LOS ANGELES — If you’ve never heard of defenseman Zach Leslie, unless you’re a fan of the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, no one would blame you.
The 21-year-old native of Ottawa, Ontario, who was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the sixth round (178th overall) of the 2013 National Hockey League Draft, is now playing for the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Ontario Reign.
Actually, playing might be a bit of an exaggeration, because as a first-year pro, Leslie has been mostly on the outside looking in, so to speak, with the Reign this season, having played in just five games, contributing two assists, with a +1 plus/minus rating.
Like many young prospects making the jump from the college or major junior hockey ranks, Leslie has had to face the challenge of starting at the bottom rung of the ladder.
“Obviously, Zach would like to play more than he has,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers. “But you know what? We’ve got a numbers game here. Our schedule hasn’t been too terribly taxing, for the most part. We’ve been fortunate enough to stay healthy on the back end.”
“It’s a process,” added Stothers. “Zach has to learn—he was playing all the time, in all situations, [with Guelph]. But now there’s a process he has to go through.”
Combined with inexperience, Leslie’s 6-1, 175 pounds frame isn’thelping him move up the depth chart, either.
“Physically, he’s not a big, powerful man,” Stothers observed. “He’s a small-framed guy. He’s not the strongest individual, but that’s just the maturing, the filling out of a young guy. He brings a different game. He’s got some offensive abilities, he’s a power play guy, he’s a puck mover, he’s a skater, and he makes plays.”
“When I’ve gotten into games, I think that I’ve done my job,” said Leslie. “[Coach Stothers] is looking for me to be a puck-moving defenseman, and to do some things on the power play, so when I’ve been in the lineup, I’ve done a good job doing that.”
Despite the lack of playing time, Leslie is keeping his head up.
“It’s tough, but I’m going to come every day to work, and try to push to be in those situations again,” he said. “I’m still getting a chance on the power play, and I’m going to keep trying to earn the coaches’ trust so I can get some penalty-Kill time. That’s something that’s earned, but I’m going to work, day-to-day, to put myself into the position to earn those spots, and when my number is called to play, that I’m ready to jump into the lineup without a hitch.”
“[Not playing a lot is] frustrating,” he added. “You want to play every day, and more importantly, you want to be the guy out there, helping your teammates, whether it’s making a play, breaking up a play, blocking a shot, or scoring a goal, you want to be the guy who’s there for your teammates, so yeah, it’s a bit frustrating. But with the defensive corps we have here, we’re really solid. Any of us can step up and play.”
“It’ll come. I’ll continue to work hard every day. It’s frustrating, but it is what it is. I’m not going to take the bad out of that. I’ll just continue to do what I have to do. It’s part of being a pro. You go through it in junior hockey when you’re a rookie, as well. Maybe not to this extreme, but it happens. It’s my first year as a pro. I’m going to do what I can, and take it as a learning experience, and use it moving forward to make me a better player.”
As Leslie indicated, he hasn’t sulked at all. Rather, he is working hard to improve, and to move up the depth chart.
“Zach’s attitude has been terrific,” said Stothers. “We’re very happy with the way he’s been coming along, and the way he conducts himself. More importantly, he’s been a great teammate.”
“We’ve been very happy with Zach,” added Stothers. “I don’t think anybody’s disappointed, except for Zach, but only because he’s not playing as much as he’d like. [Despite that], he’s been a great teammate about it, and you know what? There’s been a lot of guys who’ve been though the same trials and tribulations before him. You’ve just got to bide your time and wait for your opportunity.”
As noted earlier, what Leslie is going through is not uncommon for young players.
“With all these guys, when they come out of college, they played a ton, or they come out of junior, and they’re the guy, or one of the guys,” Stothers explained. “But then they [move up] to professional hockey where nothing is handed to you. Nothing is given to you. You’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to go through the process, and I think that’s a wise way to develop guys.”
“There’s a lot for these young guys to learn just by practicing with the veteran guys and the guys who have played [at the various professional levels before],” Stothers elaborated. “It makes you better by not just being handed things. You know what? There’s no sense of entitlement. You earn what you get.”
Leslie is working hard to do exactly that.
“It’s a step up,” he said. “I’m jumping from junior hockey to pro hockey, so it’s more competitive. Every day, you’re coming to the rink, and you have to perform, every single day. That’s a bit different from junior. As you get older in junior hockey, you take the game [more] seriously, but when you get to the pros, practices are taken much more seriously.”
“It’s much more physically demanding, [whether it’s] practice or the workouts,” he added. “You need to develop good habits early, and that’s what I did. I developed the best habits I could, making sure my body was in the best condition, and in shape, from day one [of this season. A young player who isn’t playing a lot has to continue to get stronger throughout the season—just get in better shape.”
Stothers emphasized that the reasons Leslie isn’t playing a lot are not because they are unhappy with him.
“The games that he’s played in, we’ve been very happy with his performance,” Stothers noted. “He’s certainly not playing because of anything he’s not doing, nor are there things we’re disappointed in. If you look back at the situation we had last year, there was quite a stretch where we had [Kevin] Gravel, [Nick] Ebert and [Kevin] Raine sitting out. There was a rotation of [them] sitting out. They learned the best part of the process, and now, Zach is going through the same thing. You know what? Those guys went out and did it before him. His time will come.”
“The good thing is that we know that should we get banged up, someone gets injured, or we have a recall, Zach is going to be able to step up and get the job done,” Stothers added. “He’s putting in the time, and in the few games he’s played, he’s done a real good job for us.”
Despite that, the reasons Leslie isn’t higher up on the depth chart are quite clear.
“He’s not the biggest guy,” said Stothers. “He’s yet to fill out and get stronger, so there are some matchups that are not favorable to him. We can help out in that area when we home ice advantage, where we can get the matchups more to our liking. But he’s playing a man’s game. He’s fresh out of junior, and he’s of slight build. There’s going to be some times where it’s going to be very hard for him. But he’ll figure out ways to be better with his stick and his positioning, where he doesn’t have to rely on pushing and body containment.”
“If you look around the NHL, there are plenty of guys who aren’t big, physical and imposing,” added Stothers. “But they do a pretty good job and become good defenders, and I think Zach is smart enough and intelligent enough to figure the game out.”
Again, like so many young players, strength and defensive zone play are Leslie’s biggest challenges.
“For me, it’s my strength,” he noted. “I want to get stronger. That’s something I’m going to keep working on. In games, it’s my defensive zone coverage. I have to understand that I’m capable of making plays when I have the puck. But when I don’t have it, I’ve got to make sure that I’m taking the guy in front of the net, or taking the guy out in the corner, stopping a play before it develops into something bigger. I have to make sure that I’m being smart, and that I’m in the right position.”
“I also have to move the puck a bit quicker, at times,” he added. “I get myself in trouble when I hold onto the puck too long, trying to make that extra play. I have to make sure that I’m making the right plays, the easy plays.”
Leslie has also been learning all he can from his more experienced teammates.
“The biggest eye opener for me is that guys put in a lot more effort [compared to major junior hockey],” Leslie observed. “You realize that this is a job. It’s something that guys want to do for the rest of their [careers].”
“You have to take into account that if you don’t put in the extra work on or off the ice, the guy next to you will. In junior hockey, you’re starting to learn that. But when you become a pro, you think, ‘wow. It really takes a lot of effort.’”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Zach Leslie (center, wearing number 8), shown here during a game with the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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