Rookie Camp was short-lived in LA this year, basically comprised of one day of medicals and another day of on-ice activities. Prior to the team packing up and heading to Arizona for this weekend’s Rookie Faceoff tournament, Ontario Reign coach John Wroblewski shared the following thoughts:
Wrobo on being back on the ice with his players after watching Dev Camp from the stands
That’s where I feel at home and this offseason was a long one. Even though we played pretty late, for my standards, getting to start back up here in September, it was just a tremendous feeling. I love feeling that cold, feeling that rush, getting to see how some of the athletes look — the returners and the kids. The young men put in a lot of work and it’s great to see the results.
On any philosophies he’ll use in putting the lineups together for the three games in Arizona
It’s ever-evolving with the Rookie Tournament, what your expectations are. Some years, you go into it and you’re probably thinking, ‘Our team might be a little deficient in one category’ or ‘Our team might be exceptional in one category’ and you really want to see those results. Maybe some years, you’re just looking to see improvement from players. I think with the state of the organization, the state of the young core of this group, you’re just looking to see the positive things that they can bring and will show at the American League level this year and then, ultimately, at the NHL level. Team-wise, it’s going to be difficult. We have some of our systems in place from last year. But even just watching today, they lose the habits quite quickly. They lose the details. So, to say that we’re demanding team success, I think, would be premature. But what we are expecting, is for individuals to show up and adhere to their cultural values and adhere to the organization’s cultural values. We’ve been pretty explicit with some of the things that we want to see from the players in that avenue. To show the promise that they have; if it’s a glimpse, that’s great. If it’s consistent, that would be exceptional. That would be awesome to go there and have team success. But, at the end of the day, we’re looking for the improvement. We want to see guys that were getting pushed off pucks last year, in the American League or in junior, being stalwart and being puck possession type players. Guys that weren’t hitting one-timers last year, we want to see the improvement in those areas. I think that if guys show up and do their jobs individually, and prove to the organization that they’ve had a great summer, and they learned a lot from their last season, then the team success should follow.
On how helpful is it to have such a large group of returning guys for a tournament like this know the system and the language used by coaches
Just the drills too, I think it is massive. If you want to have a cohesive practice, there has to be that learning process. Where guys show up and lead other players. They follow suit and they push that leadership group. That’s something that we challenged the entire group of players with yesterday, for leaders to lead. And for guys that are maybe new to the organization, to push and to make a lasting impression. It’s everything. It’s expectations off the ice; that’s where it all starts. With how we treat support staff, people that are taking care of us — whether it’s custodians, Zamboni drivers, the chef crew. Everybody comes with value and we want to make sure we appreciate them. That starts with our leadership guys. And then it kind of funnels into the hockey part. Having those 11 outstanding young men that we had in Ontario last year, it goes a long way and we will lean on them heavily.
On his end-of-season comment about wanting players to ‘dominate summer’ and if he’s seen anybody who met the challenge thus far
I think all of them have, particularly off the ice. You can just see the extra slabs of muscle they put on or just a little bit more confidence. Possibly their shoulders are a little bit higher, their chin is up a little bit more. They feel the part and they’ve earned that confidence. If there’s one guy in particular who stood out to me, just size-wise, I thought it was Kaliyev. He looked like a monster out there compared to last year. He just looks to be a lot sturdier, a lot thicker, and even if his shot could get harder, it looks like it actually did. I think he put in the work this summer. He looks great.
On if he will evaluate Byfield differently than other players in camp and if there are specific parts of his game he’ll be monitoring
He already put in a lot of work this summer. He looks like another athlete who took another step. With QB, I think a lot of it’s timing. We want to make sure that his habits are in order going into NHL camp. So for him, a big challenge was sometimes one hand on the stick in his battles, when he should have been using two. Not that the one hand should be excluded from his repertoire, because that reach is a super important part of his game; being able to chip pucks and things like that. But his work ethic and tenacity in practice today, it was one that I hope springboards him into success in the two, maybe three games, that he gets into on this trip. And I use that word springboard, just use these couple games, build that confidence, take a couple of tips on something that might be loose in his game, and then be ready to drive for a spot come training camp. QB does so many things that don’t necessarily have to impact the score sheet. We love it when he scores, of course, and produces. He has all the ability in the world to do that, but he can really control a game and control momentum for your team through other avenues. It’s not all about points for him. We’ll just continue to challenge him to play an honest, 200-foot game. That’ll gives him his best chance for success at any level. If he’s flying around, pursuing pucks, winning battles, and controlling 200-feet, the puck ends up in the net for us and he’s a big part of that.
On if there were a few areas Byfield really improved over the course of the 2021 AHL season
I’ll start with one. It would be his ability to transport 200-feet. He and Craig Johnson worked a lot on his routes and trusting his acceleration within those routes. Not necessarily having to sprint north all the time. He has the ability to separate while still taking a more controlled kind of direction on the way out of his zone. He has the ability to pull away from the opponent; he even showed that at the NHL level. That was one of the things that I thought he really improved on. Then, I thought on more of an off the ice, or kind of a between the ears type of thing, was just his confidence level within that role grew immensely. Where he was a minus player starting off, had one of the worst plus-minuses in the American Hockey League through 12-13 games. He stuck with it and then he earned the confidence to be able to become a dominant AHL player. I thought that might have been even more important. I think he always had that inner-belief, but then he went out and earned it on the ice. Then he had it between the ears, that was who he was going to be for us, and then one day for the Kings. One thing that we’re still working on with him is to have an ‘assassin’s mentality’ in the goal scoring zone. When he puts himself in those positions to bury one, we want to get that thing up under the bar. We want to make sure that he’s picking a corner, and ending the process, ending that opportunity and capitalizing. Again, having that assassin’s mentality.
On defensive pairings for the tournament, considering the lack of experience they’ll have on the blueline
It’s not a possibility to have veteran guys matched with guys haven’t played at this level yet. We just don’t have the numbers. I believe Markus Phillips and Sean Durzi are our only veteran d-men who have actually been to an event like this, especially after a pro season. Jordan Spence might have been here a couple years ago, but that’s a far cry from where he’s at as a player. It’s not going to be possible to have that veteran presence on every pairing. It will provide guys opportunities. It will give them growth. And, to be frank, I do feel like our forward core has to be the motor at this tournament. They’re going to have to drive pace. They’re going to have to drive play, make the reads as easy [as possible] for some of these guys who haven’t been there yet. We’re going to have our hands full with the Colorado team tomorrow. They have some very promising forwards, and defenseman, as well. It should be a good game tomorrow. I’m hoping for a lot of goals. I hope that we’re on the winning end of it, and get the better part of them, but they’re a tremendous group.
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