DOWN ON THE FARM: Frozen Royalty begins its expanded coverage of the Los Angeles Kings’ prospects with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League this season with a feature on new opportunities for some after the departure of several Kings prospects for what they apparently perceived to be greener pastures in Europe.
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Barely noticed here in the Los Angeles area, where hockey fans were primarily focused on the Los Angeles Kings opening their 2011-12 season with two games in Europe, their prospects down on the farm were also getting their new season underway.
In similar fashion to the Kings, who split their two games in Europe, the first, a 3-2 overtime win over the New York Rangers in Stockholm, Sweden on Friday, and a 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in Berlin, Germany on Saturday, the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, split their first two games of their 2011-12 American Hockey League season.
An unexpected challenge facing the Monarchs this year is the loss of forwards Corey Elkins, Bud Holloway, and Oscar Moller, who opted to play in Europe this season.
Right wing John Zeiler, who was not offered a new contract by the Kings, is also playing in Europe this season.
The loss of Holloway and Moller, in particular, is painful.
“We’re going to miss them,” Monarchs head coach Mark Morris said during an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty. “Those were three of our top scorers, and a gritty forward who was able to play against most of the top lines in the American league. At our level, John Zeiler was an extremely effective player. Bud Holloway led our team in scoring, Oscar Moller was instrumental in generating a ton of offense, and Corey Elkins had his fair share of goals.”
“Those guys added puck possession time, and playmaking ability,” added Morris.
Although Holloway and Moller were on the Kings’ short list of forwards who would be called up in case of injury, or other potential circumstances, it is not difficult to reason that the acquisitions of left wing Simon Gagne, right wing Ethan Moreau, and center Mike Richards had much to do with their decisions to head across the pond.
“I can’t speak for them, I can only surmise, as everybody else can, that they probably looked at the acquisitions that happened over the summer and realized that it was getting pretty crowded,” said Morris.
“Selfishly, we, as an organization, would love to have those guys in the fold, because you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into helping get to the level that they’re at, and never to see the final product is a little disconcerting,” added Morris. “But players come and go over time. You just have to learn to deal with the business side of the game. I’m sure those guys will each have their own reasons as to why they left, and it’s hard for me to speak to their reasons. We didn’t have an opportunity to discuss it.”
It is a virtual certainty that money had a lot to do with their decisions as well.
“From what I gather, some of those teams [in Europe] are paying a lot of money,” Morris noted. “Those are all elements of the equation that I’m sure their agents discussed with them as they plan out their careers.”
“When you can make two or three times as much as you can make in the American league, I guess it’s less of a gamble, that would be my guess,” Morris added. “At the same time, if they were to come back, they’d certainly have a lot of experience, and, hopefully, they do, in time.”
Kozun, Loktionov, Vey Likely To Benefit
With the loss of Elkins, Holloway and Moller, other players will get greater opportunities to contribute.
“We planned on having those guys, and, obviously, it’s an opportunity for somebody else now to take some of those valuable minutes and turn that into scoring,” said Morris. “I think the guys who are here, with added ice time, will improve, and put more responsibility and accountability in their [own] laps. It’s a proving ground for those guys, for sure.”
“[Andrei] Loktionov, without question, will be relied upon for the time that he’s here to be a dominant player for us on both sides of the puck,” added Morris. “His skating ability, his on-ice presence, and his enthusiasm for the game is infectious. I expect him to gobble up as many minutes as we’ll give him.”
Loktionov, a 5-10, 179-pound center prospect, was selected by the Kings in the fifth round (123rd overall) of the 2008 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
“There’s never been a question about his effort,” Morris said about the 21-year-old native of Voskresensk, Russia. “He’s been pretty proficient, defensively, at the American league level, and he brings everybody right out of their seats when he’s got the puck on his stick, so I can see him gobbling up those minutes, and relishing every moment.”
