EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the January 28 trade of veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin to the Toronto Maple Leafs, it became clear that Los Angeles Kings general manager Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille finally figured out what many seemed to know before the season began—that the 2018-19 Kings were nowhere close to being a Stanley Cup contender. As a result, they began the process of rebuilding the roster with young prospects and draft picks.
What also became clear was that with Muzzin out of the picture, there were now greater opportunities for their bottom three defensemen to move up the depth chart.
Muzzin was traded just before the Kings left town to play their long “Grammy” road trip, this time, a six-game, East Coast trip while Staples Center was being readied for the Grammy Awards, held on February 10. It was during that trip that defenseman Oscar Fantenberg showed that he intended to take full advantage of the opportunity.
Indeed, the 27-year-old, 6-0, 206-pound native of Ljunby, Sweden scored his first two goals of the season and more than held his own in the defensive zone during those six games.
Prior to that road trip, Fantenberg played in 36 games, recording one assist. He has now played in 42 of the Kings’ 56 games this season.
“I’m playing a little bit more and I’ve been thinking about shooting more,” said Fantenberg. “I’ve also been working with [assistant coach Marco Sturm] a lot on my shot, hitting the net and taking the opportunity to get open for a shot.”
“It’s nice to be in the lineup and play a lot of minutes, too,” added Fantenberg. “That’s something that helps you build confidence.”
With Muzzin off to Toronto, veteran defenseman Alec Martinez moved back to his natural left side, leaving a hole on the right side to be filled and Fantenberg, a left-shot defenseman, has not only done the job, but the move has created more opportunities for him from the offensive blue line.
“Playing on the right side opens things up for the one-timer,” he noted. “That’s one of the good things about playing on my off side—you can hit that one-timer and that’s what I’ve been doing the last two games.”
“It’s nice when you’ve been working on it for awhile and you get results,” he added. “That’s always nice. But I want to create more offense—jump up on the rush and be a threat in [the offensive zone], too. Luckily, the puck has gone in the last couple of games.”
“Picking up the puck off the wall is a little bit harder, because you have to use your backhand. But I think it’s easier to walk the blue line [to change the angle of his shot] and Alec Martinez has been feeding me for one-timers and that has finally paid off. That’s the thing. If you get some time and space when the [opposing] forwards are a little bit low, if my partner has the puck, he can feed me for those one-timers. It’s hard for the forwards to get into the shooting lanes when you shoot a one-timer. If you wait and then shoot, they’ll have time to get into the lane.”
Outside of scoring goals, playing on the right side has taken some getting used to, even though Fantenberg has played on the right side before.
“Last year, I played on the right side a little bit and this year, I’m playing there, so I’m kind of used to it,” he indicated. “I actually kind of like playing on the right side now.”
“There are good and bad points,” he added. “Sometimes it’s easier to play on the right side and sometimes, it’s harder. [For a left shot defenseman], there are some odd angles. But it’s X’s and O’s. You just have to make the play that’s open and when you pass the puck, you have to do it quickly. You have to know, when you get the puck, what you want to do with it and that’s something I’ve been working on.”
As Fantenberg alluded to, Sturm gets a lot of credit for Fantenberg’s improvement.
“[He’s got] a little bit of confidence—a bit more,” said interim head coach Willie Desjardins. “I think that as soon as we lost Muzzin, then he knew that he had to step up and play a little bit more. But we had confidence in him right from the start and I think Marco was good with him. He liked him, he believed in him. That helps a player when you have a guy believing in you.”
Despite the strong showing on the road trip, Fantenberg knows that he has to continue to work just as hard going forward.
“It’s good for my confidence that they trust me, but that’s something you have to earn,” he said. “I don’t take for granted that I’m going to be in the lineup in every game. I just want to keep working hard in practice and show the coaches that they’re doing the right thing by playing me.”
“That’s something I’m always going to do—work hard and be reliable in the defensive zone and the penalty-kill. I just want to be a steady guy who they can trust when they put me out there.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Oscar Fantenberg (foreground right), shown here during a recent practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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