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Hockey

Kings’ Ontario affiliate provides groundwork for their NHL rebuild

Kings rookie defenseman Sean Walker celebrates his empty goal with Anze Kopitar (11) and Drew Doughty (8) during the third period of a win Nov. 12 over the Wild.
Kings rookie defenseman Sean Walker celebrates his empty-net goal with Anze Kopitar (11) and Drew Doughty (8) during the third period of a win Nov. 12 over the Wild.
(Getty Images)

The sight was too familiar. Mike Stothers had to tell somebody.

It was early October and the Kings were in Calgary, playing their second game of the season. Stothers, the longtime coach of the club’s minor league affiliate, the Ontario Reign, was watching from home.

Minutes into the game, deja vu struck.

Rookie Sean Walker, a three-year veteran of Stothers’ squad with the Reign, scored a goal from a sharp angle, banking in a shot from the corner of the ice off the goalie. During the speedy defenseman’s steady development in the American Hockey League, such comical trickery had become a clever trademark — “the king of bad-angle goals,” Stothers said with a laugh.

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When Stothers saw Walker do it at the NHL level, he picked up his phone and texted Reign captain Brent Sutter: “Oh, there it is. There’s Walks.”

The former 11th overall pick by the Kings, Gabe Vilardi, appeared in just four games last season with the Reign before he losing his season to an injury. Now, he’s ready to play.

Moments like these have been common for Stothers this season. Of the seven players from last year’s Reign team now on the Kings roster, Walker and center Michael Amadio have been perhaps the most impressive. Together, they’ve become more than a couple of promising pieces of the future — two templates for the rest of the franchise’s up-and-coming wave of talent to follow.

“Most of these guys need a year or two, sometimes three years of seasoning,” Stothers said, “before everything falls into place.”

Stothers’ current Reign roster includes many potential faces of tomorrow.

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Centers Jaret Anderson-Dolan (2017 second-round pick) and Rasmus Kupari (2018 first-round pick) anchor two of Ontario’s lines. Tobias Bjornfot (2019 first-round pick) and Mikey Anderson (2017 fourth-round pick) headline the defense. Goaltender Cal Petersen, who signed a three-year extension with the Kings this offseason after a brief NHL stint last season, has starred in net. Gabe Vilardi (2017 first-round pick) is returning to action on Friday from a long-term back injury.

Together, they comprise much of the Kings’ potential future core. But before being ushered to the NHL, the club wants them to try and perfect their craft at the AHL level.

Kings center Michael Amadio (10) eyes the puck in front a pack of Red Wings during a game Nov. 14 at Staples Center.
Kings center Michael Amadio (10) eyes the puck in front a pack of Red Wings during a game Nov. 14 at Staples Center.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

“There’s that transition for them all, and it’s perfect,” said Stothers, who is in his sixth season coaching the Kings’ top farm team. “Everybody just assumes that these guys are going to dominate. Well, very seldom does it happen. It’s part of the patience, part of the process.”

This season, Walker and Amadio are becoming prime examples.

Though slightly undersized at 5 feet 11 and 196 pounds, Walker was already a dominant skater when he turned pro as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Two seasons in the AHL rounded out the rest of his game.

He learned to dictate play in the defensive zone with his stick. Instead of prematurely skating up the ice on breakouts, he utilized his speed to stay more positionally sound. Most of all, he figured out how to fit into the flow of a pro game.

Walker’s production flourished, with 45 points and a plus-22 rating in 86 career AHL games. This season, he has nine points, a team-best plus-four rating and has been one of the Kings’ most consistent defensemen.

“If you’re going to be relied on down there to go out and play in every situation and succeed in those situations,” Walker said of his AHL time, “you just build confidence.”

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Amadio needed three seasons with the Reign to find a necessary fearlessness in his game. In juniors, the soft-spoken center’s elite stick skill compensated for his less-dominant skating, leading to a 50-goal, 98-point outburst in his final Ontario Hockey League season.

The Kings are in turmoil in more ways than one because of Ilya Kovalchuk and his massive contract.

But adjusting to the faster, more physical pro game took time. The little spaces he exploited at the lower levels suddenly disappeared. At times, his confidence seemingly vanished with it.

“Whenever I saw Mike when he played at the American Hockey League level, he would do all these things that I knew he could do,” Stothers said. “But then, if he got called up, he didn’t necessarily play that way, or he didn’t necessarily have the confidence to pull it off.”

That’s not the case anymore. Amadio has earned a full-time role in the NHL this season. Through the early weeks of the season, he was one of the Kings’ top forwards. After two healthy scratches in late October, he has rediscovered his consistent form in the lineup.

Coach Todd McLellan has used Amadio on both special-teams units. Amadio has the best Corsi-For percentage (a puck possession metric that tracks a team’s shot attempts for and against while a player is on the ice) of any full-time Kings center. And when Stothers watches Amadio carry the puck up the ice and create chances in the offensive end, he sees “the guy that was making the right plays in the American Hockey League.”

For a franchise in transition, such stories are proof of how their prospect development process can work. After all, the Kings’ current rebuild figures to be like the construction of a high rise. Before their struggling NHL squad can start stacking up again, their AHL team has to help lay the foundation.

Service time with the Reign provides benefits the hectic pace of an NHL season doesn’t allow. The minor league schedule is centered around a majority of weekend games, freeing up added development time in the middle of the week.

Once a month, the Reign hold “development days” with the Kings’ player development staff, spending extra time on the ice to sharpen skills. In Stothers, the club has a coach who can draw on nearly two decades of head coaching experience between juniors and the AHL.

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Nelson Emerson, the Kings’ director of player personnel, sees another important AHL thread, one that sounds trite but has proven to be true.

“Nothing’s handed to them,” he said. “If things are handed to the player and all of a sudden they make it to the NHL, and then things start going poorly in the NHL and they go backward, sometimes that has a real negative effect on the athlete. If they start at the top, and then they go backward, sometimes you can’t get that player back up to the top.”

Which is why, tempting as it might be for the Kings to begin fast-tracking their rebuild and relying on their rookie prospects in the NHL now, they’re trying to stay the course, confident this cautious and calculated approach will pay off in the future.

“History shows that if you spend your time in the AHL, play there and hone your craft and become a real good player there, work on your things that you need to work on,” Emerson said, “when you get to the NHL you’ll be that much better of a player.”


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