Following a pair of losses to Bakersfield, the Ontario Reign came out of this past weekend with some good news, some bad news, and a mounting list of questions.
Positively speaking, first-year pro Alex Turcotte returned to the lineup on Saturday after being sidelined for three weeks, then promptly recorded his first AHL point on Sunday.
— Eric (@Kingsgifs) March 8, 2021
In their first game with the Condors, being down five goals after 40 minutes wasn’t enough to get the Reign to quit. They battled back in third period to make it competitive. Their trio of goals came from Sammy Fagemo (his team-leading fifth goal of the season), defenseman Cameron Gaunce, and Lias Andersson. The latter was recently reassigned to the AHL on an unofficial conditioning assignment, after being out of the Kings lineup since mid-February.
— Eric (@Kingsgifs) March 7, 2021
Forward Aidan Dudas and defenseman Cole Hults were both a healthy scratch on Saturday, but returned to the lineup on Sunday. This wasn’t just a case of having too many bodies, coach John Wroblewski was trying to send a message.
And those questions? The list is quite long. Starting with: Why can’t the team seem to start on time and play a competitive first period? What needs to improve immediately for the team to turn things around (they’ve lost seven straight and 12 of 13 this season)? What is going on in practice?
Wroblewski at least attempted to shed some light on the situation:
On how he would evaluate the impact the coaches have been able to have on this team thus far in 2021
That’s a complex question. I think it’s very difficult to maybe say that when you’re around it every day. Is growth being made? I would say that we’re learning a lot of lessons about each other. I’d say that the players are showing signs of learning the pro game. With every time that we show signs of learning the pro game we also default back to habits which have been ingrained for a long time with some of these young players. They keep rearing their ugly head. To say that we’re content or that we’ve achieved the answer that we’re all looking for is no. We’re still searching and we’re still coming up with different themes for each day. Our mindset has always been to try and get a degree better at the things that we’re really good at and try to improve a degree on things that we’re not. That’s just what we’re going to keep chipping away at. There’s no shortage of lessons and items that we’re going through. Today we talked primarily about the offensive zone line of scrimmage and on face-offs, making sure that we are impactful in the playing behind the opposition game. We didn’t start the game on time [Saturday]. Today we actually started very well and played that game and were right there in a swinging match with Bakersfield, a really good team, into the second period. Then, of course just a little blip there. We had the open net on a dump in off a rim there on a face off, and we hit the post on an open net with two whacks at it. Then, again, in the danger zones, the turnover areas of the blue lines the red lines, continue to haunt us and end up in the back of our net.
On how the leadership group is responding to the challenges of this season
They’re outstanding on the bench. It’s a tough spot for them to be in and they’re doing everything they possibly can to bring the young guys along. It’s very difficult for a lot of the older guys too because they took so much time off — and some are on American League deals, not being able to go to training camps and stuff like that. Getting their legs underneath them has been difficult at times. Their attitudes have been tremendous and we’re lucky to have them.
On if he liked what he saw from Aidan Dudas when he returned to the lineup
If you watch that game on the film, he impacted the game. It showed the Aidan that we need him to be. He was good on the penalty kill, solid on his draws, and had a couple really good chances. I liked his method. When we talk about playing behind with these young guys, we don’t want them to play dump and chase hockey. Even though it did show quite often tonight that we were dumping it on the goaltender, that’s not the aim. We’re trying to place pucks when we do have to play behind the opponent. With a team like Bakersfield, with 6-foot-7, 6-6, 6-4, 6-3 defensemen, we’re gonna have to place. I really liked his play in the second period to Lias Andersson for a backhand on the opposite side of the rink. He placed it behind and it springs Lias for a little short ice breakaway. Then, he and Markus Phillips connected in the third period for a passing play on an entry. That’s what we’re looking for from Aidan, to be a fly in the other team’s ointment. He’s gonna be an annoying, pest-ful type of player. He lost a little of that action and needed just a quick reset button. We love Aidan and can’t wait to get him back in the lineup again next weekend.
