By Rich Hammond
Yesterday was a big day for interviews, as I was able to sit down with both Ron Hextall and Dean Lombardi. Lombardi talked about a wide range of topics, while I asked Hextall specifically — given his role as GM of the Manchester Monarchs — about some of the AHL prospects. First, Hextall talks about four of the Monarchs’ centers, and gives his thoughts on how they played this season and how they can improve. Andrei Loktionov had nine goals and 15 assists in 29 games. Justin Azevedo had 14 goals and 13 assists in 46 games. Corey Elkins had 21 goals and 22 assists in 73 games. Marc-Andre Cliche had 11 goals and 14 assists in 66 games. Here are Hextall’s thoughts on each player…
HEXTALL: “I think Loktionov had a real good year overall. You ask a 19-year-old kid, especially a kid who’s not real big, to go to the American league and play, and I think he probably met our expectations. He’s a very skilled kid. I think that when the playoffs came, particularly in the third round there, the time and space was gone and his game fell off. It was a great lesson for him — because he’s got a very immature body — as to why you’ve got to get stronger, why you’ve got to spend three months in the weight room. He was a 19-year-old kid playing against men, and it really showed up in the end. His biggest deficiency is his lack of strength. But like I said, overall for a 19-year-old to come into the league and do what he did, obviously he spent three months on the injured list but he had a good year.
“Azevedo improved this year and, I think, right toward the end he started to take some pride in his defensive game. He’s kind of been an offensive player his whole life, so he took some pride in his defensive game and played pretty well. He can score goals. He can set up plays, but his all-around game has to become more well-rounded, and we started to see some of that at the end.
“Corey Elkins, he scored 20 goals and probably exceeded our offensive expectations. I think, on the other hand, his overall game needs a little bit of a brushing up. I think his consistency needs brushing up. He’s a big body and he’s got to use his size a little bit more. For his first year, he probably outdid our offensive expectations.
“Cliche, he had a good year, and his leadership skills kind of came to the forefront. I think, if you look at that team, you had Drew Bagnall and Marc-Andre as our two biggest leaders. So he took that to another level. We had a young team, and he really took it to heart and he really cares. He cares a lot and he plays the game the right way. He’s a good defensive player. That’s his m.o. Offensively, he’s never going to light it up, but in terms of killing penalties, getting into puck lanes, getting his stick on pucks and just taking pride in checking, he does a great job.”
Hextall On Wingers
Moving on to the wingers, here’s what Ron Hextall said about a handful of the Manchester Monarchs’ wingers this season. Oscar Moller had 15 goals and 18 assists in 43 games. Bud Holloway had 19 goals and 28 assists in 75 games. Dwight King had 10 goals and 16 assists in 52 games. Kevin Westgarth had 11 goals and 14 assists in 76 games. Kyle Clifford didn’t join the Monarchs until his junior season ended (he had 28 goals and 29 assists in 58 games with Barrie) and had two assists in seven playoff games. Here are Hextall’s thoughts on those prospects…
HEXTALL: “Oscar was OK. We expect a little more production out of him. I think it’s a typical example of a guy who plays a year in the NHL, and then it’s hard to go down. Don’t get me wrong. He had a good attitude and he worked hard. We just didn’t see that little bit of desperation, I guess, in his game that he needs. I think, when it came down to the end of the playoffs, he and Lokti were similar, in terms of their lack of strength, in the time and space, wasn’t there. It became pretty evident that Oscar, along with Lokti, they’ve got to get stronger.
“Bud Holloway had a real good run in the playoffs. He’s come a long ways, from being sent to Ontario in the East Coast league last year and really going up this year and not only proving he belongs there but being a pretty good player there. He was an important player for us, in terms of scoring. There’s some things he’s got to work on. He’s got to become a little more of a straight-line player, instead of all the east-west stuff, cutting to the middle, trying to beat a defenseman and things, but overall I like his progression.
“Dwight King, he started out in Ontario and got called up. Quite frankly, the first couple weeks there, he didn’t really do a lot, but then I was there a couple months ago and he started to play really well. He’s a smart player. He makes the right plays. He’s a big, strong body and, talking to (coach) Mark Morris there, whatever line he was on — because he bounced around a little bit, with Zeiler and then with Westgarth for a while, and they were good, and then he went up with Lokti and Moller and they were good — it seemed like whatever line Kinger was on, the line started to get going. So he was an important part. He can play with good players, but he can also play the power game. He makes the good give-and-go plays.
