EL SEGUNDO, CA — After their 3-2 pre-season overtime win over the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on September 26, the Los Angeles Kings were expected to make a slew of training camp roster cuts the following day.
As it turned out, 26 players left training camp. 23 were assigned directly to the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League or just for their training camp. Two were assigned to their junior teams in Canada, while forward Andrei Loktionov was released from his professional tryout agreement.
What might be a surprise to some, but really shouldn’t be, is that defenseman Kurtis MacDermid remains on the big club’s roster, and at least for now, looks he he has an excellent chance of being on the Kings opening night roster.
MacDermid, who was originally signed by the Kings as an unrestricted free agent to a three-year, entry-level contract on September 15, 2012, is now under contract (re-signed on July 14, 2017) for one year, with a $650,000 salary cap hit.
Conventional wisdom regarding the 23-year-old, native of Sauble Beach, Ontario has generally been that he’s just a tough guy who couldn’t do much other than drop the gloves and throw bone-crushing body checks.
That might have been at least partially true while he played with the Owen Sound Attack and the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League. But after moving up to play with the Reign the last two seasons, MacDermid has become much more than just an enforcer.
“We always felt, as an organization, that he could play,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers. “But everybody just looks at him as a tough guy. There’s no question he’s tough. But he can go back into our end, retrieve some pucks, and make some plays. He’s not just a guy who throws the puck around the boards or off the glass.”
To be sure, MacDermid is huge, at 6-5, 239-pounds. But it wasn’t all that long ago that he was rather undersized for a hockey player.
“I remember seeing Kurtis when I left Owen Sound,” said Kings assistant general manager Michael Futa. “He was a 5-8 or 5-9 string bean. His Dad is a mountain. His brother is a mountain. They have an incredible work ethic. They’re an incredible family. At the time, I thought, ‘there’s going to be a growth spurt in six months,’ and when I went back…jeez.”
“We ended up signing him,” added Futa. “We could’ve drafted him, but Kurtis made a deal with me that he’d commit to us without us having to draft him. He came to our training camp, and he hadn’t even come close to adjusting.”
“When you’re that big, and you grow that much, it takes so much time to get used to the new rig that you’re driving around. But what you can’t change is the engine that’s inside that rig, the hockey bloodlines, or the work ethic that’s been instilled in that kid through his mother and father, and he’s brought that to work every day.”
That work ethic, along with his intensity, drove MacDermid to overdo things a bit in his physical training.
“If you’re coming in, and you’re trying to make an impression, the first step is the fitness tests,” Futa noted. “If you want to make a hockey club, and you’re in the bottom three or four of the fitness testing, you’re sending [the wrong] message right out of the gate. For Kurtis, who, at the time was more limited, he came in and he put up numbers that blew people away in the fitness tests. It got to the point where, it was like, ‘Kurtis…maybe take yoga, or something.’ He was almost getting too big and too rigid. He had to learn to relax and to enjoy the game.”
“He was almost too ripped, to the point where he was almost immobile,” Futa added. “He was robotic. Now you’re seeing a much more relaxed, fluid stride from him. It’s something he’s got to continue to work at because he’s a mountain, an absolute mountain. Our volunteers were fleeing for their lives as he walked around the room, doing his fitness tests. It was a frightening thing. You expected to hear WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) entrance music. That’s not only about how big he is, but how intense he was.”
That intensity was also on display earlier in his career, as he was always looking for the big hit or to drop the gloves in defense of a teammate.
“He can play in all situations,” said Stothers. “Now, the thing about MacDermid is that he’s got to be more selective about when he decides to handle the opposition. He doesn’t have to do that all the time. Pick your spots, yes. But play, and I think he’s doing a great job. He’s showing people that he’s a pretty good defenseman.”
“If you look for the big hit all the time, if you want to be physical force, you can’t be running out of position just to lay a big hit,” Stothers added. “That’s what he’s realizing—let the play come to him. Then he responds accordingly, and as you saw against Vancouver [pre-season game on September 16, at Staples Center in Los Angeles], when he runs into somebody, they feel it, and then the other team has to respond. That’s when he can do what he did. He dusted that guy up pretty good.”
“[Picking his spots is] something I’ve learned over the last couple of seasons,” said MacDermid. “I was running around a bit too much with Ontario. But as I get older, and more experienced, I’ve learned to wait for those times. If I see an opportunity, I’ll be sure to take that chance. It’s part of my game. I just have to pick my spots and be smart about it.”
