EL SEGUNDO, CA — As the Los Angeles Kings 2018 training camp enters its fifth day and with their first pre-season games being played tonight (a split-squad doubleheader against the Arizona Coyotes with games at Staples Center in Los Angeles and at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona), their young players are working hard to make a big impression on the front office staff and the coaches, trying to make the Kings roster. But there is a somewhat harsh, but not unexpected, reality to it all.
Indeed, the vast majority of the young players are in camp, hoping beyond hope that they can win a roster spot with the Kings. But even they realize that their chances are very, very slim with seasoned veterans or, at the very least, more experienced young players, ahead of them on the depth chart.
That is exactly the situation that defenseman prospect Kale Clague finds himself in—boatloads of hope for a spot with the Kings. But a lot of bad things would have to happen for those hopes to be realized when opening night comes around in a few weeks.
“I’m excited for a new challenge,” said the 6-0, 177-pound native of Regina, Saskatchewan. “I spent the last four years in junior and I think I’m ready to move on from that.”
“My goal is to make the Kings,” added Clague, who was selected by the Kings in the second round (51st overall) of the 2016 National Hockey League Draft. “That’s going to be my main focus in camp. I just have to play my game. If I’m playing fast, moving my feet, and moving pucks up the ice, I’m right there.”
Alas, it’s going to take a lot more than that for Clague to make the Kings roster, at least for the time being.
Clague, who was a standout for Canada in the 2017 and 2018 World Junior Championship, played the better part of four seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League and was in the midst of a breakout year when he was part of a package deal that sent him to the Moose Jaw Warriors, also of the WHL, about midway through last season. He went on to earn WHL East First All-Star Team honors and was also named the WHL Defenseman of the Year last season, even though he struggled after the trade to Moose Jaw.
“Last year, there was a lot of pressure after the World Junior Championship,” said Kings assistant general manager Michael Futa. “Then, he was part of that blockbuster trade. Sometimes you forget the age of these kids. For some kids, it’s easier for them to make the transformation. For others, it’s a bit of a battle. But that kind of adversity—things didn’t go the way he wanted them to go in Moose Jaw. But he used that as a positive in his summer training to get better.”
“It was a good summer,” Clague acknowledged. “I got a bit stronger and I was able to get away from the game for a little bit at the end of the season. I got a bit of a break before cranking it back up. I skated a lot with [Kings assistant coach] Dave Lowry in Calgary and I worked with Crash Conditioning in Calgary. He does a good job of getting guys ready for the start of the year.”
Clague, who is known for his skating and offensive abilities, has been working hard to improve his play in the defensive zone.
“I think that my positional play is much better,” he said. “I think I’m making it easier on myself. I’ve been working with the development staff over the last year on positioning, watching clips of [former Detroit Red Wings superstar defenseman Nicklas] Lidstrom, how he barely leaves his side of the ice and is always between the dots, so I’ve been trying to focus a lot on that. I’m just getting in the way more, boxing out [opposing players] more.”
“I would say positioning [has been his biggest challenge] and strength—winning battles in the corners,” he added. “But my positioning has gotten a lot better and I’m stronger.”
“When you’re in the right spot, the play will come to you. That makes things a lot easier. I definitely think my game has taken a big step. I’m stronger, I’m faster and those things add to my offense.”
Ontario Reign head coach Mike Stothers, who will, in all likelihood, be Clague’s head coach this season, indicated that there’s a lot to like about Clague.
“There’s a whole lot of upside and potential for what he can do,” he said. “The way he sees the ice, the plays he can make, the mobility—stuff like that. There’s still a little bit of, maybe, carefree in him that I’d like to see—we’ll take care of that. But there are a lot of things that he has—instincts and intuition. You can’t teach that.”
Stothers indicated that he sees improvement in Clague’s game since last summer.
“Maybe it’s just confidence—I don’t know,” he noted. “But he’s more assertive in his game, trying to exploit his talents. Last year, maybe he was taken by nerves, or he wasn’t feeling right, or whatever. But that happens with guys. They come to a camp. There’s a lot of pressure put on themselves. This time around, maybe he came in a little bit more relaxed. There might be some [added] maturity there, too.”
