LOS ANGELES — Looking ahead to the 2016-17 National Hockey League season, the Los Angeles Kings are going to look quite different after a more than disappointing and unceremonious end to their 2015-16 season when they were soundly beaten in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the San Jose Sharks, who dispatched them in just five games.
The Kings have open roster spots heading into the new season, and one young prospect who is likely to make the big club’s opening night roster is 26-year-old center Nic Dowd, who has played for the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate the last two seasons.
The 6-2, 195-pound native of Huntsville, Alabama was selected by the Kings in the seventh round, 198th overall, of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. After playing in the North American Hockey League and the United States Hockey League, Dowd played four seasons at St. Cloud State University before helping lead the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship (Manchester is now the Kings’ ECHL affiliate).
Last season, Dowd moved across the country when the Kings’ swapped their minor league affiliates, with the Ontario Reign becoming their AHL affiliate. In 58 regular season games with the Reign, Dowd scored 14 goals and contributed 34 assists for 48 points, with a +13 plus/minus rating and 49 penalty minutes.
As noted earlier, Dowd is not only a seventh round draft pick, making him a long shot to make it to the NHL, but he is also from a state in which hockey is still an afterthought (even though local hockey is growing there), and that’s being generous. Indeed, Dowd can be considered to be among the longest of long shots to make it to the NHL, from that perspective.
As a 26-year-old, Dowd is not your typical NHL forward prospect. To be sure, it’s taken a bit longer for him to be ready for the NHL than it does for most forward prospects who make it as far as he has.
“I was [slower to develop], so to be able to play another year of junior and four years of college definitely allowed me to get to where I needed to be to play pro hockey,” he noted. “I started playing pro hockey pretty late, when I was 23 or 24 years old. Being that old, you make less money because you’re signing for fewer years. Your career doesn’t start at 18 or 19. I’m starting at 23 or 24. But it gave me the benefit of being a better player coming in and with more of a head on my shoulders than a younger player right out of juniors.”
“What also helped me was jumping into pro hockey was playing under [Reign head coach] Mike Stothers, [who also served as head coach at Manchester during the 2014-15 championship season]. He gave me a lot of responsibility in both my first and second years. That really allowed me to flourish as a hockey player in the last couple of years.”
Dowd credited the Kings development staff for much of his improvement.
“L.A. has done a great job with me,” he noted. “It’s no secret how great their development team is, and how good their process is to get you to the next level. I would definitely say that I’ve been surrounded by good coaches and people who wanted me to be successful. I can’t say enough that the people who surrounded me were the main reason I’ve gotten to where I am.”
“I had long enough to do it,” he added. “I had four years in college and two years in pro. But I think there’s a lot of resources there. I forget how many NHL games our development staff have played between them, but the number is huge. Those guys have a lot of history between them and they know the game—the small parts of the game, that only pro hockey players know. They know what it takes to get to the next level. There’s no secret that the coaches are telling them what players need to do to get to the next level, so it makes it easy to learn and get better.”
Kings Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Michael Futa indicated that Dowd has faced more challenges during his development than a lot of young prospects.
“It was harder for him,” said Futa. “It was a little harder to get into college hockey out of [the USHL], but he was a cult hero at St. Cloud. The last time I went there, there was a huge cutout of his head. I was like, ‘why would you ever want to leave here?’ They worshipped the ground he walked on. He was their hero. So it was difficult to make the transition [to the Kings organization] where he’s now a seventh round draft pick in a big pond. He went from being the big man on campus to being one of many.”
Also noting that Dowd was a late bloomer, Futa praised Dowd’s dedication and determination.
“He’s an older kid, and it seems like he’s been in 300 development camps already,” Futa observed. “I think, for anybody, it’s hard to see other people getting opportunities. Maybe there’s a little, ‘oh, woe is me’ factor. As long as that’s competitively driven in the right direction is one thing. But for him to come out and be a Hobey Baker finalist and commit to us—he’s so full of energy.”
That “oh, woe is me” factor that Futa referred to never materialized in Dowd’s case.
“I can honestly say that there was never a point where I thought that I wasn’t going to make it,” said Dowd. “On the flip side, there were points in my career where I realized that I actually had an opportunity to make it.”
“When you get drafted, it’s awesome,” added Dowd. “When I got drafted in the seventh round, it didn’t bother me one bit. I was at Walmart when I got drafted. I wasn’t watching the draft. Just to be taken was a dream come true. Then, I kept playing on good teams. I was surrounded by good coaches and good teammates. I had successful years. I’ve just been trying to get better.”
