EL SEGUNDO, CA — Although it is difficult to find a silver lining in a rather lopsided, 7-4 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in pre-season action at Honda Center on September 26, one player who stood out for the Los Angeles Kings was left wing prospect Austin Wagner, who scored on a breakaway goal at 17:09 of the first period and was also strong on the forecheck and in his own zone.
The breakaway goal was, in a word, breathtaking. Wagner started well behind the Kings blue line. Ten strides later, he easily blew past two Anaheim defenders who were already chasing a loose puck near the Ducks blue line. Wagner was all alone in front of the net when he fired a low wrist shot, beating veteran goaltender Ryan Miller stick side.
That goal, along with his play last season with the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Ontario Reign, showed off Wagner’s greatest asset: elite speed that compares to the fastest players in the National Hockey League. In fact, last season, he ranks right up there with Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid, in terms of speed.
“We like his speed,” said head coach John Stevens. “That’s his best asset. He’s got good size and he’s a tenacious worker.”
“He’s got high-end speed,” added Stevens. “That helps him get in on the forecheck. You saw [at Anaheim] that he gets to loose pucks. People talk about his time in juniors—he led the league in breakaways just because he had such great speed.”
The 21-year-old. 6-1, 185-pound native of Calgary, Alberta got a late start to the 2017-18 season, as he continued to recover from off-season shoulder surgery. He wound up playing in 50 regular season games for the Reign, scoring ten goals and adding seven assists for 17 points with a -4 plus/minus rating and 62 penalty minutes.
“I thought [last season] was good, coming off of the injury,” said Wagner, who was selected by the Kings in the fourth round (99th overall) of the 2015 NHL Draft. “It was tough to get into the swing of things, at first. But I thought it built as the season went on. It got better and better. I thought I had a great summer, too. I’m ready to play this year and get a full season under me.”
Due to his shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, Wagner played last season with his shoulder at partial strength. But after spending a lot of time in the gym this past summer, he feels that the shoulder is back to full strength and that he has added some muscle to his frame.
“I feel a lot stronger, a lot bigger,” he noted. “I gained a good amount of weight and that’s what I needed to do. It’s good to have. But at the same time, I feel that I’m a bit faster and my hands are a little bit better. But it’s just one summer of working out after my first pro season. I’ve got a long way to go before I can call myself a good player.”
As Wagner mentioned, he did more than workout in the gym.
“I did a lot of skill stuff—fine tuning my wrist shot, getting it a little more accurate and harder,” he said. “I also worked on my hands and my puck protection. Defensemen nowadays are so big and good with their sticks that they can poke the puck and go the other way. That’s so evident in the NHL today. That’s something I’ve got to work on. It’ll come with time.”
As reported earlier, Wagner has elite speed. But after his hard work this past summer, as difficult it might be to imagine, he indicated that he’s a bit faster now.
“My speed—I’ve gained an extra stride or two,” he said. “I’m stronger. My hands are coming along and I think I’ve just built off the player I was last year—the heavy power forward/agitator type and I’m there to do that. That’s my main focus and if I can put up some good numbers, that’s what I want to do.”
“It’s that first step—getting up to speed for me is quicker now,” he added. “I worked hard on a lot of things summer. The trainer I have back home really worked on my strength and helped me become quicker.”
Stronger. Faster. Improved skills. Add those factors up and Wagner has good reason to feel more confident about his game heading into the new season.
“I had some confidence last year, just because of my speed,” he observed. “I could getaway from defensemen really quick. But now, with the added strength, if I get pinned, I’m not going to be pushed around that easily, and I’m stronger on my skates. That’s a big thing for me, even when I mix things up with somebody. If I get into a fight, I have the strength and weight to not get tossed around and I can protect myself better.”
Something that isn’t all that well known about Wagner is that he isn’t just fast. As he alluded to earlier, he plays a physical game. But he’s also quite the agitator.
“I’m going to get under people’s skin a lot—an agitator,” he noted. “But I have to be able to use my speed to create chances, push defensemen back, get in on the forecheck—make the defensemen turn over pucks.”
“My game is going to be winning foot races, getting in on the forecheck,” he added. “That’s how I have to play. I have to get on pucks really quick and be hard on my checks. I have to be solid in the defensive zone, too. That’s going to be a big thing for me. I have to rely on my defense and create a little energy out there.”
Stevens indicated that Wagner’s speed will make up some things, but added that there are aspects of his game that need work.
“His speed is a real asset that can help him in a lot of ways,” said Stevens. “He seems to play a responsible game. He’s got good puck skills. But his speed is the overlying asset that is really going to make the difference in his game. I don’t think he’s a natural finisher, but I think that’s something he can get better at.”
“I think his defensive awareness has got to improve,” added Stevens. “For a guy who’s going to play his role has got to be really, really sound in his own zone.”
“I think his details have got to get better. His consistency, I think, will get better, once he’s able to maintain his pace through shifts and through games. He’s taken a big step in that process. But I think he’s got some work to do.”
Wagner has a few things to add to that list.
“[The Kings development staff told him that he needs to] bear down on your shooting,” he indicated. “But at the same time, move your feet and take the puck to the net. Play your game.”
“Not getting down on myself is a big thing, too,” he added. “Wherever I’ve played, if I don’t score in a couple of games, or if I’m not getting chances, I just have to pick up my game myself without having anyone tell me, and trusting myself, knowing that I can be the player that I want to be.”
That Wagner was not included in the first round of training camp cuts indicates that he has made a solid impression among the coaching and front office staffs. Despite that, barring unforeseen circumstances, Wagner is expected to begin the season in the AHL with the Reign where he can further hone his skills.
“You want to make it to the NHL and have an impact,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m in camp, competing and doing the best that I can. Things will play out from there.”
“If I end up down in Ontario—you never know what might happen—I want to be one of the top penalty-killers and build off of last year—score more goals and try to be a leader,” he added. “As a second-year guy, I won’t be that that vocal. But I can help a 20-year-old who’s just coming to the team from [major junior hockey in Canada] because I was in that spot.”
“Camp has been going good, so far. It’s nice to be here. But at the same time, I can’t get complacent. I have to keep working hard every day. I’ve got a long way to go. But I’m learning a lot. I just have to keep going.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings left wing prospect Austin Wagner, shown here during the Kings 2018 Training Camp, September 27, 2018, at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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