EL SEGUNDO, CA — When we last looked closely at Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Kale Clague, he had just finished playing in the rookie tournament hosted by the Vegas Golden Knights, featuring young prospects from the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, the Golden Knights, and the Kings, as well as being in the midst of the Kings’ 2018 training camp.
At the time, the Kings were looking for a lot more from the offensively gifted blue liner in the defensive zone.
“He’s mobile, he sees the ice and he can make some plays,” said Ontario Reign (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) head coach Mike Stothers in September 2018. “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 they’ve got to be a guy who the coach can trust in the defensive zone,” said Kings assistant general manager Michael Futa in September 2018. “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.”
This season, the 20-year-old, 6-0, 180-pound native of Lloydminster, Alberta, who was selected by the Kings in the second round (51st overall) of the 2016 National Hockey League Draft, has scored two goals with nine assists for 11 points in 23 games, with ten penalty minutes and a -7 plus/minus rating for the struggling Reign.
Despite the -7 plus/minus rating, Clague’s defensive play has shown marked improvement over the last three months.
“I think Kale has made huge strides, huge improvements,” said Stothers. “At the start, I think he was a little tentative in using his best asset, which is his skating ability. There’s many nights when you never saw that extra gear that he has.”
“He can get around the ice well,” added Stothers. “But there’s another level to jump in a hole, join the attack and be part of the offense, but then, get back into position in the defensive end.”
As noted earlier, Clague has always been an offensively gifted defenseman. But overcoming the hesitation that many first-year pros have in their game appears to be a major reason he’s on the rise.
“The guy I compared to him at our level was [defenseman] Sean Walker [currently with the Kings], who was the exact opposite,” Stothers explained. “When he came in, he was always looking to go, always part of the attack. He was almost like a rover out there and we had to curtail him a little bit—teach him how to pick his spots better and he’s done so. With Kale, it’s like we have to kick him in the backside to take it to the next level—don’t be afraid to jump into a hole.”
“There have been times where a defenseman has been our best middle drive guy on an entry [into the offensive zone],” Stothers elaborated. “That’s not a problem as long as, if it doesn’t work out, they get back out and back into position.”
Clague noted that he’s working on making the adjustments needed to move up from major junior hockey in Canada to the professional level.
“There’s an adjustment to be made, coming from junior,” he said. “It’s a different style of game and guys are bigger and stronger. But I think the last three or four weeks, my game has taken some big steps forward and I think that I’m really headed in the right direction.”
“I’m really working hard on the things the coaches have been telling me to work on, like [retrieving the puck], moving my feet and getting up the ice,” he added. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and good things will come.”
“It starts with getting to pucks. When I’m skating and moving my feet, getting back for pucks and breaking pucks out, we’re spending less time in our own end more time in the offensive zone, which is where we want to be playing. When I get into trouble is when I’m not getting back and getting to pucks and clearing our zone. When I’m doing that, my defensive game is pretty solid.”
Clague’s positioning—another weakness in his game coming into the professional ranks—is also improving.
“My positioning has been good,” he noted. “I think everything is connected to me retrieving the puck when it comes to our defensive zone. My game is breaking pucks out and getting them to the forwards. When I’m doing that, I’m at my best and we’re playing in the offensive end. The more I have the puck and the more I’m making plays, the better I am in the defensive zone.”
Clague is an elite skater, as alluded to earlier. As he sheds his hesitancy and gains confidence, his greatest asset is becoming increasingly evident. But now he needs to learn how to use his skating ability to be tougher in the defensive zone.
“Kale’s done a good job of showing the different speeds that he has—changing the pace of the game,” said Stothers. “He also needs to be a little tougher or harder to play against in our end. He’s not a big, physical, imposing guy like [defenseman Kurtis MacDermid] is. That’s not really Kale’s game, either. He’s not an overly aggressive person. But because of his skating ability, his mobility, and his stick, he’s able to do a good job of containing and taking plays away, especially on plays below the goal line or behind the net. It’s just a matter of him feeling comfortable in those situations against bigger, stronger guys.”
“He had a great junior career,” added Stothers. “Quite frankly, he could probably just skate his way through anybody. [In junior, at the age of 19], he was playing against kids who were 16 or 17. It’s not quite the same as it is at this level and there’s not as much importance placed on it in junior. So this is a learning curve for him and I think he’s finding out that to spend less time in our end, he has to be more effective in those areas. Then he can expose the opposition and himself as a guy who’s got a real offensive flair and a fast gear that most guys don’t have and I think we’re seeing it. I think, maybe, all it took was for him to get more comfortable in his surroundings and getting to know the league.”
“He’s had some pushback, too. Somebody pushed him, he’s pushed them back. That’s all you can ask from a guy—to stand up for himself and for his teammates. You’re entitled to that space. That’s your space on the ice. You want that space? You take it. You demand it.”
Clague’s added confidence and comfort at the professional level is also showing off the ice.
“He’s being more assertive within his team,” Stothers noted. “When he came in, he was very respectful of the guys. There’s guys like Matt Luff [currently with the Kings]. He was very respectful of the older guys. But he has a personality where he’ll say stuff. He pokes fun at himself and he pokes fun at others.”
“I think Kale was more reserved,” Stothers added. “He didn’t want to show too much of himself to his teammates and he wanted to be respectful of the situation. But now, we’re really seeing his personality come out. He’s a happy-go-lucky kid who loves to play the game and it’s starting to come out in him. It’s a comfort level thing. ‘I’m a pro hockey player. I love it and I’m going to embrace it.’”
Another challenge for Clague, one that is quite common among first-year pros, is the dramatically higher intensity and greater attention to detail at the professional level.
“You just can’t take a shift off here,” said Clague. “In junior, there are things I could get away with because of my skating that you can’t do at this level. Those things are magnified here and I have to break some of those little habits. But I knew that coming in.”
At such an early point in his professional career, Clague is progressing, at the very least, at pace, if he isn’t already ahead of the curve, and he gave Stothers a lot of the credit.
“Stutts has done a good job with me,” he said. “He’s been hard on me. But he definitely lets me know when I’m playing well, too. That’s a good combination to have. He’s trying to get the best out of me.”
“I think I’ve improved a lot [since the start of the Kings training camp],” he added. “I’m getting used to the pro style of game. I’m starting to be creative on the offensive blue line and I’m playing with a little more confidence, showing what I can do. Some of the things I was doing in junior are starting to come out and translate to the pro game. I’m excited about where my game has gone and where it’s going.”
“He’s been terrific as of late and I’m probably jinxing the hell out of him, right now,” Stothers said, with a huge grin.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Kale Clague, shown here during practice with the Ontario Reign on December 13, 2018, at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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