ONTARIO, CA — Since he took over the reins with the Los Angeles Kings, president and general manager Dean Lombardi inherited a scouting and development system that was one of the very worst in the National Hockey League. But since then, with heavy investment in that area, Lombardi’s scouting and development department is now, arguably, the best in the NHL.
In fact, since 2006, Lombardi’s hockey operations machine has produced 27 players, all drafted and developed by the Kings, who have played on NHL ice. 17 have made significant contributions, and of those 17 players, 12 weren’t first round picks.
That record of achievement, in terms of drafting and development success, is unheard of, by and large.
Today, the Kings continue to invest heavily in scouting and development — they understand that in the salary cap era, NHL teams can no longer win Stanley Cup Championships by loading up on top-tier players via unrestricted free agency or even by making multiple trades to bring in such talent. Indeed, teams that contend for the Stanley Cup year after year are now built primarily through drafting and developing young players.
One such player in the Kings system with the potential to be a scorer at the NHL level down the road is right wing/center Jonny Brodzinski, who played three seasons with St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, before moving up to the American Hockey League this season with the Ontario Reign.
With St. Cloud State, the 22-year-old, 6’0″, 202-pound native of Ham Lake, Minnesota scored more than 20 goals in each of his three seasons, and was nearly a point-per-game player in his last two seasons with the Huskies.
This season, Brodzinski, who was selected by the Kings in the fifth round (148th overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, has scored seven goals and has tallied six assists for 13 points, with a +5 plus-minus rating and ten penalty minutes in 42 games with the Kings’ AHL affiliate.
To be sure, seven goals and six assists doesn’t say, “sniper” at the professional level. But for a first-year pro, such expectations are unrealistic for all but the cream of the crop of young players coming out of college hockey, or major junior hockey in Canada.
“As easy as it seems, [his biggest challenge this season has been] putting the puck in the back of the net, just bearing down on some of the chances I get,” said Brodzinski. “That chance [on February 5] off the pass from [fellow Kings forward prospect Adrian] Kempe—the goalie just got his glove on it. There was one in Stockton [on January 27] where the puck trickled over to me. I had a wide open net, but shot it high. It’s just little stuff like that. If I capitalize on those chances, it could change everything.”
“Any chance you get, you’ve got to throw the puck on net,” added Brodzinski. “You see how many [goals are scored] off shin pads, or off of a defenseman’s jersey, so you have to keep shooting.”
Despite not scoring as much as he expects, Brodzinski isn’t concerned because has been getting his share of quality scoring chances.
“It’s tougher to get those [quality scoring chances] in this league, but that’s something that I pride myself on,” he noted. “I think I’ve gotten a lot of chances. I’d say that I’ve had among the most on the team.”
“It’s about getting into those dirty areas, doing the hard work and just creating things for my line—going into the corners and getting pucks out to the defensemen, going to the net,” he added. “That gets harder and harder at every level because the defenders are a lot bigger, a lot stronger. It’s tough.”
But even with the scoring opportunities coming his way, it’s human nature to get at least a bit frustrated, at times.
“You’ve just got to block it out,” said Brodzinski. “I knew it was going to be a lot tougher than college. I’ve heard that from everybody. But it’s something you’ve got to deal with. You’ve just got to keep plugging away. Pucks will find the back of the net if you’re getting your chances.”
As Brodzinski indicated, he has found moving up to the professional ranks to be a challenge.
“I feel like there’s definitely a learning curve, for sure,” he said. “It’s a different league than college. It’s a lot faster. You’ve got to make plays in traffic a lot more than in college, especially at St. Cloud, where we had the Olympic size rink. But it’s something that I’ve adapted to in the last couple of months, so I feel like it’s going pretty well now.”
“In college, you can often just float [in the defensive] zone,” he added. “You can’t do that here. You’ve got to lock down a lot of different areas that you didn’t have to in college hockey.”
Despite the fact that his offensive numbers are not what he wants, Brodzinski’s game has been on the rise since the start of the season.
“I think I’ve just become a more complete player,” he said. “The defensive aspect, especially with [Reign head coach Mike Stothers]—he harps on a lot of things, but the biggest one is facing the play at all times.”
“It’s really a big thing,” he added. “I used to sweep away from the play, making myself unavailable for my defensemen or wingers. You can’t do that at this level. You’ve got to stay open for the play. By doing that, it creates a lot more opportunities for everybody. It’s an awareness that you’ve got to learn.”
That Brodzinski has become a more complete player is a fact that has not been lost on his head coach, who has taken full advantage of the fact that he can play Brodzinski on any line.
“He’s a guy who can play who can play on a lot of different lines,” said Stothers. “He’s not pigeonholed into one line, or one category. I think he does a lot of things well. Although he got off to a slow start before he scored his first [goal], he’s a goal scorer, just because of the way he can shoot a puck, his release, his nose for the net. I think [the goal scoring] is going to come, in time.”
Stothers noted, however, that bouncing Brodzinski from one line to the next might be affecting his offensive production.
“Consistency [is an issue for him], which is something you deal with with a lot of young players,” Stothers noted. “Maybe the fact that I do move him around quite a bit from line-to-line—a lot of young players might look at that and think, ‘oh jeez, I’m not here, I’m there,’ and everywhere else. Maybe if he had a little bit more experience he might think, ‘coach is trusting me in this situation,’ or, ‘coach wants me to play with these guys tonight.’ That’s just my experience, because I’m older than him, quite a bit older than him.”
“This guy is pretty valuable,” Stothers added. “We can play him in a lot of places. He’s been very good. I think it’s just a matter of experience and him getting some minutes, getting some touches. Can he be a little better in the defensive zone? Sure. Can he have better finish in the offensive zone? Sure.”
“He’s just become a pretty reliable player. Usually, when a coach uses the word, ‘trust,’ and you’re using him in situations, that means huge growth. You know what? I think there’s a lot of potential there. I’m a real big fan of his.”