Right wing Brandon Kozun, who enters his second season in the professional ranks, and right wing Linden Vey, an AHL rookie, are also likely to be relied upon to fill the void. But they will need to improve their defensive play in order to earn a significant increase in ice time.
“For guys like Kozun and Vey, their offensive abilities are really noticeable,” said Morris. “Both guys are continuing to improve their strength and their awareness on the defensive side of things. In order to make the jump to the NHL level, those guys have been working diligently to improve their defensive games, and that’s essential.”
Kozun, who was selected by the Kings in the sixth round (179th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, entered his first season with the Monarchs last year with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, even though he was a mere 5-8 and weighed just 162 pounds.
“He was pretty sure of himself when he first got here,” Morris said with a smirk. “It was a humbling experience for him when he sat a few games, and realized the importance of maintaining possession of the puck, and learning how to protect it. [He also learned] that it wasn’t going to be as wide open, care free, and, maybe, a little bit loose, at times [like it was for him in the Western Hockey League].”
“I would say that it had to be humbling for him because he was pretty sure of himself, and he is a dynamic scorer, but, again, it was a little bit of tough love at the start,” Morris added. “But, as the season progressed, I think he became a little bit more humble, and he was humbled by the fact that he had to earn his keep.”
Kozun acknowledged that he got knocked down several rungs on the ladder.
“It was different,” said the 21-year-old Los Angeles native. “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.”
Morris stressed that being humbled as Kozun was is not a bad thing.
“Over the long haul, I think it proved to be a good thing,” he said. “He’s a much better player, and is more accountable now than he was when he showed up. There’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you’re willing to recognize where your shortcomings are on the defensive side.”
“Our main emphasis with him is to take better care of the puck,” he added. “He’s as quick as you’re going to find in finding an opening down low, making the clever pass, burying a big-time goal, or making a move. I think it’s important that he approaches his defensive game with the same type of commitment, and, for offensive players, those guys are highly gifted. To get them to appreciate what defense does is, sometimes, a challenge. It’s harder to learn the defensive side. It’s usually the last component to teach on the learning curve.”
In most cases with young, dynamic, skilled forwards such as Kozun and Vey, the last thing that develops is their defensive game.
“They just like to see that red light come on,” Murray explained. “That’s great, if you’re scoring forty or fifty of’em. But, in order to help these guys develop, we feel an obligation to make them complete players. It’ll most certainly improve their chances of making it to the NHL, as opposed to being a fly-by-night, short-term player. When they master the defensive side, and they’re working hard to defend, they’re going to get more offensive chances. It’ll only emphasize even more how gifted they are.”
“You’ve got to take good care of the puck, be good support players, and be reliable defensively to advance your career,” Morris elaborated. “Those are all things we’re trying to impart upon them here in Manchester.”
Kozun appears to be learning the right lessons.
“I learned to take care of the puck, not force plays, and play well in your own zone,” said Kozun. “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.”
As started earlier, Vey, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (96th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, is entering his rookie season in the AHL, and faces a big challenge…in more ways than one.
“For Linden, this is a big step,” said Morris. “For the first time, he’s playing against guys who are bigger, stronger, and more experienced. He’s been here for less than a week, but he’s starting to show signs of better awareness, being stronger on the puck, and being more defensively aware.”
“He’s earning his ice, but I haven’t penciled him into any particular spot,” added Morris. “We do know that he is a goal scorer and a playmaker, but we a want to make sure he’s a well-rounded player.”
The 20-year-old, 6-0, 183-pound native of Wakaw, Saskatchewan will need to be a quick study if he expects to get ice time on the Monarchs’ top line.
“We try to reward guys who are able to play on both sides of the puck, and give them ice time as they make advances with their overall game,” Morris stressed. “You have to keep in mind that there are veteran players here as well, and they are not going to give up their spots easily. They’ll garner any additional ice time they can get, and make it difficult in newcomers to try and shoulder their way in.”
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