When Kings prospect Brandon Kozun was in LA last month as part of the ‘Black Aces’ group, he greeted us with the same attitude we’ve come to expect over the last few years – “It’s awesome to be back. I love this place,” he told MayorsManor upon arriving in town. “Any time I can come back and spend some time here, it’s always a great time.”
And the 23-year old forward likes the organization enough that he just agreed to a one-year extension.
Yet, as we’ve documented over the last few weeks, GM Dean Lombardi has his hands full with a number of restricted free agents this summer. So, it was a bit of a surprise when Kozun’s new contract was announced yesterday.
“It moved along pretty quickly,” Kozun explained when we spoke by phone earlier today. “I was getting some pretty heavy offers from Europe and it came to a point where I had to make a decision. My agent and Hexy (Ron Hextall) had a pretty good conversation, it was a couple phone calls back and forth. At the end of the day, I like what they had to say about me and where my future lies.”
Don’t worry though. If you were reading that and having flashbacks of another Kings prospect bolting to Europe, think again. This wasn’t about to be a sequel to Bud Holloway’s European Adventure.
“My biggest plan is to play in the NHL,” Kozun stated with authority. “You dream of playing in the NHL your whole life, and that’s where you want to be. Europe will be there after I’m done chasing this. Right now, I’m going to try to do my best to get to the NHL.”
Which leaves us with this – just what does a former WHL scoring champion (107 points in 2009-10) have to do to get a sniff at the NHL these days?
“That’s up to him, right?” said Lombardi, when we recently asked if Kozun had a legit shot of making the Kings roster someday. “I think he’s made improvement in (many) areas…and there’s no question he’s better. In junior hockey, he was really a scorer, and he’d cheat. That’s what’s really hard with those kids. You really have to understand that I don’t know who cheats in this league anymore. Unless you’re going to be Pavel Bure, the coaches have to be able to trust you in all three zones. No question he’s made progress on that, but he has to continue to, and he’s still got to score, right? He’s not going to be a checker. You’re going to have to score. Yes, that’s part of your resume, but not at the expense, like you were able to cheat in junior hockey. It’s a big adjustment for kids like that.”
On paper, Kozun seems to have handled the adjustment just fine thus far. Originally selected by the Kings at the 2009 NHL Draft, he’s posted at least 20-goals each of his first three years in the AHL.
However, last season may have been his finest all-around performance. Kozun was second on the Monarchs in goals (26) and points (56), and his plus-12 rating was among the leaders in forwards who played at least 60 games for Manchester.
“It’s just another year of developing, getting better, becoming a better pro,” he said. “We had some ups and downs as a team, some inconsistencies. But, you can learn from it a little bit and get better too. People always say you have to learn from mistakes. Winning is fun, winning is easy – well, not easy – but you learn from losing. I think sometimes this year we dealt with adversity, and I think that only makes you a better player and a better person.”
It’s that type of maturity and growth that have helped fuel his development over the past few years.
“When you first come in, you’re young, and you’re coming off a junior career where everything came so easily. You think you’re ready, but maybe you aren’t. I think the biggest thing I needed to realize were the small things in my game that I needed to get better at – and some big things too. But, if you look at my game now versus when I first came in, I think there is a significant difference.”
Knowing that improvement in a pro athlete can rarely be traced to one single item, Kozun also credits Monarchs coach Mark Morris for helping him in several key areas – and it wasn’t always easy.
“He’s been very tough on me,” Kozun shared. “So, I think he’s helped me grow stronger mentally. Obviously he’s helped me a lot with the defensive side of the game too. But, when I came in, I think he humbled me a lot. Maybe I was a little young and not knowing what to expect. As a guy that’s been told he can’t do it a lot, sometimes the chip on my shoulder can come off as a little arrogant. As much as I’m not trying to be that way, I think people take it the wrong way sometimes. He’s helped me to learn how to cloak that a little bit, be a better teammate, and be more coachable.”
“I think if you look at my game, I’ve improved every year and gotten better every year. It’s not just in the major areas you need to look at, it’s the small things as well. It’s being able to play a strong two-way game, it’s getting pucks in and out of the zone. It’s all those little things that make you a winner, and that’s what LA is looking for…And when I do get a chance, I don’t want to go back to the American League. I want to stay in the NHL. I think that’s what LA does a very good job at, they develop their players well enough that when they do get their chance, they’re there to stay and they’re ready for the NHL. They don’t go back.”
Times have changed, indeed. The kid who used to come to camp exclaiming he was ready for the NHL, is now more understanding of the process.
“I definitely see where teams are coming from with developing their players for a couple of years. You look at the Detroit Red Wings, they’ve done as good of a job as anyone has. They kind of have the same philosophy as LA. It seems to work.”
Kozun’s immediate goal is Rookie Camp in September, where he’ll once again try to get noticed. Until then, his new contract is providing a little extra motivation for the training he’s putting in.
“They still like me as a prospect,” he said. “It’s always encouraging to hear that a team still wants you. Anytime they say that, you still have a chance. So, I’m going to keep growing as a player and a person and hopefully one day get a chance to play in the NHL.”
Yet, as honest as he is about his own development, he also admits to noticing some challenges ahead.
“It’s not very difficult to see the Kings’ depth chart and see what they have. They’ve been a very good team for the past couple seasons and there isn’t a whole lot of room there. But on the other hand, injuries do happen, and that’s a way of getting your foot in the door.”
Whatever it takes to achieve the dream, that’s the mindset at the moment. But for Kozun, the chance to wear a Kings sweater has always been about more than just a kid dreaming of the NHL.
“Being a guy who grew up here, seeing what Staples Center is like these days, it’s awesome,” he said, while swiftly mixing reflections of his childhood with more current feelings and emotions. “It shows that there are a lot of great Kings fans, and a lot of great hockey fans in this state, in this city. I went to a lot of games at the Forum, in fact I skated on the Forum ice a couple times – at intermission, I was one of those little kids skating. It was a cool rink, and obviously I got to watch Wayne Gretzky and some of the great guys who played there. But the atmosphere at Staples during the playoffs this year, that was pretty unreal.”
Like the overall improvement of hockey in California, Kozun seems to be getting better with time.
Now, as Lombardi put it, it’s up to him.
If the fiery forward is true to his word though, the best memories are still to come – and he’ll be making them as a member of the LA Kings.
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