LOS ANGELES — While the National Hockey League pauses its season to put on its annual All-Star festivities this weekend, what’s a hockey writer to do if the NHL All-Star weekend is not their cup of tea, especially since the game itself has become a complete bore, barely resembling the game we normally enjoy?
Sure, I could have watched the All-Star draft (yawn), and I will watch tonight’s skills competition, the only redeeming spectacle during All-Star weekend. But with some extra time on my hands, why not see how the kids down on the farm are doing?
Indeed, the time has come to take a look at some of the Los Angeles Kings’ young prospects, and, in this installment, the focus will be on the blue line corps.
Deslauriers Already Making An Impact
In his first season in professional hockey, defenseman Nicolas Deslauriers’ development appears to be proceeding at a good pace, despite not being able to crack the lineup with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, right off the bat.
“For anyone in my place, you know that with a veteran team, it’s hard to find a spot, [with the top six defensemen, including] guys who have played in the NHL,” said the 6-1, 214-pound native of LaSalle, Quebec. “I knew that, so I worked hard to earn a place in the lineup.”
“It was kind of hard at the beginning, because there were a lot of defensemen, but I got my chance with all the injuries [the Monarchs have been hit very hard by injuries this season], and I think I’m doing pretty [well] now, playing on the power play, and on the penalty-kill, so, for half of a season, I’ve had a great year,” added Deslauriers. “At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t playing a lot, so I was working hard in the gym to prove to the training staff and coaches that I could have a spot in the lineup.”
Deslauriers, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (84th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, is starting to turn some heads with his play.
“Nicolas Deslauriers is really coming on,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “He’s made huge strides for us. He’s one of the guys who’s made tremendous improvement since the get-go. He’s done a great job.”
“Nick is a beautiful skater,” added Morris. “He’s got a real heavy, hard shot. He’s an extremely strong guy, he’s becoming more positionally sound, and more poised with the puck. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there—he’ll go into the fray.”
“He does a real good job of moving the puck up the ice, and rushing it himself, and he’s getting pucks to the net, too. He scored his first goal recently. We’ve seen tremendous strides in his game.”
As with any young defenseman, especially one with the offensive skills Deslauriers honed in three seasons with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and one season with the Gatineau Olympiques, both in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Deslauriers is learning that, often times, less is more.
“Nick just has to be more consistent,” Morris noted. “For him, it’s the finer details of the game—being a little more poised to support the rush, rather than leading it. It’s typical of guys from major junior and the [other] leagues beneath us, where they have the ability to go coast-to-coast. In the pro game, things have to be a little more predictable. There aren’t many guys in the game who can get the puck, and go the length of the ice, and it’s not really what we’re after.”
“We want guys to distribute the puck, and support the rush, instead of leading it,” Morris added. “We’ve seen him do a more thorough job of getting the puck to people, backing up his passes, and jumping into the rush at the appropriate times as a secondary threat, as opposed to trying to get it and go himself.”
Deslauriers appears to be making the adjustment.
“Mark [Morris] put it in my head that in junior, you can try to do a little too much [and get away with it],” said Deslauriers. “This year, I tried [leading the rush] a couple of times, but I sat down with Mark, and he agreed that I can rush the puck when we need a goal. But when we’re winning or tied, I usually don’t do it [because there’s no need to take that risk].”
“Just moving the puck and following the rush as a second wave is way better,” added Deslauriers. “You see the game easier, and I have more juice after, instead of just picking up the puck and rushing it all the way down. Don’t be afraid to join the rush. Just don’t lead it [unless there’s a clear opportunity].”
Deslauriers added that making this adjustment continues to be a challenge, but that improving his defensive play is the area where he needs the most work.
“[I have] to get it into my head to not rush the puck, because I’m more of an offensive defenseman,” he noted. “I need to [improve my] defensive [game].”
“I [do] think my defensive zone [play has improved],” he added. “That’s probably the biggest thing the Kings and the Monarchs [have stressed]. I got way better, and going to the development camp in Los Angeles helped me a lot.”
Lack Of Consistency Slowing Muzzin’s Development
Although defenseman Jake Muzzin has the physical tools and skill that would translate well to the NHL level, to this point in his professional career, consistency has been a major sticking point.
“Consistency is a concern we have with Jake,” said Morris. “He has all the physical tools—the shooting, the passing, the skating. His biggest challenge is to put it all together, and to have a consistent focus.”
“At times, he’s been a little sleepy, and not quite as positionally sound as he needs to be to be that consistent type of stalwart who anchors your blue line,” added Morris. “A lot of that is concentration and focus.”
