Over the past few years, when the Kings have struggled, particularly in April and beyond, fans have had the Ontario Reign to turn to for some post-season action. Since the team relocated their AHL affiliate to Ontario in 2015, the Reign have made it to the Western Conference finals (2016) and Western Conference semi-finals (2017). The Reign’s prior incarnation, the Manchester Monarchs, made the playoffs every year (with the exception of the 2008-09 season) since becoming the Kings’ affiliate in the 2001-02 season and won the Calder Cup in 2015.
(Fun fact, Mike Cammalleri still holds records in single season goals, assists, and points for that incarnation of the Monarchs.)
So the Reign are at least used to some level of success. Even during last season, when they were stuck in the same goalie carousel as the Kings (the Reign played five different goaltenders last season and rostered seven), they still finished third in their division and pushed the San Diego Gulls to five games (the maximum number of games in the first round) only to be undone by goaltending injuries in the decisive game.
This year may look a little different for the Reign.
Saying that the Reign got off to a slow start this year is probably too mild of a phrase. Through their first five games, they scored four goals. In their fifth game, a gutsy effort against the Cleveland Monsters, they doubled their output: they scored four more goals, putting their total at eight on the season. Cleveland, meanwhile, put up seven in that game.
The Reign were the last team in the AHL to win a game, finally overcoming the Monsters last weekend with a score of 2-1. Michael Mersch leads the team with three goals and six points.
So, what’s gone wrong?
While Adrian Kempe started his season with the Reign last year, he was a lock for a spot on the Kings’ roster this year. Kurtis MacDermid, going into his third year as a pro, was a mainstay on the Reign’s blue line, but unexpectedly found himself with a spot in the NHL. Jonny Brodzinski, a prolific scorer for the Reign, started his season in the NHL.
Noted veteran leaders are gone from the Reign, too. While the Reign had the frequent problem of having too many veterans, leading to many of them being healthy scratches due to AHL rules, having strong veteran leadership certainly had to count for something. Gone from the Reign are, among others, Sean Backman (282 games with the Reign/Monarchs, now playing in Germany), Teddy Purcell (38 games with the Reign and 571 career NHL games, now playing in Russia), and former team captain Vincent LoVerde (298 games with the Reign/Monarchs, now playing for the Toronto Marlies). Even Paul Bissonnette, limited to 53 games over two seasons, is probably missed as a “character” guy.
The Reign have nine players this season who qualify as rookies. Last season, of players who got into more than 20 games, there were three rookies. This is potentially the most turnover that the Reign have seen in recent years, and integrating a whole crop of players fresh from juniors, with little to no pro experience under their belts, has got to be a challenge.
Get to the Net
I had the opportunity to see the Reign when they played the Chicago Wolves for the Wolves’ home opener.
One thing that stood out was a lack of chemistry and communication between linemates. Passes weren’t connecting, coverage was getting blown, no one was in the right space to pick up a rebound. Players would go for the extra pass instead of shooting, or shoot when there was an available passing lane. Shots that did get through to the net were rarely dangerous, usually going right into the goalie’s chest for an easy save. Very frequently, they looked like a team that didn’t know what to do with the puck when they had it, and that didn’t know how to get the puck back when they didn’t have it.
One good sequence of some hacking at the net for Ontario but nothing otherwise, had a hard time getting into the zone.— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
Ontario honestly just having a hard time sustaining any pressure in the offensive zone.— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
Related, how do you mess up your power play so bad that you take an interference penalty??— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
Luff picks up a puck shot off the boards, shoots it right into the goalie's chest. There's been a lot of that tonight.— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
Mersch to Leslie, who would have had a great chance had he actually caught the pass.— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
Mersch has been noticeable tonight but supremely unlucky. I keep noticing Auger for the wrong reasons.— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
Campbell's trying but defense in front of him is real real meh. Gravel/LaDue have looked fine, more composed than other D pairs.— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
Campbell comes up with a huge sprawling save. I feel like I'm watching Jonathan Quick which explains the sensation of heartburn.— sarah. (@goorgoahead) October 15, 2017
The Reign have been outshot in all but two games so far, and those two games both fell against the Bakersfield Condors, who are next-to-last in the Pacific Division. In every third period -- again, except for those games against Bakersfield -- a period in which score effects should start to be a thing, where the Reign should be pressing to tie or get on the board at all, they’ve been outshot 78 to 55.
The Schedule Maker is Really Really Rude
The Reign have played seven games. All but one, their season opener in San Antonio, have been part of a back-to-back.
And that’s it in terms of games. No weekday games, no extended homestands, no real chance to get into a rhythm. The team practices, of course, but I don’t think any player would say that regular practices can ever replace the game-day experience. It’s hard to get a feel for the way a team operates as a unit when you spend so little time together.
November doesn’t do the Reign many favors in the scheduling department either; they play three games in four days this week, including a back-to-back home-and-home with San Diego, and then play two away games in fourteen days. (Day fifteen is another game, also part of a back-to-back situation on the road in San Jose.)
Overall, the Reign have 20 back-to-back games this season, with several of them involving travel overnight between games. That seems less than idea.
Is There A Silver Lining?
This team can’t possibly be as bad as they look on paper. Their slow start and weird schedule gives them an uphill climb to get back into the playoff picture, and with how well the rest of the division is doing, they very well may not make up the ground that they’ve lost.
There are already promising signs, though. Despite getting outscored and outshot, in the games that I’ve seen, the players haven’t given up. It would be easy for a team on a massive losing streak to look lackluster or to get frustrated on ice. But the Reign have stayed extraordinarily disciplined, too, amassing only 72 penalty minutes through seven games, the lowest in the AHL. (The Belleville Senators have 187 through nine games. Of teams also with seven games under their belts, the Utica Comets lead with 126.)
Jack Campbell will most likely bounce back from a slow start, and I fully believe Cal Petersen is better than his numbers indicate. He’s started two games and lost both because his team only scored one goal. (He played two periods in relief of Campbell in that high-scoring 7-4 game in Cleveland, allowing three goals, the same as Cambell.)
The rookies will settle in. Veteran defensemen Kevin Gravel and Paul LaDue should step up, particularly if they want to start their road back to the NHL with this organization. This team will find its identity, sooner or later.
The Reign take on the San Jose Barracuda tonight at home at 7:00 pm then have a home-and-home this Friday and Saturday with their familiar playoffs nemesis, the San Diego Gulls.
Are the Reign on the verge of breaking through? We’re about to find out.