One of the biggest reasons why opposing teams have respected — even feared — the Los Angeles Kings in recent years has been their tremendous size and their ability to use it to their full advantage. While by no means has it been their only ingredient for success, the Kings have placed a great deal of emphasis on their size and will continue to do so in the future. Part of that future is a towering 6-foot-6 prospect by the name of Matt Schmalz.
Taken by the Kings in the fifth-round of the 2015 Draft, Schmalz has been one of the few bright spots for a struggling Sudbury Wolves team who, in recent years, have been proverbial basement dwellers in the Ontario Hockey League. Even so, the 19-year-old is making the most of his opportunities, showing everyone that he has a nice scoring touch to complement his intimidating size.
Last season, Schmalz led Sudbury with 24 goals and finished second on the club for 40 points. This season, however, his offensive game has slowed down. In 35 games, the native of Dunnville, Ont., has five goals and nine assists. Fortunately, Schmalz brings an ample amount of tools to the table that should one day make him a positive force in the National Hockey League.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Sudbury assistant coach, and former NHLer, Drake Berehowsky about Schmalz’s game, beginning with how he began his success in the junior ranks.
“He did the small things and paid the price,” Berehowsky said. “That’s probably matched with him just becoming mature as a player. He grew up by learning from his older peers and he went out and executed.
“I would say that one of his biggest attributes has to be his size and reach. He has the ability to break up a lot more plays because of his size and reach.”
In terms of the areas where Schmalz could improve upon, such as, according to some scouting reports, his skating, Berehowsky’s take was simple yet accurate.
“I think there’s always room to improve,” the coach continued. “You want to keep being a physical, dominant player and you want to still work on your skills and that’s what [Schmalz] has to continue to work on.
“You always need to improve because there are always guys wanting to catch you. It’s one thing that the NHL guys make sure they do, to improve every year because they know there are young guys coming up from behind and if they want to keep their spot on their roster, they have to keep improving and that’s what you need to evolve as a hockey player.”
As far the big man’s skating goes, Berehowsky isn’t worried.
“I think Schmalzy’s a good skater,” he said. “He’s got great straightaway speed and when he wants to dig in and engage, he’s able to battle for loose pucks. I don’t see skating being an issue as long as he keeps improving and keeps growing and evolves as a player.”
As a player, Berehowsky, a first-round draft selection, made his jump from the OHL right into the NHL graduating from the North Bay Centennials to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in 1991. Berehowsky would go on to play 549 games in the NHL. Of course, while he did boast a fair deal of size and reach himself, the former defenseman feels that Schmalz could use his size to his advantage in other areas should he hope for a successful pro career.
“I think L.A. would like to see [Schmalz] get in on the fore-check and separate man from puck,” Berehowsky added. “Get to the front of the net and make it hard for goalies to see the puck. As a staff we try to instil that into his game everyday.”
This season, at 10-27-3-1, it is easy to assume that everything has gone wrong for the Sudbury Wolves. But that’s not the case — not by a long shot. Team morale is actually quite high considering the circumstances. According to Berehowsky, Schmalz, now in his fourth year with the club, can be counted on to liven up the mood and to be a guide for the younger players to follow.
“Well, I think our head coach, Dave Matsos, has done a great job with the guys,” Berehowsky said. [Matsos] is one of those guys that [Schmalz] leans on to make sure that we have a professional mentality, we have good character and that we help the kids along and have them enjoy their time in Sudbury. [Schmalz] is one of those guys that’s always talking at the back of the bus and in the dressing room, in the coaches’ room. So, I think the guys enjoy having him around. He’s one who jokes with the players, jokes with the coaches.
“The relationship between the coaches and the players, whether it’s Schmalzy or a rookie, is tremendous and we’ve really worked hard at having the players feel comfortable enough to come and talk to us.”
But Schmalz and Berehowsky aren’t the only ones putting a positive spin on the situation.
Nelson Emerson, the Kings’ Director of Player Development, believes Sudbury’s tough year will only help Schmalz in the long run.
“Matt will be a better player and person for what he and his teammates are going through this year in Sudbury,” Emerson said. “It has been a grinding year. They have taken their lumps. That’s for sure.
“Matt needs to be a good, mature player through this, to work on his game, while helping others. With his size and reach, his puck protection skills need to be a real positive. We will continue to stress that to him as well.”
Emerson noted another area where Schmalz has had success in but could also improve upon.
“Net-front presence should also be a terrific skill he possesses,” Emerson added. “We will continue to help build these fundamentals with him as he grows older. Quite a package, and we are excited to have him as a Kings prospect.”
Size, reach and net-front presence are three virtues that could make Matt Schmalz a solid NHLer one day. However, in order to get there, the 19-year-old will have to add patience to that list. After all, the vast majority of current Kings have had to gradually pay their dues in the minors and the same will most likely be for Schmalz who already possesses many of the same strengths the club has relied on in recent years.
His size makes him easy to point out but it is his skills, his work ethic and even his attitude that make Matt Schmalz stand above the fray. To suggest that he was a steal in the fifth round is premature, but not necessarily inaccurate. In due time, Kings fans will see just how valuable Matt Schmalz really is and when they do, you can expect GM Dean Lombardi and his scouting staff to be given full marks for another solid draft choice.