Marco Sturm wears many hats as head coach of the Ontario Reign. However, his most important role isn’t measured via wins or losses in the AHL standings, it’s about player development. Ultimately, his biggest contribution to the LA Kings organization will come through his ability to get prospects ready for the NHL.
To date, Sturm has seen players like Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Brandt Clarke, and Jordan Spence all suit up for the Reign while he’s been behind the bench or even while running Ontario’s practices. However, the guy he’s coached more than all of them is Sammy Helenius.
Originally selected 59th overall by LA at the 2021 NHL Draft, Helenius was targeted by the Kings for a specific role. After playing against men in Finland’s top pro league (Liiga) the season prior and watching him win a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships, Kings scouts believed the 6-foot-6 center could be an effective penalty killer at the NHL level. They were so convinced of this, the team traded a third and fourth round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes to move up in the Draft and snag Helenius before any other teams could get their hands on him.
Finland’s national coach agreed with their assessment shortly thereafter, saying — “I like him a lot… He’s so good, he’s coachable and his attitude is good. He’s humble and he’s tough. [Should become] an NHL player because of his attitude, size and his mental makeup.”
In the weeks that followed, LA signed him to a three-year Entry Level Contract. The next spring, Helenius came to North America and come October, he joined a Reign team that had just hired Sturm as their head coach.
After 14 points (2G, 12A) in 61 games last season, his first full year in the AHL, nobody was worried. Helenius was never really expected to show up much on Ontario’s scoresheet, but rather to help keep pucks out of their own net.
Then something interesting started to happen about 20 games ago. A different Helenius has begun to emerge… or at the very least, some rather interesting puck luck has taken place.
Over Ontario’s first 14 games this season, he had zero goals.
Helenius then scored in Game 15, only to not score again in the next seven games.
So, that was one goal in 22 games total.
Since then, he’s had seven goals in 20 games.
“Good for him!” Sturm said with a huge smile. “I think this is just the start.”
Similar to Byfield and other big men in the world of hockey, it generally takes them longer to put it all together. In the case of Helenius, it’s largely come down to training and is reminiscent of what the Kings experienced with Nic Dowd, a player they drafted in 2009. Training like a pro didn’t come naturally — even for a guy who was said to eat, drink, and breathe hockey. That type of training is just different. It’s not always who you train with, it’s how you train in those hours and how you compete while you’re training.
This also speaks to why guys like Kyle Clifford were so critical to the previous generation of Kings players during their developmental years. He showed people what it meant to train like a pro every singe day. He outworked everybody, and as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.
That role is something Akil Thomas now helps fill for younger players in the Kings organization, and they’re probably hoping he’ll rub off on Helenius the same way Clifford did a decade ago.
“He still has to get stronger,” Sturm declared, when we asked what Helenius needs to do to become an NHL player. “He lost a lot of weight, so now we have to work on his strength. He needs to be faster too, even in the faceoff circle. He has to win those 50-50 battles. He’s getting there and because he has the brain for it, now he just has to add some muscles to it too. If you put those two things together, I think it’s going to be a different story.”
Helenius had almost exclusively been a fourth line center for Sturm for the better part of a year and a half. About a month ago, he elevated the big pivot to the third line and although Sturm hasn’t seen any real signs of concern, it’s still a work-in-progress.
“We found that Killer [Thomas] was pretty good on the wing with Turc, and that meant there was an opening there [on the third line],” Sturm explained. “[Helenius] earned it and good for him. I’m very happy for him, but it’s also something Sammy has to take advantage of.”
For his part, Helenius admits it took a while to figure out the development path and what’s needed.
He’s worn a letter for a few previous teams, but this is about what happens off the ice perhaps even more than what he does with skates on.
Born in Dallas, while his dad was playing for the Stars, Helenius was actually raised in Finland and spoke little English when he arrived in SoCal a few years ago.
Nonetheless, we recently chatted with Helenius to get some perspective on his recent goal scoring prowess.
“I don’t know, I think part of it is good luck,” he said through a thick accent regarding his hot stick.
Helenius always attributed part of that success this season to his ongoing development, agreeing with the notion that he appears to be at a different level this season.
“Last year, I was more like a typical 18-year-old player,” he remarked. “This year, I’m more focused on what’s going on, including the next game and the game after that. I feel like a better player this year. A big part for me was [working on] the faceoffs. I think it’s a lot of better this year, that’s the biggest part for me and for my role. And, of course, the shot. I worked on that in the summertime and when I came here too, doing shooting drills with our guys. That’s helping me.”
Like any player, when his shots are converting to goals, Helenius says that helps build his confidence. Additionally, he says that getting bumped to the third-line adds to that mental approach, as well.
“I feel good being in that role,” he exclaimed. “It’s nice to get more trust from the coaches. It doesn’t really matter where they put me, though. I know what to do. I just try to play smart and play my game.”
Then came the most surprising part of our chat. When asked if there were any NHL players he was modeling his game after, Helenius didn’t hesitate for a second — “He’s retired now, but Brian Boyle.”
Not bad. It just wasn’t a name we were expecting, as Boyle was drafted before Helenius was even a year old. And he played his last NHL game before the latter had even moved to North America to join the Reign.
Regardless, Boyle, a former Kings first-rounder who also stands 6-foot-6, played 871 NHL games.
Ironically enough, the pick LA used to select him at the 2003 NHL Draft came from in a package of assets the team acquired in a trade with the Colorado Avalanche for Rob Blake. Now serving as the Kings GM, Blake is likely hopeful Helenius can at least replicate Boyle’s success as a player, if not exceed it.
“We still have to work with [Sammy] and we still have a ways to go,” noted Sturm. “And we’re gonna help him.”
Lead photo by Daniel Stopani
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