The Ontario Reign open its seventh season in the American Hockey League’s Pacific Division Saturday night, the second campaign under head coach John Wroblewski, with on-ice expectations as high as they’ve ever been at Toyota Arena.
It will be the first meaningful action in the Ontario building since February of 2020, and a grand total of 595 days have passed following a night that saw the Reign emerge victorious in a shootout over Bakersfield in front of 9,764 fans that were treated to a first-star performance by goaltender Matt Villalta.
A lot has changed for the club since then, including a new head coach that ushered in a change to the team’s philosophy for the first time in its AHL history, and many players graduated to the NHL, helping make up an LA Kings prospect pool which is widely considered to be one of the best in all of hockey.
But in the last 20 months, many of the young players have remained, helping to grow the organization into a formidable contender. Including fifth-year captain Brett Sutter, who is back for his seventh season in Ontario, the Reign have a staggering amount of returners, 21 in total. Many are still young in age, but the talent makeup of the roster has everyone excited to open the season.
“I think everyone’s chomping at the bit to get going here,” Sutter said. “It’s been a long and competitive camp, so I think we’re ready to go. We’ve had a few weeks of practice to get dialed in on some of the little details that we need in our game, but I think we feel like we have a really good team with a lot of depth and internal competition.”
At the outset of Wroblewski’s sophomore campaign, he’s focused on making sure his exceptional group doesn’t stray too far from the coaching staff’s main principles.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re not just enamored with our skill and our speed,” Wroblewski said. “We have to acknowledge that in life and in hockey in particular, we’ve got to put the work in, do the gritty things, the grinding things first, in order for our skill to come out. I believe we have it in there, but I feel like this group is going to need constant reminders of the proper way to play the game. No matter how skilled you are, your first thought has to be getting to the grind and wearing teams down.”
There’s excitement to be had at all three positions, with exceptional talent up front like former first-round selections Rasmus Kupari and Alex Turcotte, formidable experience on the back-end with three defenders that boast NHL experience in Kale Clague, Cameron Gaunce and Austin Strand, and three goaltenders, each at a different stage in their career, but all who have the highest of expectations.
Ontario has 15 forwards on its opening night roster, including a new addition to the organization in reigning AHL Most Valuable Player TJ Tynan, who captured the award after posting 35 points in 27 games on eight goals and 27 assists with the Colorado Eagles. A familiar opponent for the Reign over the past two campaigns, Tynan has seen two NHL stints in his career with Columbus and Colorado, won a Calder Cup Championship with the Lake Erie Monsters in 2016 and made another run to the AHL finals three years later with the Chicago Wolves after posting a career-high 71 points during the regular season.
“He’s the type of player that’s not content to just be in the AHL,” Wroblewski said. “He’s going to push to be his best and I think the defining characteristic of TJ is that he just makes everybody around him better. Whether that’s him making a slip pass to his linemates or buzzing through the neutral zone or the offensive zone always demanding the puck. But also, it’s his infectious work ethic, his tenacity, his desire to win and be a leader, those are the things that are ultimately going to rub off on guys.”
Tynan joins Sutter, who is beginning his 15th season and closing in on 1,000 professional games, and Martin Frk as the three veterans among the forward group. Even with all their prowess and previous experience at this level, the trio will have to earn their ice time because there’s a large group of hungry attackers right on their heels pushing to be included for top minutes.
“We have a really deep team, there’s a lot of internal competition,” Sutter said. “We’re going to be pushing each other and that’s a good thing, that’s healthy competition. I think we have a good enough bunch of guys in the locker room where no one is going to be sour about where they’re being placed. You’re given a job and you have to embrace it and do what’s best for the team and we’re excited for that. I think as the year goes on there’s going to be opportunities for guys to step up and play different roles, but right now it’s our job to go out there and play to the best of our capabilities and we’re looking forward to that.”
Kupari and Turcotte, who are coming off 23 and 21-point campaigns respectively in the shortened AHL year, are expected to take the next step in their development, as well as Samuel Fagemo, who reached double digits with 10 goals last season and had a strong preseason that started at the Rookie Faceoff event in Arizona last month.
Other important names up front include returner Adam Johnson, who is back after joining the team for 14 games toward the end of last season where he posted 11 points, as well as Tyler Madden who enters his second pro year and newcomer Brayden Burke, acquired by LA in a July trade with Arizona, who previously scored 52 points (21 goals, 31 assists) with the Tucson Roadrunners in 2019-20.
“To execute the things that we’re asking our group to do with work ethic and detail, we need to have a four-line team,” Wroblewski said. “I think that at this point you could even say we’re a very good five-line team. If guys aren’t holding their weight, if they’re not practicing the right way, if they’re not contributing in games and providing momentum at the very least, their spot can be changed out with somebody else. That’s what ends up making players thrive is that they have to earn their stripes and earn their spot, so we’re excited about our depth and we certainly don’t take it for granted, but it’s going to be a group that does it by committee.”
With the Kings having to make some tough roster decisions as their training camp wound down over the past few days, their surplus of NHL-ready players will benefit the Reign, at least at the start of the new year. For Ontario, that added experience is most important on the blue line, where they’ve added a pair of defenders in Clague and Strand that saw significant time in the NHL last season.
