LOS ANGELES — Over the past year or two, when it comes to the Los Angeles Kings’ young prospects, players such as Tyler Toffoli and Jake Muzzin (both are now with the Kings), Linden Vey, Tanner Pearson and Martin Jones have gotten the vast majority of the media attention, and for good reason, as they have been the go-to players for the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate.
Before that, another young player, an offensively gifted prospect who has the added story line of being a local product who played his youth hockey in the Los Angeles area, suddenly found himself out of the spotlight almost completely.
To be sure, Brandon Kozun, now 23 years old, was quickly becoming the forgotten prospect, in terms of the media attention a National Hockey League prospect might normally receive.
But Kozun, a 5-8, 162-pound right wing who was selected by the Kings in the sixth round (179th overall) of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, had no one to blame for that but himself.
Indeed, Kozun’s attitude had gotten in the way of his development, and it has taken him until this season, his third with the Monarchs, to take big steps towards seeing the light.
“Everybody has a different time clock on when they figure things out,” said Monarchs head coach Mark Morris. “It’s partly the player, and partly the coach trying to figure each player out. I was probably slower [to figure things out with Kozun] because he was more stubborn than the average player.”
Like so many young players coming out of major junior hockey in Canada, especially those who are offensively gifted—Kozun led all Canadian major junior leagues in scoring in 2009-10 while playing for the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League—defense was not something he was focused on, and he was very much used to being the go-to guy, the player who was going to score the big goal.
“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,” Morris told Frozen Royalty in January 2012. “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.”
But at the professional level, a player has to be able to manage and move the puck quickly, all of which were a bit foreign to Kozun when he first arrived at the Monarchs’ doorstep.
But not anymore.
“They’ve worked on that with me, and I think it’s working on it yourself, as well, trying to improve at it every day, really focusing on it, and I think I’ve done that, said Kozun. “I’m getting stronger, and I’ve gotten smarter. It’s also an experience thing. You learn a few things as you play more and more pro games, and you get a little bit more savvy. I’ve finally gotten to the point that it’s becoming a strength of mine.”
“The offense has always been there,” added Kozun. “But now that I have been able to manage the puck, it gives me more opportunity to be put in more situations, which leads to more ice time for me, leading to better opportunities.”
At the professional level, a player must be able to contribute on both sides of the puck. Morris indicated that Kozun still needs work, but has improved in that area as well.
“He’s a gifted offensive talent,” Morris noted. “He has improved defensively. He still has a ways to go there, but how he handles adversity, and his outlook on the game is getting better.”
That goes back to Kozun finally taking big strides in terms of seeing the light.
“He’s matured a lot as a person,” Morris emphasized. “I guess the best way to describe it is that he’s starting to surrender to the systems, and understand when he’s managing the puck better, and making simpler plays, that only accentuates what he does best.”
Morris indicated that Kozun’s tremendously strong self-confidence is both an asset and a hindrance for him.
“He sure was sure of himself when he started, and I think a lot of people [on the team] took that the wrong way,” said Morris. “I’ve had a lot of talks with him over time. He’s become a better listener. I think he’s trying to figure me out. He’s trying to figure out how I can get this guy to believe in me.”
“He’s seen other players [including those younger than himself] get what he’s after, and I’m probably harder on him because I know what it’s going to take for him to turn the corner and really allow him to reach the heights that he knows he can,” added Morris. “He knows, in his own mind, which is a great attribute, that he has enough skill to play at the NHL level.”
“If somebody else has earned it, as opposed to someone who has been there longer—your best teacher is controlling ice time. If somebody earns it, you want to reward those guys. But if someone’s taking shortcuts, or if they’re not following the plan, then you can take it away. If you want to be stubborn about it, usually, you don’t win out in those cases.”
Although Morris did not say it specifically, the implication could not be more clear: earlier in his time with the Monarchs, Kozun was apparently losing ice time because he was not always in lockstep with the plan, and was being stubborn about it.
“You’ve got to learn how to surrender to the system, and the way the Kings expect players to play,” Morris stressed. “What makes him a player is the fact that he believes in himself, and you never want to take that away from a player. You have to be sensitive to their needs, because you don’t want to kill their confidence. But at the same time, when they need a firm message, you’ve got to be willing to let’em know where the boundaries are.”
