Much has been made about the Kings retaining their first round draft picks in both 2017 and 2018 after going several years without one due to various trades. And while GM Rob Blake has been given ample credit for placing a heavy emphasis on re-stocking a thinning prospect pool, let’s not forget one other item. There probably has not been a better team in the league over the past 10 years when it comes to plucking gems out of the top 50 picks.
Will forward Aidan Dudas, selected by Los Angeles in the fourth round this past June, become the latest example of such value achieved by the organization and their scouts?
To hear Akil Thomas, one of the team’s top selections in 2018, tell it – you’d certainly think so…
More – "He's really fast, pretty strong for a smaller guy; you can't really knock him off his feet too easily & he scores some really nice goals. He’s one of those players you don't want to play against. I love the fact he's an underdog. He's going to prove a lot of people wrong”
— The Mayor John Hoven (@mayorNHL) September 7, 2018
The past year or so has been fairly memorable for the 18-year-old center. Dudas has been on a continuous run upward since winning a gold medal with Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August 2017. He followed that up with a breakout second season in the OHL, posting 65 points in 68 regular season games as a member of the Owen Sound Attack, placing him third on his team in scoring. Despite his seven additiinal points in 11 playoffs games, that club didn’t get as far as they wanted in the postseason. No problem for Dudas, though. He simply joined Canada again a few weeks later; this time at the Under-18 World Championship. Ah, yes, then he was drafted by the Kings in June – something that still really hasn’t fully set in.
“Growing up, my dad never played hockey so I was never really around it a lot growing up,” Dudas told us during a recent conversation. “I wasn’t really like Brady Tkachuk, where his dad played in the NHL and his brother played above him. I didn’t grow up like that. When I was first drafted into the OHL [10th overall], I didn’t really know what that meant. I just went out there and played hockey and had fun, I was just doing what I loved to do. I didn’t really understand what it meant. Playing two years in junior and then getting drafted by an NHL team, you start to understand – the dream is coming true; good things will come if you keep working.”
And that’s exactly what he’s been doing all summer. First came a trip to Southern California in July for Development Camp. It was filled with the usual drills, scrimmages, workouts, and whatnot from the Kings development staff. There were also a few trips to the beach, Dudas somewhat sheepishly shared.
“Going to the beach was pretty cool because got to see a lot of girls there,” he remarked, with the slightest hint of a laugh. “Being teenage guys, it’s pretty fun to be around a beach like that. Then, when I came back home, everybody kept saying, ‘You got an LA tan on you, eh?’ ”
Perhaps a little beach life in LA would have been the capper to a nearly perfect year. Why nearly? Well, there was that one little drama surrounding him not being invited to the NHL Top Prospects Game back in January. Eventually, it worked itself out and he was added to the festivities. However, being left out initially did cause some hurt feelings and confusion, for sure.
“I really believed that I should have been on that team to start with,” he explained. “I had all my hopes up — I really believed, my agent really believed, my teammates believed, my coaches, everybody — I should have been there. When the list came out and I wasn’t on it, it was pretty tough for me. I really do have to thank my teammates and coaches for being so supportive because I was pretty upset at the time. My coach tried telling me not to worry about it and that there were many teams out there that really liked me. He said, ‘I think it’s baloney that you’re not there; I really believe that you should be. Everyone in this room believes you should be there, so just keep playing the way you’re playing and good things will come to you.’ When they didn’t see enough in me, I started trying to identify what I needed to do to get better. Some people doubt me and some people don’t believe in me because of my size or whatever it may be. But I take that and I think, ‘What can I do to get better?’ and ‘What can I do to make my overall game get better?’ I think that really helped me in the long run.”
Of course, the size issue. We were going to have to get to that eventually. Listed at 5-foot-7, or somewhere thereabouts, the scouting report we received on him following Draft weekend was: ‘Obviously he’s a smaller player, but plays a skill-game and showed willingness to play in hard areas. He has high-end character.’ It all sounded right off the menu for an LA Kings player, except the size part.
It’s a topic he doesn’t run from, though.
