The following article is part of a continuing series this season, where MayorsManor correspondent David Hofreiter provides commentary on prospects playing in the Canadian-based major junior leagues and US-based college hockey programs. He’ll spend time tracking a player, then offer some opinions and observations based on a single game or multiple games, depending on the points being presented.
It’s been said you can’t always go home, but for 20-year-old Alex Roach, a return to Calgary may be just what he needs at this point in his career.
However, before we get to that part of the story, let’s quickly review the journey he’s been on over the few months.
Undrafted, but signed by the Kings as a free agent he 2011, the hulking defenseman had his first taste of the professional leagues this season, playing three games for the Ontario Reign. After initially being assigned to Manchester, he departed the AHL before ever cracking the line-up, largely due to the Monarchs having too many guys ahead of him on the depth chart.
There was also the matter of recovering from an injury, as well.
“I had shoulder surgery in the summer,” Roach began to explain. “I didn’t get to do anything during the Development Camp in LA [in July], just sort of watched and did some rehab. So, at main camp I just tried to learn as much as I could.”
From the moment it was announced Roach was being sent to Ontario, coach Jason Christie knew exactly what he was getting – “He’s definitely a big kid who can shoot the puck.”
Yet, his time with the Reign wasn’t really about racking up points.
“First and foremost, it’s just about him playing,” Christie continued. “It’s tough when you’re sitting out up there. He was able to come [here] and make sure he’s getting the ice time. Get him into the bump and grind a bit to get him used to those situations…It’s game shape. You need to [not just] be in shape, but game shape.”
Even though he felt he was ready for the AHL, Roach agreed he was probably still in catch-up mode.
“I didn’t get to do as much in the summer as I would [have liked]. My shoulder limited me on doing a lot of things. I was a little bit behind, but I tried to work as hard as I could to catch up. I think now I’m starting to find my stride a little bit more, but I still have a lot of work to do to find my game that I’m accustomed to.”
For Reign assistant coach Mark Hardy, he sees some positive attributes in Roach – they just need some refining.
“He has an NHL shot. He’s got to learn how to get it away a little bit quicker,” said the former NHL defenseman. “He’s very quiet. I [tried getting] him to talk on the ice because that’s a big part of the pro game.”
For a guy like Hardy, who also served as an assistant coach in the NHL, he’s found there’s a delicate balance that needs to be met when working with younger players.
“It’s just learning the little things, like how to finish your check, how to make the easy plays. It’s not about taking the puck and going end to end with it. It’s moving it when you have someone in front of you and just learning how to do that. Sometimes kids out of junior, because they can skate end to end with the puck…it’s a little different up here. There’s a little more structure.”
Perhaps he wasn’t ready just yet. He posted three assists in three games with the Reign, but the Kings felt he would be better off spending another year in junior. So, late last week he was returned to the Calgary Hitmen, his home for the three previous seasons.
On Sunday, he suited up for his first Western Hockey League game of the year, much to the delight of the local fans. It’s also possible returning Roach to the WHL will provide him an opportunity to further develop his leadership skills, as he was already sporting an ‘A’ on his jersey for the match-up with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Unfortunately, he had an inauspicious start, taking a holding penalty on his first shift of the game. Once free from the penalty box, Roach had an extended shift beginning with his team icing the puck after killing the penalty. He was stuck with the Hitmen’s fourth line, while the Oil Kings sent out their top line. After sustained pressure, the Oil Kings struck first and gave Roach his first minus of the season.
The goal against was not his fault; he drifted across the crease to cover an open man to his goaltender’s left. The scorer carried the puck from the netminder’s right, with a defenseman already on him, and buried the shot high to the short side. Sometimes, even the right decisions yield the wrong results.
Even so, Roach’s decision making was a little more questionable later in the opening frame when he laid a thunderous hit on a player along the boards. This choice wouldn’t have been so scary if he had defensive support at the time; consequently, the puck squirted free to the middle of the ice, and another Oil Kings forward picked it up and skated in untouched for a prime scoring opportunity. Calgary’s goalie made the save though, and kept his team in the game.
Later, Roach took a second penalty before the period ended.
As time progressed, Roach started to look a lot more comfortable. For example, he began firing rockets from the right point while on the power play. Further, his punishing checks were more appropriately timed. He made small, safe passes out of the defensive zone. And when the Hitmen were trailing late in the game, Roach made smart activations to generate scoring opportunities. Once he started settling in and playing his game, Roach showed a lot of potential.
His overall style was that of an offensive-defenseman, with a mean streak. While he had a shin-breaking slap shot, he also made subtle stickhandles to buy himself more time and openings. He loved to make big hits, and made sure the opposition felt every bit of his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame. Despite these strengths to his game, he missed a lot of shots and he took himself out of position with some of his hits.
All facets of his skating looked average at best for someone his age. He didn’t have good top end speed, and it took a bit of time for him to reach it. He has done some power skating sessions at the Los Angeles Kings Development Camp in the past, but he looked like he could use some more sessions.
Overall, Roach didn’t have the best start to the game, but looked better as he settled down. He showed a lot of upside as a big, mean defenseman who wants to contribute offensively. His defensive positioning, when he didn’t get overzealous, was good. His fundamentals in skating and shot placement were somewhat flawed. So, there’s still work to be done.
“They definitely gave me a lot of feedback,” Roach told MayorsManor, speaking about the Kings’ management team. “They tried to help me improve my game. I guess I’m not ready right now, but I’m just trying to push myself to get up to the next level.”
Being an undrafted player puts a little extra pressure on him too.
“You have to work harder than the next guy to get to the NHL. You always have to push that pace. You always have to outwork that guy next to you and hopefully your time will come. You just have to put the work and then we’ll see what happens.”
As another old saying goes, time will tell.
For more reports from this series, please see the links below.
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