EL SEGUNDO, CA — As years pass, National Hockey League players continue to get bigger, stronger and faster, much more so than they were thirty years ago, and still more than they were twenty or even ten years ago.
But with changes in rules and in the interpretation of existing ones that have cut down on the hooking, holding and other means of obstructing an opponent’s ability to skate and maneuver, smaller players have, once again, found a niche in the NHL. Nevertheless, they still have to be able to compete and hold their own, physically, with the big boys, or they will not last.
When the Los Angeles Kings selected him in the sixth round (179th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, they knew they taking a bit of a gamble on right wing prospect Brandon Kozun, who was highly-skilled. But the knock on him was his size, or, more specifically, the lack thereof.
Kozun, now 21, is listed at 5-8, and weighs 156 pounds, very small by NHL standards. Nevertheless, he has no doubt that he can make it at the NHL level.
“I’ve heard every compliment [for being a good player for his size],” said the native of Los Angeles. “It doesn’t affect me. I’ve heard every small joke, [or that] ‘you can’t play here,’ or, ‘you can’t play there.’ I just don’t listen to it anymore.”
Kozun scored 32 goals and added 75 assists for 107 points in 65 regular season games for the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League (Canadian junior team) in 2009-10, topping the Canadian Hockey League (encompasses the three major junior hockey leagues in Canada) scoring list in his final season in the WHL.
Last season, he moved up to the American Hockey League level, playing for the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, where he scored 23 goals and tallied 25 assists for 48 points in 72 regular season games. He also added a goal and three assists for four points in seven playoff games.
Not surprisingly, moving up a couple of notches was an eye-opener for him.
“There’s a lot of things in pro [hockey] to learn, and I learned a lot this year,” said Kozun. “I think I’m a better player because of it. I’m a better pro. That’s something you need to learn. As a rookie, you come in, and it’s kind of tough. You don’t really know what to expect, and you kind of get thrown into it.”
“A lot of the play away from the puck is important,” added Kozun. “It’s taking care of the puck, and playing in your own end. Defense leads to offense, and the biggest thing for me was that I could get away with a few things in junior. I could force some plays and get [the puck] by some guys. But [in the AHL], I couldn’t do that.”
“[In junior hockey], I had a [tendency] to force plays out of the corner, trying to hit the far defenseman. Now, instead of trying to hit that defenseman, I’ll tight-turn back into the corner, and play the puck down low more.”
The experience gained from a year in the AHL was noticeable at the Kings’ 2011 Development Camp for their young prospects, held in July.
“I think there’s a big change in Brandon Kozun from last year at this time,” said Kings head coach Terry Murray. “In the scrimmages last year, he was a speedster, running around, hitting some speed bumps, falling down, getting up, and doing it all over again. This year, there’s more structure and purpose to where he’s going to go and how he’s going to get there. There’s more control and speed.”
“He still competes very hard,” added Murray. “He takes some hits and dishes them out, as we saw in the scrimmage here today. That’s a year of pro [hockey] under his belt, and he’s heading in the right direction.”
Despite the steps forward in his game, Kozun’s arrival in the AHL, like many before him, was not smooth sailing right off the bat.
“It was different,” he noted. “It was a humbling experience for me. I came in, and didn’t really know what to expect. I was double-shifted all the time in junior, and I got all the opportunity in the world, even if I made a mistake, I got thrown right back out there. Coming into [the pro ranks], there’s a lot of guys already there, and you have to compete with them. You have to pay your dues first before you can get those opportunities.”
“I learned to take care of the puck, not force plays, and play well in your own zone,” he added. “After that, the offense came. I’ve always been an offensive player, and as soon as I started playing a well-rounded game, everything started to click for me. I felt like I went to [the pro level] and paid my dues. I got better, took care of the puck, and, by the end of the year, I think you could [see] a huge difference.”
Kozun has had to work hard to be effective while being dwarfed in size by most defenders he has faced, and that was more evident than ever before at the AHL level. But, if you ask Kozun, that was not the biggest obstacle he had to overcome last season.
“I adapted to that pretty quick,” said Kozun. “Obviously, the first couple of games was a lot different. But as you play against them, you adapt to it, you get used to it, and I didn’t have too big of an issue with that.”
Speed is Kozun’s primary means used to negate his size and strength disadvantage.
“He’s a guy who always gets better every time you see him,” said Kings center prospect Jordan Weal, who played against Kozun as a member of the Regina Pats of the WHL. “He’s always been a guy who’s really fast, really strong. He’s just bringing that to the table here. Like you saw out there today, he’s making plays and moving his feet. As a smaller guy, that’s what he’s got to do.”
Kozun continues to work hard in the gym and on the ice to get stronger and faster, assets he must improve upon just to survive against the hulking behemoths he will face at the NHL level.
“I’ve been working hard all summer,” he said. “You’ve got to be in great shape to come in and crack the big club’s [lineup], and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Realistic or not, Kozun has his sights set firmly on the big club’s opening night roster this fall.
“I’m trying to continue to improve, but I think I’m getting to that point where I’m good enough to play at the next level,” he stressed. “Hopefully, I can get a chance to.”
Kozun is all but assured to be heading back to Manchester for the 2011-12 season, given that he is a small, skilled, speedy winger, and would need to play on the Kings’ first or second line, which appears to have all roster spots filled. Nevertheless, you never know what might happen, in terms of injuries, trades, or anything else that might impact the Kings’ roster.
Could he get a chance with the Kings this season? Although it is not at all likely, especially at the start of the season, it is not entirely out of the question, either.
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- Frozen Royalty Audio: 2011 Los Angeles Kings Development Camp – Part 2
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