Austin Strand added the latest step to his professional hockey journey last night. And, despite being in just his third professional season, Strand has certainly had his share of experiences over his first two seasons in the Kings organization.
Rewind the clock to October 2018. The Kings had a glut of young defensemen in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, with many of which making their professional debuts. Strand found himself on the outside looking in and was assigned to the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs to get some games in.
Two years later, Strand became the 686th ECHL alum to play in an NHL game. When he had the opportunity to reflect back, full circle, he was able to recognize the strides he made in his game over the past two years, leading to last night’s special moment.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said earlier today. “I always knew I wasn’t going to go the normal route, being undrafted and just coming in and working my way, proving myself on and off the ice. Just getting my way into the lineup like that, we have such a good development team here and I worked with them a lot this summer…it’s helped me to come a long way.”
Even after he returned to the AHL in late-2018, Strand found himself as a frequent healthy scratch for the Reign in the first half of the 2018-19 season. It wasn’t until the second half of his rookie campaign, after now teammates Matt Roy and Kurtis MacDermid earned full-time promotions to the Kings, that Strand was able to lock down a spot on the right side of the Ontario blueline.
Last season was certainly a better one, and a more consistent one for Strand as he found himself in the lineup for the Reign on most nights, despite Ontario having nine defensemen on their roster at points in the season. But the then sophomore blueliner still struggled to find that consistency, night-to-night, that would allow him to take that next step in his devleopment.
Over the summer, Strand’s entry-level contract expired, but the Calgary, AB native earned a one-year extension from the Kings. With Drew Doughty, as well as Roy and Sean Walker on the right side of the blueline entering the season, Strand’s role figured to be as a leader on the blueline in the AHL to begin the season.
Misfortune, but also opportunity, changed that thought with Roy and Walker suffering injuries in Minnesota last week. After he took warmups for the first time in an NHL game on Tuesday against Anaheim, Strand got the call he’d waited his entire life for, and he enjoyed every second of his debut.
“It was great, the whole day was good,” Strand said. “It was a pretty crazy experience, just having all the guys come up to me, congratulate me, was pretty cool, pretty surreal. The day before, the nerves were really coming in, but yesterday I just took it as a normal game day. Everything felt pretty calm and once the first shift was under my belt, I felt a little bit better and just played the game.”
On a night when the Kings did not have a ton of positives, Strand provided one, at least in the plus/minus column. The 23-year-old blueliner was on the ice for Austin Wagner’s third-period tally and finished the evening at +1 in a 5-2 defeat.
Kings Head Coach Todd McLellan felt that Strand held his own in his inaugural NHL performance. It’s tough to evaluate individuals in a game like last night, but as he brought up both the good and the bad from Strand’s game, McLellan thought his young defenseman was able to settle into the game as it progressed.
“Once we calculated the pace of the game, and how it was going to be played, I thought he adapted well, defended well,” McLellan said last night. “He’s dangerous in the offensive zone, had a shot blocked that led to a penalty, but it closes on you a little bit quicker at this level, he learned that tonight. He was just fine.”
Strand spoke a lot this morning about the impact the Kings development staff, including Sean O’Donnell and Mike O’Connell, had on his progression over the last two years. More from the now NHL defenseman on the impact they had in getting him to this point.
Austin Strand on who he worked with on the development staff to round out his game
I worked a lot with [Sean O’Donnell and Mike O’Connell], those two guys have done a lot of work with me. The biggest thing they told me was just simplifying my game, be more simple and I think that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. When I was younger, I tried to do a little bit too much, skate too much with the puck and overhandle it, just do things that were unnecessary. Now that I’ve matured, I’ve come into this mindset of just getting the puck and moving it right away, it’s been working great. I just try to get it into our forwards hands as soon as possible, get those guys the puck so they can do their thing in the offensive zone. The team brought on Dafna [Aaronson – Mental Skills Coach] this year too, so just talking with her a lot, she’s really helped me to just be solid and well-rounded, more confident in myself and more confident in my game.
On using the tools he got from the development team in his first game
The advice those guys have given me…I don’t know where I’d be without the development team that we have here. It’s my third year now with the organization and those first two years, working with those guys and getting the feedback from those guys, telling me I can be there and I can do this, I’m going to be an NHL player one day. All that advice and motivation…whenever those guys are talking, I’m just trying to absorb as much knowledge as I can. I couldn’t have done it without that team, for sure.
On if he tries to use his size to stand out from the crowd on the blueline
I think with my big size, I’m a good skater, good puck handler, so I think I’m well-rounded and that helps my game. I like being a big guy, I want to bring more physicality into my game. I’m going to try to use my shot a little bit more over these next couple of games, and just be a little bit more physical, and jump into the rush when I have the chance.
On friends and family reaching out about his debut
My phone was blowing up yesterday, I think I had over 100 texts and Instagram was blowing up too. I tried to stay off my phone until a little bit later in the day, so I could kind of cool down and take in the whole experience. I wasn’t trying to let it all hit me the day of, I was trying to keep it calm so after the game I kind of let loose a little bit and let it all hit me a little bit more.