Notebook: Kovalchuk odd man out? Wagner's work with development staff paying off - LA Kings Insider

A fine afternoon to you and yours, Insiders. The LA Kings took the ice shortly before 11:00 a.m. at Toyota Sports Center and got in a lot of special teams work as part of an extended skate. “Yeah, it was a good, hard day. I wasn’t very happy with the first period yesterday. I just think we had more. We just do, and I think all our guys, I don’t think anybody in our room would disagree with me,” Willie Desjardins said.

The antidote? Good hard practice. Teams aren’t always trying to reinforce structure between Game 70 and 71; a team of sound position might be more apt to conserve their energy and get touches. When the Kings were playoff-bound, skates this time of year often wouldn’t be much more than flow drills and pucks on goalies. “Now you’d like to be going nice and easy and tapering, and we’re going the opposite,” Desjardins said. “We’re starting to work hard.”

On it goes. Late in practice, the Kings appeared to depict the following alignment in advance of Saturday’s Hockey Night in L.A. game against Florida (1:00 p.m. / FOX Sports West / FOX Sports app / LA Kings Audio Network / click here for HNILA details):




–The vitals: It’s possible that Ilya Kovalchuk could be the odd-man out Saturday afternoon. During late-skate drills depicting line rushes, Jonny Brodzinski skated opposite Brendan Leipsic on Jeff Carter’s line during the first rotation. “Whenever you’re losing, you just can’t stand pat. You want to find ways to get better,” Willie Desjardins said. “We do want to get young guys in and playing, too. I think we’re always looking at different things we could do.” This isn’t set in stone, and it’s possible that Kovalchuk could enter into another area in the lineup if he’s not a right wing on Carter’s line. That line did not perform well against Nashville, with Leipsic (11:33 5×5 TOI; 6 CF, 20 CA), Carter (13:01 5×5 TOI; 8 CF, 23 CA) and Kovalchuk (11:10 5×5 TOI; 6 CF, 20 CA) losing the territorial battle handily.

“I think Kovalchuk, he brings lots of energy. I like certain things he does, for sure. He’s a guy that’s been around quite a while and he has lots of pride in his game,” Desjardins said.

–I’ll have more on this either later this evening or tomorrow morning, but stick taps to Darren Granger, who made his NHL debut in 1992-93 as a 21-year-old assistant equipment manager with the Vancouver Canucks and will work his 2,000th NHL game on Saturday against Florida.

“It’s a good life, for sure,” Granger said after Friday’s practice. “I enjoy the job, I enjoy the people around it. That’s what I love about it, and I love the game. I think my family, probably my wife and kids deserve an award as much as anybody. They were away a lot and spend a lot of time at work and at the rink, so I think about how much time they’ve put into it, too. I’ve worked with two great organizations – Vancouver and here. Outstanding organizations to work for, good people around them.”

Granger, who cut his teeth with former Winnipeg Jets equipment manager Craig Heisinger while with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings before moving to Vancouver, has also represented Canada at the 2006, 2008 and 2010 World Championships. He won gold medals with Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2016 World Cup.

–More on another fine Western Canadian boy. Austin Wagner joined the ranks of Los Angeles’ double-digit scorers by scoring his 10th goal of the season Thursday, providing the punctuation to a heavy cycling shift in which he combined with Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis and Matt Roy to beat Pekka Rinne and capitalize on a voracious forecheck.

Desjardins was asked to grade the NHL rookie and second-year pro.

“Maybe I’m an easy grader, but I think he’s pretty high. I’d say he’s a B+, A, anyways. He’s been good,” he said. “To step in his first year, he really has contributed a lot. There’s not many times lately where we’ve taken him aside and shown him t hings he’s done wrong. It’s been more things he’s been doing right.”

This, of course, is among the most promising developments of a rotten season. Wagner was projected to start the year in Ontario, but because of his speed, his training camp, injuries to other wings and the commitment he’d shown in his development, he’s played primarily for Los Angeles and has stuck around over the second half of the season while others have gone up and down. He has six goals, eight points and a plus-three rating over his last 13 games and has broken through in the second half as a player who has been putting his tools in concert to provide needed secondary offense.

“It sounds like it’s pretty easy – just shoot the puck,” said Mike Donnelly, Player Development, who is among those to have spent a good deal of time with the young forward since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2015. “But there are a lot of details that go into becoming a good shooter, so we spent a lot of time on that, like we do with all our prospects and all our draft picks. Wags, he really liked it and he really put a lot of time and effort into it, and it’s showing in his play.”

Donnelly made clear that Wagner put in immense work to get to the point where he could set a goal of making the Kings out of training camp and achieve it. He’s made tremendous strides in constructing his own identity with a work ethic that has allowed him to play some of his best hockey late in the season.

Though as a young player he’d been known as someone whose poise and decision-making took some time to catch up with his pure, unadulterated speed, he’s built his game by adapting to a solid forechecking role that incorporates many of the defensive attributes that came naturally to him while with the Regina Pats. NHL players are often accustomed to playing every role as stars at the major junior level, but in one revealing statistic, of the 88 goals he scored his final 195 WHL games, one was scored on the power play, and 17 while shorthanded.

“I didn’t play power play in junior,” he said. “My coach told me, ‘when you get to pro, you’re probably not going to play power play, so why would I get your expectations up so that when you go there you expect to play power play?’ I never expect anything, I and I know it comes with time and work, but down there, penalty killing, I love it and try to work on it. In practice, even today the guys are running the power play, I can work on penalty kill and stuff like that – work on the little things like getting in lanes, using my stick better and reading plays, stuff like that.”

