As the Kings prepare for the final game on their preseason schedule tomorrow afternoon, and the Reign prepare for the first of their own, we’ve got an update for you on AHL camp now three days in.
Each year, every AHL team is constantly balancing two goals: winning and development. For Ontario, last year marked a step forward on both fronts. The club competed at the top of the Pacific Division and finished the regular season with the third-best winning percentage in the league (.669), the highest they’ve had since their first year in the AHL in 2015-16. The Reign also saw a total of 15 players receive a call-up from the LA Kings and appear in a game.
The impressive thing about all the call-ups was that a number of them showed they were even more NHL-ready than expected, including defensemen Sean Durzi, Jacob Moverare and Jordan Spence. Those three ended up combining to appear in 117 games, regular season and playoffs combined, filling in admirably as injuries racked up with the NHL club.
That success has raised the expectation level for the Reign, who officially opened preseason training camp on Wednesday in El Segundo, even though a majority of the roster has been skating for the better part of the last three weeks with 13 of them beginning at the Rookie Faceoff and another 11 joining when the Kings began NHL training camp in late-September.
There’s a new boss behind the bench for Ontario in Marco Sturm, and he’s intent on making the most of his first opportunity as a professional head coach.
Sturm and the rest of his staff were also involved over the past couple of weeks, running the practices and games for the rookies in San Jose and helping to coach players during on-ice sessions at main camp.
Those experiences gave them a chance to familiarize themselves with those they didn’t already know. Now their challenge is to bring the group together as a team before the AHL regular season opens on October 14, just three days after the Kings take the ice on Tuesday.
“We’ve had some excellent practices this week,” Sturm said after Thursday’s skate. “I thought the guys have been really really good. I think we’re getting better every day and we’ve worked on a lot of things this week system wise, the way we want to play and it was a lot of information for the guys but they’re doing really good so I’m really pleased with the effort so far.”
While many of the players did play in some games either during the Rookie Faceoff or the NHL preseason, Sturm said everyone’s eager to get the season underway. Ontario has one preseason game on Saturday in San Diego and then another three practices scheduled next week to prepare for Opening Night.
“It’s been a really exciting week for me and I think everyone else in the locker room too,” said Sturm. “They all want to play. It’s been a long summer, it’s been a long camp including the Kings camp so I think everyone wants to play now.
To play winning hockey in the AHL, you need a mix of both veterans and younger prospects, which is exactly how the Reign roster is expected to look. One of those with considerable experience is defenseman Cameron Gaunce, who is entering his 13th professional season. With 768 AHL games and a Calder Cup title under his belt, he has a pretty good idea of what it takes to win. But Gaunce is also someone who younger players can count on to help them adapt to life as a pro, along with the expectations they have to manage.
This is the third consecutive campaign that Gaunce is with the Reign, factoring into the team’s leadership group on the back end. He said the decision to return for another season was based on a few factors, but having familiarity with the organization was one of the most important ones.
“I was excited at the opportunity to come back because in my career I’ve bounced around quite a bit,” Gaunce said. “This is going to be my third year with the same organization, which has only happened once before. The familiarity is something that was very important for me. Coming into the season, the coaches and staff already know exactly who I am as a person and who I am as a player. We already have that cohesiveness and they know what to expect from me, I know what to expect from them, I understand my role on and off the ice and that just makes me more comfortable.”
As important as Gaunce will be on the ice for stability, he’s also a mentor and a sounding board to younger players. All of those Reign blueliners who have made the jump to the NHL in recent years have pointed to him as someone who helped them along the way.
With more players coming down from the LAK training camp roster today, things are starting to become more crowded in the AHL room. There is pressure to field a winning roster, but also internally, these guys are positioning themselves to be a call-up option for the Kings.
“I think the talent level is high,” Gaunce said. “We obviously don’t have the full roster yet with the Kings still having a few guys, which means we’re only going to get even more talented players. We’re at a stage already where we’ve got a team that can compete and I think adding a couple more guys from the Kings will push us over the top.”
One of those younger players looking to make an impact in the pro ranks is forward Martin Chromiak, a 20-year-old winger who was drafted in the fifth round by the Kings in 2020. After losing some training time during the offseason due to an illness, the Slovakia native said the extra time on ice with the younger group during September helped him get up to speed.
“I feel great,” Chromiak said. “It’s a good feeling to be back after four months so I’m just enjoying every moment here and I can’t wait for the season to start.”
Chromiak does have AHL experience, he suited up for a pair of games during the COVID-shortened 2021 year, but he’s spent the majority of his recent development in Canadian juniors with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. This year he’s already gotten game action during the Rookie Faceoff and suited up for an NHL preseason game against San Jose on Sept. 25. He’s one of the team’s newest prospects to make the jump into pro hockey and is hoping to progress to the highest level and be one of their next success stories.
“It was a great experience to play a preseason game,” said Chromiak.”I learned a lot from those older guys and NHL players so I just want to take a lot from them and from the coaches and do my best.”
Ontario’s preseason schedule consists of just a single game, which heightens its importance. The Reign take the ice Saturday night against Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. We’ll have a recap from the contest here on LAKI and more updates from Reign camp next week prior to the team’s home opener on Oct. 14!