Francesco Pinelli returns to Dev Camp with sights set on second pro season

Francesco Pinelli was touted as a crafty, two-way center when he was selected by the LA Kings in the second round, 42nd overall, in the 2021 NHL Draft.

He put his playmaking abilities on display in his final junior season with the Kitchener Rangers, where he recorded 90 points and finished top-12 in the Ontario Hockey League in scoring. Then came his first real test since being drafted.

He joined the Ontario Reign last year for his first professional season in the AHL and through some growing pains, established himself as an everyday player and helped lead the team to its best season since 2016.

“It was a really fun season, we had a great team and great coaching staff, so it was well-rounded all around,” Pinelli said of his rookie season. “I think it’s just a faster game [in the AHL]. I learned a lot this year.”

There was certainly a learning curve for the rookie forward.

After lighting up the OHL for three seasons, Pinelli had to find ways to adapt to a new play style at the professional level. The AHL is a league full of legitimate NHL prospects and grown men, not teenagers.

“It’s just like the NHL where almost every mistake could end up with the puck in your net,” Reign head coach Marco Sturm said. “Sometimes [young players] are just afraid to make mistakes but then all of a sudden, they’re a different player. It just takes time and that’s normal.”

It did take time for Pinelli.

He showed his skill occasionally with a nice goal here and there, but it wasn’t a seamless transition to the AHL. Instead of playing on the top line like he did in juniors, he was used in the bottom-six, with Ontario having T.J. Tynan, Alex Turcotte and Akil Thomas all playing above him as more experienced players. At times, Pinelli struggled to establish the type of playstyle that he was familiar with. Something needed to change for him to be more successful.

“He wanted to get better, so that means he reached out to [us coaches] a lot,” Sturm said. “He wanted to see certain situations where he could get better. That’s something I give him a lot of credit for.”

His conversations with the coaching staff paid dividends in the second half of the season, and he started to settle in to his new role on the third and fourth lines.

He became more of a factor in games as he transitioned from the junior level to the processional level.

“Sturmy taught me a lot,” Pinelli said. “[The coaches] are very detailed so that helped out big time. Hearing them talk and learning from them really helped me a lot.”

He was calmer with and without the puck. He was better at both ends of the ice and in turn, he started adding more goals and assists down the stretch. For Sturm, it was evident that Pinelli had begun to understand what it took to become an established bottom-six player at the pro level.

“With Frankie coming in, he thought the AHL would probably be a little bit different and probably easier, so he had to learn a little bit,” Sturm added. “He earned more ice time, more opportunities, and I was really happy with how he ended the season.”

The Reign opted to roll out a heavyweight lineup in the playoffs, which punished their first two opponents and guided the team to a five-game win streak to begin the postseason. This left Pinelli and Martin Chromiak, another forward with a similar skillset, out of the lineup for much of the postseason.

They were inserted into Ontario’s postseason lineup for the first time in the Pacific Division Finals, which resulted in a series loss to rival Coachella Valley.

“That was a tough call, you want to be involved and play every game and unfortunately those two guys didn’t play in every game in the playoffs,” Sturm said. “It was a good learning curve for both of them. I expect them to be better and step up again. That’s why they need to have a good summer and be ready from day one [next season].”

Now Pinelli has turned his focus to Development Camp, where he returns to Toyota Sports Performance Center as the most experienced prospect in attendance.

Out of all 39 players on the camp roster, Pinelli is the only participant with professional experience. It’s an opportunity for him to emerge as a leader for the younger prospects and new participants.

“To be honest, I wish there were more [professionals] than just Frankie but I think it’s important for us to see how he reacts, how he treats everyone around him, and how he leads,” development coach Jarret Stoll said. “He knows these drills and he knows what we’re talking about. He understands it and he’s going to grow from these three days.”

For Sturm, it’s sort of come full circle for Pinelli. He joined the Reign as a kid a year ago but has matured after playing with a veteran-lead AHL squad.

“He comes in with a big smile in the morning, he’s like their dad in the locker room and that’s great,” Sturm said of Pinelli this week. “He learned from the great leadership we had last season. That’s how you become a leader and now Frankie is one of them. He’s not just a good person and a good player, but also there’s a certain leadership in him too.”

There’s no real pressure for Pinelli, though. Development Camp is just an opportunity for him to be an example and to continue crafting his game.

“I’ve just got to lead by example, show the [new players] around the rink and the process to get to the next level. I’m being the best leader I can be and going from day-to-day,” he said. “There’s not too much pressure. I’m just enjoying the time with some of the guys and meeting some new faces as well.”

From an on-ice standpoint, he’s right where the development staff wants him to be.

His current adjustment to the professional level is completely normal and the staff has pointed to other players who have had similar trajectories. For Sturm, it’s current Kings’ forward Quinton Byfield. For Stoll, it’s Akil Thomas, who was a leader for the Reign and made his long-awaited NHL debut last season. Both players carried heavy expectations into their pro careers and needed a few seasons to develop.

“He’s a guy that I see much like Akil a few years ago, not just because they’re both second-round picks, but just the comfort level they’ve had year after year,” Stoll said. “Now it’s just a matter of consistency for these guys, and that’s probably the hardest part not just in hockey but in every sport.”

Pinelli’s main goal for the summer and the upcoming season is to balance out his game, similar to how Byfield and Thomas did in the past. His first season of ups-and-downs has come and gone. Next season presents a new opportunity for Pinelli with the Reign, where he’ll be a returner on a team likely full of fresh faces. It all starts this week at Development Camp.

“Obviously, this year I’ll be making a bigger step into a more offensive game while having that balance in the D-zone as well,” Pinelli said. “I think just playing a full 200-foot game is really important. It’s just nice to be back and to get on the ice again.”

*Pinelli did not participate in the scrimmage on Day 3 due to a minor injury. Kings Director of Player Personnel Glen Murray indicated that he could have played but considering the setting, it wasn’t worth any potential setback an aggravation could have caused. Nothing serious.

Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

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