ONTARIO, CA — The Ontario Reign clinched the ECHL’s Pacific Division title back on March 9, and with their first round playoff opponent and schedule already set, young defenseman Nick Ebert, just up from the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League (Canadian junior hockey league), is getting a chance to show the Reign, and more importantly, their parent club, the Los Angeles Kings, what he can do.
Ebert, 18, was selected by the Kings in the seventh round (211th overall) of the 2012 National Hockey League Entry Draft. The 6-1, 207-pound native of Livingston, New Jersey scored eleven goals and tallied 27 assists for 38 points in 68 games with the Spitfires this season.
Ebert’s best season with the Spitfires was in 2010-11, when he scored eleven goals and added 30 assists for 41 points, with 44 penalty minutes and a -2 plus/minus rating.
What stands out most about Ebert’s 2012-13 numbers might actually scare some people: he ended his season in the OHL with a -39 plus/minus rating. But as the top defensemen on a team that was struggling mightily due to rebuilding and injuries, they were bound to give up goals in bunches.
“Our team was struggling overall, as a whole group,” said Ebert. “We were battling through injuries all year. When you lose your top players—your top defensemen, your top forward, it is really tough on the entire group. I think that was one of the main problems.”
“I was playing over thirty minutes a night, so [the -39 rating was] bound to happen when you’re on a bad team,” added Ebert.
With the Spitfires failing to qualify for the OHL playoffs for the first time since 2007, Ebert’s 2012-13 OHL season ended early. But now he gets to hone his skills while playing playoff hockey at the professional level.
“It’s good to be out here, to continue the season,” he said. “Hopefully, we can go on a long playoff run here, and I can showcase more of my abilities.”
“It’s nice to play on a winning team,” he added. “I’m very excited for this playoff run coming up. It’s going to be a good time, for sure. I’m just going to take the opportunity and, hopefully, I can make the most of it.”
Along those lines, so far, so good. In four games with the Reign, he has already picked up three assists, with a +3 plus/minus rating, and two penalty minutes. He is also seeing a lot of time on the power play.
“It’s good that they’re playing me a lot on the power play,” Ebert noted. “They’re really encouraging me to jump up into the play, and I don’t need to be told twice to jump up into the play. I’ll be up there if I’m told, for sure. It’s nice that they’re showing some confidence in me to get out there and make some offensive chances happen.”
Reign assistant coach (and former Kings defenseman and assistant coach) Mark Hardy has encouraged Ebert to be aggressive and jump up into the play when the opportunity presents itself.
“He moves the puck when he has to, and he skates with it when he has to,” said Hardy. “I’ve given him the green light. I want him to jump up and go. Do I want him to carry it from end to end? You know what? If he has a chance to go, I want him to go. If he’s the weak side defenseman, I want him to go every time [there is a legitimate opportunity], because he’s dangerous on the rush. As long as he’s responsible defensively, I’m going to play him.”
During a 4-3 loss to the Alaska Aces on March 30 at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, Ebert showed good skating ability, and good speed for a defenseman. Although he did not stand out in his own end, most of the time, that means a defenseman is doing his job.
“I like to think that I’m a two-way guy,” said Ebert. “I like to create some offense, and jump into the play, [but] I don’t want to be a liability in my own end, for sure.”
The book on Ebert has been that he was a good skater, with a good shot, but was not all that great in his own end, and that his hockey sense was a bit lacking. But Hardy has not seen any evidence of the latter two points yet.
“I think he’s going to be a hell of a player,” Hardy noted. “It seems like he loves to play the game. He skates real well, he uses his body well, he’s got a good shot, he sees the ice.”
“I’ve been very pleased with the way he’s played since he’s been here,” Hardy added. “He’s gotten better every game since he’s been here. He’s taking the body, he seems very responsible in his own end so far—that was one of the things I read, too, that he wasn’t very good in his own end. But he’s battling, and he’s winning the battles. He gets to loose pucks.”
Ebert has shown that he can carry the puck from end-to-end, but how well he does he make that crucial first pass out of the defensive zone?
