Ontario Reign defense takes center stage in team’s 6-1 start

To start each of the last two seasons, the Ontario Reign have opened up with a total of seven games during the month of October. Both in 2021-22 and now in 2022-23, after closing out the month Saturday night with a 4-3 win over Bakersfield, the Reign earned wins in six of those seven contests. For the second straight campaign, Ontario sits in first place in the Pacific Division as the calendar flips to November.

As the months went on last year, the team continued to have success and eventually completed the regular season with a more than respectable 41-18-5-4 mark for a 0.669 winning percentage that ranked third highest in the AHL. So far this season, despite the same record, things look a bit different. The 2021-22 team’s recipe for winning was at times one-dimensional, with the league’s top-ranked offense that averaged almost four goals per game and the best power play in the history of the league (27.5%).

But the defensive side of the puck was another story as Ontario ranked 25th in the league with 3.22 goals allowed per game and ended in 27th on the penalty kill at 76.7%.

It would be unfair to mention those numbers without adding the context of multiple injuries on the LA Kings blueline that necessitated call-ups to many of the Reign’s defensive mainstays, including Sean Durzi, Jacob Moverare, Jordan Spence and Austin Strand, all of whom were unavailable down the stretch and in the postseason as they were needed with LA.

And, while the makeup of an AHL roster is constantly changing, this year’s Ontario team has placed an emphasis on defense from the start. In seven games, the team has allowed only 14 goals, ranking them second-best in the league defensively.

The club’s new head coach, Marco Sturm, who was previously with the Kings as an assistant for the past four seasons, identified the need to make his team’s defensive game better immediately during the preseason and now everyone is buying into that challenge.

“Before the season I asked the guys, ‘What’s our identity?’ and slowly, I think we’re getting into finding that out,” Sturm said. “This was something I was looking forward to. I know we have a lot of skill, but we needed to be better without the puck. From day one we were working on it pretty hard and I think lately it just shows that we are able to do that and still win hockey games and it’s nice to see.”

One of Ontario’s defensive leaders, Cameron Gaunce, who is now in his 13th professional season, also noticed the change in mentality on that first day.

“I think there’s more buy-in because our coaching staff right from day one has put a very big emphasis on play without the puck,” Gaunce said. “This is something that they established from our first day of training camp. We needed to be a team that is greatly improved in our play away from the puck in our own zone and in the neutral zone forechecking. And because of that, I think a lot of players have realized that’s got to be one of our identities, one of our calling cards.”

Even though the Reign have some of the best offensive players in the league, with back-to-back MVP TJ Tynan, electric forward Lias Anderson, Samuel Fagmeo, a sharpshooter who put up 27 goals a year ago, and Spence, who was a First-Team All-AHL defender, the coaching staff and Gaunce know that some nights it won’t be enough.

There has to be that balance between the two ends and the Reign seem determined to find it.

“Our offense isn’t always going to be there,” Gaunce said. “Whether it’s because we run into a hot goalie or our guys aren’t on their A-games, you can always lean back on being defensive-minded and having that work ethic. Our coaching staff has really emphasized that.”

One of the most important factors on a team’s defensive performance is obviously their goaltending, and that’s also been a big reason for the success.

With the two netminders on the roster, Pheonix Copley and Matt Villalta, the Reign have two veterans who are both comfortable with shouldering the burden in between the pipes. Some nights have been easier than others back there, but when they’ve been called upon to make big saves, they’ve delivered.

“I think to say that we haven’t leaned on them a bit too much right now would be naïve,” Gaunce said. “They’ve both played exceptionally well and have given us more than a chance to win every night.”

Copley has played in five of the seven games and has thrived, picking up four wins, which are tied for the league lead, while looking focused and confident in his game. The 30-year-old has 122 AHL wins in 231 career games with Ontario, the Hershey Bears and Chicago Wolves and has 31 NHL games to his name with the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals.

“Phoenix is a pro 24/7,” Gaunce said. “He’s not a guy who kind of goes in and out when he decides to work and when he doesn’t. You know that every day, whether it be practice or game, he’s putting his best foot forward. So, not only does that give him the best opportunity to succeed, but it just instills a confidence in everyone else on the team because we see the effort he puts in, we see the diligence he has, and with the skill and talent he has you balance that with the work ethic and it’s going to be a formula for winning.”

Then there’s the group of defenders, which has some of the names previously mentioned from last season like Moverare, Spence and Gaunce, along with Tobias Bjornfot who at age 21 has 106 games of NHL experience with the Kings. Additionally, Tobie Bisson is fresh off a run to the league’s Calder Cup Finals with the Laval Rocket last spring joins Helge Grans, a former second-round pick in his second year with Ontario and Frederic Allard, who has over 250 games of AHL experience but only recently returned to the ice after a preseason injury forced him to miss the first two weeks of the season.

Sturm knows that the group of blueliners looks good now with everyone at full health, but over the course of a long season everyone will need to step up and pitch in.

“Those guys have to be leaders and be at their best every night,” Sturm said. “At some point they should be up again. I’m very happy I have them but I also want to push them to not be here and be somewhere else and also be successful.”

It’s probably not a stretch to say that some other NHL teams would be envious of the Kings’ luxury of having young talent like Bjornfot and Spence at the AHL level.

“I think when you look at our d-corps, we’ve got eight, nine guys who can all play,” Gaunce said. “Our first d-pairing is NHL caliber with Bjornfot and Spence, so we need to really utilize that because in the American Hockey League you never know how long that’s going to go on for. The flux in rosters is always kind of crazy so while we have this group, we need to really take advantage of it. We’ve got a lot of experience and it’s a mature group that really understands our role. We’ve got forwards who can do stuff with the puck that we as defensemen probably can’t. I think the defensemen on our team aren’t doing more than they have to, we’re just relying on our systems and what makes each one of our games special.”

Sturm has also gotten a full buy-in from his coaching staff, mostly holdovers with assistants Chris Hajt and Brad Schuler along with goaltending coach Matt Millar. Hajt, who works closely with the defense and penalty kill, has quickly adapted to the concepts that Sturm has keyed in on.

“We try to keep it a little bit similar, but I think every head coach is different so he probably sees a lot of different things than I do and what other coaches did in the past,” Sturm said of Hajt, who is in his seventh year working with LA’s AHL club.

The work done on the penalty kill has also paid off to start, as the unit is well ahead of the results from last season. Ontario has killed 13 of its last 14 penalties and is 23-for-27 overall on the season, ranking sixth-best in the league at 85.2%. The group had its best performance of the season in the team’s most recent win on Saturday.

“Everyone was on the same page,” Hajt said after the victory. “Everyone had a job to do and they did it within the structure and played with some aggressiveness so good on them to get it done.”

These results are encouraging, something fans can be excited about, but at the same time, it’s only been seven games. There’s still 65 to go in the regular season and many tough tests lie ahead like the one the Reign face this weekend when they travel to Colorado to face the Eagles team that eliminated them from last season’s Calder Cup Playoffs.

Visiting Colorado always presents difficulties, with altitude a factor and a small building that places the fans right on top of the players. A good early-season test, however, against a team that will likely be there at the end.

“We still have ways to go,” Sturm said. “There’s a lot of work to do but I think we are on the right track.”

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