Last season, the 6-3, 217-pound native of Woodstock, Ontario, made the Kings’ opening night roster, while veteran defenseman Matt Greene recovered from off-season shoulder surgery.
Muzzin, who was signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent on January 4, 2010, showed flashes of what he could become in the NHL, but poor decisions and positioning mistakes landed him in Manchester after eleven games.
Despite suffering a concussion during the Kings training camp to start the 2011-12 season, Muzzin got off to a strong start with the Monarchs, but tailed off as that consistency thing caught up with him.
“I had a really good start to the year,” he said. “The concussion really didn’t affect me. But then I started to do a little too much, complicating things. Lately, I’ve been a lot better. I’ve been simplifying my game, and things have been a lot better.”
“Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of video, and I’ve seen how little mistakes can cost you,” he added. “I’ve learned a lot. Working with Mike O’Connell [who handles Pro Development and Special Assignments for the Kings], and going over video has helped me a lot.”
Morris pointed out that Muzzin is a prime example of how inexact the science of developing hockey players can be.
“Everybody has a different timeline,” Morris explained. “Some guys figure it out quicker. We’re constantly reminding guys to simplify our game, and that sometimes, the most obvious play is the right play, instead of looking for options two, three, and four.”
“We often complicate things by trying to do too much, but it comes down to simplifying things, and compartmentalizing our games, and learning how to play well in all three zones, all 200 feet,” Morris elaborated.
Simplifying and compartmentalizing is the immediate goal for Muzzin.
“I feel more comfortable on the ice this year, more confident,” he noted. “But, [at times], I’m trying to do too much [out there], trying to do other people’s jobs. That doesn’t get you anywhere. I have to focus on my job, and on what I need to do.”
“I have to come to the rink, play in every game, and try to improve,” he added. “It’s a long season, and sometimes you get tired, but you have to stay focused, and want to get better every day. It’s just a matter of bringing that consistency. You’ve got to want it.”
Will Hickey Ever Meet High Expectations?
Defenseman Thomas Hickey was selected fourth overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and has had to bear the burden of the lofty expectations that most high, first-round draft picks have to deal with if they fail to make it to the NHL right away.
Indeed, out of the thirty players selected in the first round that year, only nine have not played in the NHL yet, including Hickey, leading many to claim that he is a draft bust, and that Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi made a huge mistake, wasting a high, first-round pick on the 22-year-old, 5-11, 190-pound native of Calgary, Alberta.
Despite all that, Hickey has turned heads this season, emerging as the Monarchs’ top defenseman.
“Thomas is learning the same things [Deslauriers] is, that is, to support the rush rather than lead it,” said Morris. “Sometimes, as a defender, it takes awhile. But, often times, less is more, and I think Thomas is a lot more predictable in delivering the puck to other players.”
“He’s improved his shot, he’s played in a lot of penalty-kill and power play situations, where he’s not trying to be too fancy,” added Morris. “He’s just moving the puck to the places it needs to go.”
Hickey has always been skilled at moving the puck, but, as players move up to higher levels, everything gets increasingly difficult. On top of that, the play must be faster and quicker as well.
“It’s always been about [increasing] my pace,” said Hickey. “You want everything to be a bit quicker, and I think I’ve done a good job with that. But it’s more about getting the puck, distributing it, and joining the play. That’s something I’ve gotten a lot better at.”
“In the NHL, [the pace is] crisp, it’s fast, and the puck needs to get places,” added Hickey. “Even if you have time to do more, often, the first play is the best one, and that’s something we’ve been working on. That’s helped my game. Get [the puck], distribute it, and then, get into position be open for a teammate.”
Many have pointed to Hickey’s physical stature, or lack thereof, as a major reason why the Kings should not have selected him so high in the 2007 draft. But, as seen during the Kings Development Camp last summer, and in training camp this past September, Hickey has added some muscle to his frame, and has continued to work on getting stronger.
“He’s a lot stronger than he was [compared to] the [last] couple of seasons,” Morris stressed. “The other day, I slapped him on the shoulder, and realized how thick he’s getting through the chest and back.”
“These guys are working hard down here,” Morris added. “They’re doing everything they can to try to be ready for when they’re opportunity comes.”
Despite losing the better part of two seasons of development to injury, Hickey, who will play in the AHL All-Star Game on January 30, just might be taking some big steps forward.
