EL SEGUNDO, CA — While they were winning Stanley Cup Championships in 2012 and 2014, while they were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in 2013, and when they thought they still had a chance to win a championship in 2015, the Los Angeles Kings gambled by trading away first round draft picks that they used to acquire players who they believed would put them over the top.
In most cases, the gamble worked well for the Kings. But as their window for winning championships began to close, that gamble, as it does more often than not when that window is closing, resulted in the cupboard being quite bare when it came to higher-end talent coming up through the ranks. But that is what championship teams are supposed to—draft and develop their young prospects well in order to build their team through the draft and to stockpile players that other teams covet for use in trades to bring in the final pieces of the puzzle.
The Kings are still feeling the effects of those moves, a price that championship teams usually to have to pay down the road, to some degree, so when they were able sign highly-coveted defenseman Daniel Brickley, a Hobey Baker Award finalist out of Minnesota State University – Mankato on March 30, they were absolutely thrilled.
“We look at guys like that, you’d be taking them with lottery picks,” said assistant general manager Michael Futa. “You’ve got projections for the young guys for what you think they’re going to be. But guys like that are more polished. They’re a little bit older and you’ve seen what they are, as opposed to what they’re going to be. We’re really excited about him.”
“He’s the kind of guy who has the tools to be a top four National Hockey League defenseman,” added Futa. “We went all in trying to get him because that’s what we feel he’s capable of. Now you put the path together with the development team and knowing what he already possesses, you hope that he ends up as that kind of player. He’s already got the fundamentals to, one day, being a great partner for Drew Doughty. But a lot of guys have been great partners for Drew. [Brickley] has a lot of work to do to earn a spot.”
“A big kid like that, who’s so good with the puck—we spent a lot of time—our college guys were in to see him, I got in to see him. We all got in to see him. [Mike O’Connell saw him, and] I know Rob Blake went in, and he’s the guy who makes the final call. But we were all on board with him. You can say that we’ve got a lot of left shot defensemen, but he’s got a special something about him, the way he handles the puck and his deception. We were kind of on pins and needles, waiting for his decision, but we were thrilled when he made the decision that he was going to be a Los Angeles King. When you go through those years not having first round picks and then, you get to add guys like that to your mix, it’s great.”
Brickley, who made his NHL debut on April 5, in a 5-4 overtime wind against the Minnesota Wild at Staples Center in Los Angeles, is a mobile, offensive defenseman.
“I’m a good first pass type of guy,” he said. “Beat their first defender. Good shot, good offensive abilities from the blue line. Shut down defenseman.”
As reported earlier, Brickley was a highly-sought after prospect coming out of college. Several teams that have been rumored to include Anaheim, Detroit, San Jose, and a few others. made big pushes to sign him, but he chose the Kings, signing a two-year, entry-level contract.
“Absolutely loved the upper management, staff, owners, coach, and I just had an outstanding time while I was in L.A.,” Brickley told LA Kings Insider Jon Rosen. “You watch these guys on TV all the time, and it’s just a good opportunity to come out here, and I’m glad I can be a part of it. It was fun, it was good. A little rusty, but hopefully, that goes away pretty quick.”
“It was pretty surreal, to be honest,” Brickley added. “It was crazy. Sitting across from Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake—Hall of Famers pitching me why I should come, that was definitely a special feeling. I’m just glad I could make the best choice and become a King.”
After practice on April 4, Brickley elaborated further.
“When I came here, I just knew, right away, how close the guys are,” he noted. “The staff, management—everyone is so close. That’s something that I really wanted to be a part of. It’s just a great culture. It was just a gut feeling for me to come play here.”
“Geographically, it’s close to home,” he added. “Family can come out here. That wasn’t a huge aspect, but that’s in there. There was some talk about it. Then there’s the weather. You can’t beat the California weather, waking up every day, and it’s 60 degrees. That’s unreal. It’s not like Mankato, where I was just at. It’s -15 degrees there. I was all bundled up.”
Brickley has participated in a few practices with the team and has, according to head coach John Stevens, made a good account of himself.
“The guys have been really impressed with what they’ve seen in practice, so far,” said Futa. “I think John Stevens said it best, that he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in his own end because of how effective he is at moving the puck.”
“I hope I’d given that impression, coming in,” said Brickley. “If not, I don’t think I’d be here. It’s good. It’s heartwarming to make an impression, show that I have some accountability, and that I belong here.”
