When the hockey calendar turns to March, teams can feel the pressure rise as the stretch run of the season begins. The playoffs are right around the corner. For clubs in a postseason spot, they are nearing potential clinching scenarios. For others on the outside looking in, opportunities to turn a season around are growing thin.
It’s during this time at all levels of pro hockey when younger players who are finishing their college careers can jump into a lineup and make a difference, adding a breath of fresh air to their new teams. Most NHL clubs have a prospect pool of drafted players playing at the NCAA level that are at varying stages of their development, and the LA Kings are no different. Players like Mikey Anderson and Matt Roy are examples of skaters who were drafted and developed through their college career until they were ready for the pro game and after a short time in the AHL with the Ontario Reign, were able to make an impact at the highest level.
The Kings have also been savvy about signing collegiate skaters who went undrafted at age 18, or whose rights were not maintained by the teams who picked them. Whether they developed later than others their age or were just overlooked at draft time, these players such as Alex Iafallo, Blake Lizotte and Sean Walker, who were unexpected additions for fans when they signed, are now contributing at the NHL level for the Kings.
The newest Kings example of a player signed out of college who is hoping to eventually make that jump to the NHL is defenseman Cole Krygier. The son of forward Todd Krygier, who played nine seasons with the Hartford Whalers, Washington Capitals and Anaheim Mighty Ducks from 1989-98, Cole was drafted in 2018 by the Florida Panthers in the seventh round and spent the last five seasons alongside twin brother Christian playing in the NCAA with Michigan State.
Once the season ended for the Spartans, who narrowly missed qualifying for the NCAA Tournament out of a competitive Big-10 Conference, the Panthers traded Krygier’s rights to LA and the blueliner signed an amateur tryout contract with Ontario, allowing him to begin his pro career. A few days later on March 24, Krygier agreed to a two-year, entry-level contract with the Kings that will begin with the 2023-24 season.
Despite signing his ATO with the Reign on March 21, Krygier wasn’t inserted into the lineup right away, instead watching from the stands for three games until March 26 when he made his debut at home in a win over the Abbotsford Canucks. The left-handed defenseman was initially paired with veteran Cameron Gaunce, who has played over 800 games in a lengthy 13-year career.
Krygier had two shots on goal in his first-ever contest and earned a shift during 3-on-3 overtime, a sign that he was gaining the trust of the Reign coaching staff quickly. It’s also an indication that Krygier’s skills are what teams are looking for in important moments, a big 6-foot-3 defender who can skate well for his size and handle the puck.
“He was pretty good overall,” Reign head coach Marco Sturm said after Krygier’s first game in Ontario. “You can tell that he has a big body and that he can skate. He can see the ice very well too. I think he was very nervous. He made a few mistakes, but that’s normal. It was his first game and we expect him to get better every day. We liked what we saw today and that’s why we put him out there in overtime.”
In his own assessment of his first game, Krygier felt that watching from afar helped him get to understand how the Reign want to play. As a result of being around for a few extra days before having to perform, he was more comfortable with his teammates on the ice.
“I felt pretty confident out there,” Krygier said after his first game. “I was just trying to be myself more than anything. I think when you’re in between or trying to be something you’re not that’s when you’re going to get hurt. Getting to know the guys and not getting into the first three games that I was here for, I think that really helped me to watch and learn the system, see how everyone plays. They’ve all been really welcoming and making me feel comfortable so I definitely think all of that helped and played into having a good first game and feeling confident.”
Earlier this season, Krygier recorded career-highs in goals and points at Michigan State with 10 and 16 respectively. It didn’t take long for him to find the scoresheet as a pro either, assisting on Gaunce’s second goal of the season during the second period of his second outing with the Reign.
After the game, Krygier mentioned that he felt a little tighter in his second contest than he did when he played looser in his first opportunity. But he smiled when talking about getting on the scoresheet for the first time.
“It was huge,” the Novi, Mich. native said of getting his first point with an assist Gaunce’s goal. “I think it’s exciting. It’s good to get it out of the way because you never know when it’s going to happen.”
Two days later, with injuries at both the NHL and AHL levels and a necessary recall for Tobias Bjornfot as a result, Krygier found himself playing on Ontario’s top defensive pair alongside Jordan Spence.
While the results for the Reign in the two games since have both been losses, for a guy with just a handful of pro games under his belt, Krygier hasn’t looked all that out of place. After Krygier’s first game paired up with Spence, Sturm mentioned that when his staff decided on the lineup, it was a priority to make sure young players like Krygier have as much support as possible.
“We had some injuries all of a sudden and some guys were out, so we tried to put some guys in where they can feel a little bit more comfortable,” Sturm said. “Gaunce has been great. He’s always been a good teacher and partner to any of those young kids, and Spence too. He’s not a young kid anymore, so he’s got to help them out and that’s what we’ve got. They get thrown into tough situations and we have to help them get better every day.”
Hockey has always been a family game for Krygier. The last few weeks have been the first time in his life that he’s ever played on a team without his brother, who also signed his first pro contract in late March, an ATO with the Bridgeport Islanders. But Cole is now at the same level as his dad, a coach with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, for the first time since he was a freshman at Michigan State and Todd was an assistant with Western Michigan University.
“Probably up until I was 15 or 16 when I went to juniors my dad was really hard on us,” Krygier said. “He was about habits and being a good teammate first before everything and he definitely harped on us to be a good guy and not worry about points or all that little stuff, to play the game the right way. Over the years I think he’s taken a step back and appreciated what we’ve done for ourselves but also realized that he’s been a part of it and still needs to be a big part of it.”
Krygier is excited to use his dad as someone who has experience both playing and coaching in the league, as he settles into life in pro hockey.
“With him coaching and me playing in this league, I think that’s going to be just a huge step for me to be able to understand how the league works,” Krygier said. “Things like living arrangements and budgeting, those are all things he’s familiar with and he’s been great for me so far.”
In the here and now, the Reign would benefit from some of the offense Krygier was able to produce for the Spartans this season, when he posted 10 goals in just 38 games.
He outpaced his previous collegiate high of four goals a season ago and only had six total goals in his first three seasons at Michigan State combined.
“I think it was a mix of everything,” Krygier said, of how he was able to find the back of the net more this year. “We got a new coaching staff this year, a new strength coach, I think physically I took a huge step and then on the mental side of the game, just focusing on what I needed to do as a player and kind of taking a step back and realizing that it should be fun, I’m going to be able to go out there and do things I just need to have confidence in myself. I’ve always worked hard, but it’s one of those things where when you start to focus and put your energy into the right places, normally the results start to show.”
As both lineups for the Kings and Reign continue to be in flux, Krygier should earn plenty of minutes for Ontario as he continues his development and transition to the professional game. The Reign have five contests remaining in the regular season as they continue to battle for playoff positioning in the AHL’s Pacific Division, beginning Friday with a two-game series this weekend in Abbotsford against the Canucks.