Although Clague has worked on his positioning, his defensive zone play still isn’t where it needs to be if he wants to make it to the NHL to stay.
“He’s mobile, he sees the ice and he can make some plays,” said Stothers. “But in his end, he’s got to be firmer, he’s got to be stronger, he’s got to be a little bit more responsible, he’s got to be a little bit more assertive. But again, he’s a young man. He’s played a certain way all his life and he’s been able to do so because he’s very talented. Now he’s playing the pro game. A man’s game. He’s got to learn to play—it’s a hard, heavy game, so there’s a lot of bumping and grinding out there. You’d better get back, get those pucks and make a play or you’re going to get hit.”
“There have been kids who were huge point producers in Canadian [major junior hockey] who took extra time to understand that he’s got to be a guy who the coach can trust in the defensive zone,” said Futa. “That’s an area where he’s got to earn everybody’s trust. When you’ve got that much hockey smarts in one end of the rink, you’ve got to find somebody to convince him that it’s more about the willingness to do that in your own zone because you’ve never really had to do that all the time.”
“At this level, if you’re going to win the coach over and get that ice time, you’ve got to make that commitment in your own zone and we’ve got the best defenseman in the world who [epitomizes] playing as hard in his own end as he does in the offensive zone,” added Futa. “That’s not to say that Kale Clague should be watching some Drew Doughty videos. But if you want to be a complete defenseman, you’re not going to get off the ground unless you take care of your own end.”
As previously noted, defensive zone play is Clague’s biggest challenge in his development. But perhaps it shouldn’t be.
“I don’t think it should be with his skating ability,” Futa observed. “Play fast. He should be back so quickly that he should be defending less than anybody. He should be back and moving the puck out with authority. Then he won’t have to defend.”
In the offensive zone, Clague can quarterback the power play, make plays from the blue line and score goals. But despite the fact that offense is the strongest part of his game, there’s always room for improvement.
“He’s getting better,” said Futa. “He’s got a great off-balance shot, but our development guys have talked to him about his release and planting both feet and now he’s got a little bit more pep in his shot. Now he’s got to take control on the power play and be the general that he can be out there. That’s always been one of his specialties.”
Although there is a slim chance that Clague could return to Moose Jaw for an underage year, the chances of that happening are almost zero. As such, Clague now has to continue to improve his game with the added challenge of having to do that against better, stronger, and faster competition at the professional level.
“It’s time for him to take it to another level,” Futa emphasized. “If you saw him last year, he was the WHL’s defenseman of the year. His feet—anytime we do skating or skill drills, you’re in awe while watching him. But now it’s a matter of all that translating for him. It’s a big step for him, turning pro. Now he knows that it’s not going to be an easy step. People have told him that going from junior to the American Hockey League is a big step for people, so that’s something he’s got to [be aware of] every day at practice.”
“He’s got to be a sponge to our development guys,” Futa added. “When the NHL guys take the ice [in training camp], he’s got to find a couple of role models who he can latch onto and learn some better habits than he already has. It’s going to come down to having excellent practice habits and he’s going to be a kid who benefits greatly from having the [Ontario Reign] practice at our rink, as well.”
“I liked what I saw, sometimes and sometimes you see that there’s a lot of work to do,” Stothers noted. “There’s not one of these guys, as far as I’m concerned, who’s been anointed as the next one. It’s a pretty good hockey club up top. But the future looks bright with some of the guys we have and you know what? [Clague will] get better. We’ll work with him. I think he’s going to be all right.”
As Clague indicated, he’s working in training camp to make the Kings roster this season. But he is fully aware of his situation and he seems to have the right attitude about it.
“I have to look at things the same way,” he said. “Keep working hard and continue to get better in all areas of my game so that, one day, I’ll be in the NHL.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Kale Glague, shown here in a game against Vegas Golden Knights prospects during the 2018 Rookie Tournament at City National Arena in Summerlin, Nevada, September 11, 2018. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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