“He reads the play,” said Hardy. “He knows when he can make a direct pass, and he knows when he has to bypass a guy around the wall. If he continues to get better every day, like he has, I expect to play him a lot.”
“He’s a great skater,” added Hardy. “He skates us out of trouble. He made some nice plays [on March 30 against Alaska]. I’d like to see him shoot that puck a little more.”
Hardy indicated that, like most young players, Ebert needs to work on the “little things” that all add up to bigger things.
“It’s just little things,” Hardy explained. “Little, tiny things that are big plays. As a young defenseman, you have to talk on the ice, and that’s one thing we have to have him do. At the end there, we had a six-on-four, and I thought he was wide open, and we had control of the puck. If you talk, it makes things a lot easier out there.”
“It’s just little things that he’s going to have to work on,” Hardy elaborated. “I can’t name all of them. Maybe going back a bit harder for pucks. But once he gets it, he’s very dangerous.”
Hardy said that even though Ebert is very young and inexperienced, that has not stopped him and Reign head coach Jason Christie from putting Ebert out there in key situations.
“When you have a player for that short a time, I want him to play a lot,” Hardy stressed. “These games were [for that purpose]. We’d already clinched a playoff spot, and we weren’t going anywhere. Obviously, we were trying to win them. Our guys played hard. [But] I wanted to see what he’s got.”
“This is a great test for him, to come here and play, and he’s going to play a lot,” Hardy added. “We’ll get to see what he’s like in the playoffs, and I think he has a huge upside. I really like how he’s played so far for us. He’s very exciting on the ice. He can make things happen. The more he learns, the better he’s going to get, all the time, so I think there’s a huge upside to him.”
Hardy’s remarks offer a glowing assessment and lots of confidence in a very late-round draft pick, no doubt. But even he acknowledged that four games doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.
“We’ll find out more about him as it goes on, and the further we get into the playoffs, but so far, I think he’s been fine,” Hardy noted. “I said, ‘just go out and play hockey,’ and that’s what he’s doing.”
“I’ve been very pleased with his performance. I think he’s going to get better and better, game in, and game out. I’m very excited about him.”
Windsor general manager and former Kings left wing Warren Rychel talked about Ebert with LA Kings Insider Jon Rosen on March 23.
“I think [Kings co-director of amateur scouting] Mike Futa did a great job of picking Nick in the seventh round,” Rychel told Rosen. “He was highly touted, and in his last year, he struggled a bit, but he’s spent three years in Windsor for us.”
“He’s a two-way defenseman, for all those fans who are wondering what kind of player he is,” Rychel added. “Two-way defenseman, strong on his feet, originally from New Jersey. [Spitfires head coach] Bob Boughner’s working with him very diligently, and he’s got a chance to be a good pro.”
“I think he’ll be a good pro, with some learning and some seasoning, probably in Manchester, but a real good kid, and I think he’s got a chance to be a pro.”
Speaking of being a pro, Ebert is now getting his first taste of what professional hockey is like, and he is quickly finding out how much tougher it is to play at higher levels.
“It’s good to get a taste of pro hockey here, and I’m extremely excited that I’m getting a chance here,” he said. “Everyone’s preparing like a pro out here, everything’s so intense.”
“The game is a lot more physical up here,” he added. “There’s bigger guys—that’s one thing I’m going to have to adjust to. I’ve noticed that in the four games I’ve played. I think that’s the one thing that stood out to me the most.”
Ebert, who will return to Windsor next season in his final year of junior eligibility, said that he was excited to learn that he had been selected by the 2012 Stanley Cup Champions during last year’s entry draft.
“It was great,” he said. “I was extremely excited. It was late, but I still got drafted, and it’s just a number.”
Indeed, players selected that late in the NHL Entry Draft rarely make it to the NHL to stay. But as he indicated in that last comment, Ebert is not even close to entertaining such thoughts.
“Everyone’s going to get the same opportunity [regardless of when they were drafted],” he stressed. “You’ve just got to make the most of it, and you’ve got to work hard.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Nick Ebert (5:11)
Mark Hardy (3:41)
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.