With all apologies to Alan Iverson, yes, we are talking about practice.
Normally, preseason games are simply that – practice for the upcoming regular season. Depending on the year, there may be a few bubble players pushing to make a roster, so they’re trying to impress the coaches. Again, though, they’re practice games.
So then why did the Ontario Reign schedule six preseason games this season?
They normally play one or two, but six?
Five of the six games will be played at the Kings practice facility, without any fans. It’s not about money then.
This is about one thing above all else… getting their prospects back into competitive environments as soon as possible. More specifically, the Kings are looking to get Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev into as many games as they can before the clock strikes twelve.
In short, here’s the deal:
Because of an agreement between the NHL and CHL (the governing body over all three Canadian junior leagues – WHL, OHL, and QMJHL), players drafted by NHL teams from the CHL cannot be sent to the American League when they’re as young as Byfield and Kaliyev.
Similar aged players, like Tobias Bjornfot and Alex Turcotte, are AHL eligible because they weren’t drafted out of one of the three Canadian junior leagues. They fall under different rules.
More on that was explained in article here – Understanding NHL Prospect Rules is a Sport in Itself
Typically, these younger CHL prospects attend NHL training camps for a few weeks each September and then are eventually returned to their junior team as that season’s NHL roster starts to take shape (as happened with Kaliyev, Akil Thomas, and a handful of other Kings prospects last season).
Thus, Byfield and Kaliyev would have likely already been returned to the OHL in a normal year. Sure, occasionally, NHL teams will keep players like this around and evaluate them in a few NHL games before returning them to junior hockey. However, considering the makeup of the Kings current NHL roster, they don’t really have a spot to easily sneak Byfield or Kaliyev into the lineup (without first putting somebody else on waivers to make room for them).
Why does any of this matter? Isn’t it as simple as the Kings don’t want to burn a year off of their Entry Level Contracts, so they plan on sending Byfield and Kaliyev back to juniors?
Well, not exactly.
There is a very short window here to take advantage of an extremely unique situation. The OHL season is currently on pause. They’ve said they intend to play, but have yet to announce any details. And until they do, there’s a pseudo loophole in the aforementioned CHL-NHL agreement. Byfield and Kaliyev can play in the AHL right now and they can stay there as long as the OHL is paused. Once this loophole goes away, the Kings will need to make a decision on what to do – and it’s largely believed they will be sent to the OHL. Remember, with the OHL playing, the Kings only options for either player will be NHL or OHL, the AHL goes away due to their age.
Until then, though, both players are with AHL Ontario; which is a major thrust behind the importance of these six preseason games. The Kings can’t wait for the AHL to begin their regular season on Feb. 5 – it could be too late by then, the OHL might be back up and running and the loophole closed.
Time is ticking. There’s a possibility Byfield and/or Kaliyev could impress the Kings brass enough to force a serious conversation, resulting in them possibly playing in the NHL this season.
This is also why Byfield and Kaliyev were sent to the AHL and not just simply placed on the Kings taxi squad to ride out time waiting for the OHL. While it would have been beneficial for both prospects to be around the big club for a few weeks and practicing with NHL players, that would have been a wasted opportunity. Kings management want to see Byfield and Kaliyev playing games, not practicing.
Given the gravity of this unique situation — and in an attempt to have some fun with the whole thing — we’ve dubbed the six-game exhibition season the Kanko Cup, in honor of training camp legend of Kings past, Petr Kanko.
It is hereby declared, the upcoming six-game Ontario Reign preseason set shall be known as…
ThE KANKO CUP™️ pic.twitter.com/XjsgKGX5ol
— John Hoven | The Mayor (@mayorNHL) January 12, 2021
LA GM Rob Blake said it’s not just the next six games that are important, though.
“I think also the past two practices too,” Blake said on Wednesday. “Being able to come out of their protocol, transferring from World Juniors, and jumping right into an NHL practice – there was no grace period. They came in and they had to jump right in, but they get to be around the tempo and the pace. I thought that was really important. Now, they go and they start preparing for the American League exhibition schedule that is in place here for the next few weeks until we fully understand what the Ontario Hockey League will do. I think it’s a good opportunity for them to get right into it.”
We also asked Blake about any conversations that he and Kings coach Todd McLellan may have already had with new Reign coach John Wroblewski about how they’d like to see Byfield and Kaliyev used in the exhibition games.
“It’ll be up to John,” stated Blake. “He has a pretty good handle on it. He and Todd have been together here the last couple months, going over things, and he participated fully in training camp. If you look at that roster that will be assembled in the American League, it’s very young. So there are going to be players moved around within the lineup, whether it’s special teams and different things. There will be constant communication on how they’re used.”
Speaking of other young players who will be with the Reign, Turcotte should factor in — in a rather big way — once he’s recovered from a lower body injury sustained in the gold medal game at the World Juniors.
Blake confirms Turcotte injury took place during gold medal game. They couldn't get him into the doctor at first because he had to quarantine in LA first.
He's week-to-week. Once he clears, he'll probably skate alone for a week and then they expect to assign him to AHL Ontario.
— John Hoven | The Mayor (@mayorNHL) January 13, 2021
“I saw him continually get better,” responded Blake, when we asked for his evaluation of Turcotte during the WJC. “The one thing that really stood out was his tenacity. He’s on pucks a lot. He does a lot of work for the line and he gets things done off of that. He started getting rewarded near the end of the tournament. He’s one of those guys that brings that energy, he competes at a very high level. I thought it was a good tournament for all our prospects, but I thought Alex really developed as that tournament went on.”
Beyond Byfield and Kaliyev for a (most likely) brief time, joining Turcotte with the Ontario Reign this season will be a bevy of the Kings rookie prospects – including Akil Thomas, Tyler Madden, and Sammy Fagemo at forward, along with Cole Hults on defense. They’ll be joining a group that also includes returning players like Mikey Eyssimont, Rasmus Kupari, and Sean Durzi.
While the overall development process will be a slow-burn, as both Blake and McLellan have consistently spoke about, the race is on in at least one respect. Which of the younger players will capitalize on their opportunity first, earning a call-up to Los Angeles this season?
Wroblewski and crew were scheduled for four practices this week (Tue-Fri), before playing their first preseason game this weekend against the Ducks top prospects.
Ontario Reign Preseason Schedule:
January 16 at 1pm – at San Diego (Irvine)
January 17 at 3pm – vs. San Diego
January 22 at 3pm – vs. San Jose
January 24 at 1pm – vs. Tucson
January 25 at 1pm – vs. Tucson
January 30 at 5pm – vs. Bakersfield
All Reign regular season games will be available for streaming via the AHL TV platform. We are still awaiting word on any streaming options for the preseason games.
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