The door at the defensive end of the Reign bench is open and as the Kings’ rookie camp concludes, an even bigger opportunity presents itself for some to make an impression.
Ontario’s blue line is expected to have a much different look this season. Veteran Jeff Schultz will prove the biggest void after being picked up by the Ducks. Nick Ebert was moved in the trade that brought in goalie Jack Campbell. Kevin Gravel and Derek Forbort will be fighting for spots with on Kings’ opening night roster. That leaves captain Vincent LoVerde, second-year pro Kurtis MacDermid and Zach Leslie as locks in Ontario. Rookie Paul LaDue has high marks through camp and is slated to be a difference-maker in his first full season out of the University of North Dakota.
That leaves the chance for other young defensemen to make an impression. Some have made it their goal to earn a job in Ontario and the process toward that has started in rookie camp.
“I think they’ve all had their good moments where they’ve looked good and they’ve all had their moments where their inexperience shows,” Reign head coach Mike Stothers said on Monday. “Until we see them [Tuesday] in game-like situations when the pressure’s really on, I think that will be a better determining factor, what they bring to the table. One thing I can say is they’ve all worked hard and they’ve all been very attentive and they’ve all been trying to get better. I’m pretty happy with that aspect.”
Alex Lintuniemi is the defenseman in rookie camp most familiar with Stothers and Reign assistant coach Chris Hajt, who runs the team defense. Lintuniemi was sent to Ontario for his rehab back from a wrist injury last season. He was limited to just 38 games with ECHL-Manchester.
“I feel great right now so hopefully I don’t get injured like I did last year,” said Lintuniemi, who turns 21 on Friday. “Hopefully I’m able to get a spot in Ontario too so I don’t have to go up and down. It’s tough when you go up and down all the time and not really playing a lot and then you get injuries. I only played 30-something games, which is not great when you’re trying to develop your game still.”
Stothers has high expectations for Lintuniemi in tonight’s first of two rookie games against Arizona’s prospects (6 p.m. PT, streamed live on coyotes.nhl.com).
“My expectations for Linti are maybe a little bit higher than the other guys, just because he’s been around,” Stothers said. “He needs to take that step. First and foremost he’s got himself probably in the best shape we’ve ever seen him, which should help in him being the player we’re hoping he’s going to become. Consistency’s always a big part of Linti’s game. The games are going to be important for him to be the reliable guy and we’re looking for him to be the best defenseman on the ice for both teams.
“He should stand out, and that’s what I’m hoping.”
Another one to watch has been 20-year-old Damir Sharipzianov (new spelling, and more on that down in the post) who has caught the attention of the Kings’ development staff and delivered a noticeable open-ice hit on Justin Gutierrez during a camp session last weekend.
“I’m trying to be really physical, just make guys be scared to go in my way, chip the puck in if they see me and I’ll take the puck from them,” he said.
Sharipzianov (6-2, 203 pounds), like Lintuniemi (6-3, 231), also got a taste of pro hockey in Ontario last season cracking into the lineup late in the season for one game.
“He really understands the game well,” Stothers said of the defenseman he simply calls Sharpy. “I think he plays the game hard, he does the right things. The thing you question is his feet. Is he going to be able to handle the pace? Again, a kid that works extremely hard and is a good kid. The feet. How’s his feet going to be?
“I don’t know what the numbers will be down our way but just the fact that he’s practicing with us and I’m not going to put any limits on him right now. If he does come down, he should expect that he’s playing and he should prove that he’s playing. I think that’s the biggest thing for us. He needs to show us that he can handle the pace.”
Sharipzianov has made on thing clear: “I want to be playing in Ontario next year.”
“I don’t want to be just the 7th defenseman, I want to be in every game, all year and helping the team to accomplish what the coach is going to say we have to do,” he said.
Sharipzianov, on his style of play:
For me it’s playing from the defense. Make sure nobody gets by me, playing physical, and if I get an offensive chance I’ll take it. I’ll make a move, make a pass, score a goal if I have a shooting lane, just put it on the net and if it goes in, that’s great and if there’s a rebound and our forwards score that’s even better.
Sharipzianov, on the pace of AHL play:
It’s a little faster obviously, the guys are a little better than in junior. They think better, you have to make your decision a little faster, be a little faster, more physical. I can handle it if I just play hard.
Sharipzianov, on his pursuit to play in the AHL:
That’s the place I really want to go. I really want to play pro at that level. It’s a really high level in the AHL, pretty close to the NHL. Some of the people are saying that it’s harder to play in the AHL than the NHL because everyone is trying to show that they’re good and trying to make the NHL.
Sharipzianov, on the new spelling of his last name (previously Sharipzyanov):
When I was getting my passport a couple years ago my old international passport was saying after ‘Z’ was a ‘Y’ and there was some rule change and now it’s ‘I’. It was just a pain for me on the one spot. Every time it changed, spell it this way in there, that way in there. I just wanted everywhere to get ‘I’ so it would be the same everywhere.
Lintuniemi, on sitting out during his injury:
When your team is playing and you’re sitting in your suit and your upstairs watching them play and you think you want to get out there as fast as possibly but sometimes that’s not the case. You have to sit out for two-, two-and-a-half months. It’s a lot of games you miss there. You always want to play. That’s why we play hockey, so we can play. It’s tough to be up in the stands and watch other guys play.
Lintuniemi, on learning from Ontario’s veteran defensemen last season:
Ontario was rolling when I was up there. It was good to watch. The veterans were playing like Jeff Schultz and some other D-man. It was good to be there. I try to watch their defensemen like Schultzy. He played in the NHL for a long time and he was a great guy to watch while I was up in Ontario and Vinny LoVerde. I think he plays similar to me. He’s up on the rush too and a great defender as well. It’s good to watch those two guys.
Lintuniemi, on his style of play:
I think I’m a two-way defender. I can play defense pretty well and also I like to jump in the play a lot. Hopefully score some goals and get a few points, too. That’s how I like to play.
Lintuniemi, on taking on a leadership role at rookie camp:
It’s been a little change for me. Usually I’m the young guy, but it’s been good so far. I’ve been helping some of the young guys to maybe be on time, maybe show them a few things what to do and what not to. It’s been good.
Lintuniemi, on playing soccer as part of offseason training:
When I go back home over the summer I still play soccer a lot with my friends and I watch a lot of soccer too. I take it more as training because we play two 35-minute halves. There’s a lot of running in soccer so it’s a good cardio workout. A lot of quick feet stuff too because you’re starting and stopping all the time.