They understood the circumstances and articulated honestly about how the decision has helped them in the long run, how they’re still young and the opportunity will be there for them with continued improvement.
There was still that inevitable sting of being reassigned to the American Hockey League after a three-week long quest of vying to make the Los Angeles Kings through a grueling training camp and preseason.
“It’s tough. It sucks,” Tyler Toffoli said. “Nobody wants to be playing in the minors when you think you can be playing in the NHL.”
There was a late night discussion with the highest-ups in the team’s hockey operations – Darryl Sutter spoke first, and then Dean Lombardi, and then Sutter again – shortly after a late night arrival at LAX following the inbound flight from Frozen Fury.
“Your job as a pro is to keep the highs and lows to a minimum,” Linden Vey said. “Obviously the ride back to the hotel is tough. You’re telling your friends and your family.”
And then there’s understanding, a long-term comprehension that isn’t always inherent in 21 and 22-year-old “kids.” It’s a sign of maturity.
“One thing about the Kings organization – they have such a good team. They’ve got so much depth, and it’s a tough team to make. Winning teams are always tough,” Vey said. “The first few minutes you kind of sit back and take it all in, and then we realized when we got back [to Manchester] that there were some things we needed to work on, and go down there and play well, and if there was an opportunity, hopefully we could get back up.”
It was a sentiment similar to the one Toffoli offered, even when it can be difficult to separate the forest from the trees while grinding through a preseason that ultimately ended with a string of zeroes alongside his name.
“There are a lot of players on that team. You would’ve had to have a really good camp, and I didn’t have the best camp, myself,” he said.
Toffoli, Vey and Tanner Pearson returned to Manchester and were promptly reacquainted with their familiar seats on the bus. Right off the hop there were trips to Springfield, Portland, Providence, Bridgeport and Hartford. The Monarchs are fortunate that there is a constellated assortment of AHL teams within a relatively short drive, unlike the far-flung Western Conference AHL teams, which often deal with early morning buses to airports, plane changes, and odd arrivals. It was, however, a different set of travel circumstances than those experienced in Los Angeles, and for whatever reason, be it a change in their surroundings, the sting of not making the big club, or any other vague intangible, there was a short adjustment period.
“They got better,” Darryl Sutter said of Vey and Toffoli’s growth from early in the season to their call-up. “They didn’t have a very good start, and I don’t base it on goals, assists, points. You base it on what level, what tempo, what pace they can play at, which would apply to [the Kings], and where they have to play.”
In the 10 games he spent in Manchester, Vey employed a set of personal blinders to insulate himself from outside distractions.
“I think the big thing when you go down there is you’ve got to focus on how you’re playing,” Vey said. “I think you can’t get caught up thinking about ‘Hey, this guy’s banged up, or maybe I have a chance.’ I think you just focus on how you’re playing, and stuff like that will happen. Especially for us, we were kind of struggling a little bit. It wasn’t the lack of working hard. It was just things weren’t going our way.”
“And then we heated up.”
If that description of Vey and Toffoli indicated that they needed several games to settle in, their teammates were on hand to pick up the slack. Led by an experienced attack that also includes Pearson, 23-year-old Monarchs veteran Brandon Kozun, and defenseman-turned-productive forward Nic Deslauriers, the team streaked out of the gate, earning points in their first eight games.
The team has continued to win since the players’ call-up, having outscored the Providence Bruins 9-3 during a two-game sweep last weekend. Entering play Wednesday, the Monarchs’ 8-1-3 record and 19 points were the AHL’s best.
Though Pearson had by many accounts the best training camp of the three, it was instantly clear that no discouragement seeped into his play. He scored 25 seconds into the first game following Toffoli and Vey’s departure as part of a three-point night in a 5-2 win at Providence.
“Obviously he’s excited for us. He had a really good weekend this past weekend,” Vey said of Pearson.
“All three of us are happy when good things happen to each other, and that’s a sign of a good line and good chemistry.”
And though the three players who built up that chemistry over the better parts of the 2012-13 season seem to be inexorably linked, Sutter spoke of the players’ separate characteristics and tendencies.
“Why would you put them together? One guy’s a left wing. One guy’s a right wing. One guy’s…a third year pro. One guy’s a centerman. They’re all different. They might play on three different teams before it’s all done, so it’s not like they’re tied together. In fact, there’s no way they’re tied together, because none of them are the same player. If they were identical players, then they might beat each other out. But that’s not what they do, right? Linden is a different type of player than Tyler. Tyler is a different type of player than Tanner.”
So what type of player is Tyler? He’s a scorer backed with the ability to compete hard along the boards, which should place him amongst good company for a team that values puck possession, cycling and winning battles.
“Whenever you get the opportunity and the chance, you’ve got to take it and do the best you can, just like I did last year in the playoffs,” Toffoli said, referencing his 12-game, six-point effort last spring. “I was in and out of the lineup, and whenever I was in the lineup, I just tried to do the best I could.”
With Jeff Carter on injured reserve due to a lower body injury, Toffoli has seen time alongside Mike Richards and posted a career high ice time total of 19:23 in Saturday’s loss to Nashville, a game in which he was arguably the best forward on the ice for the club.
Vey has developed a reputation as a center capable of distributing the puck and has shown improvements in many aspects of his 200-foot game since making his professional debut in 2011-12.
He’s now experiencing the hockey equivalent of standing over his golf shot for an extended period. Though he has three practice days and a day off to think about whether he’ll be in the lineup for Thursday’s game against Buffalo, it didn’t appear as though the break in the schedule was wreaking havoc with his psyche.
“That’s my goal, to find a way to make the lineup. We’re just taking it day by day,” he said. “You can’t get too ahead of yourself. You’ve just got to focus on each day, and hopefully I can make my way onto the lineup.”
Should that happen, it would be in a role designed to make the most out of his attributes.
“I’m not going to play one of those guys four, five minutes,” Sutter said. “If they’re going to be here, they’re going to play, or they’re going to watch and learn, like we did with Tyler last year. It doesn’t do any good to dress any of those kids and put them on the bench for four or five minutes. If they’re going to play, they’re going to play in situations where they can use their ability.”
“You’re looking at them to maximize their ability at the level that they’re at.”
For Toffoli and Vey, that’s nothing new.