ONTARIO, CA — While the National Hockey League is off the ice during the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, other North American leagues are still on the ice, including the ECHL, where Los Angeles Kings left wing prospect Maxim Kitsyn is working to hone his skills.
Almost four years ago, Kitsyn, a native of Novokuznetsk, Russia who was 18 years of age at the time, came to Los Angeles for the 2010 National Hockey League Entry Draft, held at Staples Center. He was selected by the Kings in the sixth round (158th overall).
Back then, Kitsyn was already playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, and aside from a 32-game stint in the 2010-11 season with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors of the Ontario Hockey League, he remained in the KHL. As a result, for many NHL followers, he was out of sight, out of mind. He became a mostly forgotten Kings prospect.
But this season, the 6-2, 192-pound left wing arrived in Los Angeles for the Kings’ 2013-14 training camp. He did not make the big club’s roster, and was assigned to their primary minor league affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League.
Kitsyn struggled with the Monarchs, playing in just twenty games this season, scoring three goals and adding an assist for four points, with a -2 plus/minus rating and two penalty minutes.
Unable to crack the Monarchs’ lineup on a consistent basis, Kitsyn was assigned to the Ontario Reign of the ECHL on January 23, 2014. In thirteen games with the Reign, he has scored four goals and has contributed seven assists for eleven points, with a +4 plus/minus rating, and seven penalty minutes—respectable numbers.
Kitsyn, who has been playing on right wing with the Reign, appears to have been a good addition to the Reign, even though, like virtually all young prospects, there is a lot of room for improvement.
“He’s got a good shot, a good release,” said Reign head coach Jason Christie. “He’s a good kid to have around, for sure. He’s a big body, but he’s definitely got to use that a little more, and use his speed.”
Reign assistant coach Mark Hardy, a former Kings defenseman and assistant coach, indicated that Kitsyn is not all that different from so many young European or Russian players who are accustomed to playing on the larger international ice surface.
“He’s a very talented guy,” said Hardy. “He’s good with the puck, but he has to learn how to move it a little quicker, and move in more straight lines. He wants to go side-to-side like [they do in Europe and Russia, on the larger international ice surface]. He has to learn that part of the game, but I think he’s going to be good. He battles, he works, he never stops.”
“It’s good for him to play here,” added Hardy. “He’s learning the North American game. It’s a harder game over here. It’s in your face, the ice is smaller, things happen quicker. He’s got to get used to that. He’s getting a little better at it.”
Kitsyn does not seem to be buying Hardy’s contention that the North American game is quicker and faster than it is in the KHL.
“The KHL is a smart and fast league, too,” he said. “Here, the game is very quick and fast. But it’s just different hockey. Back home, it’s a bigger rink. There’s a lot of space. Here, the ice is smaller, maybe that’s why it looks faster here. I don’t want to say that it’s good or bad. It’s just different.”
Like so many young players, no matter where they’re from, Kitsyn’s defensive play needs some work.
“It’s how hard you work,” Christie noted. “It’s read and react. Sometimes he gets caught coming back, over-backchecking. But you’re going to get that from a young kid. Guys are pretty good at the pro level. They can pick you apart. But he’s down here to develop and work. He’s definitely doing that.”
Although Kitsyn is not a slow, plodding skater, skating is something the coaches want him to work on.
“He needs to work on his footspeed every day in practice, after practice,” Christie stressed. “That’s something that definitely will get him ready for that next step. He’s also got to make sure that every time he’s on the ice, that he’s pushing the pace, and being strong on pucks. Hopefully, being down here will give him the opportunity to work on the things that he has to get better at.”
Hardy noted that Kitsyn needs to learn how to play smarter to conserve energy.
“When he’s skating, he’s got to take off with it,” said Hardy. “He always wants to [move forward, but meandering a bit, from side to side, as is the European style], instead of going in a straight line. But he battles, he’s got a good shot. He’s got to learn when to take off, and when to slow down, so he’s not going 100 miles an hour all the time.”
“Sometimes, players like that, who work hard, they work hard 100 percent of the time, but they need to learn to conserve their energy a bit, and then go, when the time is right,” added Hardy. “He wants to go 100 miles an hour all the time, and you don’t have to do that. His legs are going, his arms are going—he’s all over the place. Sometimes, you can just play your position, and then when it’s time to go, you burst, and you go.”
Kitsyn said that concentration was even more important in the ECHL than it was in the AHL.
“In this league, you have to concentrate way more than even in the AHL, because there’s a lot of unexpected plays that you can’t prepare for,” he noted. “[For example], you can be in your zone, but two seconds later, you’re already in their zone. You have to stay focused, always. You can’t forget why you’re here. It’s a learning process.”
On February 16, Kitsyn scored the game-winning goal in a 4-2 victory over the Alaska Aces at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. After being tripped behind the Alaska net, and while he was flat on his stomach, Kitsyn swept the puck towards the net, and it deflected in.
“If you try that ten times, you won’t score that way again,” Kitsyn noted. “It’s not very often you see goals like that. The goalie blocked all the room. It was a lucky deflection. Those things happen sometimes, though.”
“He scored a nice goal today,” said Hardy. “You never know what can happen when you wrap it around, and take it to the net, even though he was being tripped.”
But on the flip side, although Kitsyn apparently had the trust of the coaching staff to be on the ice during the final minute of the game with his team leading by two, he tried to score from the Ontario zone into the empty Alaska net three times. But he missed each time, resulting in icing calls and a face-off in the Reign zone with tired players stuck on the ice.
His coaches were not pleased.
“We don’t want to see him going for cookies there, at the end of the game, when he can just flip it out of the zone,” said Hardy. “It’s not all about scoring points. It’s about playing an all-around game, and that’s what he has to figure out.”
“I wasn’t too happy with him trying to go for goals when we’re up a couple there,” Christie lamented. “But he’s 21 years old. That’s part of the learning process, I guess.”
Conditioning was a question mark for Kitsyn entering this season, after he scored poorly on at least one conditioning test during the Kings’ training camp last October.
“I did all the tests, but I didn’t do well on the ‘side plank’ test,” he explained. “We never [do that kind of test in Russia, so I didn’t do well]. But I was working hard all summer. I came to L.A. very early.”
“I never had a training camp like that before,” he elaborated. “It was very difficult, because when you practice with NHL guys, they’re so strong, fast and skilled. But that’s the level I have to reach, and that’s why I’m here.”
The tough schedule in the ECHL will be a good test of Kitsyn’s level of conditioning.
“It’s tough,” said Christie. “He’s starting to get into the grind here now. It’s four games in five nights. This is something he’s not used to, so he’s got to push himself even harder now.”
But Hardy indicated that Kitsyn is in good shape now.
“He must’ve been working hard at Manchester before he got here, because he’s in pretty good shape,” Hardy noted. “You can always be better, but I think he spends a lot of time in the gym here, and he’s been working hard in practice.”
After not getting much ice time with the Monarchs, Kitsyn appears to have the right attitude about playing in the ECHL with the Reign.
“I have to work on everything,” he said. “I have to try to do the right thing every day and just hope that one day, I’ll [advance to a higher level].”
“It’s good for him to come here, learn at this level, and know what he has to do to get to the next level,” said Hardy. “He’s becoming a professional here, and that’s what we’re all about. Hopefully, it sinks in with him.”
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