EL SEGUNDO, CA — Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez has been practicing with the team in recent days without restrictions. Head coach Todd McLellan has indicated that Martinez has recovered from surgery on November 25 to repair a radial artery and two superficial radial nerves after he suffered a laceration to his right wrist during a game against the San Jose Sharks earlier that night.
McLellan also indicated that the only thing that remains for Martinez is for him to get his conditioning and timing back in practice.
With Martinez on the verge of returning, barring unforeseen circumstances, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that defenseman Kale Clague will return to the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League very soon.
The 21-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 played in three games since being recalled on December 17. He has not recorded a point and has a -2 plus/minus rating and two penalty minutes.
Clague earned a recall after scoring six goals and contributing nine assists for 15 points, with a -6 plus/minus rating and 18 penalty minutes in 27 games with the Reign this season. But if you ask Clague, it was his most recent play that earned him the call-up.
“I thought I started out really slow,” he said. “I wasn’t on my toes enough. I was on my heels. I wasn’t as aggressive as I needed to be. But in early December, I started to feel really good about my game and where it was going. I think I put together eight or nine games in which I thought I was really good and was making a difference in every game. Then I got called up.”
“I wasn’t being aggressive enough, so I wasn’t getting opportunities to score or to create second chances,” he added. “But once I started doing that, everything snowballed. I started scoring more, getting more assists—stuff like that. I was playing a lot on the power play and I was getting a lot of ice time [overall].”
A sign that Clague was playing well with the Reign was that he was getting ice time in all situations, including the penalty-kill.
“I was also getting time on the PK,” he noted. “That’s important—to play in all situations—because when I come up here, I can be put in those situations right away. But I just want to be consistent and keep earning ice time.”
Clague’s play with the Reign has now been recognized by the AHL, which named him, along with Reign teammates forward Martin Frk (also recalled to the Kings) and goaltender Cal Petersen, to play in the AHL All-Star Classic in Ontario, California, January 26-27.
“I think it’s pretty exciting,” Clague told the media after practice on January 3. “I think it’ll be fun, I’ve obviously never done anything like it, so I’m excited for it. It’s obviously good to get that recognition, too, across the league.”
As reported earlier, Clague has played in three games with the Kings since his recall and although it is a small sample size, he has not looked out of place.
“It’s been good,” he noted. “I think I’m still getting used to the games and the different areas—puck battles, corner battles. It’s a little different. The guys are a bit stronger, so I’m adjusting to that. But overall, I think I’ve been solid in the games I’ve played in.”
“I’ve been able to show my strengths—puck movement, skating,” he added. “I just want to make sure I’m being consistent with my strengths, but also in the defensive zone, which is what everyone wants me to do.”
Assistant coach Trent Yawney, who handles the defensemen, has had some feedback for his young charge.
“I’ve been talking with [him] a little bit,” said Clague. “After my first game, he said that I was much improved and that I looked more assertive. I talked to him again after having played three games, too. He said that I need to focus more on consistency and on puck battles, corner battles. If I’m doing that, I’m using my strengths, as well. I’m contributing to this team.”
“This game, especially at this level, if you’re not consistent, you’re not going to be here too long,” added Clague. “I just want to play my game the best I can, every single night, to help the team win.”
Clague has also noticed the difference in skill in the NHL—he’s having a lot more fun playing with NHL players and, in some ways, the game is easier at the NHL level. But at the same time, he also sees ways that it is much more difficult.
“When you get on the ice with the best players in the world, it’s a lot of fun,” he observed. “I notice the difference. Breaking pucks out [of the defensive zone], you notice how much cleaner it usually is. If you make a tape-to-tape pass, every pass after that is tape-to-tape, and you’re off into the offensive zone.”
“Guys are also making plays [a lot more often],” he added. “Guys are always looking to make a play. That doesn’t happen as much in the American Hockey League. It’s more scramble-y, more sloppy. Just being here, everyone is so skilled. Everyone can make a play. That’s what makes it so much fun.”
“After my first NHL game, I thought, ‘Wow. This is easier.’ But it’s harder, at the same time. It’s easier in the sense that everyone is in the right spot. If you make a good pass, the play continues—you make plays and create scoring chances. But it’s harder, in terms of the corner battles, that kind of thing.”
McLellan praised Clague, but noted that he still has a lot to do before he can earn a spot in the Kings lineup for good.
“The circumstances [for him] were not easy, joining us on the road at the back end of a road trip,” he said. “[Then there was the] Christmas break, so you don’t really get your legs or comfort in. But he’s handled himself well.”
“Like players who have played 1,000 games, he’s got stuff to work on and things that he’ll need to do to become a full-time NHL player,” he added. “But he’s still relatively [early] in his career. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
McLellan declined to elaborate on what Clague still needs to work on.
“I’ll tell him that before I tell you guys that,” he said, with a grin.
That conversation will likely happen before Clague is re-assigned to the Reign. But no matter what, the young defenseman prospect does indeed seem to have a bright future, as McLellan indicated.
“I’ve only played three games, but I think I can only get better from here,” said Clague. “The more experience I get, the more comfortable I’ll get, and I’ll get more confidence. I think I can contribute here.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Kale Clague. Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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