While still hunting for their first win, the Los Angeles Kings AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign have more to their story than their record. As of now, the 2020-21 Ontario Reign are having a start that is looking like an expected adjustment period for their young roster.
The 2020-21 Ontario Reign are Starting With an Adjustment Period
Coming out of their first five games, the 2020-21 Ontario Reign currently sit with a record of 0-4-1. Although the team still has not won, their record does not tell the full story. It’s important to remember that the American Hockey League is a professional league, and many of these Reign players are very young.
2020-21 Ontario Reign Lineup
When analyzing the Reign, we need to understand the types of players they’re putting on the ice. Please keep in mind though that Reign coach, John Wroblewski, doesn’t really go to a standard top-six and bottom-six, rather more of a middle-six with the forwards. This means that he treats the roster as if they almost have two second lines, rolling each of the technical “second” or “third” lines fairly evenly. Recently, the lineup has looked something like this: (please note that Alex Turcotte left Sunday’s game in the first period with a lower-body injury)
Early Stand Outs
Through his first five games this season, Durzi has no goals and two assists for two total points. While his stats might not show it, the right-shot defenceman has looked excellent for the Reign so far. He has been quarterbacking a talented first powerplay unit, that runs entirely through him. He has played well through transition and has been effectively entering the offensive zone while frequently ensuring possession for his team. The only critique on him thus far is that his defensive play has struggled a bit. This issue isn’t specific to Durzi though, as that has been a team (and organization) wide struggle.
Through five games, Brickley has totaled two goals and no assists for two points. The left-shot defenceman has been a fairly steady presence for Ontario’s back end, and coach Wroblewski has shown a good amount of confidence in him, having him on the top pairing for four out of five games so far this season. The one exception was the second game when he played on the second pair, as 2019 22nd overall pick Tobias Bjornfot had the top-pairing spot.
Like Durzi, Madden’s numbers have not been very representative of how he’s played. Through five games he’s tallied no goals and two assists for two points. In preseason action, however, Madden was Ontario’s most productive player, scoring well above a point-per-game pace. Madden has been playing a fast-paced game and is constantly hard on the puck. His passing ability and high-end creativity have been on display on a gamely basis as well. He has easily been the most exciting and electrifying player to watch on this Reign team, and it’s only a matter of time before he earns himself a call up to the Kings.
Kupari has been one of the Reign’s best forwards through their first five games, and his production has shown it. In those five games, he has one goal and four assists for a total of five points. The second-year pro centre has been given first powerplay minutes stationed at the right point, on his strong side. Despite having a serious knee injury last year, Kupari’s skating has not faltered as he looks as speedy as ever. He is slowly starting to look more confident in his game and is learning what works and what doesn’t compared to playing in Europe. As his confidence continues to grow, he could see some time with the big club by the end of the season.
The first thing that jumps out when looking at this roster is how many great prospects are on the team. The Kings have one of the top prospect pools in the NHL, and a majority of their top prospects can be found on this team. Any other year, this would not be the case, however, with some minor rule changes due to the delayed OHL season start, the Reign find themselves with some players they wouldn’t normally be allowed to have.
When a player comes from the CHL, they are not permitted to play in the AHL until they are 20 years of age. Their only option is either returning to their CHL team or playing in the NHL. Because the OHL still has no schedule in place, players from the league have been permitted to play in the AHL until further notice. As a result of this, the Reign have gained some high-end prospects they normally wouldn’t be allowed to have.
To start, they are able to ice 2020 second overall pick, Quinton Byfield. Byfield is coming off his second World Junior Championship, where he scored two goals and five assists for seven points in seven games. He also played in a sheltered role, as he was the youngest player on a star-studded Team Canada. He was one of nine Kings prospects to play in the tournament.
Playing Byfield on the Reign could quite possibly be the best-case scenario for the Kings’ organization though. Having turned 18 in August, Byfield is still very young, and not quite NHL ready just yet. Even if he was, the Kings would prefer to keep him limited to under seven NHL games played this season to allow his entry-level contract to slide a year. In a normal year, Byfield’s only other option than the NHL would be going back to the OHL. This would not be ideal for him, however, he doesn’t have much, if anything, left to prove in the OHL. Through 109 career OHL games, he has 61 goals and 82 assists for 143 points.
This makes the AHL the perfect in-between for his development. It’s a step above the OHL, while still being a step below the NHL. It also allows the Kings’ organization and development staff to be in complete control of him. There is no third party dictating how much ice-time he sees, or what to coach him on. The deployment and development all come from the Kings’ organization, and they will get to make all the calls on him. Another important aspect playing for the Reign will add for him is, developing some early chemistry with some other prospects in the Kings’ organization.
Byfield is not the only OHL player on this Ontario Reign roster, however. Along with him is the 2019 33rd overall selection, Arthur Kaliyev. Kaliyev is in a very similar scenario to Byfield, having also come off a solid World Juniors. In seven games, he scored three goals and five assists for eight points.
Kaliyev didn’t stop at the World Juniors though, as he made his NHL debut not too long ago against the Anaheim Ducks. He potted his first NHL goal in his debut where he played 14:42 of ice-time. He also led the Kings in xGF/60 (expected goals for per 60 minutes) that game.
Despite getting an NHL game in, the Kings don’t quite feel like Kaliyev is ready for a full-time gig. Like many of their prospects, they also don’t want to burn a year off of his entry-level contract. This means he will likely be limited to six NHL games. Similar to Byfield, this year’s exception allowing Kaliyev to play in the AHL is the perfect scenario for the Kings. The sniper will get to test his shot against goaltending and defence at a higher level than the OHL, while still not burning a year off his entry-level deal.
The Adjustment to North American Professional Hockey
Along with Byfield and Kaliyev, this Reign roster is riddled with young players and many first-year pros, which could be the reason they’ve had such difficulty to start. The AHL is a professional league, and many players in it have a good amount of NHL experience. The transition from junior hockey to professional hockey is a major adjustment and will take some getting used to from players.
Opponents can be bigger, older, and stronger, making puck and net-front battles more difficult than they are in junior hockey. Similarly, the pace of the game is faster overall, and harder to keep up with than junior. There are relatively fewer mistakes as well, leading to fewer odd-man rushes and scoring chances.
For European pros coming to North America for the first time, there are other challenges as well. While the previously mentioned challenges might not be as prevalent to players who already played in leagues predominantly made up of men, they have their own challenges to deal with. The most glaring one is adjusting to a different sized ice sheet. The ice-surfaces they play on in Europe are much wider than the ones played on in North America.
All of this added up can make it very difficult for first-year pros to get settled. They will need a period of time to adjust to the style of play and get used to the better competition. Due to the sheer number of first-year pros on the team, this adjustment seems to be exactly what is happening with the 2020-21 Ontario Reign. They should start to find their groove once their roster is a little more accustomed to playing professional hockey. As of now, they are a group of young, talented players learning to play with each other and adjusting to a higher level of play.
List of First-Year North American Pros On the 2020-21 Ontario Reign Roster:
Quinton Byfield (OHL), Akil Thomas (OHL), Arthur Kaliyev (OHL), Aiden Dudas (OHL), Alex Turcotte (NCAA), Tyler Madden (NCAA), Cole Hults (NCAA), Nicholas Halloran (NCAA), Samuel Fagemo (SHL), Jacob Moverare (Liiga)