Jordan Weal found a soft spot on the ice while driving into the offensive zone, and when Tomas Hyka fed him the puck, he quickly unleashed a one-timer that snuck inside the near post. It was the most attractive of the three goals that the 21-year-old had scored during the scrimmage on the final day of the Los Angeles Kings’ development camp.
Weal was making his fourth development camp appearance since he was selected in the third round of the 2010 NHL Draft. A former linemate of Jordan Eberle’s with the WHL’s Regina Pats, he appears to be the proper representation of someone who has utilized the instruction and retention of fundamentals provided him in the continued refinement of his overall game.
“I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing, I think,” Weal said. “Keep getting better, improving every year and trying to be the best player I can be, because when I’m at my best, I’m making players around me better.”
Above all else, the continued development is the reason that players from Western Canada, Ontario, the Midwest and East Coast, the Czech Republic and points east converge upon El Segundo in the middle of July for a week that continues to accentuate the players’ grasp of fundamentals while gauging their retention of the organization’s methods of play from one year to the next.
“You just look at the basics, the basic things they do,” said Mike O’Connell, Pro Development and Special Assignments. “Did they improve from last time, some of the younger players we had last year? You kind of look where they were last year, and you kind of try to compare them where they are this year. You hope that they improve in a lot of those things.”
The camp is less about evaluation, according to General Manager Dean Lombardi, and more about the efforts to continue to make sure the players improve to the best of their and the organization’s abilities.
“I don’t evaluate anything. That’s the mantra. I don’t think it does any good to evaluate these players,” Lombardi said. “The obligation of everybody here is ‘Make them better.’ That’s all I’m looking for. Is this kid putting in the effort to be the best he can be? It’s not the time to evaluate them. I’m not looking to trade them. I’m not looking to sign them. I’m not looking for whatever, so why do that?”
“You start doing things like that – and forming judgments – then human nature is that I want it to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Lombardi had emphasized the merits of player development to owner Philip F. Anschutz, and the on-ice efforts are apparent.
“First of all, you see the attention to detail, that if you’re going to play at the highest level that every little thing matters, and you’ve got to keep your pupil-teacher ratio down if you’re going to reinforce that,” Lombardi said.
With O’Connell and Nelson Emerson, Player Development, and Kim Dillabaugh, Goaltender Development, amongst other on-ice instructors – Glen Murray made it onto the ice during one session, offering another viewpoint – that on-ice instruction was provided by a variety of respected voices.
It’s partly why Weal was one of the most impressive skaters at camp. When there is continuity amongst the coaches, and their message continues to be reinforced, players such as Weal who have attended camp four times are well prepared to make the jump from junior or collegiate hockey to the professional ranks. In his first season in Manchester after four standout WHL seasons, Weal scored 15 times as part of a 33-point rookie campaign as a 20-year-old. Those who have spent time in Manchester were the most advanced players at the camp, while those who will be returning to their junior and college teams are able to comprehend how many other top players there are within the system. It’s healthy competition.
Weal acknowledged that the teachings he receives at development camp are in concert with what he learns with the team’s top farm club.
“Mike O’Connell – he’s in Manchester almost every week,” he said. “He watches a lot of our game film. He really helps us out. He’ll pull us in and do video with us, and show us what we’re doing well and what we need to work on. I think that helps so much when you’re a first-year pro and a young guy trying to learn the game.”
Through the instruction, the 5-foot-9 center has also pinpointed aspects of his own game that he looks to continue to fine tune in an effort to crack the big club’s roster.
“I think the NHL, if you’re a little grittier, it can help you out a little more,” Weal said. “Definitely if I can throw a few more body checks and get a little more physicality in my game, that can help me out a bit. All in all, I’ve just got to keep working, keep improving and become the best hockey player I can be.”
Tyler Toffoli was also taking part in his fourth development camp. Though his work at the end of the season may indicate that he has broken through with the Kings – and there have also been discussions whether he may have to make an eventual move to left wing – there wasn’t much that differentiated this camp with the three previous development camps he had attended.
“I think the stickhandling, the skating, shooting, the battles on the boards – it’s early in the summer, and I don’t think a lot of people are going to be doing battle drills and stuff like that, and that’s what we’re doing here. They’re getting us better, and obviously what they’ve been doing the past couple years has been working,” Toffoli said.
The “working” refers to both the players’ efforts during the grueling week, as well as the improvement that members of hockey operations are able to see in certain players.
“Just work at your game. It’s really up to you. You have to do the work,” O’Connell said.
“Sidney Crosby says, ‘It’s your move.’”