DOWN ON THE FARM: Between goaltending and their defensive corps, the Manchester Monarchs’ greatest strength will be on their side of the red line in the 2011-12 season.
LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Manchester Monarchs, the primary minor league affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, are 1-1 after their first two games of the 2011-12 season, allowing just three goals in those games. They return to action tonight against the Providence Bruins, the start of a three-games-in-three-nights road trip in which they will also face the Portland Pirates on October 15, and the Springfield Falcons on October 16.
Although no one in their right mind, would draw conclusions about a team based on just two games, especially so early in a season, the Monarchs figure to be one of the stingier teams in the American Hockey League.
Indeed, with goaltenders Martin Jones and Jeff Zatkoff expected to improve upon solid seasons in 2010-11, the rest is up to the skaters in front of them.
Joining the Manchester blue line corps will be defenseman prospect Nicolas Deslauriers, selected by the Kings in the third round (84th overall) of the 2009 National Hockey League Entry Draft, who will join defenseman prospect Andrew Campbell (selected in the third round, 74th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft)—both will hold down blue line spots at Manchester this year, with Deslauriers an AHL rookie. But AHL veterans will shoulder most of the load for the Monarchs, led by defensemen Thomas Hickey, Jake Muzzin, and Slava Voynov.
“We’ve got some guys who have been here for a few years now, and we’re fairly mobile, given the projected lineup that we have,” Monarchs head coach Mark Morris said during an exclusive interview with Frozen Royalty on October 6. “Slava Voynov will be heading our way, and Jake Muzzin is slated to be heading back this way. If those guys are here, it makes for six guys who we are familiar with, who know about the American Hockey League, and have progressed to this point.”
“They continue to improve with their awareness on the ice, they continue to be creative, and are getting better [defensively],” Morris added.
Hickey has been slow to develop for a prospect who was a high first round draft pick—he was selected by the Kings in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
But much of that can be attributed to injuries that, for all intents and purposes, resulted in the loss of two years of valuable development time.
Last season, and again during the Kings’ 2011 training camp, the 22-year-old native of Calgary, Alberta showed that he may have turned the corner in his development.
“I think there’s a lot more control [in his game],” said Hickey. “Just learning the pro game, especially defense. On the offensive blue line, I used to move way too much, a lot more than you need to. I’m much more conservative now. I can use my energy in short bursts, to step up to hit, or make plays, and the pucks always come to you as opposed to using a lot more energy and not being efficient at all.”
“If you look at any of the veteran [NHL] defensemen, or around the [NHL], they certainly try hard, but they conserve their energy,” added Hickey. “It looks like, ‘hey, he’s not doing as much,’ but they’re just smarter. As a young guy, you want to take parts of that, and conserve more energy for when you really need to turn the jets on.”
In other words, Hickey is maturing as a player, both mentally and physically.
“He’s a very smart kid,” Morris noted. “He’s very diligent about the way he trains, and the way he approaches the game—he’s pretty cerebral. I think the work he’s done with our coaches, and with the staff is starting to pay dividends.”
“It’s just maturity,” Morris added. “Physically, mentally, he’s a lot stronger than he was when we first saw him. There were some pretty lofty expectations for a guy drafted that high. Sometimes, that’s not fair to the player. But he’s always been aware that the expectations are high, and, sometimes, a little bit unrealistic for a guy who Mother Nature has taken her sweet time with.”
Listed at 5-11 and 190 pounds, Hickey can use all the help he can get from Mother Nature to further his chances of making it to the NHL.
“I stood next to him on the ice today,” said Morris. “He’s starting to spring up, height-wise, and is starting to fill out more. People mature at different rates, and he’s one of those guys who’s a little bit of a late bloomer. As he gains size and strength, his confidence is growing.”
Although size and strength may still be Hickey’s biggest challenges, his game still needs work. But he appears to finally be developing at the rate that was expected when he was drafted. Nevertheless, he still has work to do.
“He just needs to continue on the path that he’s on,” said Morris. “There’s no one thing. I’d like to see him move the puck a little quicker, to continue to work on his shot, and to be a little sturdier in puck battles.”
“Again, it relates to size, strength and maturity,” added Morris. “He does have some qualities that most people don’t have in that he’s got [great ability] to hang onto the puck. In some regards, that’s great, but in others, it’s like the quarterback looking for his third or fourth options [at times] when the first pass is the right one.”
Muzzin missed much of the Kings’ training camp and pre-season games due to an undisclosed neck injury suffered on September 21, 2011, during a 2-1 shootout loss in a pre-season game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center.
A little after the midpoint of the first period, Coyotes forward Mikael Boedker hit Muzzin from behind, running him into the glass between the player benches.
Boedker received a major penalty and an automatic game misconduct on the play. Muzzin returned to the game, but did not practice the next day, and was sidelined long enough to be placed on injured reserve on October 5. But that was merely a formality, as he was activated the next day, and was loaned to the Monarchs.
Muzzin is expected to be in the lineup for tonight’s game at Providence.
Like Hickey, Muzzin is also 22 years old. Signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent on January 4, 2010, he spent the vast majority of last season with the Monarchs after starting the year with the Kings.
“To come out of junior, right to the NHL was [difficult],” said Muzzin. “The guys are so much better. You go from playing with kids to guys who’ve been playing in the [NHL] for ten years—it was a big jump for me. I learned a lot, and I’ll build as a player from that experience.”
One of the reasons Muzzin was unable to remain with the Kings was that his defensive zone positioning needed a lot of work.
