Kelly McCrimmon on the Growth of LA Kings’ Kale Clague

ST LOUIS, MO - JANUARY 24: Kale Clague #58 of the Los Angeles Kings skates against the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center on January 24, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - JANUARY 24: Kale Clague #58 of the Los Angeles Kings skates against the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center on January 24, 2021 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

Reflecting on LA Kings defenseman Kale Clague, I spoke with Golden Knights’ GM Kelly McCrimmon, who coached the blueliner in the WHL.

Having drafted him 51st overall in 2016, the LA Kings had high hopes for blueliner Kale Clague as they looked to emphasize their defensive prowess towards another rebuild. It was just this past season, though, that Clague made his NHL debut for the Kings and while the competition may be tough on the club’s blueline moving forward, the 22-year-old nonetheless made a positive impression with the big club.

While the Kings’ development staff is among the best in the NHL, Clague benefitted from playing for one of the most successful organizations in Canadian major-junior hockey in the Brandon Wheat Kings. While he did finish his major-junior career with the Moose Jaw Warriors, it was with the Wheat Kings where Clague developed most both as a player and as a young man. In fact, the club’s head coach and general manager, Kelly McCrimmon played an integral role in Clague’s growth.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with McCrimmon, who spoke with me about Clague and his experiences coaching the youngster.

Becoming a Wheat King

We began our conversation with what piqued McCrimmon’s interest in drafting the youngster into the WHL.

LA Kings Kelly McCrimmon
KELOWNA, CANADA – OCTOBER 25: Head coach Kelly McCrimmon of Brandon Wheat Kings stands on the bench during first period against the Kelowna Rockets on October 25, 2014 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images) /

“We had watched Kale for two years prior to him playing on the Wheat Kings,” he told me. “He was scouted heavily by our staff when he was 14. We drafted him at the end of his 14-year-old season (2012); then, his 15-year-old season, we watched him play Midget hockey in Lloydminster [Alberta] — the year prior, he had played Bantam hockey in Lloydminster — and then, when he was 16, he joined the team in Brandon.”

Years before he was eligible to be drafted into the NHL, Clague had already established himself as a solid player — one who, with the right amount of support and development, could pave himself the way to a successful pro career.

“We knew a lot about him, we were very excited to have him join our team,” McCrimmon added. “We had selected him sixth overall in the Bantam draft [in 2013], and he was very highly regarded by all WHL teams across western Canada as a really talented young defenseman, and that’s what we saw when he joined the team. He’s a great skater, really talented, and those were the things that stood out about him when he joined our team.”

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A Solid Relationship

After he stepped down from his coaching duties in 2016, McCrimmon remained the Wheat Kings’ GM in addition to his role as the team’s owner. So, while he wasn’t his coach anymore, McCrimmon maintained a close relationship with Clague as his career in Brandon progressed.

“We had a really good relationship,” the 60-year-old noted. “I coached him for two years and followed him closely for his final two years in Brandon when he was 18, 19. He played on Canada’s World Junior team both of those years; I attended both events.”

Even when he left to become the expansion Golden Knights’ assistant GM in 2017, McCrimmon kept in regular contact with the Wheat Kings, including Clague.

LA Kings Kelly McCrimmon
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – Kelly McCrimmon (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

“I saw him play with the Wheat Kings a number of times even after I had gone to work for Vegas,” McCrimmon said of Clague. “I had a really good visit with him as recently as our last game in L.A., when he played against our team. I know Kale’s family well. That’s part of the process of recruiting young players: You meet the family and develop a relationship there. And, based on the fact that he came from the Wheat Kings organization– he was a player that I had worked with. There’s a lot of players like that around the National Hockey League that you continue to have a real interest in and monitor their development and their progress in their organizations.”

Given that both individuals are with opposing teams — divisional rivals, no less — McCrimmon and Clague don’t quite have the same relationship as they did in Brandon. With that being said, though, the two men always have time to catch up, especially this past season when the Kings and Golden Knight met eight times.

“It’s not the same as it once was, of course, but any of the players that I worked with in Brandon, I’ve always followed those players, hoping big things for them, and did bump into Kale [near the end of the season] after we played in L.A.,” McCrimmon said. “Had a chance to catch up, see how it’s going for him, how it’s going for myself, and it was nice to see him. But, the conversation was more just about personal stuff, family, that type of thing, then it was about hockey.”

Overall Thoughts

Being affiliated with rival teams hasn’t affected Kelly McCrimmon’s friendship with Kale Clague in the least. The two may not see each other or speak as frequently but respect and admiration will always remain between the two. In fact, the Vegas GM couldn’t help but reflect on Clague as a talent and how he feels about his former defenseman as he continues to embark on his pro career.

“He has always been among the most talented players in his age group,” McCrimmon emphasized. “So, those players develop an identity or a level of confidence, or a charisma that the best players in their peer group develop. Again, the fact that he played on the Canadian World Junior team on two occasions, I think, speaks to where he fits in relative to peers in Canada, and then within the Western Hockey League, where he had established himself as a really good player. There’s a confidence that those really good young players have about them and it’s really helpful in the makeup of a team.”

McCrimmon continued.

“When I look at Kale from a distance, I see the attributes that he’s always had, and, then, you combine that with the realities of the National Hockey League being the best league in the world, and breaking into the NHL in the toughest division. It’s a process, it takes time. So, that’s what I see when I watch Kale now as a young pro: A guy that is continuing to develop, continuing to improve, and working his way towards being an everyday NHL player. Those would be my observations from afar. Since I’ve gone to work in Las Vegas while Kale has become part of the Kings organization, you’re not working with the player daily or having the ability to follow it that closely, but from a distance, that’s what I see.”

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From my interview with him in July 2016, it was clear just how highly Kelly McCrimmon thought of Kale Clague, who was then just drafted by the Kings.

McCrimmon, whose coaching/executive career dates back to over 35 years, has established himself as one of the best in the business, and his work in finding and developing Kale Clague is no exception to this.

Entering the 2021-22 season, Kale Clague will be committed not only to returning to the Kings but staying with the Kings as a full-time defenseman. This, of course, assuming that the brand-new Seattle Kraken choose not to claim him in the upcoming expansion draft. Regardless, look for Clague to be even more driven to make the NHL after getting his first test this past season. A test that included recording six assists, 13 blocked shots, and an average ice time of 17:12 in 18 games for the Kings.

His development in the major-junior ranks has made him a better player, but that is especially the case having gone through said development under an established leader in Kelly McCrimmon and one of the most successful major-junior teams ever in the Brandon Wheat Kings.

So, as we look forward to a better season from the LA Kings, let us soak in the excitement of what Kale Clague will bring to the table in 2021-22.