“Westie really improved. He worked hard on his skating. Every time I was there, after practice and stuff he would take the time to work on his skating and improve it. He’s at the point now where his skating and his work ethic are up, and he’s making impact hits, which in that role is an important thing. In terms of the physical part, quite frankly he got a lot of space. There weren’t a lot of guys who wanted to go anywhere near him. He was making better decisions with the puck, getting pucks deep and getting pucks out of the zone, and knowing when to make plays and when not to make plays. He improved. Westie can still upgrade his level of conditioning, and that will be the biggest focus this summer for him, from our standpoint. He got hurt late in the season, so he was out for the last couple weeks and we missed him. We missed him against Hershey, his size and his presence. We had some guys taking some liberties who probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
“Clifford made a big impression. He played really well in the first couple games that I was there. He probably set expectations a little too high, but he played with Lokti and Moller, and he’s exactly what they need because they’re obviously not real big guys. So he was in there, digging pucks and getting pucks out to them and stuff. To come out of junior as an 18-year-old hockey player and be elevated to a top line, obviously the fit was there. He justified it. He didn’t start out there. He justified his spot there, in time. He’s just a big power forward. Guys are intimidated by him. He’s getting to the net, no matter what. It doesn’t matter what’s in his way, he’s going through it. He’s not going around it, he’s going through it, and he plays with the type of determination that we like to see. Again, he was a great fit for that team at that time.”
Hextall On Defensemen
Moving on to the defensemen, here’s what Ron Hextall had to say about some of the defensive prospects who played for Manchester this season. Thomas Hickey had one goal and five assists in 19 games. Alec Martinez had seven goals and 23 assists in 55 games. Andrew Campbell had two goals and nine assists in 74 games. Vyacheslav Voynov had 10 goals and 19 assists in 79 games. Jake Muzzin appeared in only one regular-season game, but had one goal and three assists in 13 playoff games. I started off by asking Hextall whether, in a defensive group that seems to have a handful of potential NHL players, any defensemen stood out…
HEXTALL: “They’ve all got work to do in different ways. Hickey was hurt for a long stretch this year, and he had a bit of a rough start to the year. He got hurt for quite a long period of time, but he started playing in Game 3 and he played extremely well. He had a real presence with the puck. He ran our power play and, quite frankly, after he had only played four or five games in 4 1/2 months, he shocked me with the type of poise and confidence that he came in with. In Game 6, he was outstanding. He wanted the puck the whole night against Hershey. He ran our power play and did a real good job, but again, it’s a short period of time. He had his struggles earlier in the year, so I’m not ready to say he’s ready to play, because he’s got to work on his skating a little bit, his strength, and just his overall body and getting stronger.
“Alec Martinez, there’s times where you think he’s ready to play, and then there’s other times where you think he’s just not quite ready. Alec’s got a real nice skill set and everything, but he’s just got to bring more consistent play to the rink every night.
“Campbell, he’s got a real immature body. He’s just a no-nonsense defensive defenseman. He’s got to mature. He’s got to work on his body. Last year, right around Christmas, he had a big drop-off in his energy. He just flat-out ran out of gas. This year, he ran out a little bit toward the end, in the playoffs, but up until then he maintained his energy, so in terms of the kid, he came a long way this year, to last the whole year. But he’s got work to do on the body there. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight.
“Slava Voynov was in and out. He had a little issue going on with his shoulder, so he was in and out. But Slava improved this year, defensively, and played a much more sound defensive game. He’s got to get better at communicating with his teammates. I think the language is part of it. I was a little surprised when I met with him at the end of the year, though, that he talks a lot better than he did a few months ago, even. But it’s the real quick communication on the ice. He’s still got some work to do there. He’s got to get better at that. Offensively, I think he can push his game to another level next year, but again, this is a 19-year-old kid playing in the American league. I wouldn’t say he’s knocking on the door. He’s got a little bit of work to do, just like the rest of them.
“Muzzin was a pleasant surprise. He’s a real mature kid, in terms of his body. He’s a real big, thick kid. He’s got good hockey sense. He’s got a cannon of a shot. For a kid coming out of junior, he played with an awful lot of poise. A lot of poise with the puck, putting the puck in the right areas, puck management, making the right plays and keeping the game simple. He did a real good job. Again, it’s a short window so it’s pretty hard to evaluate a kid over 12 days and say, `We’ve got something there,’ but there’s certainly a lot there to work with, with Muzzin.”
