What a difference a year makes.
Gone are the Jordan Weals, the Nick Shores, the Colin Millers.
In are the Nic Dowds, the Justin Augers, the Kevin Gravels.
The Los Angeles Kings’ affiliate in Ontario, California, is harboring second-year AHL talent and for those players this new season brought new responsibilities and big roles to fill.
I suppose that’s what happens when you win a Calder Cup. Stars graduate. The NHL calls. And with the next season the next coming comes to the forefront.
“I think you can see with all three of them that they’re a huge part of our team this year,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers of Dowd, Auger and Gravel. “They benefitted from a long season last year. The playoff experience has helped them.”
Dowd plays the reliable play-in-every-situation center role and is the Reign’s go-to for critical faceoffs, not to mention the fact that he wears an A on his sweater.
“A lot of guys come in during their second year and don’t get given the assistant captain role, so that shows tremendous character on his part,” said Auger of Dowd.
You can’t miss Auger, who’s a towering 6-foot-7 coming down the wing and “actually skates very well for his size, has deceptively good hands for his size,” according to a recent assessment from Stothers.
For Gravel, he’s a high-minutes, stay-at-home type who’s now developing a reputation as a big-game goal scorer. Of his four goals on the season, two have come in overtime (most recently on Tuesday against Texas), goals that Dowd said, “don’t go unnoticed.”
Last season they were all rookies when the Kings affiliate won the Calder Cup in their final season as the Manchester Monarchs. This year is different story, as all three are heavily relied upon and now get to use their championship experience as a launching pad in their development.
“We’re all good friends,” said Auger, a 4th-round pick by the Kings in 2013. “We were all rookies together last year. You get close to the rookies and you hang out away from the rink and you see each other every day at the rink.
“It’s nice having a lot of familiar faces this year. You come to the rink and have fun every day. That’s a big part of it. If you’re not having fun, you’re not going to get better, you’re not going to enjoy yourself, you’re not going to enjoy going to the rink every day. That’s a big part of it.”
And as the Reign have enjoyed a solid start to the season, the second-year trio has been critical to the team’s carry-over success from one year to the next. Ontario continues to hold the Pacific Division lead with an 18-8-2-1 record and winning percentage of .672 and Auger, Dowd and Gravel are three of five players on the roster who have played in all 29 games.
Most recently the Reign were in a unprecedented three-game slump and instead of bowing after Texas tied Tuesday’s game late, these three players connected to set up an overtime winner by Gravel.
“They work hard at the game. They want to be good players. They want to be good teammates,” Stothers said. “They’re easy to coach because they’re coachable, and when you’re coachable you get better.”
This season, Dowd has been given a workload where he has to be better. No longer is he a third- or fourth-line rookie center. Now he’s the team’s top center and plays against the best the opposition has to offer.
“It’s not something I had to play against a lot last year,” said Dowd, a 7th round pick by Los Angeles in 2009 who has three goals and 16 assists. “It obviously makes the game more challenging but I embrace that. I think it’s good for my development. … That’s just a learning experience that I’ll be able to take with me and hopefully continue to develop this year and get better and hopefully make my way up to the NHL.”
As they all look to make the step and follow in the steps of their former teammates to the NHL level, confidence is a word that’s thrown around a lot.
“I think confidence is a big thing,” said Gravel, a 5th-round selection for Los Angeles in 2010. “Any step up that you make there’s going to be an adjustment period. Some are smoother than others, but I think the more games you play the more comfortable you feel out there and as you get more familiar with the league and the style and the pace and everything, your confidence grows and your experience grows and with that comes your ability to make plays and your ability to play your game.”
One player who has watched Gravel’s game adapt is Dowd, who played with the 6-foot-4 defenseman at St. Cloud State University. “What he already had he’s gotten better and what he lacked he’s really picked up in,” said Dowd, referring to Gravel’s defensive strengths and increasing offensive toolbox.
Auger, who plays wing now on Dowd’s line, went through a “trying last year,” coming out of juniors, according to Stothers. But now Auger’s playing special teams and coming into his own after scoring two goals on Tuesday.
“Obviously that just builds the confidence up and when the confidence comes everything else comes with it,” said Auger, who has eight goals and eight assists. And Dowd’s been impressed with the way Auger is starting to use his size to his advantage. “As you get older and you play more games of pro hockey you’ve got to find your niche. That’s how guys make it to the NHL and make a living so I think Augs is growing into that and he’s learning how to use his skillsets,” Dowd said.
And in their second year, the progress in the process is there as Auger, Dowd and Gravel, who have given the Kings a reason to believe their next stars could be on the way.
“I think you can see the confidence that they play with,” Stothers said. “They’re guys that are being a little bit more assertive and stepping out of the shadows of guys who were here last year.”