For most defensemen, scoring 81 points in a season means a job well done. But for Islanders prospect Brenden Kichton, who put up 23 goals and 58 assists with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League in 2010-11, it wasn’t good enough.
The Islanders selected the Spruce Grove, AB native in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Draft following his breakout season. Chiefs head coach Don Nachbaur knew the 19-year-old could put up points, but wanted Kichton’s defensive game to develop in 2011-12.
“I think he knew coming into the season he had to hone that part of his game and he’s gotten much better,” Nachbaur said. “The biggest thing with kids today is they have to learn how to play the right way and success follows them. I think Kich did that and he has been consistent in that.”
That’s not to say that Nachbaur and his staff didn’t let Kichton loose from time to time. Last summer Spokane lost its two highest scorers, Tyler Johnson (53 goals, 115 points) and Levko Koper (32 goals, 82 points) to graduation, but Kichton came back to lead his team with 57 assists and 74 points in 2011-12.
“Knowing that those guys, Johnson, Koper and (defense partner Jared) Cowen were all gone,” Kichton said, “I felt that I needed to step up and contribute at the offensive end too, and I was able to do that. The coaches really allowed me to play my game and play a more open style, which allows me to jump in the play and be more active on the offensive side.”
Never was that more evident than during a 13-game stretch in January in which Kichton registered 19 points (five goals, 14 assists). More importantly, he did so without taking shortcuts on the defensive end, posting a plus-18 rating.
“He was smart in what he did when he jumped into the play, but I think it really stemmed from learning how to play without the puck,” Nachbaur said. “The bottom line with Kich is he really competes hard and he’s a smart player.”
Kichton’s progress impressed Eric Cairns, a member of the Islanders Player Development staff.
“He upped his battle level and compete level and was solid defensively,” Cairns said. “We told him, ‘You don’t have to put up 81 points this year, just as long as your defensive game becomes more solid than what it was prior to the draft.’ His defensive game got stronger and stronger as the year went on.”
Kichton has bought into the plan, focusing more on minimizing the opposition’s chances than trying to force offensive production.
Everything is going to happen a little quicker, but he’s got intangibles that you don’t teach. - Spokane Chiefs Head Coach Don Nachbaur
“I always try to play more defense-first, because I think playing defense leads to good offense,” Kichton said. “When we played good defense, I could take my chances up the ice, which allowed me to get my points.”
Kichton actually has come a long way offensively, from scoring 28 points in his first two seasons of junior hockey to leading all WHL defenseman with 155 points (40 goals, 115 assists) in the two seasons since. At the other end of the ice, he has impressed his coaching staff and scouts, and ranks second amongst WHLers with a plus-79 rating since the 2010-11 campaign. But his goal is to crack the Islanders roster next season, something the 5’10”, 185-pound blueliner knows will be tough to do against bigger, stronger and faster players.
“I think I always need to get faster, and I can always be more physical down low, taking the body more effectively,” Kichton said. “Obviously everybody is looking to make the Islanders, but I’m going to go there and give my best effort, and if that doesn’t work out, hopefully I’ll be able to play in (AHL) Bridgeport next year.”
Nachbaur, who played parts of eight seasons in the NHL, knows that succeeding someday in the professional ranks will be a bigger – yet achievable -- challenge for the young defenseman.
“Everything is going to happen a little quicker, but he’s got intangibles that you don’t teach,” Nachbaur said. “He thinks the game and sees the ice real well and that’s going to help him at the pro game. It’s going to make it a much easier game for him.”
MATT DONOVAN Q&A | SCOTT MAYFIELD LEARNING TO PLAY AT NCAA LEVEL | 2012 DRAFT CENTRAL