EL SEGUNDO, CA — As the Los Angeles Kings emerge from a 2018 pre-season that saw them win just one game, questions abound regarding their outlook for the fast-approaching 2018-19 season.
But as they look at their immediate future, they are also keeping the more distant future firmly in mind and that task is now considerably easier to do with their primary minor league affiliate, the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign, practicing in the same building.
One of the prospects that is hoping to be a part of the Kings future is defenseman Austin Strand, who they signed as a free agent on November 27, 2017.
After one season with the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League, the now-21-year-old, 6-4, 216-pound native of Calgary, Alberta was passed over in the 2015 NHL Draft. He went on to play another season with the Rebels and was well into his third when he was traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds, also of the WHL, midway through the 2016-17 season.
The next season, Strand exploded onto the scene, scoring 25 goals and adding 39 assists for 64 points in 69 regular season games, with a +2 plus/minus rating and 75 penalty minutes.
“I went to Edmonton’s rookie camp [prior to the start of] last season,” Strand noted. “I was a 20-year-old free agent and I started the season pretty hot. I think I had 13 power play goals and 25 goals in all. I think that caught their attention. In the first half of the season, I think I had 15 goals in about 30 games. Playing in Red Deer for Brent Sutter and then for Steve Konowalchuk in Seattle—a couple of really good coaches—they noticed that I grew a lot, as a player.”
Talk about being a late bloomer. Indeed, as Strand alluded to, those numbers caught the eyes of NHL scouts.
“I had a pretty good start to my 20-year-old season,” said Strand. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen going into that year, but I gave it my all early in the season and then I signed with the Kings, so I couldn’t have been happier.”
“[Kings Vice President/General Manager] Rob [Blake] has talked, at length, about not having those top [draft] picks,” said assistant general manager Michael Futa. “We’ve got to take some swings at kids, whether it’s college free agency—another avenue we look at is that 20-year-old player who may have slipped through the cracks.”
“[Amateur scout] Brent McEwen called me and he was adamant about me getting a look at this kid,” added Futa. “He can bomb it from the point and he has a really good slap shot. He’s a right-handed shot. He was playing really well in the Western Hockey League and when I got up there to see him, he was exceptional. He scored a goal and he skated well for a big guy.”
But at that point, the race was on to sign Strand.
“I talked to Rob—these things now, there are no secrets,” Futa noted. “You’ve got to make a decision very quickly. There were other teams involved, so we got our offer in pretty early.”
“It was a pretty easy decision when I took it to Rob,” Futa added. “It was funny. I think we had already signed him when [Director of Amateur Scouting] Mark Yanetti got in [to see Strand play].”
“Usually, we have a nice set-up where an area scout will call me and I’ll get in to see the player. Sometimes, I want Mark to back me up. But we were so concerned, with other teams being involved—when you’re that big, when you skate that well and you shoot the puck that well, it becomes one of those things that you’ve got to jump on.”
As things turned out, Three teams were hot after Strand. But he indicated that the Kings were a pretty easy choice.
“Three teams [were interested in signing him],” said Strand. “Kings, Edmonton and Montréal. Here, it was just looking at their depth and what they needed. Right-handed defensemen are also pretty scarce in the league right now, [something that the Kings lack, in particular], so after talking with my agent, it seemed like a perfect fit for me. As soon as he heard that L.A. wanted to sign me, he said that the development team would really help me out, so I just couldn’t turn that down.”
“I know [left wing prospect Austin] Wagner,” added Strand. “We played together, so just talking to him and I worked out with [defenseman prospect Kale Clague] during the summer and I talked to him, too, so I knew that this was where I wanted to be.”
“Coming here, seeing the city and the organization is unreal and it couldn’t have been a better team for me, just knowing that the development team is massive here—eight or nine guys. It’s pretty crazy to think about some of the things you can learn from those guys.”
