The relationship that the Kings development staff builds with its young players is well represented in the case of Kurtis MacDermid, a stalwart, rugged defender who is expected to make his NHL debut tonight.
A teammate of Connor McDavid’s with the OHL’s Erie Otters, MacDermid originally signed his entry-level contract in September, 2012, some five years before his tenure with the Los Angeles Kings was within grasp.
An undrafted defenseman, he’s the brother of former Bruin, Star and Flame Lane MacDermid and the son of Paul MacDermid, who played 690 games with the Whalers, Jets, Capitals and Nordiques. He grew up in hockey and understands the inner-workings of dressing room dynamics and the teachings that, combined with his own natural ability, have him strapping on shoulder pads and lacing up skates next to the likes of Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar.
“Nothing’s a foreign language to him,” said Sean O’Donnell, one of the members of the development staff who has lent his own expertise and playing experience as a guide to the 6-foot-5, 208-pound left-shot defenseman.
It’s a fitting partnership. In watching MacDermid either from the press boxes high above an arena’s ice sheet, or from the tables where hockey operations figures gather at Toyota Sports Center, there are the occasional gasps of “O’D!” when MacDermid asserts himself in rough-edged situations or positions himself well to take good routes in an attempt to separate the puck carrier from the puck.
Like O’Donnell, MacDermid has renowned hockey sense and the understanding of using not only his physicality, but also his size, long reach and positioning as a major asset.
“He’s awesome,” MacDermid said. “We worked a lot this summer, and that was pretty big. Similar player, and he played a long time. He was just teaching me those little tips and hints that you can only get through experience. I was really, really lucky and fortunate to be able to work with him and just be a sponge and take in as much information as possible.”
While O’Donnell is one comparable that has been used by a number of people in the organization, there was actually a much different player that the team recorded tapes of and sent to MacDermid over the summer. Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter wouldn’t be the first – or even 100th – player to draw a comparison to MacDermid, but the subtleties in Suter’s game – his positioning and ability to close on gaps and channel attacking forwards to the outside – is something that serves as a model of instruction for the way the team would like MacDermid to play.That MacDermid is also “driven” – a term used by multiple people in the organization – and has tested at an “elite” level in the gym solidified his case for a roster spot when he was clearly among the bubble players entering camp.
“Kurtis has come a long way,” John Stevens said. “He’s always one of the leaders in terms of fitness. He does everything in his power to try and get better. Our goal for him is just to continue to become a better defender.”
MacDermid has been able to improve the pace with which he plays and reduce extraneous time in retrieving pucks and sending them up-ice to his forwards, impressions he has left on the development staff and hockey operations over the course of the past year. He’ll face a good challenge with a skilled Philadelphia Flyers team entering Staples Center for the Kings’ season opener.
“The development staff and coaching staff has been unbelievable,” he said. “They’ve given me a lot of things to use to get better, and I owe it all to them, too. They’ve helped me a lot the past few years, and I can’t say enough about them. They’ve gotten me here, so it’s pretty special to have that bond with some of those coaches that started off pretty far away, and I’m now making strides in the right direction, so I’ve just got to keep that going.”
Clearly his physicality has been his calling card, but there have been some moments in his rearview mirror that are difficult to re-watch. MacDermid was assessed an eight-game suspension for a check to the head on Max Domi while in the OHL, and a 12-game suspension for a check to the head of Matt Bailey during his rookie season with the AHL’s Ontario Reign. He’s also accustomed to sticking up for himself after his punishing open-ice hits, one of which came in the preseason opener at Staples Center against Vancouver when he stepped up to (cleanly) hit Ryan White, heavy conduct that unfortunately ended the Canucks forward’s preseason as he underwent concussion protocol.
But as he has developed, he has continued to understand the nuances of his heavy play and what he’s able to do with his body and wingspan. It’s not only his physicality, or his fighting, that has served as his path to the NHL. He wouldn’t be in this position today if he hadn’t made great strides in his ability to use his stick as an asset with a terrific reach, or to separate body from puck with less forceful means.
MacDermid said he doesn’t want to be “running all over the place looking for [a big hit], but if it happens to come, then just take that opportunity.”
His coach understands such nuances of defending.
“He’s got a real physical element to his game that we all love, but we know also in today’s game that you need to go play and defend, and I think that needs to be his game,” Stevens said. “He needs to be able to get back to pucks and move pucks quickly, which he’s done a good job of, and then he’s got to be able to defend with a good stick and close plays out and get plays stopped and get pucks moving. He’s got no problem keeping up. I think his pace continues to get better, and those are the things we’re looking to continue to get from him.”
There are understated elements in MacDermid’s game that go well beyond his fighting and capacity for hits that have the potential to shift momentum in close games. Such subtlety was also noticeable in his reaction when asked if he had seen his former teammate light up the Calgary Flames for three goals in his season debut.
Connor McDavid? “Yeah, pretty good player,” MacDermid said.
Kurtis MacDermid, on how he’d describe his skill set:
Just take care of my own end, be a real solid defender in my own end, make a real good first pass, and obviously, physicality – I bring that to the game, too. Just a real solid defender in my own end.
MacDermid, on whether it was tense being a bubble player with impending cuts:
It’s always on your mind, but I just put it in the back of my head, and I just tried to focus on the here and now. You can’t control that kind of stuff, so you’ve just got to control how you play and how hard you work. That’s my mentality, and whatever happens, so I’ll go from there.
MacDermid, on knowing when and how to step in and defend teammates:
Over the past year since the OHL and AHL, the past couple of years, I’ve played with a lot of good players, and I just want to make sure they’re as comfortable as possible out there and them knowing that I have their backs any time and nothing can bother them. Anytime someone gets in their face, I’m always ready to stick up for them. Anything like that – I take a lot of pride in that and just want to make sure they can do their thing out there and I’ll be able to do my thing out there for them.
MacDermid, on striving to improve at retrieving and moving pucks out of his zone:
Yeah, for sure, the whole organization, that’s a big part of it. To play at the next level, you’ve got to be able to make those plays. I’ve been working hard the past few years with all the coaches, the development staff on those things because those are things that are a big part of my game and I need to get better at it. It’s taken a lot of time and work and process into it, and I think it’s coming along pretty good so far.
-Lead photo via Harry How/Getty Images