The LA Kings and Ontario Reign are celebrating their affiliation with a pair of themed nights at their respective arenas on Thursday and Friday night.
The Reign have started the season 8-4-2 and are coming off a four-game road trip where they went 1-1 against both the Colorado Eagles and the Iowa Wild. Earlier in the season, we had a chance to talk to Reign Head Coach Mike Stothers about some of the young players leading the way in Ontario.
Netminder Cal Petersen has played all but 20 minutes for the Reign and has an identical 8-4-2 record with a sparkling .932 save percentage. In 2018, following a 1-0 loss in Game 4 of their first round series against The Texas Stars, Coach Stothers adamantly proclaimed Petersen "the best goalie in the league."
When asked about Petersen's start to the 2019-20 season, Stothers praised his character as well as his play.
"He's such a good person. He works so hard at his craft and he would be wearing a letter… if you could give him a letter, he'd be wearing one."
Stothers went on to praise Petersen's "team first" work ethic, which earned him the captaincy prior to his junior season at Notre Dame.
Video: Cal Petersen has solidified the Kings' depth in net
"Every goalie has a night where things aren't quite going right… and sometimes you pull a goalie not because of his performance but you're just trying to save him... I've talked to Cal and he's told me flat out you don't ever have to feel like you need to take me out."
Goaltenders face an incredible amount of scrutiny and Stothers praised his goaltender for how he handles the pressure.
"The best part about Cal is regardless of what goes on in front of him, he never has an excuse for why a goal went in or how a goal went in… he puts all the onus on himself and that's a great character person right there and you know what? He is darn good."
Another Reign player with a bright future is Jaret Anderson-Dolan, the Kings' second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The Calgary-native, who can be compared to Anze Kopitar, is lauded for his two-way play and contributions in both ends of the ice. Stothers evoked a Hall of Famer when discussing Anderson-Dolan's spirit and commitment to hockey.
"There's so much to like about him. The kid is serious. He's passionate, he's intense," Stothers said. "He just wants to play the game and you gotta love a kid that's like that. He has that look on his face like Mark Messier used to... But when you look into his eyes you just see that passionate behind him. I think that's a good quality to have, for JAD and for us."
The Ontario Reign, like many hockey teams in 2019, are a hodgepodge of players raised and trained from all over the globe. Finnish forward Rasmus Kupari, selected 20th overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, has to adapt to a new league, a new team and a new country. The young forward is expected to play a role in the Kings future but Coach Stothers was reluctant to put to much pressure on the 19-year-old rookie.
"He comes in with some lofty accolades and probably some high expectations and I've tried to not personally put that on him. I just want him to feel comfortable and play the way he can. I think we have seen it in spurts, I think there's still more there that's coming," Stothers said.
"It is a matter of him getting comfortable to the life in California, the life in pro-hockey, the smaller rink, the demands that are on you… it's all a learning experience for him."
The helpful part is that Kupari has a great command of the English language and it isn't a barrier for him to communicate with his coaching staff or teammates.
"He seems like he's got a good level head. He's shown some real flash and dash at times. You can see there's a real creative person in there and now we're just looking to see if there's more consistency to his game and help him bring that out."
One of the challenges facing an AHL coach is the threat of losing your best players to an NHL call up. The Ontario Reign have a handful of players, including Captain Brett Sutter, on AHL contracts that can't be recalled to the NHL. Coach Stothers recognizes the importance of their roles as mentors to young developing prospects, almost as if an extention of the coaching staff.
"I've been a lucky guy. We've always had good veteran guys and we've always had good captains. Brett Sutter is terrific so that helps.
Stothers recognizes that in order to be a veteran in the AHL, players have to be willing to focus on leading the younger players and embrace the fact that they themselves won't be calledup.
"We all believe its part of the process and we all believe that's part of our job here as a team in the AHL," Stothers said. "I think we've got some great guys in place there in the veteran department so I think some good things will happen for us."
There's still plenty of hockey left to be played in the 2019-20 AHL Season, but when asked about any early surprises from his team, Stothers was optimistic.
"I think we've made great strides. I think the team has grown quicker than I had anticipated. I definitely feel that our team this year has way more depth and way more skill than we had last year. I think the veteran players and the guys that are coming back have really come back with a focus. They don't want to go through another long year like the organization had last year."
Stothers knows that with a strong group of players, the coaching staff has a responsibility to both guide them through the season and make sure they're enjoying each day they come to the rink.
"I think that's the biggest thing for us as coaches… we've got a lot of responsibilities to help develop these guys, but it can't be a chore. It is a game and it is supposed to be fun, that's what it was when we first started playing in the street as a kid growing up."
Attend LA Kings Night at the Ontario Reign or Ontario Reign Night at the LA Kings Game!