“What Brandon has done, steadily and slowly—he’s been climbing the charts, and he’s been doing it with Jordan Weal, and a call-up from Ontario, Colton Yellow Horn,” Morris added. “They’re not a big line, but they’ve been very creative, and they’ve scored a lot of big goals. As a group, they’re becoming better defenders, and they’re able to sustain better defensive posture. It boils down to [Kozun] and that group learning how to defend more effectively.”
When he joined the Kings after being drafted in 2009, one thing that was apparent to several of the media here in the Los Angeles area was Kozun’s unusually strong will and tremendous confidence in himself, and his abilities. In fact, to several of the media covering the Kings, including yours truly, Kozun came off as a bit cocky and perhaps, as Morris noted, arrogant.
I attributed that to Kozun constantly having to deal with questions about his size, and those saying that he is too small to play at the next level, ever since his youth hockey days. In fact, I believed that he developed that attitude as motivation.
Kozun confirmed what I suspected all along.
“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder for much of my career,” he explained. “I think it works against you, sometimes. I think the chip on my shoulder has helped me in my career, and it’s hurt me in my career, in the sense where I think some people, sometimes, [think] that I’m being arrogant. But it’s just me believing in myself, and trying to prove the doubters wrong, and saying, ‘I’m going to do it.’ But as I’ve grown, as a person, and as a player, you learn that you need to be humble, and that you need to work for your opportunities.”
“You want to get there, and it’s good to be confident in yourself, but you need to care for your teammates, and you need to be a leader,” he elaborated. “All that stuff is important—it’s all about the team. It’s not about individuals, it’s not about you getting to where you want to get to. If you have team success, you will have individual success as well.”
“When you’re hearing someone say to you, ‘you can’t do it, you’re too small, you’re never going to be able to do it,’ I think, sometimes, you get the attitude, ‘yeah, I am going to do it!’”
Kozun credited roommate Justin Johnson, a veteran AHL player who is the Monarchs’ enforcer, with helping him “grow up,” and learn that a little humility goes a long, long way.
“It’s always important to have confidence in yourself, but you don’t want to go to the edge,” said Kozun. “You don’t want to come off as arrogant. You can have confidence, but you want to be humble at the same time. It took me a little bit to learn that. Everyone matures at a different rate. You ‘grow up’ at a different age, and my roommate, Justin Johnson, played a big role in that. He’s an older guy, and he taught me the ropes, a little bit. I’ve learned a lot from him, and a lot of the guys here.”
“You need to be that way,” added Kozun. “It’s not all about you. It’s a team game, so you need to be a team player. He’s helped me grow up, as a person. It’s me maturing, as an adult.”
“Learning from [Johnson]—he’s had a very tough job, as a player. He’s been our enforcer. He’s been in the ECHL. He played there for awhile, and he’s been in the AHL. He’s a little bit older. Just watching him, you learn to respect it. Guys pay their dues. They deserve the credit. They deserve everything that comes with it. When you put in the work for that long, fighting for your teammates and being a great team guy, everyone respects you, and I respect him a ton. What he’s done for us, and what he’s done for me, has been huge. He deserves a lot of credit for me maturing as a person.”
From the day he was drafted, Kozun maintained that he was ready to play in the NHL right away. Of course, that’s a common refrain from players selected in the NHL draft, so that was no surprise. But now, Kozun has a different outlook, one in which his added maturity is on display for all to see.
“Coming in that first year, you come in with the idea that you think you’re ready, but you’re not,” said Kozun. “You definitely aren’t. I think the biggest thing is learning to be a pro. I may have had some of the offensive skills when I came in, but there’s [aspects] of my game that I needed to be better [at]. Over the last three years, I’ve definitely developed a lot more, and turned into a good pro.”
“It’s a little bit of a shock, at first,” added Kozun. “You have the skills and the ability, and you think you can stay with those guys. But there’s so much more to the game than just that. For me, a lot of it was my defensive responsibilities, learning to play more away from the puck, and away from the offensive side of it, learning to be more rounded, making the right decisions, and developing as a person. There were a lot of other things.”
“Offensively, maybe you have some of the tools that can give you success, but there’s so much more to learn, and I’ve had the privilege to learn from a lot of good players here at Manchester. The coaching staff has helped me out. It’s helped me build, as a player, and as a person.”
Speaking of defensive responsibilities, Morris emphasized Kozun’s need, especially as a small player, to work on getting stronger in order to help him become more effective as a defender.
