We’re five games into the AHL season and defenseman Brandt Clarke is tied for the league lead with 26 shots on goal.
It may be early, but it’s a statistic that is telling of the 2021 first rounder’s skillset. When the Kings drafted Clarke with the eighth overall pick in that year’s draft, it was no mystery what they were getting – an offensively gifted defenseman who poses a playmaking and scoring threat very few blueliners share.
In the long run, the Ottawa native has his sights set on displaying those gifts in the NHL, but he’s also committed to the process of getting there. Being a member of the Kings AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign, in mid-October is admittedly not where he hoped he’d be, but Clarke’s head isn’t down and his spirits are high.
“Being in the AHL isn’t where I’d hoped I’d be, but I’m making the most of my opportunities here,” he said. “I’m playing a lot of minutes, getting good exposure to professional hockey in North America, getting really good coaching and have great teammates to lean on for experience.”
Entering training camp, Clarke was projected by many to be in a direct competition with Jordan Spence for a spot with the Kings on the third defensive pair.
Beginning with the NHL’s Global Series in Australia, Clarke’s camp didn’t go as he’d planned. Set to travel with the group overseas, Clarke was a late scratch as he had sustained an injury just days before takeoff, which required nearly two weeks without contact. Unable to participate in teams drills or gameplay, Clarke remained in El Segundo, skating in a red, non-contact jersey as he worked his way back to full health.
Unable to play in Australia, Clarke quickly rejoined his peers as a full participant in training camp after working through his injury. In doing so, Clarke had plenty of preseason exposure, appearing in four of the seven exhibition games that were played stateside. With a heavy workload in those exhibition games, Clarke averaged 28:09 TOI in the two games in which time-on-ice was tracked and he totaled two helpers during the preseason.
Days prior to the regular season’s start, Clarke was sent to the Reign, who are now five games into their 2023-24 season. An area where the defenseman has shined has been getting the puck to the net. As noted in the opening, Clarke leads the AHL in shots on goal (26) and has already notched his first goal of the season.
Clarke’s offensive abilities have always been clear, dating all the way back to when the Kings drafted him. Those offensive abilities were on display over two, dominant seasons in the OHL. For anyone who has been the best player on the ice for consecutive seasons, though, defensive-zone efficiency and trust are both areas to look at. Spence went through that process last season, as he logged top-pairing minutes on the Ontario blueline, matching up against top competition as he refined his two-way game.
The two full seasons at the AHL level, plus some NHL experience both in the regular and postseasons, were beneficial to Spence in the process. Now, it’s Clarke’s turn to get some of that experience himself and he’s taking it in stride.
“It’s really important to stay positive on and off the ice no matter the situation,” he said. “I’m confident in my game and ability and know that I just have to keep working. When I’m with the Reign, my mind is clear and all I’m focused on is winning and helping my team in any way I can.”
It is not a “defeat” for Clarke to not be in the NHL today, even if it may seem it sometimes. It’s an opportunity for the defenseman to continue to grow his game and improve in the areas the organization wants him to.
Logging heavy minutes as a 20-year old in the AHL is extremely beneficial. Ice time in the AHL can truly prepare a young player for the NHL in ways that the OHL can’t. By playing with the Reign right now, coming with it an opportunity to play in all situations against professional players, Clarke has a golden opportunity to learn and add to his game. With both teams operating out of the same building, Clarke is doing that learning the Kings way, with what will be expected out of him when he ultimately cracks the NHL on a regular basis.
Early returns on that opportunity have been promising.
Speaking after the first game of the 2023-24 season, Ontario Head Coach Marco Sturm felt Clarke was his team’s best blueliner, showing a willingness to play his game throughout the night.
“We were just saying that we thought he was definitely our best defenseman,” Sturm said after opening night. “He made stuff happen and he wants to be a difference in the game. He’s a guy who is not afraid to try different things. He was definitely really good [in that game].”
Currently on the Reign roster, Clarke is staying confident, with a positive mentality.
As an individual, Clarke is trying to work his way into the Kings roster, the top prospect in the Kings system was clear to compliment the teammates he’s surrounded by. Ontario has a veteran-laden roster this season at both ends of the ice and should be among the most competitive teams in the AHL this season.
“My teammates have been great and super supportive,” Clarke said. “This team has great leadership on and off the ice. That has really helped so far.”
That leadership starts at the top with Sturm, a veteran of more than 1,000 professional games as a player, including more than 900 at the NHL level.
Following a recent practice, Sturm and Clarke had a lengthy conversation on the ice, as a coach and player sometimes do. On an older group, Clarke is one of a handful of younger prospects who is still cutting his teeth as a professional player. A bit more conversation and coaching for those types of players always makes sense and Clarke spoke highly of Sturm and his approach.
“[Marco Sturm] has been great to learn from, he has so much experience playing in the NHL, over 15 years,” Clarke said. “He has such a great hockey mind. His communication has been great and his guidance and coaching have already helped me a lot. I feel like we have a good relationship.”
As he moves forward, Clarke will continue competing for wins with an Ontario team that won its third straight last night, a 1-0 victory over Coachella Valley. With winning hockey will come individual opportunity and Clarke will continue to push for that chance to play for the Kings. With a continued emphasis on playing his game offensively and working on improving at the other end, those things should go hand in hand.
Clarke’s and the Reign are back in action tomorrow morning at 11 AM when they take on the Henderson Silver Knights. A weekend game will follow as the Reign will return home to face the Abbotsford Canucks.