LOS ANGELES — For Los Angeles Kings right wing prospect Jonny Brodzinski, the 2015-16 season was one that began with frustration and ended with more of the same.
Brodzinski, who was selected by the Kings in the fifth round, 148th overall, of the 2013 National Hockey League Draft, suffered a fractured thumb after blocking a shot during the first period of Game 4 of the second round of the 2016 Calder Cup Playoffs, when the Ontario Reign (Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate) skated against the San Jose Barracuda. Brodzinski blocked a shot and suffered a fractured thumb in the process, ending his season in somewhat similar fashion to the way it began, when he couldn’t seem to find the back of the net.
“I think [my season] was decent, at best,” said the 23-year-old, 6-1, 215-pound native of Ham Lake, Minnesota. “I think I had more in me. I didn’t have a terrible year. At the very beginning of the year, I wanted to put up more numbers, but I hit a lot of posts. That was the most frustrating thing. I hate using the word, ‘frustrated,’ but towards the very beginning, I was getting my chances, but I wasn’t putting them in the back of the net, and I think I got on myself a lot about that.”
“I think, maybe, I was just tensing up around the net,” added Brodzinski. “I have to just shoot the puck towards the net in some opportunities and quit trying to aim it. I think that was a big thing. I know where the net is. I just have to shoot the puck at it instead of picking my corners every single time.”
When the ice chips settled, Brodzinski ended the 2015-16 season with the Reign, scoring 15 goals and added 13 assists for 28 points, with a +11 plus/minus rating and 16 penalty minutes in 65 regular season games.
Like so many players making the jump from college or junior hockey to the AHL, Brodzinski had to adjust to the faster pace.
“Right away, there was a bit of a learning curve with the pace of play, sort of the speed of the game,” he noted. “But more towards the middle of the season was when I felt more comfortable with the guys and with the speed of the game, and I think it showed a little bit with my play.”
“I was more confident with the puck,” he added. “Towards the end of the season, I hit a groove, I started finding the back of the net. But then there was kind of a bad bounce in the playoffs with the fractured thumb. I’m hoping to start [the 2016-17 season] like I left off at the end.”
As Brodzinski indicated, he had become a serious scoring threat for the Reign when he suffered the injury.
“I think, quietly, he was a huge loss for Ontario [during the playoffs],” said Kings Vice President, Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel Mike Futa. “You don’t talk about who you lose in the playoffs because it sounds like, ‘oh woe is me,’ about injuries. But he was a big piece to fall out of their lineup and they were dying to bring him back because he brings another stick that can score big goals. It was a credit to him that, in his first year, he could create that kind of void when he was injured.”
“It was very unfortunate,” added Futa. “I think he was just trying to block a shot, and when you saw it happen, [you knew he had been injured]. You like the fact that he was trying to get in the way of a puck, but the way he turned his glove, you knew it wasn’t going to be good from the moment it happened. That set him back because it was huge playoff experience that we could’ve used from him. But he’s not a kid who cries over spilled milk. He’s put in his time and he’s going to have a huge year.”
Early last season, Reign head coach Mike Stothers began to speak rather glowingly about Brodzinski, and for good reason.
“It didn’t take him long to win [Stothers] over,” Futa noted. “It’s funny. As a scouting staff, you have ideas of where you see a kid fitting. You realize where his weaknesses might be and where he’s going to win your coach over. That was funny because everybody was like, ‘where are the goals going to come from,’ and Brodzinski has—I’d say [Tyler] Toffoli is [an] unfair [comparison] because that’s elite [level], but he’s one of those guys who just knows where the puck is going. It’s natural for him to put the puck in the net.”
“He scores goals that other people can’t score,” Futa added. “I think that, just like it did for Tyler, once you get used to the speed, the pace, [not having to wear the full face cage like they do in college hockey] the smaller ice surface, and he gets faster and stronger, that innate ability to score is there, and that comes out.”
“He is one competitive, competitive kid. He went down there, quietly bided his time, and you could tell that [Stothers was impressed]. That’s one of the biggest things. As a staff, we clearly believed in him. When [Kings scout] Tony Gasperini and [Kings Director of Amateur Scouting] Mark Yanetti talked about going in to see Brodzinski, they were saying, ‘wow! This kid can score.’ He scores in big games and at big times, and he’s a little different. We’re noted for being a big, big team, and he’s not as big. But he’s special.”
As much as Stothers seemed to like Brodzinski, the feeling was mutual.
“He’s kind of hard on all the rookies right away, but I can honestly say that he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” said Brodzinski. “But he’s definitely hard on everybody, which I really took a liking to right away. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 30 or 40-goal scorer or a five-goal scorer. He’s going to treat you the same way.”
“I went to the rink every day and worked as hard as I possible could,” added Brodzinski. “It’s hard not to like a guy who comes to the rink and puts in hard work, and that’s something I pride myself on—going 100 percent all the time.”
