It’s no secret that the Ontario Reign have taken a more defense-first approach to their game this season.
The Reign, who lead the AHL with a 7-1-0 record, collecting 14 points from their first eight games during 2022-23, are also the top defensive team in the league, allowing just 1.75 goals per game.
That number gets even smaller when you look at games played away from Ontario. In three road games, the Reign have only allowed two goals against with a pair of 2-1 wins over San Diego and San Jose respectively, as well as a 2-0 shutout of Colorado in the first of two contests this week in the Rocky Mountains.
Leading the way on the blue line for Ontario has been Jordan Spence, who has taken on an even bigger role for the club than he had in his rookie campaign last season. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Ever since he debuted with the Reign just over a year ago, Spence has been a big part of the team’s offensive effort, including a spot on the No. 1 power-play unit alongside some of the top scorers in the AHL. With each game this season, however, Spence has seemingly increased his minutes and responsibilities defensively and it hasn’t come at the expense of anything at the offensive end.
— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) October 23, 2022
With the puck on his stick and the Reign looking to attack, Spence remains one of the most gifted offensive blueliners in the AHL. His eight assists in the early stages of the season are tied for the second most in the league amongst defensemen, just one shy of the team lead. Six of those helpers have come on the man advantage, tying Spence for the league lead. That’s more of the same, however, from a player who was just a shade under a point-per-game a season ago, ranking second in the league at 0.91 amongst players with at least 40 games played.
Where he’s shown additional growth here in 2022-23 has been in other areas of his game. The Australian-born skater has been featured on the team’s top defensive pair alongside Tobias Bjornfot, going up against opponents’ best lines most nights. He’s also spending more time on the ice in penalty kill situations for a Reign unit that has killed off 87% of the situations they’ve faced to begin the year (27-for-31).
Thursday night was another step in the right direction for Spence, who was seemingly all over the ice. In addition to picking up his eighth assist of the season on a power play goal by Lias Andersson in the second period, Spence stepped up defensively, shutting down plays, getting his stick in lanes to deflect passes and shots as well as helping the team exit their own end cleanly when they needed to relieve pressure from Colorado’s forecheck.
“He was outstanding, just like I know he can be,” said Reign head coach Marco Sturm of Spence’s play after the game.
Sturm became familiar with the defender’s play last season as an assistant coach with the LA Kings, when Spence was promoted to the NHL roster. The young defenseman made his debut down the stretch, earning himself an opportunity to play in 24 regular season games and another three during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Spenny took over,” Sturm said Thursday night. “He showed again that he’s an NHL defenseman and it was nice to see. I know his time will come, but we are very happy to have him, I can tell you that.”
Although he hoped to pick up where he left off with the Kings at the end of last season by making the NHL club out of training camp, Spence said that he knows having this type of role in Ontario can benefit him as he continues to get more experience in the pro game.
“Obviously I wanted to make the Kings but it didn’t go my way out of training camp,” Spence said. “But it’s good for me to just get a lot of minutes here, play in these situations that can help improve my game and it’s been going really well. Going into the regular season I just wanted to play my game, just showcase what I can do on the ice.”
— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) October 15, 2022
Last season that showcase came on the offensive end, when Spence totaled 42 points in 46 games for the Reign, leading to his call-up opportunity. His effort also earned him notoriety from the AHL as he was included on both the All-Rookie Team as well as the league’s First All-Star Team.
But this year Spence has shown he can handle more, including that role on the penalty kill which is run by the team’s assistant coach, Chris Hajt.
“There’s obviously still some things to improve on every game that you play, but I think Coach Hajt has been trusting me in more situations than last year with penalty kill and the last couple minutes in the third period,” said Spence. “I think it’s really good for me to have that role and take a step up from last year.”
Then there’s the experience he’s gaining late in games.
Ontario has gone into the third period with a lead on six different occasions this season and their defense has held up each time, winning all six. The team’s confidence is growing with each victory, and Spence attributes the success to keeping things simple when opponents put on the pressure.
“I think we’re just trying to be simple,” Spence said. “If we’re up 3-2 and they’re just trying to score, you don’t have to make fancy plays and we don’t have to do anything fancy. If we’re in trouble, we just pump pucks, we chip pucks off the glass and everything, so I think that’s really important for us and Marco has mentioned that over the past few weeks.”
For a player that can sometimes show a flashy side, Spence has learned when the best time is to show off what he can do individually and when the better play is the simple one that’s just as effective.
The end result for him and the other defenders on the team has been extremely positive, both with offensive points and a lack of points against. If those trends continue, so will the wins. Compared to the group last year, with Spence and fellow rookie Helge Grans, this one has more of a veteran focus.
“Having that experience last year, Helge and I came in more confident,” Spence said. “Then picking up a couple of the players like [Frederic] Allard and [Tobie] Bisson, they’re really great players and I think it’s pretty easy for us to make plays with them. We just want to just keep doing what we’re doing because it’s been working so far.”
With his success in the NHL at the end of last season and now a growing confidence with an expanded role in the AHL, Spence is continuing down the path of developing from a skilled prospect into a dependable defenseman for the LA Kings for years to come.