Los Angeles Kings Forward Prospects Brandon Kozun and Linden Vey Face Similar Challenges

Right wing prospect Brandon Kozun, shown here speaking to the
media during the Los Angeles Kings 2011 Development Camp
at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California,
July 11-12, 2011.
Photo: Gann Matsuda
LOS ANGELES — As years pass, National Hockey League players continue to get bigger, stronger and faster, so much so that the size, speed and strength of the players has driven much of the game’s evolution into what we see on NHL ice today.

But with the rule changes after the 2004 NHL lockout that have brought speed and skill back into the game by clamping down on obstruction, smaller, speedier players once again can thrive in the NHL, but only if they can hold their own with the big boys.

Size, or lack thereof, is something Los Angeles Kings right wing prospect Brandon Kozun has been hearing about since he started playing hockey.

Indeed, one look at Kozun, who is generously listed at 5-8, 162 pounds (yours truly is 5-9, and Kozun is at least one inch shorter, maybe two), that his lack of size certainly stands out, immediately begging the question of whether he could ever make it at the NHL level.

Just don’t try telling him that.

“I don’t think size is an issue for me,” said the 21-year-old native of Los Angeles. “If you ask anyone [about] the way I play, I don’t think size comes into it that much. I don’t get pushed off the puck, and out of my twelve goals, I’d say eight or nine of them have come from around the net, so I’m not afraid to go to those areas where you have [go] to score goals.”

“I’ve always played big my entire life,” added Kozun, who was selected by the Kings in the sixth round (179th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. “Even though I’m a smaller guy, I think I play big. I’m not a guy who is limited by size, and get pushed around. I think I’m strong on my skates, and that’s good for me.”

But Kozun, who is playing in his second season with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, still has an uphill battle ahead of him.

“He’s getting better,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “He’s got to learn be stronger on the puck, and win more puck battles on the wall. If you’re going to be an effective winger in pro hockey, you have to find ways to make plays when a guy is pinching down on you, and you’ve got to find ways to protect the puck.”

“When you’re his size, body position is critical,” added Morris. “He’s pretty light, so he’s got to be quick, and be able to surround the puck, keeping it in areas where it’s not going to get exposed. You can’t be carefree, you can’t be careless with the puck. You’ve got to make sure that it’s in an area that’s not going to hurt us.”

Coming from a highly successful career with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League, where he lit up opponents night after night, scoring goals in bunches, Kozun, who is ranked third on the Monarchs in scoring with twelve goals and 15 assists for 27 points in 45 games this season (through games played on January 28), is finding things to be rather different in the AHL.

Indeed, Kozun, who led all Canadian junior hockey leagues in scoring in the 2009-10 season, did not have to pay much attention to defense during his career in junior hockey. But all that has changed.

“The biggest thing for me is my play without the puck, and taking care of the puck as well,” he noted. “They know my offensive capabilities, and I’ve got to be good in [the offensive] zone. But for me, it’s those battles along the boards in my own zone, getting those pucks out, playing in the defensive zone, being a complete player, and playing with structure. That’s what I have to do to get to the next level. When I do get my opportunity, I’m going to be expected to be that kind of player.”

“They’ve wanted me to become a better two-way player, he added. “I think everyone knows about the offensive ability I’ve had [over] my entire career. The biggest thing for me is to make sure [that] I do get better on both ends of the ice, and I think I am. I’m more of a complete player. I’m learning, and getting better as a pro.”

“If you look at my game now, it’s definitely more rounded, and more structured. I play more of a pro game, compared to when I was in junior. I think I was a little sloppy, and was thinking about offense all the time. Now, I’m a way better two-way player, and I’m a lot better in [the defensive] zone.”

The mental aspect of the game are often an issue with young prospects, and Kozun was no exception. But he is making progress in terms of his maturity and ability to think the game.

“Consistency is a big thing, and for me, it’s to focus on each shift,” said Kozun. “Sometimes, I get ahead of myself, and I focus on long-term goals. But I’m getting better at focusing on one shift at a time. When that shift is over, you focus on the next one. I’ve gotten better at that. When I ran into a slump at the beginning of the year, I was dealing with that, and I was a little low on confidence.”

“It’s good that I experienced that early in my career, so the next time it happens, I know how to deal with it,” added Kozun. “It’s about growing as a player, and maturing as a player. The whole mental aspect.”

Morris noted Kozun’s added maturity and the growth in his mental game.

“He’s grown up as a person,” said Morris. “He’s more willing to listen. Often times, the smaller players who score in the leagues below [the AHL]—they’ve got to learn humility, they’ve got to learn patience. Sometimes your egos get bruised when you’re playing in a league where guys are bigger, stronger, and intense. It gets frustrating for a guy that things came easy to at lower levels.”

“He’s had to learn that,” added Morris. “He’s been rooming with Justin Johnson, a 31-year-old, a guy who’s our enforcer. He’s taken him under his wing, and deserves a lot of credit for how Kozun is starting to mature as a young man.”

Morris indicated that Kozun is making progress in his development.

“He’s learning, and, the other thing is, he’s not turning the puck over nearly as much as he used to,” Morris noted. “He was high-risk, but now, he’s learning to be a more complete player.”

“He defends better, he’s more aware in his own zone, and he’s using his speed,” Morris added. “We’re still working on things, like making sure he hits the net more, finishing his checks, and so forth. He’s got pull-away speed, and he’s very creative.”

“He’s way more effective as a forechecker, he’s going into the traffic in front of the net, and he’s paying the price to be around the net, to get the tap-in goals, and to use his quick hands, and goal scoring touch to get his points. He still lacks some strength, but he’s a guy who’s improving every time out. I give him a lot of credit. It’s been a big jump for him.”

