EL SEGUNDO, CA — In a season of darkness for the Los Angeles Kings, there have been a few bright spots, most notably, winger Dustin Brown having another strong season, albeit, not quite as good as his 2017-18 season and rather unexpectedly, left wing Kyle Clifford reaching double figures in goals, occasionally impersonating a 50-goal scorer on his way to 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points in 70 games.
Another bright spot has been rookie left wing Austin Wagner, who has made the most of his 60 games played with limited ice time—he averages just a shade under nine minutes per game. Despite that, he has scored 12 goals and has contributed eight assists for 20 points, with 16 penalty minutes and a +2 plus/minus rating.
That +2 plus/minus rating would not normally be something worth noting. But on a team with just two players on the active roster with positive plus/minus ratings, it is quite the eye-opener, not only regarding Wagner’s strong play, but also the dreadfully poor play by the team, overall.
Speaking of opening eyes, Wagner has done that with his elite level skating—many say he is just as fast as Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, something that Wagner has displayed several times this season, blowing past defenders, often making up ground and passing them from distances that must be seen to be believed.
That speed, has, in large part, helped him to become a somewhat unexpected source of offense and, as reported in this space previously, he wasn’t even expected to be with the Kings, at least not at the start of the season. But talk about taking advantage of an opportunity…
“When he first got here, he was a fill-in,” said interim head coach Willie Desjardins. “He was a guy who we expected to play two or three games [here and there]—in my mind…because his history didn’t show that [he could do more].”
“His history didn’t show that he was unbelievable in junior,” added Desjardins. “He didn’t show that he was unbelievable in the American Hockey League. He was good, but not like you think you need at the next level. But he’s come in and done that.”
Although he has been assigned more than once back to the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League (three goals in nine games with Ontario), Wagner has played the vast majority of the season with the Kings.
“I just tried to play my game, do my thing and not make things too complicated,” he said. “I think, at times, I did that. But we’ve got [a couple of] games left. I’ve just got to finish strong and play the way I have been—using my speed. I can catch defenders off guard and when they realize that, they’ll back off. That’ll give my line mates more opportunities, too. Things are coming along for me.”
“It’s just my all-around game that’s coming along,” he added. “Everything is getting better and I’m playing my game—my identity. I’m playing my role and I’m playing it to the best of my ability.”
Hard work during the season with the Kings coaching and development staffs are paying off for the 21-year-old, 6-1, 185-pound native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
“He’s come in-his speed is exciting,” Desjardins noted. “When he jumps, everybody notices and he’s gotten better around the net. [Assistant coach] Dave Lowry has done a great job teaching him not to deke, but to shoot. When you get those chances, shoot. Then there’s the development side, as well. Lots of people have worked hard with him and it’s paying off.”
Wagner indicated that more than just his shooting still needs work.
“Everything in my game can get better,” he noted. “It’s going to be a good summer of work ahead here so I can come back even stronger next year.”
“Moving my feet and controlling the puck with my head up have been big for me [as a result of working with the Kings development team],” he added. “There’s a lot of things that I’ve been doing. I’m trying to improve in any way that I can.”
Going back to the expectations the Kings had for him this season—he wasn’t originally expected to make the team, let alone reach double figures in goals scored. But Wagner, for one, wasn’t surprised, or if he was, he wasn’t showing it.
“I’ve always been able to score goals,” he emphasized. “Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t. You’ve just got to stick with it. I had 30 goals in junior [in the 2016-17 season], which is quite a few and I had ten last year in half a year [with the Reign after coming back from shoulder surgery].”
“I believe in myself,” he added. “I know I can score goals. The team, the development staff, everybody upstairs, everybody here [in the dressing room] believes that I can, too. Everybody has confidence in each other.”
After the season Wagner has had, he is certainly not the only one who believes in him and he’s quickly gaining more believers, no doubt.
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