LA Kings Defenseman Prospect Nicolas Deslauriers Is Still Playing Catch Up In Defensive Zone

EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Story also includes video of media interviews with Anze Kopitar, Jake Muzzin and head coach Darryl Sutter following the Los Angeles Kings’ practice on April 20, 2013.

Nicolas Deslauriers
Photo: Scott Slingsby/Manchester Monarchs
LOS ANGELES — Since he was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the third round (84th overall) of the 2009 National Hockey League Entry Draft, defenseman Nicolas Deslauriers has been a prospect that pundits and fans alike have kept their eyes on.

The reason: Deslauriers, 22, is a 6-1, 214-pound blue liner who can play a physical game, and has good offensive skills. In other words, he has a lot of the tools, especially the size and the physical game, to be the prototypical type of player any NHL team would want guarding their zone.

Deslauriers played his junior hockey for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League {QMJHL), a league known for lots of offense and very little defense.

As you might guess, Deslauriers has some good offensive skills, and with his skating ability, he can also handle the puck and move it up ice well. In fact, he was known for end-to-end rushes while playing in the QMJHL.

But trying to go end-to-end with the puck is usually the wrong play at the NHL level, and even in the AHL, where making the first pass coming out of the defensive zone is key.

“If Nick wanted to, he could probably go coast to coast, but not many NHL’ers—there was one who could ever do it,” said Manchester Monarchs head coach Mark Morris, referring to Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr. “We have to really emphasize to him that less is more, to save his energy and heighten his awareness to see the play around him, to work on his stick position, and his patience, poise, making simpler, more high percentage plays.”

Deslauriers has had that message drilled into him since he first joined the Monarchs last season, and it was emphasized again this year.

“You don’t see a lot of goals by defensemen going coast to coast,” Deslauriers pointed out. “Mark put that in my head at the beginning of the year. Mark and I talked about that [again] in the middle of the year, and there was a big improvement for me on that.”

The message, however, is not “never take the puck end-to-end.”

“It’s just choosing the right time to rush the puck,” said Deslauriers. “I think that’s what I had to work on. This year, the only time I was rushing the puck was when we were losing near the end of a game.”

“I know I can rush the puck,” added Deslauriers. “With the speed I have, if you give me time to grab the puck at the back of the net, I’ll carry it, and try to [generate] something offensively. But it’s more about being the second wave. Let the forwards make the nice play, and if they get stuck, they’re going to pass it to you, so basically, it’s just shots from the blue line, power play goals, being the second wave, pass and shoot.”

Playing in the “Q” put Deslauriers at a disadvantage, as his defensive play is lagging well behind his offensive game, even after two seasons in the American Hockey League with the Monarchs the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate..

“Nick has come up significantly, in the way of being more consistent,” said Morris. “His positional play is improving. He may be one of the better athletes we have in our organization. He’s a strong kid who can really skate. He can shoot.”

“He’s gotten some time on the power play,” added Morris. “He’s a pretty good passer, and he’s got a real strong shot. As he learns the mechanics and the structure aspect of the game, we’ve seen a good improvement in his game. We’re still trying to tighten up his defensive game, and his awareness in [the defensive] zone. He’s starting to figure things out [in terms of defensive positioning]. But all the components are there. His practice habits have always been good. He loves to be on the ice, he really does.”

“Positioning is the main point that I need to work on, like when you get stuck in the corner, and your guy spins off you and gets to the net before you,” he said. “It’s just staying on the defensive side of the puck, that’s what I have to do better. I need to be stronger, and to close quicker.”

Even though Deslauriers is still playing catch up, he has improved enough to have earned the trust of the coaches, who have put him on the ice in key situations.

“All year, I was a regular on the penalty-kill,” Deslauriers indicated. “When [defenseman Andrew] Campbell was gone to L.A., I was on the first penalty-killing unit, and on the five-on-three penalty-kill. My confidence went up, and I just kept going. I can use my shot off the face-off to clear the puck out.”

“The coach has kept me on the penalty-kill,” Deslauriers added. “I think he [knows that I’m] going to sacrifice myself for the team, and block some shots.”

Ice time on the penalty-kill has helped Deslauriers improve.

“I’ve benefitted from playing on the penalty-kill,” he said. “It gave me a lot of confidence. It’s a big responsibility to play on the penalty-kill. That’s the main point I’ve improved on since last year.”

“Just putting me in a situation like that—the intensity is higher,” he added. “You’re more involved in the game. Last year—no power play, no penalty-kill, and with all the rules that have changed, there’s a lot of [special teams play]. It’s always good to play a lot, and be involved in [all situations].”

