EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the Ontario Reign’s inaugural training camp now underway, as they look ahead, there has been little talk about what their players achieved last season, when, as the Manchester Monarchs, they won the 2015 Calder Cup Championship.
Indeed, the focus has, as it has usually been, on developing young players for playing in the National Hockey League for their parent club, the Los Angeles Kings, and that was no different for Reign defenseman Nick Ebert, who was selected by the Kings in the seventh round (211th overall) of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Last season, his first at the professional level, was a bit of a mixed bag, seeing him score eight goals and add six assists for 14 points, with a +13 plus/minus rating and 18 penalty minutes in 45 regular season games.
In the 2015 Calder Cup Playoffs, Ebert played in just two games, and did not get on the score sheet.
Reign head coach Mike Stothers explained Ebert’s situation last season with Manchester.
“We just had a situation where we had a lot of defensemen,” he said. “We had Ebert, [Kevin] Raine and [Kevin] Gravel at the start. It was kind of like a three-man rotation. We didn’t want anybody to sit out for any length of time, and being in the American Hockey League, playing a lot of three-in-three’s (three games in three nights)—if you played Friday, you might not play on Saturday or Sunday. But you didn’t go long stretches where you didn’t get any game activity.”
“We let that play out for a little while, and then, during the course of the regular season, you’re going to get your injuries, your bangs, and maybe your call-ups,” he added. “I think Ebert, like all of our guys did, I really felt everybody improved. They made great strides.”
Ebert talked about the tremendous challenge of being in his first year in professional hockey, and in the AHL, no less.
“It was definitely a good year,” said the 21-year-old native of Livingston, New Jersey. “It was a big jump coming from junior. I don’t think people realize how big of a difference it really is. But it was my rookie year, and I felt that I did what I had to do.”
“It definitely was [a big difference],” added Ebert. “The mental side of the game is way different. All the small things at this level mean the world compared to junior, where you have so much more time to make plays, and the guys aren’t as big. Coming up here, it’s all about making plays, making the right reads, and all the small things that really go a long way that people don’t realize.”
“I was limited to 45 games in the regular season, but it was definitely a good experience, and going into this year, I feel way better than I did last year—just the mental side of the game. That’s one of the biggest parts, and I definitely learned so much there from Stothers and [assistant coach Chris] Hajt and the [Kings] development staff. I’m really looking forward to this year. It’s my second year, and I’m looking to make big strides, for sure.”
But that doesn’t work at the AHL level—it was a bit of a rude awakening for Ebert.
“It was definitely different,” he said. “There are some things you can’t do at this level like you can in junior. Up here, if you make those simple plays and you get the puck out of your zone, everything else is so much easier. You’ll have the ability to make plays in the offensive zone. It’s up to me to see if I can do that and develop into a reliable, two-way defenseman.”
“The defensive side of the puck is where I need to get a lot better at, but I have improved my positioning—just being in the right position,” he added. “That’s half the battle right there, being in the right spot and having a good stick.”
“The biggest thing is that for every level you go up [to], there’s less room for error, less room for mistakes. As long as you’re limiting your turnovers, and things like that, that’s definitely a huge part of the game. The structure is also there. Nine out of ten times, the guys are going to be in the right spot. You just have to find a way to get them the puck, or position yourself in a way so that you can make the right play.”
Like so many young players come to realize while making the transition from major junior hockey in Canada, or from collegiate hockey, Ebert is learning that the little things add up quickly at the professional level.
“It was all those small plays, even making the simple play rather than trying to skate the puck, or do too much with it,” he said of the challenges he faced last season. “The simple play is the better play nine out of ten times. Last year was an eye opener for me to do those little things, even when it’s just looking before you make a pass, or [surveying] the ice to see who’s open and who isn’t, just before you get the puck. That gives you more time to make a play quickly. It gives you more time to skate with the puck, or make that next pass.”
“The little things make a world of difference,” he added. “If you don’t make that one play and the puck is in your zone for 45 seconds, you get tired, and most of the time, that puck is going to wind up in the back of your net at the pro level. That’s the main thing—trying to limit turnovers and try to get the puck out of your zone.”
Stothers indicated that Ebert is developing the way a lot of young, offensively gifted defensemen do.
“Ebert still has some growing to go, yet,” said Stothers. “He’s the type of individual who has all kinds of skill and all kinds of talent. He just needs to dial in and focus, each and every day, and each and every shift, to complement the way he can.”
“Basically, he’s a young guy who’s learning that he’s got to think the game all the time and he’s got to be ready,” added Stothers. “That’s a lot of it. In junior, they can get by with being a little late getting into a play, or in getting engaged, or even now, getting ready to practice at 10:00 in the morning, as opposed to 3:00 in the afternoon. If you’re not a morning guy, you’d better figure it out in a hurry.”
Looking ahead, with his rookie season in the AHL under his belt, Ebert indicated that he feels much better going to his second season.
“It’s those small things again, I’m going right back to them,” he stressed. “I feel a lot better going into my second year of professional hockey. I’m glad I got that first year under my belt. I only played 45 games, but I still feel that I learned so much. I’m a lot better than I was the year before, so I’m definitely looking forward to this year.”
“The areas I improved on the most is in making those simple plays, playing the defensive side of the puck first, and moving the puck to the forwards,” he added. “When I’m in the offensive zone, I have the ability to make plays, and be an offensive threat. That’s always been there for me. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to show that a little bit more this year, but taking care of your own zone first is going to help everything else.”
“[Last season] was a different experience for me. Going into this year, I’m another year older, another year wiser. I’m a lot more prepared than I was the year before.”
An often overlooked part of a young player’s development happens off the ice, as they are forced to take care of themselves, often for the firs time in their lives. For Ebert, a big part of that has been learning to cook.
“It was my first year living on my own,” he noted. “It was [Ryan] Horvat, Justin Auger and myself, we all lived together in the same house last season. We played together last year, and the year before in Guelph, so we kind of helped each other out. We taught each other how to cook. That was the tough part.”
“I’m pretty much just a grilled chicken guy, most of the time,” he added. “I’m trying to eat a little bit healthier now. I’m on a diet. But I’m going to try some new dishes this year, and see how that goes. [Being in California], there’s going to be a whole lot more choices here. We’ll see what happens.”
But given his past history, one can only hope the services of the Ontario Fire Department won’t be needed.
“I definitely butchered a couple of meals last year,” he added. “Almost burned the house down once or twice.”
“Everyone was good, though. We made it out.”
<pLEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Nick Ebert. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
Frozen Royalty’s Nick Ebert Coverage
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