“I loved the game from the first time I started skating,” noted the Ontario, Canada native. “Growing up, my dad was the GM of the local junior B team. Once I started playing regularly, things just kind of took off. My first few years I was a forward and then my dad noticed that it is tough to find a puck moving defenseman who can skate. He decided to put me back there and I really enjoyed playing defense. It just worked out well and I’ve been there ever since.”
When the Kingston Frontenacs selected him second overall in the 2012 OHL Priority Draft, he was described as a game changer from the blueline. After spending two years being coached by former NHLer Todd Gill, McKeown ’s stock continued to rise, with his numbers improving to 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) in 61 games last season. Come June, the Kings traded away one of their top prospects, Linden Vey, to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for the 50th overall pick, ultimately used to select McKewon .
“It was important to get him when we got him, no question,” began Mark Yannetti, LA’s Director of Amateur Scouting. “The thing that really transitioned him from being a guy I liked to a guy I wanted, was what he did at the World U18s [Under-18 tournament], where he was captain of Canada’s team.”
Yannetti went on to say he liked what he had observed prior, but just wasn’t sure how it might eventually translate to the NHL.
“For me, if he would buy in, I think he would be the perfect guy to fill a [key] role. However, buying in means to simplify your game and doing things that are a whole lot less flashy, less noticeable, or fun. In talking to him throughout [his draft] year, I knew he had a burn to play, but I wasn’t always convinced that he would accept that kind of role. Then, when he went over to the World U18s, he just settled right into it seamlessly.
“He played a very simple, steady - but not basic. Don’t confuse steady and basic. He could be played in any situation when he played like that, and he could be played with any person on that team. So it gave him versatility and the coach relied on him. Despite all the tools and all that, the thing that sold me on him was that willingness. And when you get the “C”, that tells a lot about you, too. When other players that we talked to told us he’s a good teammate, you take notice. Then, when multiple players tell you that he’s a good captain and a good teammate, you really start to do some digging. We had multiple players tell us that.”
Understandably, McKeown is still a bit in awe over joining an organization that has won the Stanley Cup twice in the past three years. “I didn’t think they were a team that was very high on me,” he said. “Being selected by Los Angeles, though - I remember being at the Draft and looking up at the big board and seeing that the Kings had taken me. It was quite an honor.”
Some adversity has entered into the picture in the months that followed. After participating in Team Canada’s World Junior Championship evaluation camp over the summer, McKeown recently found out he won’t be part of that squad, as he wasn’t invited back for their final selection camp before the tournament gets underway next week.
“That was one of my goals coming into the season, to be at that camp and ultimately get selected,” he shared. “That didn’t happen, so I want to use that for motivation. I’m working even harder to become a pro player. That’s my main goal now, to become a pro.”
One thing is clear; there has been a shift in his focus this year, at least according to the numbers. After potting 18 goals over the previous two seasons, McKeown has yet to find the back of the net and we’re just about at the halfway point of the OHL season.
“To play in the LA system, you have to be solid, and that’s what I’m working on, being that solid defenseman, that guy who can be a key contributor and that can defend well,” he explained. “My numbers are down a bit and I’m not happy about it, but I think my puck-moving ability will translate [to] points at the next level. To be a one-way, offensive d-man, I don’t think that’s going to be my knack. So I have to really focus on my defensive ability and worry about my overall game. Putting up points right now isn’t my main focus. It is more about becoming that solid defenseman.”
Interestingly, there are some ties between the Kings and Kingston. Bernie Nicholls played there, as did Mike Stothers, the new coach in Manchester, and Mike O’Connell. Now serving as a key liaison in the Kings’ player development group, O’Connell recently returned from a visit to Kingston, where he saw McKeown play a few games.
“Roland is coming along fine. He’s a classic young defenseman who has a lot to learn, but he is in a good spot,” relayed O’Connell, who also spends time on the ice with all the top prospects at the Kings’ summer Development Camp. “He is very mature. He’s with it; he has a good head on his shoulders. He’s a fine young man and we’re really happy to have him in our organization. You just don’t want to give them too much information in the beginning. You want to give them an idea how we work. You also want to let them know there are certain things to watch out for as they work to become pros, like social media. Then, talk about their work habits and their off-ice habits. You want to make sure they’re going to stay focused on their career. Our guidance is a lot deeper than just style of play. It’s from how you practice to how you handle yourself as a young man. We try to give them guidance on how difficult that transition can be as the get to the next level. It’s going to take an extreme amount of work, both on-ice and off-ice.”
For Yannetti, the lack of offensive production thus far isn’t anything to be concerned about.
“The fact that he has numbers or doesn’t have numbers, it’s really irrelevant to me,” stated the always blunt Boston native. “I watched [Valentin] Zykov's goals go down last year. Then he came to our camp, and he and [Nick] Shore were the two best players there for the second year in a row. In terms of numbers, screw the numbers… I’ve watched Roland play a bunch of times. I don’t think he’s played up to his potential this year, but in saying that, it’s not accusatory or a knock on him, because his style is… there are some tweaks and changes to his style right now… They’re not easy stylistic changes. I think he had a lot thrown on him in the summer and I think of you try to change or adapt or adjust too many things at once, I think you can suffer… He has specific things to work on and he knows those specific things and it looks to me as if he’s working on them, so I’m happy. I know what his potential is, so I don’t worry about his game in the short run - although you always want your guy’s games to be as good as possible - I don’t worry about it as much in the short run as I worry about him working on the things he needs to do.”
That message seems to resonate with McKeown , as he tries to keep the big picture in mind.
“From the start of my season, I’ve been solid defensively,” he added. “I’d like to see my numbers come up a bit for sure. I think push the pace a little bit up front. Make smart decisions obviously when jumping into the rush, but definitely add that to my game a little bit and not lose any offense. That’s a big thing… They just want you to be hard to play against and really have that complete level. That’s the biggest thing, to get that compete going, win your battles, and get the puck up to the forwards.”
While few players will ever be as good as Doughty in that area, McKeown claims to see more of himself in a player like Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers.
“In terms of their tools, that’s a very apt comparison,” Yannetti said, almost sounding impressed; before pointing out that McDonagh didn’t always show a higher level of compete. “It was developing, it was always in the background, but playing in high school hockey, he was just better than guys at the levels he played at. He didn’t have to excel in those competitive areas, those hard areas, those areas of will. McDonagh did not become McDonagh for five years.”
McKewon has not been penciled into anybody’s NHL lineup for next season, so time is on his side. Like all the prospects in the Kings system, Lombardi and crew will look to give them plenty of time to ripen. Better to bring them up a year too late than a year too early. It’s a concept McKeown is already on board with.
“I left Development Camp with a better understanding of the importance of using your athleticism as a defenseman, battling hard for pucks, using your partner to the best of your ability, awareness on the ice… all those things may seem little, but they make a huge difference in a defenseman,” he proclaimed. “You really see it in the players that are playing for LA right now, what it means to be a King. The drive and the hard work those guys have, that is their [trademark] and that’s why they’re Stanley Cup Champions. I’m willing to put the work in to reach that level. That’s why I’m working on my game every day - just listening to what LA has to tell me and really trying to translate that into my game.”
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - previously named Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports and the Best Sports Blog by LA Weekly. As a past member of the Professional Hockey Writer's Association, Hoven has voted on the top NHL Awards. He has been active over the years on the NHL Radio Network, where he co-hosts the West Coast Bias show, and on Twitter as well (@MayorNHL).