It’s no secret that the Royals of Ontario have taken a defense-first approach to their game this season.
Reign, who led the AHL with 14 points in their first eight games of 2022-23 and a 7-1-0 record, is also the best defense in the league, allowing just 1.75 goals per game.
That number drops even further when you look at games played away from Ontario. In a three-game road trip, the Royals won 2-1 against San Diego and San Jose and allowed just two goals in a 2-0 win over Colorado in the first of two games in the Rockies this week. Mountains.
Leading the way on the blue line for Ontario was Jordan Spence, who played an even bigger role for the club last season than he did in his rookie campaign. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Since debuting with the Royals more than a year ago, Spence has been a huge part of the team’s offense, including a spot on the No. 1 power play unit alongside the top scorers in the AHL. Every game this season, Spence has increased his minutes and responsibilities on defense and hasn’t hurt anything on the offensive end.
— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) October 23, 2022
With the puck on his stick and a regal offensive prowess, Spence remains one of the most talented offensive blueliners in the AHL. His eight assists in the early stages of the season are tied for second in the league among defensemen. Six of those assists tied Spence for the league lead. However, it’s also similar to a point-per-game average a season ago, which tied for second in the league among players with at least 40 games played at 0.91.
Where he showed further growth here in 2022-23 was in other areas of his game. The Australian skater has appeared alongside Tobias Bjornfot on the team’s top defensive pairings and has gone up against their opponents’ best lines on most nights. He also spends more time on the ice in penalty kill situations (27-31) for a Reign unit that has eliminated 87% of the situations it faces to start the year.
It was another step in the right direction for Spence, who appeared on the ice Thursday night. In addition to his eighth assist on Lias Andersson’s goal in the second period, Spence stepped up defensively, stopped plays, got his stick in the lane to deflect passes and shots, and helped the team out. When Colorado State needs to take pressure off their forehead, they have a clean finish.
After the game, Reign head coach Marco Sturm said of Spence’s performance: “He was amazing, I know he can be.”
Sturm became familiar with the defenseman’s game last season as an assistant coach with the LA Kings when Spence was promoted to the NHL roster. The young defenseman made his debut down under, playing 24 regular season games and three more in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Spenny got it,” Sturm said Thursday night. “He showed again that he’s an NHL defenseman and that was great to see. I know his time will come, but we’re very happy to have him, I can tell you that.”
While he hoped to pick up where he left off with the Kings after making the NHL club out of training camp at the end of last season, Spence said he knows having that role in Ontario will benefit him because it will continue to benefit him. experience in the pro game.
“Obviously I wanted to make the Kings, but it didn’t come out of training camp,” Spence said. “But it’s good for me to get a lot of minutes here, to play in those situations that will help me improve my game and it’s going really well. Going into the regular season, I just wanted to play my game and show what I can do on the ice.”
— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) October 15, 2022
Last season, Spence scored 42 points in 46 games for the Royals before earning his call-up. His efforts also earned him recognition from the AHL, as he was named to the All-Rookie Team as well as the league’s First All-Star Team.
But this year, Spence has shown he can step up to the penalty kill role under assistant coach Chris Hajt.
“Obviously every game you play there’s still things to improve on, but I think coach Hudge is trusting me in more situations than last year with the penalty kill and the last minute or two of the third period,” Spence said. “I think it’s been great for me to step into that role and step up from last year.”
Then there is the experience of scoring late in games.
Ontario has led in the third period six times this season and their defense has held on each time, winning all six. The team’s confidence is growing with each win, and Spence attributes the success to keeping it simple when the opposition is under pressure.
“I think we’re trying to keep it simple,” Spence said. “If we’re 3-2 up and they’re just trying to score, you don’t have to make fancy plays and we don’t have to make anything fancy. When we’re in trouble, we’re going to suck pucks, we’re going to break pucks off the glass and everything, so I think that’s going to be really important for us and Marco talked about that the last few weeks.
For a player who can sometimes flash his side, Spence has learned that this is the best time to show what he can do individually, and playing at his best is simply effective.
The bottom line for him and the other defenders on the team was very positive with offensive points and a lack of counter points. If these trends continue, so will the wins. Compared to last year’s group, with Spence and fellow rookie Helge Grans, this group is more veteran focused.
“Having that experience last year, Helge and I are more confident,” Spence said. “Then we will select one or two players [Frederic] Allard and [Tobie] Bisson, they’re really good players and I think it’s very easy for us to play with them. We just want to keep doing what we’re doing because it’s been working so far.”
Buoyed by his success in the NHL at the end of last season and now an expanded role in the AHL, Spence continues to develop from a skilled prospect to a reliable defenseman for the LA Kings.