“Brandon has those qualities to score goals and create,” Morris stressed. “As he gets thicker, and dedicates himself to getting stronger, he’s building mental toughness, and he’s developing a swagger because he’s done the work. When you look at his body now, he’s harder than he was before, and he’s starting to realize that to be a good pro, you’ve got to play on both sides of the puck. He has so much more respect from his teammates because he’s playing a more honest, two-way game.”
“When you’re that size, you’ve got to have super strength, and he’s a light guy, so how tenacious you are in winning puck battles, or hunting down pucks, is essential,” Morris added. “Look at the small guys playing in the NHL who don’t get knocked off the puck, even though they’re short, like [rookie right wing Brendan] Gallagher, who’s playing for Montreal.”
Kozun is learning that playing a defensively sound game will result in more ice time.
“I needed to get better all-around,” he noted. “I couldn’t get away with making a bad play, and then scoring a goal. That’s not how it works in pro hockey. You need to be a well-rounded player. You need to be a two-way guy who’s multi-dimensional, makes the right play, the smart play, and manages the puck well. In pro hockey, that’s the way it’s got to be, because if you make a mistake, and it’s in the back of your net, you’re not going to play.”
“I’ve been given more opportunity, and I’ve done well with it, which is a credit to all the guys who have been here before me, and [showed] me the way,” he added. I’ve learned so much. I’ve had the [chance] to play with a lot of great players, with a lot of experience, and they’ve helped me along the way. I owe a lot to a lot of people.”
There’s that maturity thing popping up again.
Reaching The Next Level
Even with Kozun making a gigantic leap forward in terms of his maturity and attitude, Kozun’s stature is an obstacle in his path to becoming an NHL player. On top of that, due to his size, a checking role is unlikely, which means he would have to play on the first or second line.
One look at the Kings roster, even with some changes expected during the off-season, should tell you that there isn’t likely to be room for Kozun, and he knows it.
“L.A. has a lot of depth,” he said. “They have a lot of good players who are doing very well. They won the Stanley Cup last year. It’s not a very easy situation for me to get [to the big club].”
“If I have a chance to play in the NHL, that would be awesome,” he added. “That’s just what I’m trying to work towards. I’m just trying to get better every day, and if I get a chance, I’m going to give it my all, and hopefully, I’m good enough. If I’m not, I’ll know that I gave the effort.”
Although NHL prospects all have the ultimate goal of making it to the NHL to stay, Kozun has not lost sight of the more immediate priority.
“If I can get that opportunity to play in the NHL, that would be awesome,” he indicated. “It would be a dream come true. I’m working towards trying to get the NHL, but at the same time, I want to win here in Manchester. That’s the number one goal.”
With the Kings being legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup again this season, and for the foreseeable future, Kozun knows that his road to the NHL, should he ever be good enough to get there, may not run through Los Angeles.
“There’s nothing I would love to do more than play for the Los Angeles Kings,” said Kozun. “I was born in L.A., it was my favorite team growing up. It would, honestly, be a dream come true. But at the same time, you realize what they have.”
“I’m not going to play over a Jeff Carter,” added Kozun. “I’m not going to play over a Justin Williams. I’m not going to play over some of these guys, and I don’t expect to. Those guys are great pros. They’ve been there a long time, and to be honest with you, I have proven nothing.”
“It’s difficult, but if I were to get an opportunity to be put in that situation, I would appreciate it, and I would work my hardest to do the best I could with it.”
In Case You Missed It
Exclusive videos of the media interviews after practice on April 17 with defensemen Matt Greene, Rob Scuderi, center Jarret Stoll, and head coach Darryl Sutter via FrozenRoyaltyNHL on YouTube.
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Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Brandon Kozun (15:57)
- Dean Lombardi Says LA Kings Have “Lucked Out” With 2012 First Round Draft Pick Tanner Pearson
- LA Kings Forward Prospect Linden Vey Is On The Right Side of the Puck In Second Season With Manchester Monarchs
- LA Kings Goalie Prospect Martin Jones Is Making Progress In Spite Of Tough Season With Manchester
- Los Angeles Kings Forward Prospects Brandon Kozun and Linden Vey Face Similar Challenges
- LA Kings Right Wing Prospect Brandon Kozun Is Not Allowing His Size To Be An Obstacle
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