LOS ANGELES — With the National Hockey League still on the shelf due to their labor dispute with the National Hockey League Players Association, a lot of younger NHL players have migrated back to the minor leagues, most notably, the American Hockey League.
On the surface, the result is often a surge of talent for those teams. But in reality, it is a double-edged sword because players who would normally be with their respective NHL teams are eating up precious minutes that would go to young prospects who need more ice time for their development, not less.
The AHL’s Manchester Monarchs are one of those teams dealing with that double-edged sword, with a handful of young players on their roster who would normally be playing with their parent club, the Los Angeles Kings, if not for the NHL lockout.
“We’re trying to get everybody in, and there’s a few younger players, too,” Monarchs head coach Mark Morris told Frozen Royalty during an exclusive interview. “[Defensemen] Nicolas Deslauriers and Jake Muzzin are guys who just find their way into games, so it’s been a balancing act to keep some of the veteran players in the same roles they were in in previous years.”
One of those young prospects who has been impacted by the extra players on the Monarchs roster is defenseman Thomas Hickey, who was selected by the Kings in the first round (fourth overall) of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.
Indeed, with defenseman Slava Voynov, who won the Stanley Cup with the Kings last season, back with the Monarchs due to the NHL lockout, the rest of the Manchester blue liners have been pushed down a notch…or more.
But in Hickey’s case, there’s more, as he has been passed on the Monarchs depth chart by David Kolomatis, who is second on the team in scoring (he also leads all Manchester defensemen in scoring) as of this writing, with three goals and three assists for six points in six games.
But Kolomatis is now out of the lineup for an extended period after hand surgery. Defenseman Andrew Campbell is also out for a few weeks with a broken thumb.
Morris said that Kolomatis’ ability to get pucks to the net was a major factor in the success of the Monarchs power play to start the season.
“With David out of our lineup, that component of our game has slipped a little bit,” said Morris. “We’re hoping to get somebody else to step up in that capacity. He’s been one quarterback on our power play, and Slava Voynov has been the other.”
“Slava has taken on the bulk of that work,” added Morris. “We’ll be trying to mix in Deslauriers and Hickey, to get back some of that ability to deliver the puck at the right time. Jake Muzzin can play in that role, too.”
For Kings faithful, if Morris’ comments don’t raise a red flag for you, they should.
Indeed, the fact that Hickey was not already playing in that role instead of Kolomatis is a strong indication that he is not living up to his billing as a top five, first round draft pick, a selection that was widely and heavily criticized by pundits and fans alike.
In fact, when Hickey was selected by the Kings, he was very highly touted as a mobile, very skilled, puck-moving, offensive defenseman who could quarterback the power play.
Meanwhile, Kolomatis has flown way, way under the radar as a fifth round selection of the Kings (126th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
A big reason for Hickey sliding down the Kings’ organizational depth chart is that despite having improved his strength and conditioning since he was drafted in 2007, evidence suggests that he needs more work, perhaps a lot more.
In fact, Hickey has already been a healthy scratch in three games this season, as of this writing, with his lower body strength cited as a reason.
“Early in the season, there were some lower body issues that I had to take care of, some in-house stuff that I’m continuing to work on that forced me to miss a little bit of time,” Hickey told Frozen Royalty during an exclusive interview. “But I’m well on my way to taking care of that, and being back, full-time.”
Although that sounds like he was recovering from an injury, Hickey indicated that was not the case at all.
“I’m healthy right now,” he explained. “It’s just that I have some things I’ve got to work on, strength-wise.”
Morris pointed out that Hickey is working hard to improve in that area, along with his skating, quickness and agility.
“He’s [improving],” said Morris. “Everybody develops at a different rate, but I think that guys who are smaller in stature really need to be strong skaters, and need to be quick on their feet, and agile.”
“It’s a tough go for a smaller guy,” added Morris. “[Hickey’s] biggest challenge is getting ready to play among the big men, and coming up with that little bit extra jump in his step. I know he’s working hard off the ice to make improvements, and to live up to his billing.”
At 5-11, 190 pounds, Hickey is never going to be that bruising, physical defenseman who can run anyone over. Despite that, a player must be able to hold his own, physically, and make plays on defense.
“I think I do [hold my own],” he said. “Obviously, there’s [going to be] mismatches out there. It’s how you attack them. You’re not going to bump a player who outweighs you by twenty pounds and [is four inches taller]. You’re not going to bump them off the puck. But you can still defend them, you can still stop them, and you can still take the puck away.”
“As much as people think it’s about a one-on-one battle, it’s not really that,” he added. “It’s about how you try to get that puck back, and how you defend, and I certainly feel like I can hold my own.”
Hickey also talked about the importance of being quick when taking that first stride.
“You just have to round your game out,” said Hickey. “You have to get better at everything. I feel like I have a good base, but for me, it’s being more explosive. As a smaller guy, that helps.”
“I feel that I’m a good skater, but to get to that next level, you have to be ahead of the curve, so that something’s I’m constantly working on,” added Hickey. “That would help a lot.”
As reported earlier, Morris acknowledged that the numbers game created by the influx of NHL players on the Monarchs roster is a contributing factor for Hickey as well.
“It’s very competitive,” he said. “Thomas is one of the guys who wears a letter for our team, and has played a lot of big minutes over time. Again, it’s been a challenge, trying to keep everybody understanding of the bigger picture.”
Perhaps more important, as Hickey enters his fourth full season with the Monarchs, the Kings have continued to draft well, and develop their draft picks.
In other words, he has a lot more competition to deal with, and as the rise of Kolomatis seems to indicate, Hickey has lost some ground.
“Every year, with the addition of high [draft] picks—a wealth of young talent—everybody’s challenged,” Morris stressed. “That’s a sign of things going on behind the scenes, with the scouting, the drafting, things of that nature, that create that competitive atmosphere.”
“You can look at that as a positive or a negative, but you can never have enough talent, and it certainly pushes everybody to be their best,” Morris added,
On a positive note, Hickey should not be discouraged. To illustrate, although he has spent a little over four seasons in the minors, many prospects take even longer to make it to the NHL. As such, Hickey needs to keep his eyes on the prize.
“You’ve just got to encourage them to continue to work hard,” Morris emphasized. “Things don’t happen overnight. Some guys get their breaks early on, while others have to work harder for it.”
“That’s a credit to the guys who stick with it,” Morris added. “Perhaps they don’t get up to the big club when everybody projects them to. Hopefully, in time, those types of players figure things out, and do all the necessary groundwork to prepare themselves for the next level.”
Raw Audio Interview with Thomas Hickey
(12:04; Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
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- LA Kings’ Jordan Nolan Honors Family, Community Back Home In Garden River With Stanley Cup
- LA Kings Blue Liner Prospect Jake Muzzin Is Waiting Patiently For His Chance
- Manchester Monarchs RW Tyler Toffoli Is Showing Why He&rsquos The LA Kings’ Top Forward Prospect
- LA Kings LW Prospect Andy Andreoff Is Catching Up To Pace Of The Game In The AHL
- LA Kings Prospect Jean-Francois Berube Is Struggling To Earn #1 Goalie Spot With ECHL’s Ontario Reign
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