Brickley indicated that he has been a bit surprised by how much harder the players work at the NHL level.
“The work ethic that a lot of the guys have, actually the whole team [surprised him],” he said. “You play other teams in college, and there are some guys who will absolutely quit. Here, if someone gets the puck stripped from them, they’re hunting it right away. The work ethic on ice and off ice is incredible. That’s why they’re the best of the best.”
“No one’s a bad player in this league,” he added. “Everyone can play and it’s really interesting to watch and learn from all the older guys. It’s fun. They’re just trying to get me up to speed, system-wise, the way they play, how fast guys are, how fast guys think the game, stuff like that. Just trying to get the swing of things.”
Brickley is also trying to shake off a little rust after finishing his college hockey career a couple of weeks ago.
“Since we lost in the regional tournament in Sioux Falls, I hadn’t skated in a week,” he noted. “This week was a lot of shaking the rust off. But I’m settling in, getting comfortable with the guys.”
As talented as he is, Brickley still has to learn how to play at the NHL level and he could use some work in the gym, despite his existing physical gifts.
“His biggest learning curve is defending at the National Hockey League level,” said Futa. “But he’s certainly strong enough, he’s got the feet, he’s got the hockey sense. I think it’s just, in general, a big difference between college hockey and the National Hockey League.”
“You can always get stronger, but he’s got a huge base to work from,” added Futa. “There’s a lot of natural strength there, but when he gets into the gym with [strength and conditioning coach Matt Price], he’s just going to get more hockey strong.”
Futa took particular note of Brickley’s hand strength and character.
“He’s got an NHL handshake! He’s going to break everybody’s mitts around here,” he noted. “When you meet him, he’s got hands like Vise-Grips.”
Futa also pointed to the fact that Brickley is practicing with the Kings at a time when it will be more beneficial to him than it would be earlier in the season.
“These guys are at their best right now—the pros because they’re in their toughest games and their practice habits are at their optimum, so it’s a win-win for him to practice in this environment,” he noted. “It’s just a big thing for the organization.”
On a night when his story was overshadowed by a four-goal performance Dustin Brown, as reported earlier, Brickley made his NHL debut against the Wild, logging 10:48 of ice time and recording his first NHL point, getting the second assist on Tobias Rieder’s second period goal.
Stevens had a positive assessment of Brickey’s NHL debut.
“[It was] good,” he said. “It’s a tough situation to come into. I’ve seen him play on tape, so I had a pretty good book on him, in terms of what he can do. He’s got really good poise with the puck. I think he’s got some escapability with the puck—I think you saw that.”
“He’ll tell you it’s a really good reference point for him to get into the league at this time of the year,” he added. “He’s a big kid, but guys are big in this league and they’ve got some big forwards, so it’s a lot different than college. But he came in and played with confidence. I think the strength of his game is going to be the composure he has when he has the puck, and the rest of that stuff, we can teach him.”
A day earlier, Brickley didn’t know if he was going to get into either of the Kings’ final two regular season games.
“It would be awesome,” he said. “Honestly, it’s every kid’s dream, to play in the NHL, to get the opportunity. But I want what’s best for the team. But you could go both ways. It’s a little unfair to the guys to see me coming in and taking a spot like that. But at the same time, the team wants to win, the coach wants to win. Whatever happens, happens.”
Like most college players, Brickley is ahead of game, compared to 23-year-olds coming out of major junior hockey in Canada, in terms of hic maturity and character, and Futa took note of a rather unusual request Brickley made when he joined the team.
“When you meet him, you’ll find that he’s really mature,” Futa noted. “The character—he’s gone through a lot of adversity with his father’s health. He’s just a really solid kid. There’s some nice, little interesting tidbits I’ve gotten about how he doesn’t want new equipment. He wanted all used equipment, which is incredibly unique. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it tells you that he’s not looking for any special treatment.”
Brickley dismissed the praise about his equipment request.
“I just don’t like breaking it in,” he said. “Some guys like to. I didn’t really care about new pants. But the gloves. I hate having stiff gloves. I’ll break in new stuff during the summer. For now, I just wanted some slightly used, broken in, gear.”
“That’s not the norm,” he added. “But I just didn’t want to have to break anything in this late in the season and be uncomfortable while trying to prove myself. I want every advantage that I can get.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings rookie defenseman Daniel Brickley (foreground), shown here during a recent practice. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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