Both Stothers and Futa have emphasized Brodzinski’s shot, most notably, its accuracy.
“That’s not teachable,” said Futa. “It’s improvable, but it’s not teachable. You can teach a guy to get stronger and how to release the puck, but I don’t think you can teach a guy how to put it exactly where you want to. Certain guys know how to do that.”
“Guys like Toffoli, [Marian Gaborik]—he’s at a different level, but that’s the way the puck comes off his stick,” added Futa. “It’s unique, whether it’s his release point, or the ability to get it off quickly. When you watch, even NHL goalies, when you see them react to pucks, they react a different way. They’re surprised at how quickly the puck comes off his stick. You see how they come upright because the puck came from a different angle—it was a hard shot to read. That’s something Jonny has.”
Even though Brodzinski has the necessary offensive skills, there are reasons that he was unable to shift into a higher gear until late in the season.
“It’s about getting different scoring opportunities—if a guy is on you who’s a lot faster and a lot bigger, it’s definitely tough to find that open space,” he observed. “But that’s something I honed in on at the beginning of the year and got better at towards the end.”
“The guys you’re playing against are just a little bit bigger, a little big stronger and a little bit faster,” he added. “Your brain has to work a little harder, just with little wall plays that, in college, you can get away with, especially for someone like me, coming from St. Cloud [State University in Minnesota] where we had an Olympic-size rink, going to an NHL-size rink it’s definitely a lot different.”
“It’s the corner plays. You have to be a little bit quicker and you don’t have as much space. That was probably the biggest change for me—it was the pace of play and how much you have to work.”
Fending off stronger opponents is something a forward with a scoring touch must be able to do if he wants to advance to the NHL. Towards that end, Brodzinski has added 13 pounds to his frame since last summer, giving him greater ability to hold his own.
“I think that was actually a little bit easier for me [compared to college],” he noted. “I’m 6-1, 215, so for me, it was a bit easier, as far as the physical part of it. It was a bit of a change, but it wasn’t something that was hard for me to deal with, being a bigger guy.”
Added strength will help Brodzinski go into the dirty areas, the prime scoring areas, where his shot will be that much more of a threat. But that is a part of his game he believes that he must improve upon next season.
“Finding space in the slot is something I need to improve on a lot, especially with my shot,” said Brodzinski. “That’s one of my biggest strengths, but if I’m going to use it, I have to find spots on the ice where guys can give me the puck so I can use it.”
“I also think it’s wall play,” he added. “It’s such a huge thing with the L.A. Kings—puck possession. So winning wall battles will be big, especially to move on to the NHL.”
During the off-season, Brodzinski is looking to improve his conditioning.
“The conditioning in the AHL and the NHL is so far superior to that of college hockey, where it’s a slowed down game,” Brodzinski noted. “You’re also training your brain to making the play faster. It’s a conditioning of the mind sort of thing.”
“We’ve been in and out of L.A., working on different parts of our game that we need to work on,” he added. “But everything’s going well [in the gym]. I’ve been going at it now for about six weeks, five days a week, with different stuff every day. But there’s always leg and upper body exercises, metabolic conditioning.”
Futa pointed to adding speed and strength as keys to Brodzinski’s development.
“[He needs to get] faster, stronger, and put on some weight. As he gets stronger and faster, all those things he does naturally will give him that much more of a chance to become a player.”
Brodzinski also needs to work on what he does when he doesn’t have the puck, and most notably, his defensive responsibilities.
“Sometimes, in college, when you’re counted on to be a scorer, you tend to not take care of every portion of your defensive zone,” Futa noted. “That’s something that pro coaches are adamant about—that you can [pay] as much attention to detail in your own zone as you do scoring goals at the other end.”
Looking ahead to the Kings 2016 training camp, opening eyes and turning heads won’t be easy.
“I felt extremely good about my game at the end of last year,” said Brodzinski. “It’s just bringing that sort of energy and tenacity into training camp, coming in 100 percent, not skipping a beat.”
“Obviously, the goal is to play in the NHL next year,” added Brodzinski. “Hopefully, I’ll get a shot, at some point, if not right away. But I’d like to improve my goal scoring, right away [when the season begins]. Getting off to a good start will be one of my main [goals] and then, just keep rolling with it. You’re going to hit a slump every now and then. You’re going to get frustrated at some points, but it’s the guys who work through it who are going to be the best.”
Futa indicated that while Brodzinski has work to do, he’s got a lot more potential than your typical fifth round draft pick.
“Nobody is going to hold him back from how quickly he can climb the ladder,” said Futa. “But this is a kid, especially coming off his injury, who needs to go down and have a full, dominant year in the American Hockey League. But I really think that this training camp, he’ll continue to open people’s eyes.”
LEAD PHOTO: Ontario Reign right wing and Los Angeles Kings prospect Jonny Brodzinski. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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