To follow up, I asked Hextall about the message he would give to these young defensemen. Depending upon trades and/or free-agent signings, it would seem as though there’s an opportunity for at least one prospect to step up and join the Kings this season. I wanted to know whether the message to the young defensemen revolved around seizing an opportunity this summer and going into training camp.
HEXTALL: “Yeah, that’s fair to say. You never know how this is going to shake out, because obviously things can happen with free agency, or maybe a trade comes up that you don’t see, or whatever. But as it is right now, it looks like one of those guys is going to take a run at it. That’s up to them. The summer is going to be big, for them to get stronger and be in the best shape they can be in to put yourself in the best position to play hockey. There’s something out there for them. Again, we never know until we get there, but I think any of these guys, with the right summer, can do it. This six weeks of playoff hockey was invaluable for these kids. They will all have grown a lot from it, and in all likelihood, we’ll have a spot there.”
Hextall On Bernier, Etc.
To conclude, I asked Ron Hextall about Jonathan Bernier (and there’s a bonus question at the end). Hextall shared his thoughts on Bernier, who went 30-21-6 with a 2.03 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage on the way to being named the goalie of the year in the AHL. Did Hextall, a former Vezina Trophy and Conn Smythe Trophy winner himself in goal, see everything he wanted to see from Bernier this season?
HEXTALL: “When we sent Jon down, the biggest message to him — because he was disappointed — the biggest message to him was, `Jon, go down to the American league and be the best goalie in the American league. That’s what you’re capable of, so go down and do it.’ To the kid’s credit, he took the challenge and he was the best goalie in the American league. There’s no doubt. He continued throughout the playoffs and — I didn’t see a lot of the playoffs, so I don’t like to throw stuff out — but he was certainly as good as I expected him to be in the playoffs. We all know he’s got the talent to do that, and mentally I think he grew immensely this year. That was the biggest part. When you say, `Where does a young goalie have to grow?’ a lot of times it’s between the ears, and for Jon it certainly was. I know we’ve talked about this, but he went down there last year and essentially — he didn’t waste a half a year, because you learn a lot of lessons from spinning your wheels — but he basically spun his wheels for half the year, probably feeling sorry for himself to some degree because he wasn’t in the NHL.
“This year, he didn’t waste a second. He went down there, right from the start and took the bull by the horns. `I’m going to be the best goalie in the American league,’ and his consistency was outstanding. That’s the biggest thing, when you talk about mental things for a goalie. Night after night, you’re consistent and locked in and you’re really growing mentally. That was the biggest part for him this year.”
Question: What’s the next step, then? You guys challenged him, and he essentially did everything you asked. You’ve got Quick here and you’ve got Ersberg under contract still. What’s the message to Bernier now? What’s the next challenge in his development?
HEXTALL: “The next challenge for him, and basically what I told him at the end of the year, is, `OK, Jon, you did everything we asked. Now you’ve got to get yourself in the best possible shape” — and he’s good at that, every year he comes to camp in real good shape — “and you’ve earned a platform to challenge for the job this year. That’s what you’ve earned. You haven’t earned the job. You’ve earned the right to challenge for the job, so get yourself into shape and come to come ready to challenge to win the job.’ That’s where it’s at. He’s not guaranteed anything, but he earned the right to challenge.”
Also, I asked Hextall about the thought — one that seems to be valid — that while the Kings have a lot of top prospects on the back end, they might be thin on pure scorers at the AHL level, particularly on the wings…
HEXTALL: “That’s hard to say, because so many times, a centerman will move to the wing. So do we have top-six talent there? Yeah, there is some top-six talent there, but to ask a kid to move into a top-six role, at the ages they’re at, no, there’s no chance. So I don’t see, with anybody we’ve got down there right now, us snapping our fingers and saying, `OK, we’ve got a top-six guy here next year.’ So, no, I don’t see that at this time.”
Question: So it would sort of be like a Wayne Simmonds stepping up into a top-six role and someone stepping into his top-nine role. That would be fairly common, right?
HEXTALL: “Absolutely, because if he’s going to be a top-six guy (in the NHL) next year, in all likelihood he’s in the NHL right now, maybe in a top-nine role.”