Going back to that size issue…as reported earlier, Kozun has had to deal with that throughout his career. His attitude about it is to ignore it, except for one thing…

“I hear about size a lot, and it’s cliché, but it pushes you to work harder, and it’s something I use as motivation,” he said.

“I’m getting there. I’m in the wings. I’m waiting for that opportunity [to make it to the NHL level], and when it comes, I’m going to be ready for it.”

Center prospect Linden Vey, shown here speaking to the media
during the Los Angeles Kings 2011 Development Camp
at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California,
July 11-12, 2011.
Photo: Gann Matsuda
Although he is bigger than Kozun at 6-0, 183 pounds, center Linden Vey is facing many of the same challenges that Kozun is dealing with.

Indeed, just like Kozun, Vey, who ranks fifth in scoring on the Monarchs with eleven goals and eleven assists for 22 points in 45 games, lit up junior hockey with a boatload of goals, and also led all Canadian junior leagues in scoring, with his turn to do that coming in the 2010-11 season.

But even with all that talent, Vey, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (96th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, got off to a rocky start in his first year at the professional level.

“He’s made some real nice improvements,” said Morris. “His big jump in improvements happened when he moved from center to wing. He couldn’t handle the defensive end in the early going, but, because of injuries, he’s been put back at his normal position.”

“When he got on the wing, he was afforded an opportunity to get his offensive game in order,” added Morris. “[Then, when] he moved back to the center position, he had a better understanding of the responsibilities down low. He’s still working on that, but he’s vastly improved.”

Playing on the wing for the first time in his career helped him see things from a different perspective.

“Early on, [Morris] probably couldn’t trust me [to handle the defensive responsibilities of the center position],” said Vey. “He felt better with me on the wing. That helped me out a little bit. It got me more ice time, and more involved.”

“[Playing on the wing, as opposed to at center is] a whole lot different,” added Vey. “At center, you’re always in the game, you’re always the guy with the puck. But on the wing, you’ve always got to be open, and get the puck out of your zone.”

“It’s tough when you haven’t played a whole lot of wing. You’re not used to guys bearing down on you, and you’ve got to chip pucks past them. At center, you’re always involved in the play, and you have a little more time and space with the puck.”

Also like Kozun, Vey did not have to pay much attention to defense during his time in junior hockey. But cannot get away with that now.

“[Defensive play] was one thing the coaching staff stressed to me that I have to work on if I want to play more minutes,” Vey noted. “It’s a big part of the game, especially in the Kings organization. They like to be defensively sound, so I’ve been working on that in the first half. It’s getting better, and now, I’m starting to get a little bit more ice time.”

But the bigger issue for him is getting stronger, something he did not pay close attention to until after his third season with the Medicine Hat Tigers.

“[The Kings] just said the biggest things for me are the defensive part of the game, and my strength,” he noted. “That’s a big issue for me. I’ve never been one of the stronger guys on the ice. I’ve always been last in that department.”

“The biggest difference is the strength, and the guys battling down low,” he added. “It’s a lot different [compared to junior hockey in Canada]. [Early in his junior career he] wasn’t in the best condition. I recognized that. I know I have a long ways to go on the strength and conditioning part. But I know that the reason I am where I am is because of [his improved strength and conditioning heading into the 2010-11 season]. You can only get better from that.”

During the summer, Vey hinted that he thought he was ready to make the jump to the NHL. But his stint with the Monarchs this season has opened his eyes a bit.

“[I’m] probably not [ready to play at the NHL level],” Vey admitted. “I think, because of the strength part, I’m a little bit behind. I know I need to put in a lot of work to get it there. At the NHL level, there’s men playing in that league, and you’ve got to be strong to be able to handle the constant battling in the corners.”

“The game is a tad faster, but I don’t consider that to be a major issue,” Vey added. “For me, [a big thing] is strength. When you’re going up against guys who are 25 or 26 years old, when you’re used to playing against guys who are the same age, or close to the same age, it’s a totally different ball game. It’s such a physical game, that’s [one of] the biggest issues for me.”

Although strength may be Vey’s biggest challenge, it is not all he needs to work on.

“It’s not just one thing that you have to work on to make it to the NHL level,” said Vey. “You have to be a well-rounded player, and improve on every aspect. It’s also about improving in everything you can. The day you stop improving, your career is [over]. You have to constantly improve—every day, every year. That’s your main focus.”

“The good thing about the American Hockey League is that it prepares you for the next step,” added Vey. I’m down here, I’m going to make sure that I work on my game every day, improve my strength, and, hopefully, one day, I can crack the [Kings] lineup. [But] I know I need to put in some more time [in the AHL], and make sure that I keep on improving.”

Vey still has quite a bit to work on before his chance to crack the Kings lineup comes. Despite that, his development appears to be progressing at an accelerated pace.

“Linden Vey has come around nicely,” Morris noted. “He’s gotten a lot of valuable minutes under his belt now, and he seems to be playing with a lot of confidence now.”

“He’s in on a lot of goals, he’s got great vision, and [he has] patience with the puck,” Morris added. “The odd time, he’ll hang onto it too long, but his shot is improving, and, defensively, he’s making the necessary adjustments. Once in awhile, he’ll get too focused on the puck, but he’s learning.”

“He’s coming around. I would say that, based other guys who have come through, he’s probably ahead of the learning curve.”

Raw Audio Interviews

(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)

Brandon Kozun (5:48)

Linden Vey (7:05)

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