Coming into the season, the Kings appeared to have eight defensemen for seven NHL roster spots. By all accounts, Kings Head Coach Todd McLellan was feeling good about his team. He went so far as to indicate he wasn’t that worried about the team’s offense, as he believed the 2021 lineup should score three goals per game and that should be enough to win most nights. Yet, that blueline depth was soon put to the test and it wasn’t long before McLellan found himself icing a lineup with four rookie defensemen.
The chaos wasn’t limited to the absence of Matt Roy and Sean Walker — who went down in the same game with significant injuries — it extended to a slow start from Olli Maatta, who had been heralded as the veteran partner Drew Doughty desperately needed.
“We have to accept a lot of responsibility for that,” McLellan said earlier this week. “We put [Maatta] in that situation and we built him up. It was the wrong thing in retrospect.”
Conversely, Maatta sitting out a few games early on allowed Mikey Anderson to move up to the top pair alongside Doughty. Although the 21-year-old rookie had a whopping six games of NHL experience coming into this season, LA’s bench bosses had little hesitation in making such a bold move.
“We decided as a staff that Mikey was a good fit for Drew by the way he played,” Assistant Coach Trent Yawney explained, on a recent Kings Of The Podcast episode. “Drew likes to have the puck. With defensive pairs, some guys work, and some guys don’t. With Mikey, his defending was his strong suit and that matched well with Drew.”
The pairing took hold on January 21 vs. Colorado. Anderson played a season-high 24+ minutes that night and the Kings secured their first win of the season.
“Drew plays the game against the top players on every team and we felt that Mikey could handle it,” Yawney continued. “We wanted to see, but in order to see it we had to give him that responsibility and he’s grabbed it and ran with it. As the games have gone on here, you can just tell that it’s a good fit for both.”
In early January, Doughty was telling anybody who would listen that he planned on making a statement this season. He’s focused on silencing all doubters and wants to remind the greater hockey world that he’s still one of the league’s best defensemen.
With 15 points in 17 games played thus far, Doughty is averaging the second-most minutes of any NHL defenseman (26:60 per game) and hasn’t stopped praising his new partner.
“He likes discussing things on the bench, asking if he should have done something different,” Doughty remarked while talking about the strong communication between he and Anderson almost right from the start. “He’ll even tell me maybe I should have done something different too – which you don’t see a lot in young guys, but I love that because I don’t want him to be nervous playing with me. I want him to have fun playing with me. I want him to enjoy it.”
Not only are they enjoying it, they seem to be thriving. The duo has been rock solid throughout the Kings recent five-game winning streak. Yet, Anderson still hasn’t even played in his 25th NHL game. It’s pretty crazy when you stop to think about it.
“The thing for me is, he plays within himself, he doesn’t try and be something that he’s not,” Yawney noted. “He’s very, very steady. The detailed part to his game is very professional. During that [six-game] tryout that he had at the end of last year, after about three games I remember Todd and I were talking and it was like, ‘You know what, this guy, he gets it. He gets it!’ We started at about 13 minutes. Then, 13 went to 15, and then by the end he was playing about 17-18 minutes. Now he’s over 20, he’s earned it. It’s steadiness, his ability to make a good first pass and be very good on the penalty kill.”
Even though Anderson won back-to-back championships in college, it was his apprenticeship in the AHL last season that ultimately set him up for future success.
“The tryout at the end of last season also gave him a chance to understand the little subtleties, the differences between the NHL vs. the American League,” Yawney continued. “Players are bigger, faster, and stronger. He spent the offseason training and in training camp you could see that his body had changed. He spent a lot of time in the gym getting stronger and it shows in his play this year so far. Those guys that can play such a steady game at such a young age are hard to find. As a coach, but not in a negative way, you’re always kind of waiting to see them screw up. How do they respond to that? He doesn’t get rattled at all. That’s a credit to him.”
With the first D-pair settled, it was on to the second paring. The original plan was for Roy to rotate partners this season, splitting time with rookies Kale Clague and Tobias Bjornfot.
“[Clague’s] development here, from what I’m aware, matches his development in junior,” McLellan said a few weeks ago. “By the fourth year there, he was a dominant defenseman in junior; took a little time and d-men take a little longer. But I think he did a tremendous job over the summer to come into camp prepared to compete for a position. He has good legs, good vision, and he’s very capable of playing.”
Soon thereafter, with Roy out, McLellan found himself playing Clague with Kurtis MacDermind on a makeshift second pairing. When that didn’t yield the results needed, Clague and Bjornfot were eventually put together for something rarely seen in the NHL – a second pairing with a combined total of less than 20 games of NHL experience.
“With Clague, I think he made a bit of a statement coming in this year,” Yawney, the Kings coach primarily responsible for defensemen, added. “The one thing I think everybody kind of banged away at with him was his consistency with his defending. When it’s on, Clague is very good, but there’s always one or two plays in a hockey game that he’d like to have back. The difference being, in the American League you can sometimes get away with that. In the National League, they’ll finish those plays off or make you pay for your mistake.”
