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The Synergy Between The LA Kings And The Manchester Monarchs

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Last season, Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier was the No. 1 goalie in Manchester, but three times he got the call, on short notice, to join the Kings
Lightning-fast forwards. Packed, massive arenas. Five-star hotels. Bulky per-diem envelopes. There are certain parts of NHL life that can never be totally replicated at the minor-league level.

The Kings, however, do everything in their power to create as much synergy at the NHL and AHL levels as possible. During the Dean Lombardi era, an extra emphasis has been put on internal player development, and the Kings are quite progressive in terms of NHL-AHL cohesion.

Each of the AHL's 30 teams has an affiliate relationship with an NHL team, but an unofficial count reveals only 11 instances of mutual ownership among the NHL team and its AHL affiliate.

For the past 10 years, the Kings have owned the New Hampshire-based Manchester Monarchs, who serve as their primary minor-league affiliate. Ron Hextall, the Kings' assistant general manager, serves as the Monarchs' GM, and there is total control over Monarchs-related decisions.

"I think the worst thing a player can do is come up from the minor leagues, to this level where the game is faster, and then all of a sudden he starts thinking about everything and he gets behind the 8-ball,'' Hextall said. ``The transition should be made as smoothly as possible when you're coming up a level.

"We play the same system down there as we do up here. The coaches went through the training camp just so that when guys do come up, they're playing an instinctual game."

The relationship has created a comfort level between the NHL and AHL staffs. Monarchs coach Mark Morris and his staff spend a major chunk of time between July and September in Los Angeles for Kings developmental camps and the main training camp.

Moreover, veteran players, prospects and coaches -- and even trainers, equipment managers and communications staffers -- get to know each other, and the Kings' system of play, dictated by coach Terry Murray, is followed by Morris and his staff at the AHL level.

The synergy pays off down the road. If a forward is called up from Manchester mid-season, he should already know the Kings' forechecking system. A defenseman should know his penalty-killing responsibilities. A goalie should know what reads to make based on teammates' play.

Consider, for one, current Kings backup goalie Jonathan Bernier. Last season, Bernier was the No. 1 goalie in Manchester, but three times he got the call, on short notice, to join the Kings.

Granted, the NHL adjustment for a goalie is less dramatic than for a forward or defenseman, because the game is simpler -- see the puck, stop the puck -- but the subtleties of the game were familiar to Bernier. For instance, Bernier's knowledge of the Kings' system led him know that he was likely to face more shots from the point and deal with less scrambling in front of the net.

"My game is built on the system, and how the D likes to play, so if they like to give me the outside shot, that's usually what I like and I'll maybe play a little bit deeper in net," said Bernier, who was the top goalie in the AHL last season. "Right now, I think we're playing a more up-tempo game, more rush, so I've just got to make an adjustment in my depth."

There's plenty of in-season communication among management and coaches as well.

As part of his role as Monarchs GM, Hextall will join the team approximately once a month, for up to seven days at a time, to do some in-person scouting and information sharing.

If the Kings decide -- as they did last season, with Oscar Moller -- that a forward prospect should be playing as a winger, not a center, that will be communicated to the Monarchs' staff. If Murray tweaks his forecheck system, Morris will do the same with the Monarchs.

The buzzword with Lombardi, since he arrived with the Kings in 2006, has been "culture," and by keeping things are similar as possible, the Kings hope the Monarchs can feel like part of the family.

"I think our synergy is pretty good," Hextall said. "Our coaches up here get to know our young players, and our coaches down there get to know our players here. So everybody knows, when we're talking about players, they all know the players. Everybody has been to development camp and everybody is at training camp for an extended time.

"The coaches have meetings at training camp and development camp. So the coaches are aware of the way we want our guys to play. So we do have good synergy, there's no question about it."

There is, of course, only so much that can be duplicated.In the AHL, there is no Alexander Ovechkin, no Roberto Luongo, very little of the top-level talent that a prospect would encounter at the NHL level. That's something that can only be experienced on the ice.

The Kings started the season with seven rookies and with the NHL's youngest roster, in terms of average age. A few of those players even made the jump directly from junior hockey, without the buffer of competing against older prospects in the AHL.

Hextall explained, though, that sometimes jumping to the NHL can make things easier.

"On the ice, the biggest transition for a player, or the biggest change, is definitely the size and the speed,'' Hextall said. ``It's funny because, yes, the size and the speed make it a harder game to play, but it's also a simpler game. So if you get a good player, and I always talk about defensemen and goaltenders, in some ways it's easier to play up here.

"Definitely there's not as much sorting out, because everybody is pretty much on task, doing their job. In the American league, it's a little bit more scrambly. I've talked to Bernier about this, and some of our young defensemen. When you come to this level, yes, the players are bigger and faster but there's not as much chaos in the game, so certain aspects of it are easier."

How about off the ice?

Life in the AHL, albeit a step up from junior hockey, can be rough. Travel is done almost exclusively by bus, hotel rooms are far from "five-star," and AHL teams often play three games in three nights, often in three different cities.

Life in the NHL can be much more luxurious, but it can also be confusing, with young players often living out of hotels and trying to build camaraderie with older, less-familiar teammates. Hextall said the Kings try to have a built-in support system from within, to ease that side of the transition.

"As far as the lifestyle and stuff, it's an eye-opener, no doubt about it," Hextall said. "You go from riding a bus to chartering a plane and staying in nice hotels. For the most part, our leadership group, our older guys, take the younger guys under their wings and make sure they've got rides to games and make sure they're eating right.

"We've got a real special group here, when it comes to looking after the younger guys, so I think the younger guys feel as comfortable as they can when they come up."

And when they come up, the transition is as smooth as possible. Even the Kings' colors are nearly identical to those of the Monarchs.

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