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Developing An Identity

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

Trevor Lewis, who was selected 17th overall in 2006 – six slots after Jonathan Bernier – was the second player drafted by Dean Lombardi and his staff following the transfer of power atop the organization in the 2006 off-season.

As such, Lewis, who appeared in 182 games over parts of four AHL seasons before joining the Kings full-time in 2010-11, became very familiar with the club’s push to strengthen the organization through a strong emphasis on player development.

“I think I went to more development camps than anyone,” Lewis joked. His name is among those listed on the banners hanging in both Ontario and Manchester commemorating the Kings prospects who passed through the American Hockey League en route to winning Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014.

And at the camps he spoke of, Lewis became very close with the club’s development staff, which is led by Director of Player Development Nelson Emerson and Senior Advisor/Development Coach Mike O’Connell. Mike Donnelly, who will be honored with a Legend’s Night this season, as well as Glen Murray, Jim Richmond, Dusty Imoo and Jeremy Clark all serve in the staff, which operates as traveling hands-on instructors whose responsibilities differ from those in the Kings’ coaching staff.

“Our interest is in them achieving their ultimate goal of playing in the National Hockey League and in a non-coaching environment,” O’Connell said. “They’ve dealt mostly with coaches whose main focus is to win. Our focus is more on making that player better. That’s the coach’s responsibility as well, but we don’t have wins and losses attached to our job description as coaches do.”

They do have diverse job descriptions that go beyond working in hockey skates and with sticks in hand. The development of the club’s assets is mental and emotional nearly as much as it is physical, and the impression left with players who pass through the system is overwhelmingly positive. When they’re in the Kings’ El Segundo facility, as has become more commonplace now that the AHL team is located only an hour away, the relationships they’ve built with those who’ve passed through the system is reinforced. It’s hockey, so obviously there are nicknames. O’Connell is OC, Emerson is Nelly, Murray is Muzz, Donnelly is Mel, Richmod is JR. Last year, while answering questions after a home win, Jonathan Quick, who tended goal in Los Angeles’ minor league system in the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, immediately broke apart from his answer to call out to “OC,”  whom he had seen standing close by in the Kings’ room.

“I still like to go see them in summers and talk to them and just get their thoughts. It’s kind of a different point of view than a coach or a player,” Lewis said. “They’re great.”

As it did with Lewis, and Quick, and with all players who progress from being drafted to taking part in development camps and training camps to earning a spot on a professional roster, there is a detailed, sometimes scripted, sometimes unscripted process.

“What we’re trying to do, we’re trying to establish, ‘Hey, look guys, we’re not your coach. We’re not going to decide how much ice time you get, or who you’re playing with or if you’re on a power play,’” Emerson said. “But what we will do is we will help you develop your fundamentals and your skills that best meet what the Kings want to help you get into the NHL and be a good pro.”

Tyler Toffoli can relate, given how the development staff has helped him with his skating and other assets so that his premier shot and awareness at all ends of the ice are illuminated.

“Since day one I came here, Nelly and Mel, Muzz and JR, they’ve just put in so much work with me and for sure I’m very grateful,” Toffoli said.

It is a huge asset that the staff is populated by former players, as Darryl Sutter sees it.

“A couple of them – well, OC in particular – are guys that I played with. Muzz and Nelly are not that far removed from the game,” Sutter said. “Former players are guys that were good players, guys that took care of business when they played. That’s the most important part.”

It’s a trend around the National Hockey League that players are joining the development staffs of the teams they played for. Evgeni Nabokov joined the San Jose Sharks’ staff as a development coach and a scout prior to this season. Rich Peverley is part of the Dallas Stars’ development staff, and ditto for Sergei Gonchar and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s an extended list.

“It would be the very same as teacher-student,” Sutter said. “The student has to respect the teacher.”

And that comes not only through on-ice work but serving as advisors and confidants to the players they become extremely close with.

“Most of our work is based on experience and what we’ve gone through in our careers,” said O’Connell, who has been involved in professional hockey as a player, or in a coaching or managerial capacity since 1975 and served as the Boston Bruins’ general manager from 2000-06.

“I’ve been fortunate to basically do everything in this business and have a pretty good, healthy understanding of where everyone’s focus is, so now you go back to the player and try to make them understand everyone, how it all works, in a constructive way so that they can maybe better understand where the coach is coming from or circumstances that they might be in and how to deal with every roadblock or obstacle that comes in their way, because there are a lot of them for most players.”

Given the high-profile off-ice incidents involving the organization over the past year, there is continued care in establishing open communications lines and using available information to try to prevent such missteps from occurring in the future. Emerson said that approach has “changed across the organization.”

“We, as probably the first people that meet these young kids when they’re that age, we probably need to have a more thorough look at the kid’s background, his off-ice [behavior], who his friends are, social media. It’s become more relevant obviously with some of the things that have happened, and it’s all of us that need to be more aware, and definitely the development staff is going to be part of that, maybe the first part in dealing with that with these young players,” Emerson said.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s tremendous pride in watching those they’ve instructed build habits that form the reinforced base of a professional career. When the Kings honored the Manchester Monarchs’ 2015 Calder Cup with a private dinner and championship ring presentation in Los Angeles, O’Connell offered a stirring and memorable address to the team about his own background. It was instantly relatable to everybody in the room – to the players, to the coaches and the hockey operations executives and everyone in between.

“Hopefully some of the stuff we talk about is developing into certain habits and carry them through the difficult times they have to get through to win any kind of championship,” he said. “I think that’s where it comes in, you see the change in habits and then they realize the championship, which is very difficult to win at any level, and that’s where the pride comes in. You see the little adjustments they make in their everyday behavior. Hopefully you had a part in that and you see them win together.”

That has happened at both the NHL and AHL levels.

“One of the things that Mike brought to us is that he taught us how to slow the game down and to teach in a more controlled environment,” Emerson said. “A lot of the kids these days, everyone wants to go so fast. But when they’re doing it that fast, they’re making mistakes. They’re doing it in such a hurry that it doesn’t get done correctly. What Mike taught us all on the staff was ‘Hey, slow things down, do it right, make sure you’re doing it with the proper focus and then once you get it right, we’ll pick it up a bit.’ But Mike has been able to make us see that point and allowed us to become better teachers.”

For Lewis, that meant an emphasis on better puck protection.

“I don’t think I’d be in the NHL or as good of a player if it wasn’t for them,” he said.

Between Toffoli and Lewis, there are a combined three Stanley Cup championships to their names.

“It’s special,” Emerson said. “When you see a young player realize his dreams, it’s a pretty rewarding job.”

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