LOS ANGELES — Last season, his second in the American Hockey League, Austin Strand received virtually no attention, in terms of his development, not to mention his potential for becoming a full-fledged National Hockey League defenseman prospect.
The 23-year-old native of Calgary, Alberta went undrafted, and was signed by the Kings as a free agent on November 27, 2017. You can read the story about how the Kings discovered and signed the 6-3, 216-pound, right-hand shot defenseman, beating out two other NHL teams who were also pursuing him at:
Strand worked hard to make an impression in training camp, and after a solid showing in the Kings Black and White scrimmage game just prior to the start of the 2021 season, he moved up on the depth chart.
“I’m an undrafted guy, so coming into camp, I knew I was going to have to be as sharp as I could be, as good as I could be, just to get noticed,” he said. “I had a good black and white game—I think that’s where I stood out, and got on the radar a little bit more. Then, I went down to the [Ontario] Reign and had some good exhibition games. Then, I got the call, finally, and I think I’ve been playing pretty consistently.”
“I think I do have a chip on my shoulder, coming in as that undrafted guy,” he added. “But this has been the goal my whole career, to get to the NHL.”
With defensemen Sean Walker and Matt Roy out of the lineup due to injury, Strand got the call to join the Kings on February 5, and after four NHL games this season, he recorded his first NHL point on February 11, with an assist in a 6-2 win over the San Jose Sharks at Staples Center. That, along with some very solid play in all three zones, has been quite the surprise, as Strand has shown off his skating, puck-moving skills, and offensive abilities, while doing more than hold his own defensively, earning almost 16 minutes per game in ice time.
No one is saying that Strand is the second coming of Bobby Orr. That said, he is making a much bigger impression than anyone realistically expected.
“Strand has looked awesome,” said star defenseman Drew Doughty. “I didn’t really know what to expect, because I hadn’t seen him play in a game before. But he looked like he’s been in the league for a couple of years.”
“He works hard, in practice, off the ice,” said veteran defenseman Olli Matta, who has been paired with Strand. “That’s a good sign. He just wants to get better every day, and that’s a big thing.”
“He has a lot of weapons, and he’s a pretty fluid skater,” added Maata. “He thinks the game the right way, and he plays the game the right way. He has some offense, but he doesn’t cheat the game. He’s going to be a really good player.”
Maata took note of the poise Strand has played with, even in his NHL debut.
“It’s always exciting to play in your first game [in the NHL], and he had some nerves,” said Maata. “But right away, when he hopped out there, he looked like he had been in the league for a couple of years.”
“He didn’t look like he had any nerves,” added Maata. “He just played. We also talked a lot about little things—what each other likes to do on the ice, where they want the puck, which way they want to go. Things like that where you want to get on the same page, so I think it’s been working pretty good.”
Strand indicated that he has quickly gotten a feel for what he needs to do on the ice at the NHL level.
“Confidence and getting comfortable, and getting settled in [after four games have helped him],” he said. “Also knowing the guys a bit more, and knowing my routine before games.”
Strand’s coaches have been impressed.
“I’ve been getting some feedback from the coaching staff,” he said. “[Assistant coach Trent Yawney] has been talking to me. After every game, he’s been coming up to me, because we had a chat in the summertime about playing consistently, because that’ll help me stay in the lineup. After [Strand’s first game with the Kings], he said, ‘that’s game one. Let’s keep it going.’ He’s been sending that message—keep playing consistently. Keep playing the way I’ve been playing.”
“He said that he’s been happy with the way I’ve been playing, and I’ve gotten some food feedback from Todd [McLellan], too, and some of the older guys,” added Strand.
One aspect of Strand’s game that has been a real surprise has been the passing ability he has shown in his four games with the Kings—something he worked on last season with the Reign.
“I’ve definitely been trying to think about that more in my game,” he noted. “[Former Kings defenseman and current member of their development staff Sean O’Donnell] was really hard on me for that last year, and [former Ontario Reign head coach Mike Stothers], too. He ingrained that in me pretty hard. [Reign assistant coach Chris Hajt, as well]—making crisp, good passes.”
“It started in practice,” he added. “I was getting a little but lackadaisical—missing some passes. So lately, that’s been a big priority of mine, to make sure it’s on the tape, most importantly. Just a nice, flat, crisp pass.”
When Roy and Walker return to the lineup—both are right-hand defensemen—Strand could find himself back on the taxi squad, or even assigned to the Reign. Although that would be a personal setback for him, no matter how you slice it, Strand has taken a tremendous leap in his development, which bodes very well for the Kings and their rebuilding efforts.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman prospect Austin Strand, shown here during the 2018 Rookie Tournament at City National Arena in Summerlin, Nevada on September 11, 2018. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
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