Along with Gaunce, a veteran with over 700 games of pro experience, and returning 23-year-old prospect Jacob Moverare who is back for his second season in North America, the Reign now have the tools to manage their own end and get the puck to that talented forward group.
In addition, promising young rookies Helge Grans and Jordan Spence join returners Sean Durzi and Markus Phillips to round out a back end that will be counted on as a backbone.
“The returners have to lead the way,” Wroblewski said. “They’re the springboard, the catalyst for the group. They’re the ones that give us stability when things start to get thrown into flux, so we’ll lean on those guys. Most importantly, it’s the cultural items that they are already familiar with, our values, like line rush against gap control or danger zone maintenance. The familiarity that these guys have is going to be pivotal for these young players to learn the game and make sure that our system is running in all facets. They’re the oil that keeps the engine going.”
While knowing that much of the defensive group is returning, Gaunce, 31, said there’s still plenty of room for growth this season.
“Last year we had nine players under the age of 21, and they’re still all young kids, I wouldn’t call them experienced by having one shortened season under their belt in a practice rink. I think the most important thing is the team’s success. Getting used to each player in the group has been important and having a couple older players just helps us come together quicker.”
But just as with the forwards, there are an excess of defenders on the roster vying for playing time. With eight blueliners starting the season on the AHL roster, Wroblewski’s staff has the challenge of balancing the need to work in the young prospects while still leaning on the experience of the returners.
“There’s going to be some guys that really have to earn their ice time because there are some considerations we have to make for the young players,” said Wroblewski. “That will all sort itself out I think but in the early going there are going to be some difficult decisions to make and players in that room won’t be happy and that’s what you want. You don’t want guys content with their role. Everybody should want a little more responsibility and more opportunity, so it’s up to us to make sure we have a merit-based system where guys get what they earn. Young players need the chance to audition as well, they need to have an opportunity to put some credit in their bank. It’s a difficult juggling act and one we’ll approach as dutifully as possible on a daily basis.
In between the pipes, the Reign currently have three netminders on the roster, as well as a pair of goaltenders on AHL contracts that will begin the year in the ECHL. The incumbent returner is Villalta, entering his third season after appearing in 18 games with Ontario during 2020-21. Combined with 22 outings as a rookie the year prior, Villalta is comfortable with his surroundings among a group of familiar faces and poised to take the next step forward in his career.
“Going into my third year pro, I’ve got a few games under my belt and kind of know what to expect,” Villalta said. “I have to come every day and work as hard as I can, and I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but it certainly helps when you’ve been around the group a lot, been around with the big boys up with the Kings and it just really helps having a good comfort level with everyone and makes everything a little easier.”
Joining Villalta is 28-year-old Garret Sparks, who is set to begin his ninth pro campaign after a strong finish in the division with the Stockton Heat to complete the shortened 2020-21 season. While new to the Reign, the Elmhurst, Ill. native has played in 163 AHL games during his career, posting excellent numbers with a record of 93-52-13, a goals-against average of 2.28 and a save percentage at .923 along with 17 shutouts that has led him to multiple NHL contracts and 38 games of experience at the sport’s highest level.
Jacob Ingham, now in his second year of an entry level contract with the Kings, is the third part of Ontario’s goaltending equation which will be counted on as the team’s last line of defense.
“Goaltending depth is a great problem to have, but how you manage it is ultimately the defining characteristic of whether or not that depth turns into success,” Wroblewski said. “The guys that can figure out how to keep the puck out of the net and do it most efficiently within the structure that our staff provides while showing the right work ethic will be the ones that get their chances.”
As it is with the start of any season, the common theme when talking to the players and staff is excitement. But after a year away from their home in Ontario, being back at Toyota Arena and feeling the energy of the crowd will mean a lot more this season. The Reign will get to experience that often over the next week, will a total of five consecutive home games to begin the year in an eight-day span.
“I’m thrilled,” said Gaunce. “The idea of playing in front of a group is really exciting. You see the games on TV right now and it just makes you want to play that much more. The energy that a crowd creates, it’s really hard to emulate. Crowd noise is not the same as hearing the real emotion from fans, especially when it’s a fanbase like Ontario where they’ve got such a big passionate following. Guys can do the best they can in terms of getting up to play but when there’s those lulls and you’ve got a crowd behind you it really helps push you through and that’s something I’m really looking forward to experiencing again.”
Sutter echoed his teammate’s sentiments about returning to a home crowd he’s grown accustomed to playing in front of.
“I’m just excited to get back into our home rink and see all the fans and those faces that you become so familiar with,” Sutter said. “I’m excited to share that with all these guys here and I know it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
From a competitive standpoint, Wroblewski knows it’s important to set the tone for the season from the start, and with the first five games coming in Ontario, it’s an added pressure to get off on the right foot because he and his staff won’t have much time to work on fundamentals in practice.
“While it’s nice to have these five games at home, if we’re not playing well in that short stretch then we don’t have a lot of time to correct how things are going,” Wroblewski said. “If we hit the ground running and we’re playing great for eight days, then we get to pot a bunch of points. But if we aren’t, there’s not much time to work on anything so we’ll see in 10 days how we like that tight five games in eight days at home. Being able to work on some things would be really nice but the schedule is what it is and we can’t wait to get in the friendly confines.”