That speed would look awfully tantalizing alongside Adrian Kempe on a penalty kill some six, 12 or 24 months from now. It’s also something that could ultimately come to fruition.

“I think as far as his opportunity on the penalty kill, it’s funny, I talked to Dave Lowry today about that. And is he ready right now? I don’t know. But he’s a guy I want to get on that page,” Desjardins said. “Maybe we can give him a look here later on. But we just want to get him used to it and ready to go. At the same time, we’re still trying to find ways to win. We want to put out our best group every time, but maybe he’s got something that we haven’t seen yet.”

Harry How/Getty Images

“Opportunity’s number one, but our development guys have done a great job with them, they really have. And they’re still doing it. That’s one of the biggest strengths out of the organizations since I’ve come here is they’re taking extra time with these young guys on a daily basis. There are a lot of ex-Kings that are around here that help out and I think they’ve been doing a great job with these young guys.”

Craig Johnson has also gotten onto the ice with Wagner and along with Donnelly and Jarret Stoll was among the figures within the organization the 21-year-old praised for their work in helping to wrangle a number of aspects of his game that as a young player needed attention.

That body of work with the Los Angeles staff has gone on for the better part of four years. It began when he was first drafted, and Donnelly would work with Wagner on his hands, details and fundamentals at development and training camp.

“I think the biggest thing for me, and when he came to training camp this fall, the goalies came up to me and him and said Wags’ shot has gotten a lot better – better meaning he’s got more power,” Donnelly said. “We worked on his release, getting pucks released quicker. We worked on getting his head up, looking to see what’s available and not just having his head down, skating a hundred miles an hour. It’s been a process, and since he’s been drafted we’ve been working on these things with him. Each summer he’s put more time into it, and this summer we combined some on and off-ice stuff, a nd his focus was ‘I want to do everything I can to make the team,’ so we worked on the things he was sufficient at, and his hands and his shooting was part of it. Obviously we know he’s an elite skater, so we wanted to improve his scoring and we knew he was going to get scoring chances, so we’re doing everything we can to help him become better in those areas.”

The goal against Nashville served as the proper representation of the commitment he’s shown to bettering his game and ability to take advantage of an opportunity presented. He showed a quick release while shooting off Trevor Lewis’ pass after his accountable work along the trenches.

“I was working with CJ (Craig Johnson) before practice this week – just stuff like that, trying to get better,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the hardest shot, but if I can get it off quick, I’m going to surprise some goalies, and I’m learning that. Last night I didn’t dust it off or anything – it was on my stick, off my stick. Goalies are so good nowadays and they move so well, that’s what it’s got to be.”

Setting aside for a moment the “goalies nowadays” remark – if we could all be 21 – he does rely on input from the goalies to make his own internal adjustments. “I’ve talked to Soupy, I’ve talked to Quickie, and I try to get some insight on what they’re thinking, and they definitely helped me out,” he said.

A player with game-breaking speed in search of sound fundamentals serves as a malleable figure for this development staff.

“With Wags, his skating is so elite that we just wanted to be able to add elements to his game,” Donnelly said. “If he can shoot in stride, if he can learn to hit open spots at the net, if we can learn to move pucks, change the angle on his shot, things like that can make him more dangerous as a shooter. I think we’ve added that, and there are still some things that we need to add to his game. We’re working on one-timers. We’re continuously working on his game, but I think we’re seeing results from Wags working on his game and details and fundamentals that we’ve taught him that he’s working on, and they’re applying to practice and games.”

There’s still ample room for Wagner to grow; entering Saturday’s game, he’s still only averaging 8:41 per game, a number that doesn’t benefit from any current special teams work. He ranks ninth in the NHL among players with at least 400 minutes of five-on-five play – between Alex DeBrincat and Matt Duchene – with 1.4 goals per 60 minutes.

Even if he doesn’t necessarily profile as a regular NHL goal scorer but as a role player and penalty killer with blazing speed and the ability to chip in offensively, he’s adding layers to his game that will put him in position to make the most of his pure athletic ability and score more frequently than had been projected before his breakthrough 2018-19.

“I remember watching clips this summer from me, my first year when I came down here when I was 18. I barely could shoot a puck, honestly, when you look at it then. And now my technique’s better, my release is better, I’m stronger, obviously. That comes with age and stuff like that, but Mel (Mike Donnelly), CJ, Stolly (Jarret Stoll), all those guys, they’ve helped me out tremendously. We’ve still got a long ways to go before I want to be where I want to be, and I want to be a 30-goal scorer. I want to be a 20-plus goal scorer every year. Obviously 10’s great to get, but I still want to hit 20. It probably won’t happen this year, but I’m going to keep working here, keep my head down and keep doing the little things right.”

–Their vitals: Florida practiced in San Jose today before flying south for tomorrow’s matinee. Jonny Huberdeau is the NHL’s reigning First Star of the week and though he didn’t score in the Panthers’ 4-2 win over the Sharks Thursday night, still has four goals, nine points and a plus-six rating in his last four games. 22-year-old Sam Montembeault has been hot in net, backstopping the Cats to points in each of his four career starts with a 3-0-1 record, a 2.24 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage. A third-round draft pick in 2015, Montembeault has started last three games. The Panthers will complete the Southern California back-to-back with a Sunday evening game in Anaheim, so it’s very possible either the Kings or Ducks will face Roberto Luongo.

–Lead photo via Steve Babineau/NHLI