“Plays down low in the defensive zone—positioning is huge in the NHL, because if you’re out of position, they’re going to make you pay,” he noted. “Some of my mistakes were being out of position.”
Like Hickey, the weaknesses in Muzzin’s game can be attributed to youth and his maturity level.
“Muzzin is a guy in whom you can see all the components of an NHL defenseman,” said Morris. “He’s got the size, the shot, he passes well, and he can throw his weight around, too.”
“His challenge is just tightening up his game, to be quicker to spots, positioning, and then work on his stick positioning, to carry a low stick, being able to close on people faster in the defensive end, and just making better reads,” added Morris.
Muzzin added a few things to the list as well.
“Skating, being aware, composure with the puck, [building on those aspects will help him become] more confident playing at the pro level,” said Muzzin. “It’s a learning curve for me, being up in the NHL and then down in the AHL. But I’m young enough in the organization where I can continue to improve and, one day, be up with the big club.”
Morris stressed that expecting all players to be ready for the NHL by the time they are Hickey and Muzzin’s age is unrealistic.
“To expect these guys to jump in at the age they are—sometimes, that’s a little bit unrealistic,” he said. “It’s a big jump to go from junior hockey to the American Hockey League, and then it’s an even bigger jump when you go from the American league to the NHL.”
“That’s a huge transition, and, once in awhile, these young guys show flashes of brilliance, or they’ll play well for a couple of weeks,” he added. “Then, you see the youth come to the forefront. That’s a natural thing for guys who are learning about consistency, and how to sustain a high level of play over an eighty-game schedule.”
Voynov, 21, was slated to play with the Kings this season, filling the skate boots of defenseman Drew Doughty, if he continued his contract holdout. But once Doughty signed his eight-year, $56 million deal on September 30, Voynov’s fortunes changed in an instant.
Indeed, even though he quickly caught the attention of Kings fans, many of whom wanted Voynov to remain with the big club, even though Doughty was back in the fold, the 21-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia was assigned to the Monarchs on October 5.
But by that time, the Kings were already on their trip to Europe, where they played an exhibition game in Hamburg, Germany on October 4 before opening the regular season against the New York Rangers in Stockholm, Sweden on October 7, followed by a matchup the Buffalo Sabres on October 8 in Berlin, Germany.
The 5-11, 199-pound, puck-moving defenseman was on that trip, and did not hop onto the next flight across the Atlantic. As such, he missed the Monarchs’ first two games of the season, even though he was in Manchester by that time.
But with a week of practice under his belt, Voynov is expected to be in the lineup tonight at Providence.
“He’s such a dynamic player,” said Morris. “He had a real strong showing in training camp. To watch him there—I sat in a video session with [Kings assistant coach] John Stevens. He was showing the positive things about his game. His positioning was impeccable.”
“When he was paired up with [veteran Kings defenseman] Willie Mitchell, he looked like he fit right in,” added Morris. “I’m not sure what happened after [Morris and assistant coach Scott Pellerin] left camp, but they’ve got excellent depth.”
Voynov, who played in the 2010-11 AHL All-Star Game, and was named as a second-team AHL All-Star at the end of last season, certainly got a long, hard look from the Kings’ coaching staff and management during training camp and in pre-season games.
“I think he’s done a great job,” said Kings assistant general manger Ron Hextall, who also serves as the Monarchs’ general manager. “The kid has really grown. He’s a real good puck-moving defenseman.”
“He’s kind of the ‘new age’ defenseman,” added Hextall. “He’s a smart player, he’s a competitive player, he moves the puck real well, he skates the puck out of trouble. He’s going to be a real good addition to the Kings at some point, whether it’s this year or next year.”
Perhaps the weakest part of Voynov’s game was physical play. But Morris said that has improved in that area since his draft year.
“He can hold his own,” said Morris. “He does here. He’s hard to knock off his feet, and he breaks the puck out as well as most people you’re going to see. He’s pretty sturdy, and if there’s any hesitation, it might be because of the quickness of the NHL game, but I think he figured that out pretty quickly because he’s an exceptional talent.”
But after getting a taste of life in the NHL, will Voynov be satisfied playing at the AHL level, or will he be disillusioned by the fact that he is not playing in the big show with the Kings?
If Morris is worried, he isn’t letting on.
“I can’t speak for Slava, and he’s not the most vocal guy in the world,” Morris explained. “I’m sure that when he’s ready, he’ll know it, and the Kings will know it.”
“I’m sure he’s getting a little antsy, but there’s no question his upside is huge,” Morris elaborated. “He’ll continue to get better now that he has the past few years under his belt. He’s poised with the puck, he rushes it well, he defends well. The more he learns to communicate [in English], he’ll be even better.”
In Other News…
On October 12, the Kings announced that they have acquired forward Stefan Legein, along with a sixth round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for future considerations.
Legein, who will be 24 years old next month, played for Adirondack in the AHL, and with Greenville in the ECHL last season.
Legein was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second round (37th overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
The Kings are expected to assign Legein to Manchester.
The Kings also signed forward prospects Robert Czarnik and Andy Andreoff to three-year, entry-level contracts on October 12.
Czarnik, 21, played last season with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, last season, scoring 33 goals and adding 44 assists for 77 points in 61 games. He was selected by the Kings in the third round (63rd overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Andreoff, 20, was selected by the Kings in the third round (80th overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in June. He will play an over-age year for the Generals, where he has spent the last three seasons.
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