EL SEGUNDO, CA — For a young player who no one expected to play for the Los Angeles Kings this season, including himself, rookie left wing Austin Wagner is certainly taking advantage of the opportunity.
The 21-year-old, 6-1, 185-pound (official listing), native of Calgary, Alberta has played in 31 games with the Kings this season, scoring four goals and adding five assists for nine points with an even plus/minus rating and eight penalty minutes.
Selected by the Kings in the fourth round (99th overall) of the 2015 National Hockey League Draft, Wagner has elite speed—he is certainly one of the fastest players in the league, with speed rivaling that of Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.
Although his breathtaking speed alone can make him a dangerous offensive threat at any given moment, like most young players, Wagner has a lot of work to do to lock down a roster spot with the Kings.
“It’s a matter of consistency and when a team is struggling—you want the young guys to earn their spots, not just because a team’s not playing well that they’re rewarded with a spot in the lineup,” said assistant general manager Michael Futa. “You’ve got to build up competition [for those spots]. But Wagner, especially after last year, coming off of injury, he’s been outstanding and when you talk about speed, he’s as fast as you’re going to find.”
The injury Futa mentioned was a shoulder injury that Wagner suffered during the 2016-17 season, his final year with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. He underwent surgery during the following off-season.
“[This past summer], my goal was to have a good showing in training camp, because last year, I didn’t have a training camp,” he said. “I didn’t skate until the end of October [and he wasn’t at full strength]. I jumped into the season late—I was playing catch-up the whole year and I missed a full summer of training. My weight was low. I think I was 182 pounds last year. But now, [after a full summer of training] I’m at 194 or 195.”
“I came to training camp, had a good showing and made the team out of camp,” he added. “But the work never stops. These guys in here told me that. They told me that every day, you have to get better because there’s always somebody who can take your place easily. You’ve got to want to be the best player you can be every day, especially when you’re a rookie on a two-way contract.”
When you watch Wagner in practice, it’s not hard to notice that he spends a lot of time watching the veteran players and talking with them, trying to pick up things that will help him to improve.
“They’re experienced players,” he noted. “They know how to read plays. They’re very smart in their positioning. Obviously, they have a ton of skill—they’re great players. But they also read the game so well and that’s something I’m trying to pick up on. Going back to last year, I was struggling to read plays as quickly as I could. But this year, I’m doing that a little better.”
“There are lot of little things I need to work on,” he added. “My wall play—you can never be good enough at it because you’ve got to get pucks out of your zone. Otherwise, you’re not going to play. That’s just a simple fact. My defensive awareness is starting to get a little bit better, but it still has a ways to go. But really, all around, my whole game—there’s always stuff to work on. Skating, shooting—if it’s not straight-out speed skating, it’s the shifty work—using my edges a bit better.”
Of course, what jumps out at anyone watching Wagner is his blazing speed. In fact, “blazing” might seem like an understatement once you’ve seen him skate at full speed. But speed doesn’t help if the player can’t do anything with it and Wagner isn’t a natural goal scorer, by any means. But he has been doing a lot of extra work, before and after practice, to improve his puck handling, passing, and receiving passes.
“I was just out there with [former Kings left wing Craig Johnson, part of the Kings development staff] again, working on some stuff after practice,” he said. We were trying to do a little bit before practice, too, trying to stick handle around some pucks. It doesn’t have to be the quickest stick handling. It’s just smoothing it out, not letting the puck spin on me.”
“Sometimes, I’ll receive a pass and the puck will spin,” he added. “That’s not necessarily because of stick handling. It’s having softer hands when you receive the puck and that’s something I have to work on. It’s a work-in-progress. I think I can focus on that more than on my skating. For me, I don’t need to do power skating. I should be working on my stick handling, ice vision, passing. That needs to be a bit better—more crisp. I’m making progress in those areas. It’s coming along.”
But what about shooting the puck?
“Shooting comes last because you’re not going to get those chances if you can’t handle the puck,” he emphasized, even though he did work on his shot this past summer in Calgary with teammate Matt Luff. But now, in terms of his shot, he’s focusing on just getting the puck on net.