Near the 9:00 mark of the second period, MacDermid laid out center Ryan White, who was in the Canucks training camp on a professional tryout agreement.
The hit, and the fight that ensued, showed that MacDermid has learned to pick his spots wisely.
“[MacDermid] got into a pre-season game and someone takes a run at [center Anze] Kopitar, and bang,” Futa exclaimed. “He didn’t do it immediately. Before, it would’ve been smoke coming out of the ears and jumping all over the place. But now, he times a perfectly clean hit against White, then, to his credit, [Canucks defenseman prospect Andrey] Pedan does a great job, sticking up for his teammate.”
“Kurtis MacDermid, and I know it was just one sequence, but that’s somebody trying to make a hockey team,” Futa added. “That hit was perfect. It was within every rule, the most clean—his shoulder was tight in—it was perfect. It was against a guy who had taken a run at our best player. The timing of the hit was right. The answer was profound. That’s how you put people on notice that you’re trying to make a hockey team.”
Futa also noted that MacDermid’s entire response on that play, not just the fight, was something the Kings need going forward.
“For me, it wasn’t the fight,” he said. “It was the whole sequence. That’s how you do it in the game. Being a teammate like that goes right back to Calgary last year, when [Matthew] Tkachuk [elbowed Drew Doughty in the jaw]. That’s the way you answer the bell for a teammate.”
“He’s an invaluable teammate,” he added. “He plays the way the game should be played. Teammates love him. His work ethic has now translated into a guy who thinks the game well. He’s starting to loosen up and skate a little bit better. He’s leaned up a little bit. He’s relaxed. There’s a big smile on his face. I think [former Kings defenseman] Sean O’Donnell [a member of the Kings development staff] has done an incredible job with him. [Kings Senior Advisor to the General Manager/Development] Mike O’Connell has done a lot of work with him, too, but Sean has taken him aside, as a project, almost teaching him how to breathe, and not to respond immediately to everything. Odie has been a role model for Dermy.”
“Whether Kurtis is ready to play in the NHL this year or not, he’s put everybody on notice here that he’s a great teammate and that he’s getting closer to being a King.”
As reported earlier, MacDermid is still in the Kings training camp, and it now appears likely that he will begin the new season with the Kings. Most of the credit for that goes to MacDermid and how hard he has worked to improve.
“I put in a lot of work with the development staff,” he said. “They’ve given me a lot of tools—I’ve been a sponge over the last couple of seasons, trying to learn as much as possible, and I think I’ve improved in all parts of my game. It’s not just one aspect. I still have to work on my strength. Skating is always going to be a big thing for me, too. I’ve taken a lot of strides in the right direction.”
“I did a lot of work on positioning,” he added. “That’s a big thing for me, being a bigger guy. I have to be defensively sound in order to take the next step.”
Kings head coach John Stevens stressed that MacDermid has to provide more than physical play if he’s going to get ice time with the big club.
“He has a physical presence on the ice, but we want him to combine that with being a really, really good defender,” he said. “That’s on the rush, and down low in his own zone. That’s some of the things that we look for from him.”
“The fact that he’s a big man and in great shape—he can really push his own pace all the time,” he added. “That allows him to be an effective player.”
But to be effective, MacDermid must minimize taking minor penalties, something that was a problem for him last season.
“[MacDermid has to] continue to stay loose, be smart, and play within himself,” Futa noted. “One of the things last year, and [Stothers] sat him out a game last year because of it, was minor penalties, and with the way they’re calling the games this year—sometimes, because he’s too strong, and because of the way he uses his stick, it’s not normal. When you’re moving a guy from the front of the net, when you’re Kurtis, you’re going to move him. You can’t take that many minor penalties. You can play hard, still be intimidating, and still be true to yourself and to your identity without taking a bunch of minor penalties.”
“That was addressed with him last year, and in order for him to play at the National Hockey League level, he’d have to get to a point where the coaches trust him,” Futa added. “Nobody should be doing it, but when you’re in the bottom defensive pair, you can’t be stuck in the penalty box, serving minor penalties all the time for stick infractions or holding because you lost body position. That’s something he’s had to work at, and you can see incredible improvement in his overall game.”
“There’s no reason he can’t be a third-pairing defenseman who makes a safe pass, provides a physical presence and kills penalties.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Kurtis MacDermid. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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