EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Ontario Reign begin their 2018-19 American Hockey League season tonight at home, Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, and among the young players on their roster who will be making their professional hockey league debuts this season is 20-year-old forward Drake Rymsha.
The 6-0, 187-pound native of Huntington Woods, Michigan was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the fifth round (138th overall) of the 2017 National Hockey League Draft. He played with the London Knights and the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League before he was traded to the Sarnia Sting of the OHL during the 2016-17 season.
“I think it was a big learning experience for him, being traded,” said Kings assistant general manager Michael Futa. “He was in Ottawa and was moved to Sarnia. He was counted on to be more of an offensive producer there and he did well.”
“He got off to a fresh start with Sarnia,” added Futa. “He was under the radar there for a little bit. But what we saw, we liked. Everybody who went in saw the same things [amateur scout] Chris Byrne did. Mike Donnelly [part of the Kings development staff] has spent the most time with him, from a development standpoint, being in the Detroit area, and he liked what he saw, as well.”
Indeed. Rymsha had a breakout season last year, scoring 31 goals and adding 42 assists for 73 points with a +11 plus/minus rating and 70 penalty minutes in 68 regular season games.
In twelve playoff games last season, Rymsha scored three goals and added six assists for nine points, with a -1 plus/minus rating and ten penalty minutes.
Rymsha got a taste of professional hockey last season when he played one regular season game for the Reign after Sarnia’s playoff run ended. But now he’s with the Reign for the foreseeable future and will be counted on to contribute and will be expected to improve all facets of his game.
“You’ve got to get better every season and the game is so fast now,” said Rymsha. “You’ve got to work on your speed and your shot. I had a great opportunity to work with Mike Donnelly in Livonia over the summer, almost every day, working on my shot and skating with him. It was a great summer working with him.”
“If you’re making the jump to the next level, you have to get faster, bigger and stronger,” added Rymsha. “I was used to playing against kids my age, a little bit older and a little bit younger. But now I’ll be playing against grown men and that’s something I’m looking forward to.”
“It’s not specifically one thing. It’s everything. You come to the rink and you try to get better every day, whether it’s shooting or skating, or getting stronger in the weight room. You’re always trying to get better every day.”
Rymsha had a breakout season last year, to be sure. But at the professional level, he is projected to be a third or fourth line forward with an edge to his game who can contribute here and there.
“Chris Byrne just wouldn’t get off of him, as to how much he stood out and how much he liked him,” said Futa. “The more the staff got in to back up Chris Byrne, it was the same thing: the intangibles.”
“You’ve got to be able to produce,” added Futa. “You can see it now. Everybody in the game is changing so much that you’ve got to be fast and stuff like that. He’s got to win his coaches over with being so responsible defensively and, at the same time, being a guy who’s going to draw other teams into penalties through hard work and frustrate other teams. Sometimes, it’s a thankless job. But it’s an incredible bonus if you’ve got a guy who can skate and draw penalties.”
“I see a guy who’s a bit of an agitator,” said Reign head coach Mike Stothers. “He kind of annoys the opposition. I don’t know if you want to put him in the category of Ken ‘The Rat’ Linseman, but he really gets the opposition off their game. I guess that means he’s doing things right. He’s still got a lot to learn, but you know what? A guy with that kind of tenacity? That’s nice to see.”
Indeed, getting under the skin of the opposition is nothing new to Rymsha.
“I like being an agitator or playing with an edge, whatever you want to call it,” he said. “I play hard. You know what you’re going to get from me every single night. That’s what I pride myself on.”
Although Rymsha was an agitator in his junior career, he’ll have to be smarter about it in the professional ranks.
“What our development guys have talked to him about is that we want him to score goals and produce,” Futa noted. “But he’s got to be a guy who gets under the other team’s skin and uses that as a strength and gets in scrums, but stays disciplined.”
“The game has changed dramatically with regards to fighting and stuff like that,” Futa added. “There are players—when you see them in scrums, they have this look on their faces that annoys people, and he’s not like that. He’s a good-looking kid. He looks like he’s about twelve years old. But I think he’s got that look where he can get under people’s skin. He’s got to back that up, but stay disciplined.”
“For him to have a shot in the National Hockey League, he’s got to find a niche in the bottom half of your lineup, where he’s going to be responsible, kill penalties, and provide energy. But at the same time, a player like that can’t afford to take penalties. You want to see them draw more penalties and that’s just part of the learning curve.”
Looking back to a little over a year ago, the Kings issued a challenge to Rymsha.
“He’s a young kid, physically,” Futa noted. “We put up a challenge to him last summer about our expectations for earning a contract and he [fulfilled them]. We also said there’s always a chance that if he doesn’t live up to those expectations, there’s always an over-age junior year for him [this season].”
“He had a good training camp,” Futa added. “He caught everybody’s eye with his energy and his positive enthusiasm and now he’s got to build on it. Working with [Mike Stothers] down in the minors in our own [building in El Segundo] is going to be a big step for him.”
Although it isn’t likely, at this point, there is a chance that, if he doesn’t meet expectations, Rymsha could find himself back with Sarnia.
“[He can’t] assume anything,” Futa observed. “When you’re down to your 20-year-old season, the assumption is that you have to turn pro because there’s no other alternative. Sometimes, when you sign a kid who’s 20, they’ve turned the page on junior hockey and they can get complacent. I’m not saying he is, but sometimes, they need to be reminded that they have an over-age year of junior eligibility and that if they’re not going to buy into all the aspects of being a pro, they can be back in junior hockey.”
“The other side of it is that if you’re not playing quality minutes as a pro, it’s going to benefit you more playing 30 minutes a night in junior hockey,” Futa added. “We don’t want a kid like that not playing at the pro level, so that’s something we’ll continue to evaluate.”
“He’s got a long way to go. As long as he doesn’t take anything for granted and continues to work, he’s going to give himself a chance.”
With the Reign about to make their 2018-19 debut tonight, Rymsha can’t wait.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I’ve been working towards this my whole life. To be one step closer to my dream as a kid—to play in the NHL—the work is just starting. I’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Drake Rymsha (right), shown here during the 2018 Ontario Reign training camp at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California on September 24, 2018. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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