All of these prospects the club has collected over the last two years want to adorn the crown logo on the front of their sweater when the puck is dropped at San Jose’s HP Pavilion that night.
And it doesn’t matter if some are barely past voting age.
“I know it’s really tough for an 18-year-old defenseman to make the NHL, but I know the Kings are going to be pretty young this year and there are a few spots open,” said Drew Doughty, who was taken with the second pick by the Kings in June. “I’m going to do my best to make one of those spots mine.
“It’d be very difficult to go back to the OHL (Ontario Hockey League). I really want to play here. And I’m going to do all that I can to stay here.”
For most teens and early 20-somethings, making the NHL is easier said than done. It is especially difficult for defensemen, who are generally thought to take longer to master the nuances of the position. But the Kings aren’t just giving their young blueliners a taste of what playing in the League is like in this training camp. The club has made it clear that a youth movement is in full effect and that spots are open on the defense.
It’s easy to conclude that a re-make is in progress with veteran Tom Preissing and newly acquired Denis Gauthier having the most NHL experience on the back end after a summer that saw former captain Rob Blake sign with San Jose and point-producer Lubomir Visnovsky traded to Edmonton.
The future is unmistakably in the hands of Doughty and fellow first-rounders Thomas Hickey (No. 4 in 2007) and Colten Teubert (No. 13 in 2008).
“It is an interesting dynamic,” the 29-year-old Preissing said. “Even if I am one of the older guys, this is only my fifth year in the League. It’s not like I have a ton of experience. But at the same time, it’s fun because you see how much talent these young guys have. It’s kind of fun to sit here and watch them drill a little bit.”
If anyone has an inside track on a roster spot, it is the talented Doughty, a skilled puck-mover the Kings coveted when they secured the No. 2 draft spot in the League’s lottery. In his third OHL season with Guelph, Doughty had 13 goals and 37 assists and his 50 points ranked third on the Storm, even as a defenseman.
In both the rookie camp and regular training camp, he hasn’t failed to impress the Kings’ brass. Doughty logged a little more than 20 minutes Wednesday in the team’s 4-3 exhibition shootout victory against Colorado and was a plus-2 during his even-strength shifts. New Kings coach Terry Murray lavished praise on the youngster.
“He’s got a great head on his shoulders,” Murray said. “He plays the physical side of the game. He didn’t hesitate in his 1-on-1 confrontations. And again, he really tried to show some authority with the puck and tried to make something happen.
“When you have an 18-year-old taking control like that, you’ve got to watch him very closely. That’s one of the things that you have to evaluate properly and try to figure out how that would fit in to your main club. I really liked what I saw in his play.”
Doughty said the exhibition games carry tremendous importance with him, but added that he isn’t concerned with the hype of being taken second after Tampa Bay rookie Steven Stamkos.
“I don’t try to think about the pressure at all. I just want to get out there and play my best every day. I want to make the club this year so I’m working as hard as I can. Battle in practice and battle in the game. Make every opportunity the best. Hopefully good things will come for me next."
-- Kings blue-line prospect Drew Doughty
Having ushered Scott Stevens and Kevin Hatcher into the League as teenagers, Murray said the right teenager can make an impact.
“Young defensemen can play in the National Hockey League and can be very successful,” he said.
“Over the years of my coaching, I’ve had 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds step in and have an impact on the team. There’s absolutely an opportunity for that to happen in this organization. And I’ll be watching closely to see if some of those younger guys can step up and take a big piece of this thing.”
Thought to have a lengthier transition to the NHL when he was drafted, Teubert was sent back to his Western Hockey League junior team in Regina, Saskatchewan. Now he’ll focus on adding more weight to his 6-foot-4, 180-pound frame and getting stronger in order to more effectively play his physical game.
In his third season for the Regina Pats, the 18-year-old had 7 goals and 16 assists in 66 games while compiling 135 penalty minutes. Prior to his assignment, Teubert talked about the feeling of not making the opening night roster.
“I think it’d be a disappointment to anybody here,” he said. “We all want to make the squad this year. I know I do. I want to be in the NHL. It’s everybody’s goal, it’s my goal. Of course, I’ll be upset. But it’ll give me an opportunity to go back to Regina. I love all my teammates there and I love the coaches. It’s a positive and a negative. You get more of an opportunity back home but this is the NHL and this is where I want to be.”
The Kings haven’t just used first-round picks to beef up their defense. Alec Martinez, a fourth-round selection in 2007, and Peter Harrold, an undrafted free-agent signing in 2006, are also trying to make a strong case to stick with the big club.
Martinez is likely to head to the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Manchester, N.H. After two years at Miami of Ohio, he said he was anxious to play at a higher level.
“That’s why I left school early,” Martinez said. “I wanted to start my pro career. Like I said, I’m just focusing on trying to get better and get my career started off the best I can.”
All in all, it figures to be a season full of hands-on learning throughout the organization.
“I think the guys that have been around a little bit could learn a lot from these younger guys,” Preissing said. “Hopefully they can learn a little bit from us. I’m not exactly sure what the dynamic will be. I guess it remains to be seen. It’ll take shape as the season progresses.”