“Being a seventh round pick, the odds are a little bit against you. But I never looked at it that way, and [the Kings] never treated me like that. I’ve seen no difference in how they treat their high round picks and their lower round picks, and that’s going eight years back, when I was drafted.”
Futa pointed to Dowd being sent back to Ontario after a brief stint with the Kings late last season as an example of his strong character.
“It was hard for him to go back after having such incredible short-term success, although, when you looked at the way he played, you probably would think there would’ve been more, in numbers,” said Futa. “But he made a lot happen. He made a lot of plays. Then he went down and he was incredible.”
“His leadership, tenacity—everything he did with the Reign was exactly what you need to see from a kid,” added Futa. “There was no go back and feel sorry for yourself. It was go back and take the team to another level.”
“He’s just a competitive, competitive kid who’s highly driven. I think the strides he made as a pro in the last year were incredible, in that he kicked his way into the [Kings] lineup and [in his NHL debut], he played a game in which he set the bar really high for himself because he was, arguably, one of the better players on the ice in a tough environment, in a very important time of the year. When you set the bar that high, the expectations are that you’re going to meet that level and when you do that on a nightly basis—you’re going to be a National Hockey League player for a long, long time.”
Dowd’s biggest improvement last season was becoming a better player away from the offensive zone.
“I would say that reliability through the middle of the ice [is what he improved upon the most last season],” said Dowd. “The Los Angeles Kings play through the middle in all three zones and I think that centers have to be extremely responsible in the neutral zone and the defensive zone. They’re relied upon a lot, and if you couple that with face-offs and with just trying to get better in the offensive zone, I’ve become a more well rounded, 200-foot player—more responsible.”
A trademark of the Kings’ system is puck possession and protection, and Dowd showed steady improvement in that area last season, as well.
“The development staff—that’s something that’s harped on—puck protection,” he noted. “That’s one of their most critical things. For some players, that comes naturally. For others, they have to work on it a bunch. It helps a lot that I’m more of a longer player. It gives me the ability to keep the puck a foot or two farther away than some other players.”
“That’s something I embrace and enjoy about the game, and it’s something I look to get better at. It’s such a possession game now,” he added. “You can’t give it away.”
Looking ahead to September, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi has said that Dowd had paid his dues and that there was a job for him to win, and Futa echoed those remarks.
“I think he’s going to have every opportunity to be part of the big club this season,” he said. “But there’s no question in my mind—the guys who are finding their way into the gym here to put in the extra work are doing the extra things to give themselves a chance to win a spot, especially knowing that there are spots to be won. He’s the first one I saw in there, working at another level. Nothing will surprise me regarding what he accomplishes in training camp.”
But even though Dowd, who is currently in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he and his girlfriend got engaged last week, is no longer waiver exempt—he would have to clear waivers for the Kings to assign him to Ontario, and it is a virtual certainty that he would be claimed off waivers by another NHL team—he won’t just be handed a job, gift-wrapped.
“The thing about our team is—some kids are going to be rewarded for what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done,” Futa explained. “But that’s just part of the puzzle. Our window hasn’t closed here. We broke our record for points last year, but we failed in the playoffs. We’ve got to forge a different identity. But the one thing that won’t happen: these young guys who’ve been incredible for us, these young guys who are supposed to be getting their shot—they’re not just going have it handed to them. They have to earn it. But I think they’re so close, and they’ve got so much character that they’ll do that. But there’s nobody who’s going to get a spot because they have to get a spot.”
“You can do your math on who has waivers and think, ‘oh…he has to make the team,’” Futa elaborated. “They only make the team if they earn a spot on the team. The only difference is when we’re talking about a kid like Dowd, he will earn a spot on the team. He won’t be denied.”
If you read between the lines, it appears that the Kings believe Dowd is a lock to make their roster in the coming season. After all, they know that if they try to assign him back to Ontario, they will lose him on a waiver claim and won’t get anything in return. Given the skill and character that Dowd has shown and after investing eight years of development work in him, the Kings won’t risk losing him on a waiver claim. As such, it makes sense that they would express so much confidence in him making the Kings opening night roster.
“He’s a kid with a lot to offer and he’s very reliable without the puck,” Futa observed. “He’s gone in [to Ontario and before that, Manchester] and he earned the trust of the coaches when he didn’t have the puck, and he makes plays. He brings a dynamic that we’ve lacked. We just have to make sure that it translates [to the NHL] on a consistent basis.”
LEAD PHOTO: Ontario Reign center and Los Angeles Kings prospect Nic Dowd. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
Frozen Royalty’s Nic Dowd Coverage
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