They see me rollin'. They hatin'.
- Jul 28, 2004
For Brandt Clarke, it’s all about being ready to go come training camp in September. He’s looking to play in the NHL.
“I think if his goal isn’t to make the Kings this year, there’s something wrong,” said Sean O’Donnell with a big smile after day one of Development Camp. “I’m 99.9% sure that if you asked him, his goal is to make the Kings and be on the opening-day roster.”
Perhaps the better question is, does Clarke see it as a two-man race between himself and Jordan Spence for spot on the team’s third pairing?
“Maybe you could say that,” answered the 20-year-old blueliner when we asked if that’s how he’s sizing things up. “Everyone wants that spot. There’s going to be a lot of guys battling for it. I think we’ve pulled ourselves away from the pack, in terms of guys who are really standing out and have done well in our limited NHL experience. But, Spenny is a good friend of mine. Obviously, I want to see him do his best too. That’s definitely the spot I want; I want to be a full-time player. I want to play 82 games next season, and sometimes you have you got to battle with your friends to pull away from it. That’s what we’re going to do either way, we’re both going to be happy for the other guy.”
With a few months still to go before that battle takes center stage, Clarke is back in Los Angles for the next week to participate in the team’s 2023 Development Camp. After impressing team officials last summer and having an equally electrifying Rookie Camp, he’s more than happy to be wearing Kings gear again and skating at the club’s training facility in El Segundo.
“It’s good to be back,” he remarked, before rattling off one of his customary rapid-fire answers. “It’s been a while. And it’s good to be able to put a lot of names to faces now. When I came in last year, I didn’t know too many of the training staff by name or anything like that; I couldn’t remember. Now, I know them really well and they know me really well. We were cracking jokes and stuff like that earlier today. That always makes you feel comfortable and confident, so it’s a good feeling to be back here.”
Finding a home where he can grow roots is probably rather appealing at this point. Since being selected by the Kings in the frist round at last summer’s NHL Draft, Clarke has played games for Team Canada, the Kings, the Ontario Reign, and the OHL’s Barrie Colts.
“I was bouncing all over the place,” he remarked, when asked about the whirlwind he’s been on over the past 12 months. “But I think that’s cool. I had a lot of options. I got to see a lot of different players and got to play against a lot of people. So, it was a cool feeling. I’m really happy with how it went. If I could go back in time, obviously I wanted to be with the Kings full-time, but I was really happy with how my season went. I took everything in stride. I just wanted to make the most of it no matter where I was. That’s exactly what I did.”
After getting into 9 NHL games with the Kings last season, and another 5 games with AHL Ontario while on a conditioning assignment, how much time did he spend paying attention to all the roster moves GM Rob Blake has been making over the past few weeks — while knowing that some of them were designed to potentially create a roster spot for him next season?
“I don’t know if it was that, per se,” he tried to note with a degree of humility. “But, yeah, I have a lot of friends on this team. I was really close to a lot of guys last year, so, it’s sad to see some of them go. It’s just the way it works. It’s the way the business works. Teams are always trying to take steps to be more successful, so it’s a good feeling that it seems like they’re trying to open a hole for me. I’m ready to be on this team. I want to be on this team, and I felt really good about my capabilities last year when I was on the team. I know that I’m only going to get better when this September comes around. I’m really excited to see how the team shapes out when it actually comes around.”
Given the special talents Clarke possesses and how the Kings could use his skills in the NHL sooner rather than later, O’Donnell is keenly aware of the role he’ll play in turning the team’s top prospect from NHL hopeful to league mainstay.
“Clarkie is such an important part of the future of the Kings, we don’t go too long without touching base,” shared the veteran of over 1,200 NHL games. “I’m from Ottawa, he’s from Ottawa; so when I go home, I go see him working out, take him for lunch. Phone calls, emails, texts, whatever.”
Seeing him on the ice at Development Camp this week is just another chapter in the book they’re writing together — one that has more than a few chapters about a 51-year-old Stanley Cup Champion offering advice to a young player who still has his whole future in front of him.
“He’s just a guy that you want to kind of give a little bit of structure to and then you just kind of let him do his thing,” explained O’Donnell. He’s a gamer. I wouldn’t say he had his best first scrimmage [today]. Maybe he tried a little too much. But he’s blocking a shot in a 5-1 game late like that. Not many guys do that. He’s a hockey junkie and he’s a good one.”
For the dozens of prospects in town this week, each will ultimately have their own path to pro hockey. For Clarke, though, O’Donnell says it’s about the here and now, with no time to waste.
“You probably have a little shorter leash as far as mistakes,” he said, when comparing Clarke’s journey vs. some of the other younger guys in town. “With some of these young guys, like Otto Salin, I thought he did some really nice things today, but he did some things on the wrong side of a guy too. You kind of [think], ‘Well, we’ll talk about that.’ But he’s young, we have time to work with that. He’s still going back to Finland next year to play. Clarkie, you want to kind of nip those things now. I don’t want to call them mistakes, as any looseness in his play is tighter than some of the other guys, but you still want to make it as tight as possible because we’re counting on him to make the Kings this year. And if he does, those coaches, they want to be able to trust when they put him out there that he’s not going to make — well, we’re going to make mistakes, but you’re not making the same ones over and over again. So his margin of error is tighter than some of those young players that we know are still a couple of years away.”
Through multiple tours with the Kings, as well as stops in Anaheim, Minnesota, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, O’Donnell nearly saw it all before returning to Los Angeles and serving as a Development Coach the past few years. His vast experience in and around NHL bluelines gives him a wealth of knowledge when it comes to evaluating potential talent among prospects.
“I think he’s a unique kind of player, and I don’t think you want to box them in,” O’Donnell remarked. “You don’t hit a home run on every shift at the NHL level. You can do it in junior and you can do it sometimes even in the minor leagues, but the guys are so good here. You just have to pick your spots when you go and don’t try and manufacture something when it’s not there. The game will present itself naturally and those guys have the kind of talent that when that happens, they can take advantage of it. When they’re trying to force things, or trying to crowbar and make a play happen when it’s not there, that’s when they get in trouble. If he can play within himself, which I think he does, at the highest stage, he’s a dynamic player. There aren’t many players like that.”
And as much as people try to avoid comparisons, there seems to be one name that keeps creeping its way into conversations when they’re attempting to describe what makes Clarke so special.
“He will try something if he believes it’s the right play,” began O’Donnell. “Drew Doughty was a lot like that. I’m not comparing the two players; but, Drew would try something, and it didn’t matter. It wasn’t going to change because it was late in the game or the stakes were high, or [he’s] out against so and so. If he feels, it’s the right play, and he feels it’s the right thing he’ll do it. Is it always the right play? No, but it’s nice to see those kinds of players. You’d rather work with those type of players than the players that you have to say, ‘[You had] this option or this option.’ He sees all the options. He may not choose the right one all the time, but he doesn’t get overwhelmed. I think he gets better. You look at where he’s been — the World Juniors, for example, I thought as the tournament got better, he got better. As the games went along, he started getting double-shifted and playing more. I think once he settles into a situation and sees where he’s at, and gets a feel for it, I think he doesn’t get overwhelmed by situations at all and that’s a nice thing.”