In addition to all the craziness 2021 has already brought to the NHL, this is also a make-or-break season for Kings rookie Kale Clague. Originally selected by LA at the 2017 Draft (second round, 51st overall), he’s spent the past two years with AHL Ontario and is now expected to rotate spots with Tobias Bjornfot on the big club’s roster. Neither require waivers this season, so they can be somewhat interchanged with ease in a tight roster situation.
However, possible playing time is a whole other issue – and perhaps that’s a bit of a concern, as well.
Normally, patience would be the operative word for a 22-year-old defenseman as versatile as Clague. Not only can he play both the right and left sides effectively, he’s also packs a little offensive punch while patrolling the blueline.
There’s something lurking in the background, though. A mythical sea creature of sorts. Coming up this July, another Expansion Draft will be conducted by the league, this time to help stock the Seattle Kraken. They’ll become the NHL’s 32nd club next season. Yet, first they’ll need some players. And per the rules already established, Clague is somewhat caught in the middle — or sitting just the outside, if you will.
Meaning, the Kings need to make a decision on what to do with him. Overall, GM Rob Blake is in a pretty good position for next summer’s Expansion Draft. In fact, 14 of the Kings Top 15 Ranked Prospects are actually exempt from being taken by Seattle. Clague is the exception. LA will need to either protect him or leave him exposed, where he could potentially be poached by the Kraken.
Protecting any player in the Expansion Draft typically comes with a secondary set of decisions. For example, in protecting Clague, the Kings would then have to leave somebody else exposed. More on all of the potential offsetting decisions can be found here – along with the Expansion Draft rules.
For now, Clague just needs to play. He needs to show Blake and coach Todd McLellan that the skills he’s been honing in the American League over the past two seasons have him primed and ready for NHL life.
His first taste of life with the Kings came just before Christmas about a year ago. Clague made his NHL debut in Buffalo, logging 17:57 of ice time. He returned to the Kings lineup for three more games after the holiday break, suiting up for contests against Vancouver, Philadelphia, and Nashville. He then went back to the Reign, where he was part of the AHL All-Star Game in late January. Six weeks later, all professional hockey was shut down unexpectedly.
And for the second year in a row, it was as if the rug had been pulled out from under Clague. In March 2019, the night before he was to be called up to the Kings for the very first time, he suffered a season ending injury.
That’s all in the past, if you ask Clague. He believes he took advantage of the extended time off in 2020 to best prepare his mind and body for a breakthrough season in 2021. He’s full of optimism and just looking for an opportunity to show what he can do on a nightly basis.
Due to MacDermind and Sean Walker being under protocol guidelines last week, Clague was able to sneak into the Kings season opener, playing 15:19. Now he’s even hungrier for more.
“He earned the opportunity to start the season and played well,” said McLellan on Wednesday. “He’s going to get another chance here quite soon to get back into the lineup.”
From the look of things at practice today, Clague’s next game could come as early as Thursday vs. Colorado.
“His development here, from what I’m aware, matches his development in junior. By the fourth year there, he was a dominant defenseman in junior; took a little time and D-men take a little longer. But I think he did a tremendous job over the summer to come into camp prepared to compete for a position. He has good legs, good vision, and was very capable of playing the night he played and I’m sure he’ll get another opportunity coming up.”
For his part, Clague believes he’s up for the task.
Clague on getting ready for what’s ahead
I went into the quarantine thinking it was a great opportunity to continue my development. In terms of strength, think I took advantage of that opportunity with those nine or ten months. I really put on some good weight and I feel strong. I feel a lot faster, I just got myself as prepared as possible. In terms of stress, being a young guy, you always want to be on your toes and you don’t want to be the one to mess up or anything like that, but it’s still hockey and I’m just approaching it as another game.
On the areas of his game he feels he’s made significant improvement and what he’d still like to work on
I think the area I’ve taken the most strides in is my d-zone. Quite frankly, that’s an area that I’m still looking to take more strides in. I think I’m offensively-minded first. Coming into pro, obviously that was a big area where I needed to improve if I wanted to get to this level. I think I’ve done that, but I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. Like I said, I’m gonna keep focusing on that area. … Also, plays in the corners and in movement. I just want to focus on having a great stick and defending with my feet. My skating is my best attribute, so if I can defend them with my feet and have a good stick and just stop movement and break up a lot more plays than I think I’m gonna be better off.
On why he changed his number to 58 this season
The inside jokes you need to start your morning… pic.twitter.com/wVVr9YnYoj
— John Hoven | The Mayor (@mayorNHL) January 14, 2021
On who has had the most influence on his game since he turned pro a few years ago
I think [Sean O’Donnell] has really helped me a lot. He’s the primary person, in terms of D-development when I’ve been in Ontario. He was a defensive defenseman when he played and he’s given me a lot of great pointers. He helped me a lot along the way wit video and being able to be hands-on on the ice. Most importantly, in the D zone. He’s probably been the most influential for sure.
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Lead photo via Getty Images / LA Kings