A 1-6-1 start to the regular season is not what Head Coach John Wroblewski and the Ontario Reign had hoped for, but it’s not all doom and gloom for the young and inexperienced club.
With 12 rookies, and an average roster age of 22.4 years old, the Reign aren’t only focused on the wins and losses; Wroblewski, his Assistant Coaches Craig Johnson and Chris Hajt, General Manager Rich Seeley and the Kings Organization are also concentrated on the development and valuable lessons the roster is learning on a nightly basis.
Fortunately for Wroblewski, who is also in his first year with the Reign, he has experience developing and growing players of younger ages. Having spent a total of 11 years as a coach, both professionally in the ECHL and AHL, as well as in the USHL and with the USNTDP, before coming to the Reign, Wroblewski is familiar with the growing pains the team is experiencing.
“We are trying to cultivate these new players into one style that they have never played before, where they have to try to get on the grind first,” he said. “There was very little appreciation at first for the grind and that sets up the scoring. We are trying to rebrand these kid’s DNA and there’s a lot of guys who have to go through it. We are in the process of building something bigger and I have patience with that. Every day there is a different message and we are unlocking different pieces of the game with every meeting. We just have to keep chipping away at it.”
As the young Reign roster goes through the series of continuous lessons, learning within the team’s own system, adjustments are still being made when it comes to normalizing life in the AHL. Kings 2020 first-round draft pick Quinton Byfield is one of the many players adjusting to the AHL from another league, the OHL in his case. Byfield pointed to the speed and physicality that the league brings as something he’s working on adjusting to.
“I think that the AHL is a lot faster,” Byfield said. “The guys are a lot older and physically more mature. I just have to get used to that and get up to speed.”
The learning curve he alluded to has not come by surprise according to Wroblewski, for both Byfield and the rest of the team’s younger players.
“First, our young guys have to get a grasp on what it is to compete in the AHL on a nightly basis before we get to the mindset of winning consistently,” the Reign Head Coach said. “They have to learn all of these little lessons about being where they are now, in Ontario. It’s not time to dream about the big club. They have to invest their time and energy into getting better as a member of the Reign. It’s up to us and them to make them appreciate the significance of this point of their career.”
It’s been made clear that this season’s success is going to be defined by much more than wins and losses when it comes to Ontario. Unlike years before, the development for the Kings prospects and Reign organization has expanded off the ice, working with these young players beyond just your typical practice sessions.
As Kings General Manager Rob Blake mentioned recently on the Fox and Faust Podcast, while there is a focus on winning in Ontario, there are many other areas to identify growth.
“We as an organization have also included a whole development program off ice,” Blake explained. “A lot of kids that are new here are used to getting to the rink at nine or ten in the morning and spending the whole day there. So we’ve added that in. They start with development and skills on the ice and then go into the classroom to learn about nutrition and mental skills. For instance, Matt Greene is doing a lot to teach our prospects about leadership and culture. [Our prospects] are also taking classes in the afternoons as well. That is our focus this year. We’ve taken that next step of development for not only a skills perspective but also for also being a pro going forward.”
The inexperience has shown, but there have also been glimpses as to why the Kings have the number-one ranked prospect pool by many accounts.
On the offensive side, where the majority of the Kings top prospects lie, 2018 first-rounder Rasmus Kupari started off the season hot and led the AHL with eight points (1-7-8) before he was reassigned to the NHL taxi squad last week. Joining Kupari on the scoresheet, some of the notable Kings prospects to contribute offensively have been Byfield (1-3-4), 2019 second-rounder Samuel Fagemo (3-2-5) and 2018 third-rounder Tyler Madden (0-3-3).
Despite the record, the Reign are still figuring themselves out offensively and have found contributions, in spurts, up and down the roster. With 12 different goal scorers thus far, the Reign’s firepower is already proving to be elusive.
“I think that we have started to have an identity in the offensive zone,” Wroblewski said. “That, to me, is one of the most important parts of the game and it controls the flow, which allows you to not have to break out against a concentrated forecheck. We’re starting to forecheck properly and effectively.”
The Reign’s next opponent will be the San Jose Barracuda, when the team travels north for a back-to-back, two-game set against a divisional opponent this weekend. For Wroblewski, he believes that the road trip is perfectly timed.
Now having had a full week of practice under their belts, Wroblewski and the Reign will be looking to right the ship with the momentum he believes the team picked up in their last game.
“I think a little change of scenery might be good for the guys to get back on the road even though they can’t do the normal activities like going and seeing places and getting a bite to eat together,” he said. “There are still more opportunities for bonding on the road….hopefully a change of scenery will be a light switch that we need to play with a continuous effort. I think there’s a lot we can bank on as we go into this road trip having had played our best period of the season in our last game.”