. But the program has also created key, longtime NHL contributors in Ian Cole, Nick Foligno and even former Kings defensive stalwart and Stanley Cup winner, Matt Greene.
The NTDP hasn’t just produced all-stars, they produce players that contribute up and down the lineup and, in many ways, become necessary cogs in a championship-contending team. That is why expectations for Wroblewski should not be to necessarily turn every Kings prospect into a star, but to help them find their role as a key contributor on a team capable of winning Stanley Cups. Just as he and his NTDP predecessors did with the NTDP.
But can someone who has spent the past four seasons coaching 16- and 17-year-olds find that same level of success with older, more developed professional players in the AHL? What often gets overlooked is that, for as much as the NTDP has proven to be a development path for players, so too has it been for its head coaches.
With the hiring of Wroblewski, coupled with his counterpart Seth Appert’s announcement today as head coach of the AHL’s Rochester Americans, the NTDP now has six of its 11 former head coaches currently in the NHL/AHL ranks as a head coach or assistant coach. In the NHL, John Hynes (Nashville Predators) and David Quinn (New York Rangers) are both head coaches for their respective teams while Don Granato (Buffalo Sabres) currently serves as an assistant coach. As for the AHL, Wroblewski and Appert join Mike Eaves, who just finished his first season as head coach of the Cleveland Monsters, as head coaches in the league.
Each coach has taken his own unique path to reach their current roles, but Kings fans can hope Wroblewski’s time with Ontario will replicate what Hynes did in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, developing several players who played roles in the Pittsburgh Penguins back-to-back Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and 2017.
For Wroblewski, his NTDP tenure ends with his players and teams prominently placed in the NTDP record books. In fact, each season at the NTDP saw Wroblewski and his team accomplish some sort of NTDP record.
In his first season (2016-17) with the NTDP, Wroblewski led the U-18 team to a 43-20-3 record (W-L-T), which ended with a 13-game winning streak. From the New Year on, the U18’s had a 27-3 (.900 record), which was the best second-half winning percentage of any team in NTDP history. Players to skate on Wroblewski’s U-18 team that season include Quinn Hughes and Brady Tkachuk.
His second and third seasons were spent with the historic 2001 birth-year group that would ultimately set the all-time NTDP mark with 17 NHL draft picks from a single draft class. Eight of those selections came in the first round, including seven that within the first 15 selections. Jack Hughes, the first overall selection, went on to become the first NTDP player to go directly from the NTDP to the NHL.
Over the course of two seasons, the U17 and U18 teams for the 2001 group finished with a staggering 85-31-2-1 (W-L-T-SOL) record with the majority of those games coming against older, more developed competition. They won their first four international tournaments – without losing a single game – and saw their U17 season end as the first NTDP team in program history to not only win a USHL playoff game, but reach the Eastern Conference Final. The USHL playoff performance is all the more impressive when one not only remembers most USHL rosters are comprised of 18-20 year-old players, but that the U17 team was also missing five players (Cole Caufield, Jack Hughes, Spencer Knight, Alex Turcotte and Cam York) who were playing at the IIHF Under-18 Men’s World Championship.
Even this past season, Wroblewski headed the 2003 birth-year group in their U17 season, where they recorded 13-straight USHL wins in the first half of the season, the longest streak ever by an NTDP U17 team.
At the IIHF level, Wroblewski led the U.S. to one gold-medal (2017) and one bronze-medal (2019) as head coach. Over his two stints as head coach, six players were named to the Media All-Star Team.
Many can look to Wroblewski’s 2001 birth-year group as the pinnacle of his tenure with the NTDP. Naturally, people gravitate to an impressive list of players for their draft status, records and on-ice impact. What gets lost in the conversation is that, for a roster typically comprised of 22 players, Wroblewski and his staff helped 17 players hear their names called, with a few more expected to be selected in this year’s draft. It’s safe to say not every player from that group will become an NHL star, but can they all become critical members of a championship team? Absolutely.
Will Wroblewski be able to replicate that type of work with Ontario? Time will tell, but Kings fans can be sure that the future is in capable hands with him and his Reign staff at the helm.
NOTE – Jon Gomez works for the LA Kings. He is also one of many contributors to LA Kings Insider at this time. Our organization understands the importance of LAKI to you and we remain committed to evolving the platform and providing exciting new content once we resume our usual operations.