Nothing like starting at the top. Breaking into the NHL and the lineup of the defending Stanley Cup champions at the same time is a little like having your first recital at Carnegie Hall. Or whipping up your first soufflé in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen.
That’s where rookies Andy Andreoff and Brayden McNabb find themselves as they launch their NHL careers with the Kings. Despite the glare that comes with joining a budding dynasty, both players say and there is no place they would rather learn the nuances of the NHL.
“I think playing with the defending Cup champions is actually helpful,” Andreoff, 23, says. “With how good these players are, it makes a lot easier for you. As soon as you get the puck, someone is always open, so it makes it a lot easier for the players around them.”
McNabb, 24, who played in 37 NHL games with Buffalo Sabres before being acquired by the Kings in a trade last year, says for now he is more focused on fitting in at the NHL level; helping extend a dynasty can come later. But McNabb does admit there is something thrilling about launching a career amid a Cup defense. “It’s really exciting,” McNabb says.
The two novices have nothing and everything in common: Andreoff hails from Pickering, Ont., just outside Toronto; McNabb is a Saskatchewan farm boy who could drive a combine before he got behind the wheel of a car.
Today, as freshman on a team of international stars, they are two of a kind. Not surprisingly, the pair has forged a bond.
“In Manchester, Brayden and I hung out quite a bit,” Andreoff says. “Once we got here, we started hanging out a lot during camp. Now that we have both made the team, we are the two younger guys so we stick together, but, really, everyone is pretty close on this team.”
Andreoff and McNabb both got a taste of the importance of that closeness last spring as members of the Kings’ “Black Aces,” the corps of prospects brought up from the minor leagues to watch and learn during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“You learn how close of a team they are,” Andreoff says. “That’s why they are champions now. You learn a lot from that experience. I was pretty excited to see it and really excited to be a part of the team now that I know what they are all about.”
Says McNabb: “To see what they did, and how it felt for them, was pretty cool. It’s something I want to be a part of someday.
They are all Kings now, the ones with two fingers bedazzled by bling and the ones without so much as a wedding ring. Andreoff, who wasted no time in showing his new teammates his aggressive brand of hockey, says he is starting his NHL career with a focus on playing an intense, grinding style. McNabb is gently easing into his balanced game, but is focused first on defense.
During his inaugural NHL shift, Andreoff dropped the gloves and squared off with Edmonton tough guy Matt Hendricks.
“It helps a lot when you get into the game early and make a big hit,” Andreoff says. “Something like that to get the team up a bit and get the energy level higher. When you can do that, it helps everyone.”
A power forward, Andreoff had 133 penalty minutes in 76 games at Manchester last season. He also scored 11 goals, but says the skill game will come later. For now, he believes must play a physical style in order to contribute at the NHL level.
“I think my role on this team is to be an energy guy,” Andreoff says. “I have to finish every check, make simple plays, drive the net every time. I think that’s my role for now. Hopefully, once I play a few more games, I get a little more confidence and I can make some more plays.”
McNabb is regarded as a two-way defenseman, but says he is intent on getting his defensive legs under him before he presses the play in the offensive end of the rink.
“I want to take care of my own end first,” McNabb says. “As a defenseman, those are the fundamentals of the game. To establish myself as an NHL D-man, I’ve got to take care of my own end first and the offense will take care of itself.”
In time, Andreoff says, Kings fans will see that McNabb can be dynamic at both ends.
“In Manchester, Brayden was one of our top two-way defensemen,” Andreoff says. “He has that swag and he has a lot of offensive skills. Once he plays a few more games and gets confident at this level, you will start to see his offensive skills.”
McNabb began his NHL career with the ultimate two-way role model as his partner. While Jake Muzzin was sidelined with an upper body injury at the start of the season, McNabb found himself paired with All-World defenseman Drew Doughty.
“Drew is obviously a great player,” McNabb says. “Everyone knows how good he is, one of the best. It was cool playing with him and I learned a great deal from being on the ice with him.”
The earliest lessons learned by McNabb came back home outside Davidson, Sask., on his family’s 7,000 acre farm. As McNabb became an accomplished hockey player, his parents made sure their son’s hockey was a priority. In McNabb’s younger years, however, he was a fixture helping out on the farm, especially during the annual harvest.
“It’s big business,” McNabb says of the farm, which produces wheat, barley, lentils, and canola. “I have a lot of respect for my dad and all the farmers out there. It’s a lot of work. It’s all day, every day. There is always something that needs to be done.”
As he began climbing the hockey ladder, McNabb took the lessons of the farm with him. Like so many other NHL players that came of age on the Canadian Prairies, McNabb plays an honest, hard-working brand of hockey.
“I don’t want to say there’s not a whole lot out there, but people that grew up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba grew up outdoors playing hockey and baseball,” McNabb says. “For a lot of small-town kids, all you’ve got is your sports. You basically live through your sports.”
McNabb left the family farm for boarding school
at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, in Wilcox, Sask., a small town of about 200, located 30 minutes south of Regina. There, he played for the Notre Dame Hounds, a team that sent Rod Brind’Amour, Wendel Clark, and Curtis Joseph – among others - to the NHL.
“It was a good experience, a big character-builder,” McNabb says. “I wouldn’t say it’s prison, but it’s close. But, I had a lot of fun there. It’s you and your buddies, and it’s about school and hockey. Your gym class is with your hockey team. After school, you have team workouts. You bleed hockey, for sure. It really helped with my development and made me the player who I am today.”
Andreoff grew up in Ontario, where, like most everyone else, he followed the Maple Leafs.
“Until I got drafted by the Kings organization, I followed the Leafs,” he says. “Pickering is a little bit different than LA,” Andreoff says.
The venue has changed for Andreoff, but he has made sure the hockey remains the same.
“I want to play my game,” Andreoff says. “That means I have to be a solid two-way player. I just have to focus on all the little details that I have to learn from the coaches and all the other players. The more games I play, the better I will be, so I am looking forward to that.”
While McNabb has found a suitable role model in Doughty, Andreoff says he has a stockpile of mentors.
“You can learn from all the guys on this team,” he says. “Cliffy (Kyle Clifford). Kinger (Dwight King). Stollie (Jared Stoll). You can really learn a lot from guys like that. They are all two-way guys that are really good in the D-zone. They can all make a lot of plays in the O-zone, too, so I try to watch them.”
Like McNabb, Andreoff says his experience as a “Black Ace” last spring left him hungry to play in the NHL. It also left him with the impression a place on the Kings’ roster was his for the taking.
“Being a ‘Black Ace,’” he says, “you get a couple of hints that you might have a good chance to make the team.”
Andreoff was determined not to let that opportunity slip away. After the Kings’ Cup win, he returned to Ontario and went to work, determined to be more than an extra in any future celebrations.
“I spent the summer training,” he says. “I worked really hard over the summer because I knew I had an opportunity. Once I came in to camp, I was ready to step up.”
So far, the grinding Andreoff and the defensively responsible McNabb have both stepped up on one of hockey’s biggest stages.