In the summer of 2021, Brandt Clarke went from worrying about typical teenage high school stuff to having a rocket strapped to his back, as he shot up to No. 1 prospect status for the LA Kings.
Selected eighth overall, the young defenseman was almost a ‘right place at the right time’ type of selection. The Kings were rebuilding their prospect pool and needed to start developing the heir apparent to franchise icon Drew Doughty.
That’s a lot of expectations — perhaps even too much — to heap upon any young player. It’s never phased Clarke, though. He’s supremely confident in his abilities.
That type of belief will only get you so far in the world of hockey. At some point, you have to deliver on the ice; something Clarke has been doing at every level possible since the Kings first called his name in July 2021.
He built upon a gold medal at the World Under-18s with a gold medal for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. Clarke also destroyed the OHL last season, putting up an astounding 61 points in 31 games.
After officially turning pro last summer, the plan was never to have him up with the Kings as a full-time player this season. Instead, he was assigned to AHL Ontario to start the 2023-24 campaign. Unsurprisingly, he shined once again. His 32 points in 30 games had Clarke leading all AHL defensemen at the time of his recall earlier this month.
For his efforts, Clarke was named to the AHL All-Star team, and the Kings plan on reassigning him to the Reign in time for him to go to San Jose on Feb. 4 for the big event.
As for his time with the Kings, Clarke has played in six games thus far, rotating in and out of the lineup with Jordan Spence. It’s a situation coach Todd McLellan said likely has Clarke feeling like a ping-pong ball.
“I’m ready to go whenever,” Clarke said, taking the comment in stride when we connected for a one-on-one chat recently. “My body’s feeling really good. I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in my life right now; confidence-wise, playing-wise, and overall body-wise. It’s just kind of a waiting game right now, though. Sometimes you don’t know when you’re going to be in or out, but I’m good to go whenever. I’m just kind of taking it day-by-day.”
He also admitted this is a bit of an adjustment compared to the past few years.
“I don’t usually miss games,” Clarke stated. “I’m usually just in the flow, keep going and going. It’s part of the experience, though. I just remain ready for when they need me. I’m going to bring my best and play when called upon.”
Although he’s only suited up for just a small handful of NHL games this season, Clarke has already spent some time playing on all three defensive pairs – including several shifts with Doughty a few games ago.
“He doesn’t change [on the ice]; he’s just as loud,” remarked Clarke, followed by a good laugh. “He’s just as loud. He brings the same sort of energy out there, so it’s easy to play with him. You always know where he is, just by his voice. So, it was nice to get a couple touches with him.”
Leaning into the experienced vet to help mentor the young guy is all part of the levers being pulled by McLellan to round the Kings into championship shape. It was something he first did with Quinton Byfield and Anze Kopitar, and is now utilizing again with his two defensemen.
“I think that they had similar pressures,” McLellan began. “Arriving and being looked upon as a high-end player with lots of expectations; some offensive talent and flare. I think Dewey was maybe a little further along defensively than Brandt is, but Brandt can learn that really quick.”
Going back to those 2006 and 2008 years, though, things were a tad different when you look over the two Kings rosters and try to draw further comparisons.
“Just learning how to behave at the time or the era that Dewey and Kopi arrived in is way different now,” McLellan suggested. “There’s been a lot of really good changes in the world right now. Not only the hockey world, but the world, and it’s a little bit different. Sometimes, Kopi and Dewey can learn from the two young guys too. So, I think it’s a real good relationship between the youth and the elderly, if you want.”
Despite his good-natured jab at the end there, McLellan’s comments were equally noted by the Kings captain in our recent feature story on his career and the importance of mentoring younger players:
When discussing this latest chapter in his storied career, Kopitar quickly referenced some of the names who helped early on, giving credit to Matt Greene, Jarret Stoll, and Mike Richards, among others. Eventually, Kopitar talked about the “camaraderie” that comes with trying to pass information along to the next generation.
“Dewey tries to pass along the knowledge, I try to pass along knowledge and talk about stuff,” he remarked. “And I guess [we] really brainstorm too, because even for us being around for a little bit, we can still learn some stuff. If you pick the brains of those younger guys too, they might pop something in your head with what you can do better. It’s a two-way street. Yes, you want to mentor them and everything, but at the same time, they can show you some stuff too.”
Having a little bit of a head start in the NHL acclimation process, Byfield — who is only 6 months older than Clarke — can already see things from the other side now.
“It’s tough coming into a good team, a playoff team,” said the Kings young forward. “Just being able to find your footing in that situation, it’s a little harder than going into a rebuilding team. I’ve been through it. I see him. He’s doing really well, and we’re happy for him. But, it’s just tough.”
The two future cornerstones of LA’s hockey team are actually quite different off the ice. While Byfield might be a bit more reserved, Clarke is known as the boisterous guy, talking 150 miles an hour. Is he even aware of all the pressure and expectations being placed on him?
“We think he’s a space cadet, so he doesn’t know what’s going on around him half the time,” Byfield said while taking the opportunity to slip in a playful gut-punch of his own. “No, he’s a good guy. He understands enough and he wants to win every night too, so I’m happy to have him [up with us].”
Like everything else over the past few years, Clarke continues to take everything in stride. Until he’s on the ice, where he’s fearless and continues to get better.
“Everything has been positive,” Clarke summarized. “They’re all really happy with how I’ve been playing. Even the guys come up to me, ‘Wow, Clarkie, you’ve really impressed us.’ You like hearing that from [coaches] and hearing that from guys on the team, it really means a lot. I’m just trying to bring my best every day and trying to keep winning people over; and good things are gonna happen.”
Lead photo via ALoImages
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