Deslauriers, a native of LaSalle, Quebec, also found himself on the ice on a consistent basis in the last minute of the third period, with his team trying to hang onto a one-goal lead.

“It depends on if you played a good game,” said Deslauriers. “If you did, [Coach Morris is] going to put you out there. I was out there in those situations. Down by one goal, he trusted me. Up by a goal, he trusted me, too.”

“I played a lot in that situation,” added Deslauriers. “It’s fun. The adrenaline comes up, especially when you’re leading by a goal, and you block a shot. It’s probably one of the best feelings because the [win] is probably sealed just because you blocked that shot.”

Morris indicated that high expectations are a factor in Deslauriers’ added ice time.

“At one point, we had three [players on professional tryout agreements] back on defense, and he’s a guy who was drafted,” Morris explained. “He’s got to be a go-to guy. He’s a guy who we’re counting on, with added ice time, that he will improve. He’s putting in the effort, training hard, and we’ll continue to stress the important details of the game that will make him a more consistent player for us.”

Early in the season, with so many extra players on the Monarchs’ roster due to the NHL lockout, ice time was not always easy to get.

“At the beginning of the year, it was hard, with the lockout,” said Deslauriers. “We had a lot of defensemen. All the defensemen went through a rotation of not playing for a couple of games.”

“It was hard, but you had to expect that with the lockout,” added Deslauriers. “[For example, defenseman Jake] Muzzin played a couple of games after being scratched for a couple, and now he’s doing amazing in the NHL [with the Kings], so the beginning was pretty hard.”

“After everything got settled down, I was playing over twenty minutes a game. Power play, penalty-kill. I think I gained the trust of the coach.”

But back to Deslauriers’ defensive zone play…what stands out, when you look at his numbers, is his -14 plus/minus rating this season, not to mention the fact that he ended the 2011-12 regular season with the same -14 rating, a very poor rating, especially for a defenseman.

That said, plus/minus can be very, very deceiving, almost to the point where it is useless as an indicator of how well a player is performing, especially on defense.

So how reliable of an indicator is it for Deslauriers this season?

“That’s probably one of the stats that I don’t look at that at all,” said Deslauriers. “I don’t want to not blame it on me, but I was the ice often for empty-netters, so that hurts a lot, and just after Christmas, we had three games in a row, and I had a -3 in two [of the] games, so it comes up pretty fast.”

“I take pride in that in a lot of those minuses, not a lot of goals got tipped or deflected in front,” added Deslauriers. “That’s what I learned growing up—[controlling an opponent’s] stick in front of the net, trying to block a shot from the blue line. That’s why, when I blocked a lot of shots, they put me on the penalty-kill. Compared to last year, I didn’t play at all on the penalty-kill.”

“It doesn’t look the greatest, when you look at -14. But defensively, my game grew up a lot from last year. The numbers don’t show everything.”

After all that, the truth, evidently, lies somewhere in between what he said about it, and what Morris said about Deslauriers’ need to improve in the defensive zone. Given that, Deslauriers is spending a lot of time studying video in order to improve his defensive play.

“We try to do as much video work as we can to show the guys how they can make better decisions with their defensive positioning, and with their game management,” Morris noted.

“I look at a lot of video with assistant coach Freddy Meyer,” said Deslauriers. “[After] every weekend, when we come back, that week, I look at my games, my shifts, and try to work on it in practice.”

Indeed, Deslauriers’ defensive play remains his biggest challenge.

“[Defensive zone coverage] is definitely one of the things that I have to work on,” he noted. “Just trying to block more shots, staying with my man, being physical at the right time in our zone—you don’t [necessarily] want to run the guy over in your zone. You want to be relaxed, but focused at the same time. Just be at the right spot, at the right time.”

More specifically, Deslauriers’ positioning in the defensive zone needs the most attention.

“It’s a hard thing to fix in a couple of years [in the AHL],” he stressed. “But every year, if I [listen to] what they’re telling me, it’s going to [get] better.”

“With all the skill everyone has, it’s better to be a two-way defenseman. I can bring a lot offensively, but defensively, if all those little things come together, I’ll be able to call myself a two-way defenseman.”

Raw Audio Interview

(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)

Frozen Royalty Video via FrozenRoyaltyNHL on YouTube

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4 thoughts on “LA Kings Defenseman Prospect Nicolas Deslauriers Is Still Playing Catch Up In Defensive Zone

Add yours

  1. I don’t know why, Gann, but there was always something about this kid that told me to keep an eye on him. With Keaton Ellerby doing well, I wonder how much room is left for him (Deslauriers)?
    Anyway, I know I haven’t said this year, But thank you so much for all the work you do I get a tremendous amount of enjoyment from your articles. Thank you.

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