EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Los Angeles Kings rid themselves of the sloth-like skating and one-bad-penalty-after-another performances by left wing enforcer Raitis Ivanans when they passed on signing him to a new contract this past summer.
That left the enforcer spot open, and it is all but a foregone conclusion that 6-4, 228-pound right wing Kevin Westgarth will be promoted from the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate.
Indeed, for all intents and purposes, the native of Amherstburg, Ontario has locked down a spot on the Kings’ 2010-11 opening night roster.
“He’s a heavyweight,” said head coach Terry Murray. “He showed that in the [pre-season] game that he played in Colorado. I believe we need that kind of a player. He’s paid his price and his dues down in the minors, so he’s one of the players who will fill that spot as a fourth line player.”
Murray was likely referring to Westgarth’s fight with Colorado Avalanche heavyweight enforcer David Koci during a pre-season game in Denver on September 22.
Westgarth not only won the fight with Koci, who is considered to be one of the top enforcers in the National Hockey League, but, based on various reports, it is believed that Westgarth broke Koci’s jaw.
“It’s just one of those things,” said Westgarth. “You never wish for anybody to get hurt, but it’s part of the job, too. Anything that helps keep our team safe and kind of scares away anybody who is going to take a run at our guys, it’s definitely helpful. So if they want it, they know they’ve got it.”
Although Westgarth is known primarily for his pugilistic abilities, in today’s NHL, an enforcer must have some skill and ability to skate.
Enter Westgarth, who will never be a sniper or win a fastest skater competition. But off-season workouts should go a long way towards him not being the hindrance that Ivanans was.
Like most heavyweights, Westgarth’s biggest challenge was his skating.
“For me, it’s been about skating because that lets you get to the right spots, it lets you get on the defensemen and allows me to bring more of that physical game that I look forward to bringing,” said Westgarth. “It allows me to be more of a presence out there when that defenseman has to have his head up before he makes a play.”
“I think, for a lot of big guys, [skating] is always an issue,” added Westgarth. “There’s a lot of fast guys. You have to be in the right spot at the right time. It’s funny because sometimes [at the NHL level], the pace is slower [compared to lower levels] because everybody’s in the right position all the time. But that’s a huge jump, so I know I have to focus a lot on my skating.”
That focus during off-season workouts over the past few years began to bear fruit last season, when Westgarth scored eleven goals and added 14 assists for 25 points with 180 penalty minutes in 76 regular season games. He also tallied a goal with ten penalty minutes in six playoff games.
That was a big improvement over previous years, the result of hard, off-season work, which went beyond skating.
“They’ve got an incredible development staff here with Nelson Emerson, Mike O’Connell and Mike Donnelly, just working with us, especially doing a lot of stick handling and heavy puck shooting—just working on different skills,” Westgarth noted. “I got a few more opportunities [last season] just because of the way I was playing. I was playing good hockey.”
“I had some decent opportunities in [previous years], but definitely last year, I got a little momentum,” Westgarth added. “The best part about it was that everything was done within my role. We were generating goals, points, working off cycles. We had a great forecheck, taking that first guy and having great support from there.”
“It was great to feel the hands kicking in—hands with the stick, anyway. That was kicking in a lot, and [staying] within the framework makes me a better player.”
Westgarth has raised some eyebrows among the Kings’ management and coaching staff in their 2010 training camp.
“Westgarth has worked very hard in the summertime,” said Murray. “You can see it in his test results, off-ice, on-ice. The skating test was phenomenal for him. His overall stride has improved. He’s more relaxed, he’s striding out.”
“He’s worked hard [during his] time at Manchester,” added Murray. “He’s put a lot of time in the off-season just going through power skating and giving that the focus that it needs. He’s doing the right stuff and, as a result, he’s here with the big team and I’m looking for him to be on the big team.”
Despite the improvement, Westgarth is not taking anything for granted and knows that it’s not all about dropping the gloves.
“I’m definitely excited and I think there’s a big opportunity here,” said Westgarth. “But I know haven’t earned anything yet. I haven’t played a season in the NHL, so nothing’s done yet.”
“I need to come in and have a good camp like last year,” added Westgarth. “To make the team, I have to make sure I never come out of the lineup by staying hard on pucks and doing all the little things right. I definitely look forward to making a mark, showing what kind of player I can be and what kind of solid impact I can make for this team.”
“I’m looking forward to showing them what I can do the rest of this camp. Hopefully, my number gets called for that first game in the [Kings’ vintage colors], yellow and purple.”
In other news…On September 27, the Kings assigned defensemen Andrew Campbell, Johan Fransson and Alec Martinez, along with center Oscar Moller, to Manchester. They also placed forward Marc-André Cliche on waivers, for the purpose of assigning him to the Monarchs.
Raw Audio Interview with Kevin Westgarth (5:29; edited to remove extraneous material and dead air)
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