While free agency is hockey’s hottest topic when the calendar turns to July, the Los Angeles Kings have another summer tradition and that is their annual Development Camp, which began this past Monday in El Segundo. One of the participants in this week’s camp is one of the Kings’ most recent draft picks, Kale Clague of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
Picked 51st overall at last week’s Draft, Clague enters Kings’ Development Camp this year hoping to make good on that all-important first impression. But while Clague is in El Segundo working to garner some critical attention from the Kings brass, I had the chance to speak with Wheat Kings’ head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon who filled us in on Clague’s game and what he brings to the table.
One glaring difference about Clague as opposed to most Kings blueliners in recent years is the fact that he is primarily an offensive defenseman. This certainly isn’t a flaw — not by any stretch of the imagination — but given how much emphasis the Kings coaching staff and management have put on the importance of a defense-first philosophy, it is, on the surface, difficult to fathom a defenseman whose biggest strengths do not lie in the defensive category. With that said, though, Clague has plenty to offer which Coach McCrimmon can attest to.
“Kale has always been an offensive defenseman,” McCrimmon said. “In fact, in his peer group, those players [like Clague] born in 1998, Kale has held elite status his entire life. He is a tremendous skater, has great mobility, sees the ice very well, joins the rush well. Last August, at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament, he was one of the top defensemen in the tournament.”
Despite a fourth-place finish at said tournament, Canada finished atop Group B in the round-robin with a perfect 4-0-0 record.
After his 2014-15 campaign was limited to just 20 games, the 18-year-old Clague suited up for 71 games for the Wheat Kings this past season where he scored six goals and added 37 assists. Clague then went on to register 15 points in 21 playoff games en route to helping the Wheat Kings win the WHL Championship before advancing to the Memorial Cup.
Despite having such a good season, though, it was hard to imagine why Clague, who was projected to be drafted sooner, wasn’t chosen until the 51st selection. Yours truly expressed his curiosity to Coach McCrimmon who, in turn, cleared the air.
“The answer, he had a very difficult stretch in the [regular season’s] first half,” McCrimmon responded. “In the second half, he played very well. [Clague] was a key member of a team that won a WHL Championship. Biggest thing was a noticeable increase in confidence.”
Like most Kings prospects, the odds will be stacked against Clague if he plans to make the big club this coming fall. That, of course, is not a detriment to the blueliner’s game but a reminder of the silver-and-black’s penchant for patience when it comes to developing their up-and-comers. I asked Coach McCrimmon if Clague is ready for the next level or whether he will benefit more from another season or two in junior.
“Kale will need two more years of junior, then should turn pro at 20,” the Wheat Kings coach told me. “He still has lots to work on. He needs to really improve his strength. I expect him to be a dominant player in [the WHL]. I would hope that if not this year, then next year he would have a chance to play on Canada’s World Junior team.”
And with this December’s World Junior Championship to be co-hosted by Toronto and Montreal, there may be no better opportunity for the native of Lloydminster, Alberta, to show off his skills on an international level than in his home country.
In addition to his six goals and 37 assists, Clague also amassed a plus-25 rating for Brandon last season. Now, depending on who you ask, there are different schools of thought regarding the significance of the plus-minus category. Overall, though, it is a beneficial statistic as it underlines just how important a player is when he is on the ice during even strength. Coach McCrimmon had a simple, yet accurate, explanation on why Clague’s plus-minus rating was so good last season.
“Kale’s plus minus is a reflection of how good our team was and how well he passes the puck,” the coach said. “He really gets the puck moving.”
As for Coach McCrimmon’s thoughts on Clague getting drafted?
“I think it was a long wait for Kale as he was expected to be selected anywhere from 25-35 and didn’t go until 51. I think once he got passed that, he was thrilled. He is L.A.’s first selection as they did not have a first round pick and [the Kings] have a great record of player development, so that is very positive also.”
Still just 18, it is especially impressive to see all that Kale Clague brings to the table. While he may still need to work on becoming a more defensive blueliner, Clague is, as McCrimmon stated, a tremendous skater who can see the puck well, join the rush and even make key, crisp passes to create fluid scoring opportunities. He may still be a few years away from cracking an NHL — or even an AHL — roster but Kale Clague will be on a quest to prove that he should not have been drafted as low as he was.
Having already represented Canada at last year’s Ivan Hlinka tournament, look for Clague to make a serious push to represent his country at the upcoming World Juniors. More importantly, the Brandon Wheat Kings enter the 2016-17 campaign with one clear mission: to defend their WHL crown and return to the Memorial Cup. You can bet that a large portion of Brandon’s success this season will hang in the balance of how well Kale Clague performs. Should Clague top his efforts last season, expect the 6-foot, 177-pound blueliner to push for a full-time spot at the pro level sooner than expected.