On if the frequent lineup changes makes it difficult to build chemistry, especially for the newer players
For the most part, our system is based upon interchangeable parts. There should be a predictability factor to being able to slide players in and out. Whether that’s our line rush mechanism, our thoughts and what we’re trying to implement there, or our offensive zone. Our defensive zone is reliant there on a seal system. We would like the players to be able to jump around and have that interchangeability and adaptability. Anytime you get some rapport on the bench, that helps. Having some fresh blood too is a good thing from time to time, as well. We’re sorting through what’s possible. With the fluctuation of our roster, it’s very difficult to try to establish chemistry or leave guys alone. We are trying to give guys different chances in different spots too. There’s a method to why you’re seeing a lot of different combinations. We’re at the liberty, sometimes a plan of 11 forwards or even having a defenseman up there playing forward last week in San Jose. We’re sorting through some things and hopefully a little bit of roster clarity will go a long way here. It’s so tough to tell when we’re gonna have that.
On if the players are giving him feedback on what is working and what isn’t, or are the inexperienced players more reserved at this point
The young guys are still trying to sort through, for them to offer up suggestions on what we need to be doing would be premature for them. They’re trying to keep their head above water. Most of them can’t get through a full 60 of consistency. Their engines run out, whether they run out for 10 minutes of the second period or they don’t start on time and then they find it late. There are very few players out there that are capable of getting through a 60-minute effort. At practice, that’s a massive focus, to build their engines. Lots of up and down drills to try to build that team speed. It’s a big reason why we sacrifice a little bit on the line rush, we get out skated and we don’t get a lot on the line rush because we don’t pull away from teams. We’re trying to get those guys going, get their engines built up. As far as input on the systems and things like that, we do rely a little bit on the captains and the older players for their input to see where there might be holes or question marks.
Only update on Tyler Madden is a brief one…
Upper body. Needs to see the doctor. Probably won't have more info until tomorrow.
Team is headed back to South Bay now. Rematch at TSPC tomorrow afternoon. https://t.co/rpl3f1mwiG
— John Hoven | The Mayor (@mayorNHL) March 7, 2021
On if has any update on Tyler Madden
It’s an upper body and we don’t have a full diagnosis yet. He won’t be back this week.
On what he’s thought of Lias Andersson since he joined the Reign
He started off really strongly the other night. He’s given us a consistent effort and you can see his tenaciousness. There was a forecheck today where he didn’t have a very good opportunity to win, it was a one-on-one forecheck in the second period, and he ends up hunting the guy down. That said player loses his stick and Lias wins us that shift. That’s the kind of impact that he can have. He’s multifaceted, the way we see him. He’s good enough at this level to skate people down and to be a hunter, but he has enough skill to be able to convert. He makes good plays on the power play, good decisions, he has a heavy shot, and he’s a good playmaker, solid on the dot. All-around type of player that we’re looking to turn more guys into that. He’s a great example of what we want guys to be. I’m hoping that he continues to take steps and make another push up top.
On where he’d like to see improvement defensively
There’s quite a few. With our puck touches, they need to be cleaner. The direction of keeping it simple through the neutral zone, where we want to get that puck cracking and we want to get it east-west and start thinking about going north, to try to advance pucks behind the opposition. That opens up our o-zone and breaks down their d-zone. We need to keep it simple through the neutral zone. Also, the gap control just needs to continue to improve. Too often, at the first sign of a fight we fly, we flight back to our net. We need to hold our gaps better and be a better line rush against team, as well.
Ontario has games scheduled this coming Friday vs. Tucson and Saturday vs. Henderson.
Until then, be sure to check out Wroblewski’s appearance on Kings Of The Podcast this week (linked below). We did a deep dive on his roster and took a look at what to expect from the Ontario Reign this season.
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Lead photo courtesy of Ontario Reign