Looking back, Strand really hadn’t been on the radar at all since he signed with the Kings, at least, not until he participated in the Kings 2018 Rookie Camp and the rookie tournament in Las Vegas in mid-September. As such, he is quite the unknown commodity here in the Los Angeles area.
“I’m just a big defenseman who’s a good skater with decent mitts who can find the back of the net,” he said. “The strongest part of my game is my hockey sense—the way I read plays, find guys and I have pretty good patience with the puck. My weaknesses—stuff I can work on—it’s always skating and just how smooth I am with the puck, and being better in practice.”
Ontario Reign head coach Mike Stothers was behind the bench for the Kings during the rookie tournament where he got a good look at Strand.
“[Strand is] really mobile,” he said. “He skates well and he’s a puck mover. He can join the attack. There’s a lot of things to like about what he can bring offensively. He’s got a good shot. There’s some casual-ness (sic), some riverboat gambler stuff in his game, as a defenseman, so he’s got to concentrate on his puck management.”
“The biggest thing for him is that he’s got to move the puck quicker,” he added. “He tends to hang onto it a little bit too long. He tends to think that there’s one more play or one more read instead of just giving the puck to the forwards. He might’ve been able to get away with that in junior, but that’s not going to happen [at the professional level]. But he’s smart enough. He’ll adapt.”
Futa also pointed to Strand’s penchant for holding onto the puck too long.
“He skates exceptionally well and he’s starting to look more comfortable,” he observed. “These kids coming out of junior have to realize that the extra second that you hold onto the puck at the pro level really can cost you. Making that move, making that quick transition—I know that when [head coach John Stevens speaks to the media], he tells you about playing fast and thinking fast. That’s just something that’s going to come. He does a lot of things naturally, but now, he’s got to do it at a faster pace.”
Coming out of major junior hockey, Strand has a lot to learn as he enters his first season as a pro.
“It’s a big step for him now,” said Futa. “He’s seeing his first pro camp. He suffered an injury during the rookie tournament [in Las Vegas when he was struck in his right ear by a puck]. That was a little bit of a setback, [keeping him off the ice early in the Kings training camp].”
Going undrafted when he was 18, Strand also finds himself trailing behind other players in his age group.
“It’s maturity,” Futa observed. “Some kids mature later than others. The maturity level when you’re 20 years old, coming in as a rookie—a lot of kids have already been in two pro camps by that time. His biggest thing is just learning to be a pro and having that serious demeanor and work ethic on the ice. It’s a good thing to be passionate about it. But dig in when it’s time to work and have fun when it’s time to do that.”
Maturity and learning to be a pro are challenges that young players like Strand must address.
“Like everybody else, it’s a work-in-progress,” said Stothers. “He’s just learning the speed and the strength of the professional athletes that he’s up against. He could use some additional time in the weight room, getting stronger, getting bigger. But that’ll come as he matures and fills out.”
“He’s a work in progress, but there’s not a lot of junior defensemen who aren’t,” Futa noted. “Drew Doughty was, arguably, one of the only guys I’ve ever seen to come out of junior who already had it. He played a full, 200-foot game, but he still needed to be disciplined.”
As both Stothers and Futa alluded to, Strand’s strengths have always been on the offensive side of the puck, even though he is a defenseman—his defensive game is going to have to improve if he is going to become an NHL player.
“For any kid at that age, when they’re counted on to be the power play specialist and score a lot—that’s the fun part of the game,” said Futa. “At the pro level, they have to understand that in order to win over their coaches, they’ve got to be responsible defensively or they’re not going to get the gravy and the candy—the ice time on the power play that they want.”
“That’s just part of maturation and it’s good for them,” added Futa. “When you’re that big, when you skate that well and you’ve got that kind of length, it should be a process that you can buy into and everything should translate well. It’s just a matter of understanding the importance of that and that you’re probably not going to get the opportunities you want if you’re not somebody the coach can count on defensively, as well.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Austin Strand, shown here during the 2018 Rookie Tournament at City National Arena in Summerlin, Nevada on September 11, 2018. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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