It’s no secret that great coaching is hard to come by in any hockey league, let alone the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). When the right one does finally show up, though, it can be life changing for the team and the fan base. Austin Wagner of the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Regina Pats is one of these guys, as he’s recently experienced such a life change of his own.
Wagner’s rookie year with the Pats was during the 2013-14 season and it wasn’t good. Confined to the leashes of Head Coach Malcolm Cameron and Assistant Coaches Josh Dixon and Bill McGuire, he played a fourth-line checking role and his career was literally coming to a halt.
To anyone in the hockey industry with a keen eye, Wagner was a wasted talent. As a result, he wasn’t played often and therefore, he didn’t score a lot of goals.
Depending on who you are, you might see this as an injustice, maybe even a crime. It’s just wrong. It’s so wrong, that Mr. Right showed up. Yup, the Vice President of Hockey Operations and Director of Player Personnel of the Los Angeles Kings, Michael Futa got wind of Wagner. Perhaps it was the fate in his stars, or maybe it was part of some greater plan by who on earth knows, but it doesn’t really matter because justice has been served.
Coaching Entourage Rolls in with Sports Cars
It was during the 2014-15 season when everything changed for Wagner and it’s all because of the club’s new coaching regime, including John Paddock and the rest of his coaching entourage: Dave Struch (Assist. Coach & Assist. GM), Gord Pritchard (Assist. to the GM), Brad Herauf (Assist. Coach) and Rob Muntain (Goalie Coach).
Paddock became the Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations and Head Coach upon arrival. The following season he was promoted to Head Coach and General Manager and today, he oversees the daily operations of the club and gives direction to the scouting department.
He uses a blueprint of players they hope to acquire that year; players with a certain style and a certain way of playing.
It’s a hard process when they’re 15, to when they’re 18,” Paddock tells The Hockey Writers.
Emphasis is placed on letting everyone play important roles.
He was basically being wasted away; barely given any opportunity and that’s what you need to develop,” Paddock continues to say. In fact, “his role isn’t any different than last year. Last year, he had no experience. This year he plays the same type of game, but he’s faster and this year he’s used in all situations.
This is the first indication that Paddock was giving Wagner a new identity and a new brand – something that fans can begin to remember him for.
Wagner Finally Plays to His Strengths
His greatest attribute is his speed,” says Paddock. “It’s about giving opportunity and as a young player, you do have to pay your dues. Whether it’s right or wrong, younger players need to get out of their shell, they need to get out of their comfort zones.
Paddock says that this is Wagner’s second year playing with the Regina Pats and
he’s getting more time, there’s more progression with moving the puck and he’s creating more plays for other people.
Playmakers are prolific at creating plays, obviously and this is a well-used tactic of the essential two-way forward. This is the second indication of Wagner’s future role in the National Hockey League (NHL), as a complete player who plays the lengthy, 200-foot game.
Even though Wagner was a relatively unknown rookie in his sophomore year, his second year is making him known for what he does best. Here’s a bundle of indications that Wagner has a new found identity on the team.
Austin was a fourth line player at the age of 16,” Paddock tells The Hockey Writers. “He was used less than our 16-year-old players. Now, he’s a top six player. Now, he plays lots of regular games. He kills penalties all the time, but he’s not really a power play player. I don’t really see him as a power play guy. Jonathan Toews (from the Chicago Blackhawks) plays in all situations. Patrick Kane (also from Chicago) doesn’t.
Getting Noticed by the Big Boys
Before the 2015-16 season started for the 6-foot-2, 185-pound left winger, Wagner was drafted by the Kings in the 2015 Draft during the fourth round at No. 99 overall. Paddock admits he sees a bit of ‘player’ in him: ‘player with passion’.
You are what you are… It contributes to your style,” he says. “It’s also important to communicate with players. They need feedback, both positive and negative. They need it.
Speaking of passionate hockey players, this season has given Wagner ample opportunities to show his teammates just how passionate he really is. On October 3, 2015, the Brandon Wheat Kings visited Regina for a game that produced a lot of bodily harm on both ends of the rink. Connor Hobbs from the Pats, who was also drafted in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals, seems to have a knack for attracting physical abuse, as seen in his engagement with Macoy Erkamps. It isn’t in Wagner’s nature to watch by the sidelines either, so he engages with nearby Brandon Wheat Kings teammate, John Quenneville:
Almost two months later, Hobbs does it again at a Prince Albert Raiders game on November 21, 2015. Wagner follows suit, choosing a nearby opponent, which happens to be Parker Kelly:
Although two-way forwards such as Wagner are known for having limited emotion, it doesn’t mean they have limited passion.
… some show it differently than others,” Paddock says. “I find Austin a bit quiet. He’s got a lot of wit about him. He engages his team well and has a good, driven personality to be a hockey player. His speed is at the NHL level right now. There’s only a handful of players in our league that are just as fast or faster and this attribute will always give him lots of opportunities.
Wagner’s blazing speed is the reason he was the club’s runaway leader in breakaway chances last season.
He’s going to be a high-scoring player,” says Paddock. “He gets lots of chances because he is so fast. He’s going to be a very interesting player to see how he finishes out… Los Angeles is very good at developing players.
Finally, justice is served because of good coaching. Now, the rest of the hockey world is starting to take notice of Wagner too and no longer is he known for being wasted talent.
I’m a Hockey Journalist based out of Barrie, Ontario, a Contributing Writer for The Hockey Writers covering OHL, and NHL prospects with an insatiable thirst for all things LA Kings, and PR gal for Abel Sports Management.