“You know, being a hockey player, there’s stuff that you can control and there’s stuff that you can’t control. For me, I can’t control my size,” noted Dudas. “I can’t control how tall I’m going to be. Everything else that I can do on the ice, I try to control. That being said, it makes me work ten times as hard as it would if I was 6-foot-2 and just had everything given to me. Being this size, I understand that you have to work that much harder to be as good as the guys that are 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3. I think, in the long run, it’s going to help me because it’s taught me to be dedicated and work to get what I have right now and where I want to be.”
If it sounds like he has a good outlook on the topic, he’s literally had years to process the very notion. He opened up during our conversation and went back to a time when he was barely a teenager; back to that very moment when his height became a serious topic.
“It was after one of my games in bantam,” Dudas began, explaining in detail, as if what he was describing happened just yesterday. “I didn’t have an agent at the time. I didn’t start playing AAA until I was 14. Before that, it was just B hockey, so it wasn’t very competitive at all and it was just in my small hometown. When I went to AAA, I was talking with an agent – he was from a different agency that the one I’m with right now – and his first question was, ‘Are you going to grow?’ I said, ‘I’m 14, I don’t really know.’ He really wanted to know if I was going to grow and I had the feeling that they didn’t want to take me as one of their clients if I didn’t think I was going to grow. They kept asking, ‘How tall is your dad? How tall is your mom? How tall is your brother?’ My dad’s not very tall and my brothers aren’t very tall. After I told them their height they kind of just quieted down and said, ‘You know, we think we’re going to go in a different way.’ I guess they didn’t want me as one of their clients because I was too small.
“When I drove off with my dad, he said, ‘Don’t worry about that Aidan; there’s going to be plenty of opportunities. There will be other people asking to be your agent. Just keep your love for the game and it doesn’t matter how tall you are. All that matters is if you play with heart and if you play with passion.”
As hard as that may have been for Dudas to make sense of at the time, the comments and questions intensified from that point forward – and they came from all angles – until a narrative shift began to take hold more recenlty.
“A lot has really changed since then,” he continued. “Almost every NHL team that I’ve talked to said, ‘We don’t care about size anymore. We don’t care that you’re small. If you understand how to play the game and you play the game the right way, then we like you as a player.’ That’s really helped me focus on what I have to do and hopefully I can just keep that up.”
Putting one foot in front of the other and marching forward may sound a little bit cliché. Yet, that’s exactly what Dudas has been doing all summer. He isn’t content to sit back and reflect on a great 2017-18 campaign or even all the experiences that came with it – including being named the Most Underrated Player (Western Conference) in the OHL Coaches Poll. Instead, he remains eyes-wide-open about how these next few weeks could alter his eventual course in the world of hockey.
Fresh on the heels of the NHL Rookie Tournament in Las Vegas, he’s excited to be heading into main camp with the Kings. Still, he did find pause long enough to remember something that will likely stay with him for the rest of his life.
“Putting the Kings sweater on for the first time was a surreal feeling for me,” he said, in reference to Game 1 of the tournament. “I thought it was a great experience to play the games in Las Vegas and to learn from older, more experienced guys. I think I benefited a lot from those three games.”
There’s also the little matter of the number he was assigned for Dev Camp and has continued to wear since returning to Los Angeles.
“It was a little weird,” he said, when we asked him about wearing No. 87. “You don’t get to choose your number. So when I arrived in July and I was number 87, it became pretty funny. Just about everywhere I went all week, the development staff, or my teammates, every time I walked by they’d say, ‘What’s up Sid?’ or ‘What’s up Crosby?’ So it was kind of funny.”
All joking aside, Dudas knows he’s entering the more serious part of camp at this point.
“I don’t think you change really anything big right now; you just keep doing what you’re doing,” he said, in just another example of his level-headed approach to life as NHL prospect. “Being an offensive player, I really have to work on my talents – whether it’s my speed or my stick-handling abilities, or my shot. I think my game is really all about offense. So I really need to keep getting better at those little things, whether it’s in-tight hands or quick feeds out of the corner or long strides, whatever it may be. I think anything offensively, I hope to [continue to] improve and keep growing my confidence, as well. I’m just very honored to be able to get the chance to learn and grow in an organization like this. Right now, my expectations going into main camp are just to try to learn as much as possible and have fun doing it. I want to try to stay here in LA for as long as I can.”
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