Clague’s recent return to the AHL was simply a numbers game. The Kings remain very high on their 2016 second-round pick. Yet, when Roy returned from injury, it was time to get Bjornfot his turn in the rotation after Clague had played in 11 of LA’s first 14 games.
“That was good for him to get those games in and he’s still developing,” Yawney said. “I saw a big improvement in his retrievals, in his defending, his net play, in and around the net. In fact, I put him as part of the [defensemen] killing penalties. There is a lot of growth, but as a young defenseman with the numbers that we have here, he has to continue to play. That’s the only way that he’s going to continue to hone his craft and work on those things that need to get tightened up.”
With Clague back in Ontario — for now — Bjornfot is holding down the left side of a second pairing that also features Roy. This time around, any conversations about the superior skills of an inexperienced blueliner must also include another key factor, age. Bjornfot is just 19 years old.
“When we drafted Toby, last year we played him with Drew in the first few games and maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing on my part,” Yawney said, perhaps only partly joking. “He played against some of the better players, especially in Edmonton against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He handled it quite well. Then, spending the year in the minors, I think it’s really enabled him to take this step and now be able to play that high up in the lineup.”
McLellan put Bjornfot into the Kings lineup at the start of their current five-game winning streak and he hasn’t looked back. Originally selected in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft, Bjornfot often looks like a seasoned vet when he’s on the ice.
“The thing with Toby, as a young player, he’s an easy guy to talk to, very coachable,” Yawney shared. “His steadiness is what catches your attention, and his mobility. He’s a lot more mobile and stronger than people maybe think he is at 19. It’s been kind of fun actually to watch these guys grow before our eyes. Pairing him with Roy, I think they complement each other with their steady play. It’s good for us, as a staff, because you know what you’re going to get out of your top-four. Hopefully, he continues to grow. I think he has some offensive upside too. He’s a pretty good shooter, his shot is a lot better than even I probably gave him credit for. There’s an offensive side to him that I think as he gets more and more confident that we’ll start to see.”
Another player who recently helped the Kings during the absence of Roy and Walker was 24-year-old Austin Strand. Unlike the above-mentioned youngsters, Strand wasn’t a highly touted draft pick or rising prospect. He was actually signed as a free agent after being passed over by every other NHL team.
“I think every year, there’s always a surprise in training camp,” Yawney said, almost as a proud papa puffing out his chest. “If you look at last year, Blake Lizotte was a surprise, making the team right out of training camp. I would say this year, Austin Strand was the biggest surprise in training camp. Kudos to him, because he’s always been a player that’s had the skill set, yet his consistency was never there.”
According to Yawney, that all changed during the long offseason in 2020. He would regularly check in with Strand and liked what he was hearing. That was then put into play this month, where the Kings assistant coach says Strand was “very, very steady and made all the right reads” while playing seven NHL games.
“With players that come out of the American League, everybody’s development curve is a little different,” added Yawney. “Some guys take a little bit longer. That doesn’t mean that they’re never going to play. We have opposite ends of the spectrum with Mikey Anderson and Austin Strand. It’s taken Strand a little bit longer to develop that consistency, where Mikey already had that and he just applied it to the NHL game.”
Even Doughty has taken notice of Strand, despite the fact they haven’t been paired together.
“Strander has looked awesome,” the former Norris Trophy winner said. “I didn’t really know what to expect since I hadn’t seen him play in a game before and he’s looked awesome out there. He looks like he’s been in the league for a couple years.”
While much of the credit for Strand’s development goes to Strand himself for putting the work in, there’s also a veteran defenseman who is worth mentioning.
“He’s been bringing a young player along,” McLellan said of Olli Maatta a few days ago. “He probably doesn’t get enough credit for that. He needed to re-set himself after the beginning of the year. I think sometimes when you get thrown up there and there’s a lot of talk about playing with Drew Doughty and against the other team’s top lines, you try to do way too much. In turn, you don’t do enough or you do enough just to hurt the team. Olli was really good during his re-set. He’s come back into the lineup and I think he’s a much more consistent defender now than he was at the beginning of the year.”
Nearly everything has come full-circle and the season isn’t even half over. The Kings are now back to the same six or seven defensemen they entered the season with, albeit with a slightly shuffled deck.
Anderson continues to take on more responsibility alongside Doughty, other youngsters are earning their stripes while partnered with Roy, and Maatta has found a home on the Kings third-pair. Things are clicking, pieces are falling into place.
It’s unlikely the Kings will win every remaining game this season, though. It’s also a good bet that McLellan will be either forced or interested in making some lineup changes along the way. Given what he’s seen over the previous 17 games, the defensive group has him and Yawney feeling anything but blue. They now have a plethora of rearguards who can be swapped in and out of the lineup with perhaps more confidence than they had when training camp opened.
“I am so impressed with our young guys on the backend,” Doughty recently said, enthusiastically adding his show of support. “They’ve impressed the entire organization, so I can’t be prouder of them and happy for them. I just want them to keep having success and helping them along that journey.”
Call it the ongoing growth in LA. As McLellan often talks about, the Kings are building something special here. And the last month has possibly provided a brief glimpse of what lies ahead for the organization.
For the full interview with Trent Yawney, CLICK HERE.