“[My game has] come a long way since last year,” said Hickey. “The first year was a feeling out process, and I didn’t play a lot of hockey due to injury. Last year, you’re trying to get comfortable. There are times when things are easy, but there are stretches when they’re difficult. This year has been more consistent, and my confidence is up. I feel good every night. There’s no guessing to my game.”
“Maturing from a 17-year-old, I’m bigger and stronger,” added Hickey. “I’ve relied a lot on positioning, and I’ve learned a lot about it. I’m to the point where I don’t get myself into a lot of one-on-one battles, but when I do, I’m stronger, I’m able to push off and gain some ground, or hold it, in the tough areas of the ice.”
“I’ve gotten stronger, and I’ve learned to use my body smarter, where I don’t have to get in those battles. You’re in the right spot, you own that ice, you don’t have to fight for it. That’s probably the biggest thing.”
With the added strength, better positioning, and the ability to think the game better, Hickey’s chances to make it to the NHL are on the rise, and surprisingly, his defensive play may be the biggest factor—his +12 plus/minus rating certainly stands out.
“I think it’s huge, and I’m more impressed with that than any offensive numbers,” said Morris. “It tells me that he’s taking pride in his defensive game, he’s not risking as much now, as he had in past years where he tried to do too much. Right now, he’s learning the puck will come to him if he’s in good position.”
With better defensive awareness, Hickey now has greater responsibilities.
“I think [I have] more responsibility this year,” Hickey noted. “Guys have graduated, and moved on. Every year, my role gets a little bigger, and this year’s the same. In special teams, or five-on-five play, I think I can be counted on more than I was last year, whether it’s situations at the end of games, or handling a little extra ice time here and there. I’m picking my spots better to jump in, and to be involved in the offense, and the other side of the game has improved as well.”
“It’s a nice challenge,” Hickey added. “You get to go out there and try to kill off a penalty. I’ve done that all my life, coming into pro hockey, but to be able to help out is enjoyable.”
Nevertheless, there are still challenges to meet.
“Last year, I would’ve said consistency,” said Hickey. “You want to stay consistent, and I think I’ve done a really good job of that this year. You want to come in and play the same game every time you’re out there, the same style, and I’ve done a good job of that. But it’s a tough league, with the schedule we have, so just bringing it every night is a challenge, but it’s something that I think I’ve done well. You see the same game from me, night in, and night out.”
As mentioned earlier in this story, Hickey will represent the Monarchs in the AHL All-Star Game, and like most, he was honored to be selected.
“Every day, you have to concern yourself with your own game, and take pride in it,” he said. “That’s something I’ve been working on, and I’ve been really proud of myself for that transition I’ve made.”
“I’ve grown as a player a lot, and I’ve been a lot more assertive,” he added. “I can see that in my own game. But for other people to notice, and get selected, it’s an honor, because I just look after my game. I’m not concerned about what other people are thinking. It’s nice to see that other people are noticing. It’s a nice feather in the cap.”
Will Hickey ever fulfill the expectations that such a high, first round draft pick has, sitting on his shoulders, or will he be crushed under their tremendous weight?
Although many have concluded that he has already been crushed under the weight, in reality, that question has not yet been answered.
“I feel real comfortable down here, I’ve seen enough guys, and played with enough guys who went [up to the Kings], and have done really well,” said Hickey. “They [haven’t had] to stand out, but they’ve done well, and they’re everyday guys.”
“Just from playing against guys every night, and having teammates getting an opportunity to do that—I understand that they’re very good players—but I’m comfortable enough with my game to know that I could contribute the same way.”
Will Hickey’s confidence help him fulfill those expectations? Not necessarily. But it certainly can’t hurt.
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Nicolas Deslauriers (7:21)
Jake Muzzin (4:53)
Thomas Hickey (10:29)
- Showing Signs Of Progress: LA Kings Blue Line Prospects Nicolas Deslauriers, Derek Forbort, And Kevin Gravel
- Down On The Farm With The Manchester Monarchs: Blue Line Corps May Be Their Greatest Asset
- Los Angeles Kings Forward Prospects Brandon Kozun and Linden Vey Face Similar Challenges
- Down On The Farm With The Manchester Monarchs: Zatkoff Having An All-Star Season In Goal, While Jones Takes Small Step Backwards
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming games against the Columbus Blue Jackets (February 1, 7:30 PM – Blue Jackets vs. Kings), the Phoenix Coyotes (February 16, 7:30 PM – Coyotes vs. Kings), as well as for other games on their schedule, are available from Barry’s Tickets, an official partner of the Los Angeles Kings. Use the code, “Royalty010” to get a 10 percent discount on their “Best Value” tickets.
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