Taylor Ward feeling ready for first NHL training camp with fast start at Rookie Faceoff

Since making the decision to sign with the LA Kings last spring, Taylor Ward has done everything he can to familiarize himself with the organization. As a free agent coming out of college after spending four seasons at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Ward chose to begin his pro career with the Kings, agreeing to a one-year entry level deal on March 19.

Before putting pen to paper, the forward spoke to many members of the front office and was assured he’d have the opportunity to train at the team’s facility in order to continue his development. Ward knew he had plenty of hard work ahead of him to achieve his dream of playing in the NHL like his father Dixon did for 10 seasons from 1992-02, appearing in 537 games, 34 of which were with the Kings.

“I was on the phone a lot; I was doing a bunch of research and getting as much information as I could on what I wanted to do next and I had the opportunity to speak with pretty much everybody in this organization,” Ward said days after signing his first pro deal. “I just loved what I heard from everyone and their emphasis on development so it just felt like the right fit and it’s a tough place to say no to so I didn’t.”

Ward joined the Ontario Reign in the AHL on an amateur tryout contract for the final 16 games of the team’s regular season and instantly became a contributor, scoring 10 points (3-7=10) while playing in multiple roles throughout the forward lineup that included time on the club’s top trio alongside leading scorers TJ Tynan and Martin Frk. He also appeared in five postseason contests for the Reign, adding an assist.

Now, just days away from opening his first-ever NHL training camp, Ward is showing the Kings management and fans more of what he can do at the 2022 Rookie Faceoff in San Jose by scoring goals in both of the team’s first two games during the event.

“I was thrown in there at the end of last season and into the playoffs, which actually helped me become pretty comfortable with the guys pretty quickly last year,” Ward said Sunday after a practice for the rookie roster in preparation for the final day of games on Monday.

Once the Reign’s playoff run came to an end, the 24-year-old took advantage of the opportunity he had been promised and continued training in Southern California over the summer at the Toyota Sports Performance Center, spending his time executing workout plans from team staff and furthering relationships with his new teammates instead of living back home to Western Canada during the offseason.

“To be able to spend the summer here with a handful of Kings guys that I got to really watch and learn from, it was really cool,” Ward said. “And now to be able to see those guys at the rink every day and feel comfortable, I’m enjoying it. I feel like it’s made my first few days here at rookie camp a lot easier, rather than just coming in without knowing anybody so I’m glad I did it and it was a great experience.”

After starting Friday’s opening game against Colorado on the second line, the Kelowna, B.C. native netted a power play tally halfway through the second period to tie the game at 2-2. He continued to show confidence and was later elevated to the team’s No. 1 line alongside two of the Kings’ top prospects at the event, Quinton Byfield and Tyler Madden. Although LA surrendered a third period goal and ultimately came up short on the scoreboard, the line had multiple quality chances, including one that saw Ward feed Byfield for an open one-timer in the closing minute.

“I felt pretty good there in the first game,” Ward said. “It was the first game of my season and moving up there playing with Q and Madds, I thought we played well and we were creating offense. Obviously that’s more fun than playing in the D zone so that’s what we like to do. The coaches expressed that they were happy with how I was playing so that’s always good to hear as well.”

24 hours later, Ward scored another tying goal to even the score at 2-2 at almost the same time in the second period against Vegas. The second strike came at even strength alongside his linemates for the day, Francesco Pinelli and Brett Kemp. Ward realized he had extra time and space in the offensive zone and sent a puck toward Kemp at the front of the net, which glanced off a Vegas defender and into the goal.

After the game, Ontario Reign head coach Marco Sturm, who is running the bench at this week’s rookie event, admitted he didn’t have much familiarity with Ward and the way he played coming in, but he’s now put himself on the radar for opportunities moving forward.

“I didn’t really know him, but I’m very pleased,” Sturm said Saturday. “The way he plays, he reminds me of a few players I played with, so I think there’s something to it and he’s been really good, he’s a pleasant surprise. We’re going to try to keep pushing him to get more out of him, but so far, he’s had a really good tournament.”

The positive feeling is mutual for Ward, who said he’s eager to learn from someone like Sturm who has experience being on an NHL bench as a player and a coach.

“He just brings such a presence and he’s a very smart man,” Ward said of his first interactions with Sturm as his coach. “Anytime he opens his mouth, I’m trying to learn as much as possible, listen, and then apply what he’s saying to my game. The first few days have been great so far and I think everybody in the room is a big fan of his so I’m excited to keep playing for him.”

The whole experience of playing at a rookie event and being evaluated against other young players is completely new to Ward. Unlike others from his 1998 birth year who were drafted at age 18 and could have multiple years of this under their belt, the 6-foot-2 attacker is going through everything for the first time.

“It’s been really fun so far,” Ward said. “I’ve never been at a rookie camp or anything like it before so I’m having fun with it. It’s cool to see some of your buddies on the other teams and obviously getting out there and putting on a Kings uniform is something special no matter where or when you’re doing it.”

This is the type of start Ward was envisioning when he committed to spend the summer in California. The workouts, both on and off the ice, that he went through have him physically prepared, and the familiarity with the staff and the facility is allowing him to concentrate solely on performing his best as he competes for a spot at the highest level.

“I didn’t want to come into my first main camp with no idea of what to expect and not knowing many people,” Ward said. “So now to be able to come into camp and feel much more comfortable with the guys that are in the locker room and the coaching staff, training staff and everybody around, it’s definitely a big help for sure. I think I’d be much more nervous if I was back home the whole summer.”

Ward credits the team’s training staff for getting him ready and said that while he did see similarities between their workouts and the ones he did in college, there were some new things to get used to as well.

“We’ve got some really smart guys up there in the gym in LA and the things we did were actually pretty interesting and very helpful,” Ward said. “I feel like I’ve improved a lot over the last few months here and now I’m just hoping it translates onto the ice and I think it will.”

The next step is proving that when he steps on the ice with the rest of the Kings roster this week.

“Being at an NHL main camp is something that I’ve been dreaming about my whole life, so it’s a huge honor and I’m ready for it,” Ward said. “I’m maybe a little bit nervous, but not too much. I’m excited. I feel good and I can’t wait for it to get going.”

Ward and the rest of the Kings Rookie Faceoff roster will wrap up their three-game schedule Monday afternoon when they go up against the San Jose Sharks rookies at 3 p.m.

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