“A lot of my chances come in tight, because I’m trying to beat a guy wide, so I’m not always taking shots from far out,” he noted. “[Assistant coach Dave Lowry] just says, ‘hit the net. That’s all you’ve got to do,’ because either it’s going to be a [face-off] in their zone, there might be a rebound, or it might trickle in. There’s a lot of chances, so just hitting the net is the biggest thing for me now and if I miss the net, [the other team will break out of their zone] easily.”
Futa noted that Wagner has also begun to get his head up earlier when he is carrying the puck with speed.
“We’re starting to see a little more when he uses his speed,” he observed. “Our amateur scouts are in town and we were talking about that. It’s one thing to be fast, but does a player use his speed?”
“Now I think we’re starting to see that when he cuts that corner now, he’s got his head up,” he added. “I don’t think he’s ever going to be a natural scorer, like on breakaways, but the amount of chances he’s going to create with that speed, with his head up, he’s going to have a much better chance to score, like on the goal he scored the other night [against Tampa Bay on January 3]. As soon as he beat the defender, his head was up. In the past, he had been skating so hard with his head down, by the time he looked up, he was on top of the goaltender and at that point, it’s tough to adjust.”
Strangely enough, and as counter-intuitive as it might seem, it’s not always about going full speed for Wagner.
“I’m recognizing that there are times to use my speed [as well as] when not to,” he noted. “There are times when I don’t have to go full speed. I can slow it down a bit and pull the defenseman out of position.”
“When I’m going wide, I can slow up a little bit and then speed up right away when he [moves in] on me,” he added. “That’s something I’ve been working with [Johnson and Jarret Stoll from the Kings development staff]. They’re very experienced and they know what they’re doing.”
Wagner also pointed to his mental game as something that he needs to work on, specifically, not worrying about making mistakes.
“I get frustrated, sometimes,” he said. “But I’m trying to relax and understand that mistakes are going to happen. That’s part of learning and playing in the best league in the world because you’re playing against the best players in the world. Besides, I’m a rookie who’s trying to learn what guys are doing and I do watch quite a bit, trying to pick up on small things.”
“If you’re afraid to make mistakes, you’re not going to play well.” he added. “It’s a learning curve, for sure. It’s the best league in the world. If it as easy, everybody would be here, There would be more than 31 teams.”
Something that often surprises fans and pundits alike is that Wagner isn’t all about speed. He also plays the game with a definite edge.
“I think everybody notices my grit,” he said. “A lot of the time, if there’s something happening, I’m usually in there. That’s the way I like to play. I like to mix it up a little bit and be a little bit of a pest.”
“If I can get one or two guys on the other team off their game, that’s a good thing,” he added. “They’re thinking about me, not the game. That’s part of the game.”
The grit Wagner plays with hasn’t gone unnoticed by management. They just want him to be sure to pick his spots wisely.
“He’s a pain in the [rear end to the other team],” said Futa. “But you’ve got to do those things for the good of the team, all the time. When you’re a young player, you’ve got to make sure those penalties are good penalties for the team.”
“I loved what he did the other night,” added Futa. “He tried to show some emotion when the guy tried to get into [goaltender Jonathan] Quick’s face. That shows, as a young guy, that you care about your teammates.”
Overall, as Futa said, Wagner has taken advantage of his opportunities this season. But he must continue to develop.
“Wags a work-in-progress,” said Futa. “He fits the bill with his speed. He’s just got to continue to work hard and earn his ice time.”
“Every day is going to be a learning experience for him,” added Futa. “He’s still a young guy and I think, with the team struggling, he’s made the most of his opportunities. But we don’t want to have young guys who are good on a 31st place team. We want guys who will help us get back to our championship caliber. We want to have young kids and be back competing where we belong. It’s going to take some time.”
For his part, Wagner knows that improving his game is going to take time and hard work.
“This is where the mental side of the game comes in, too,” he noted. “You’ve got to do the work. If you can learn one or two things a day, that’s a big thing because that means you’re getting better.”
“I just have to take everything day-by-day, work hard and enjoy it while I’m here.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings left wing Austin Wagner (right), shown here during practice on December 17, 2018, at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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