by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
Brenden Kichton knows a thing or two about being a leader.
The 21-year-old spent the past five seasons with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, serving as team captain and winning the Bill Hunter Trophy as the league’s top defenseman with 85 points (22-63-85) in 71 games during his final campaign.
This year, he’s taken up the role of learner, as he continues to develop in his first professional season with the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.
“Going from captain and being able to lead 20-something guys in junior to a rookie [in the pros] is definitely a different situation,” said Kichton. “You let the leaders lead, do your job and do what’s expected of you, but also try to bring a little leadership as well.”
Originally drafted by the New York Islanders in 2011, Kichton re-entered the draft in 2013 and was picked up by the Winnipeg Jets in the seventh round before being assigned to the IceCaps at the start of this season.
Despite his first-year status, the Spruce Grove, Alta., native’s captaincy at the junior level shows signs of promise in the pros, according to IceCaps head coach Keith McCambridge.
“You can see the leadership really coming through in how much he is driven, how much of a good and reliable teammate he is,” said McCambridge, himself a former captain during his career as a defenseman in the American Hockey League. “You want to develop these young guys with the right older guys in your organization around them, and look to have that transition take place down the road.”
The IceCaps, who recently set a franchise record with nine straight wins, sit fourth in the AHL’s 15-team Eastern Conference entering the final month of the regular season. Being part of a winning club has proven to be the ideal learning experience for Kichton in his first year as a pro.
“It’s been huge,” said Kichton. “We have a lot of leaders on this team, a lot of guys that have been through the wars and played in the playoffs.
“It’s definitely a winning culture here – we expect to win every night. That’s [the mindset] I came from in junior, so nothing has changed.”
But Kichton hasn’t merely been an observer to his team’s success so far this season – his individual productivity has been a large contribution. With 43 points (10-33-43) in 62 games, he ranks among the league’s top scorers for both rookies and defensemen.
“He’s a real offensively gifted defenseman,” said McCambridge. “We knew coming in that he put up good numbers in Spokane, but we weren’t sure if it’d be able to transition quickly to the American league. It has.
“Where you think there might be some give and take with the offensive side in the way he plays, there isn’t. He’s still a really strong defender and we’re able to balance both ends of his game.”
Kichton’s impact has been recognized formally as well. He was named CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month in January after tallying 14 points along with a plus-6 rating in 12 contests. The 6-foot-0 blueliner was also part of an elite group selected to compete against Färjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League in the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic last month.
But don’t expect complacency from Kichton, regardless of any accolades he may garner.
“Obviously, you can’t get too content,” Kichton said. “It’s a really tough, physically demanding league and being a first-year, it’s had its ups and downs. But that’s the pro way, and you’ve just got to battle back, play your hardest and try to get ready for the NHL.”
McCambridge has seen his team’s leading rookie scorer do just that.
“He’s earned the ice time and the opportunity to be put in offensive situations in key moments of games,” said McCambridge. “That’s a real credit to Brenden to be able to really jump of the page so early here in his pro career.
“For a first year defenseman, to date he has been a really big piece of our team.”
A handful of the IceCaps’ key players have received recalls to Winnipeg this season, including Eric O’Dell, John Albert, Patrice Cormier, Ben Chiarot and Zach Redmond. McCambridge believes that seeing his teammates make the jump to the NHL only further motivates Kichton.
“I think for any player, when they see the day-to-day transactions that take place around them, it lets them realize how close they really are [to the NHL],” said McCambridge. “Brenden knows he’s young and that it takes time and steps to get there … that it’s something he’s got to continue to work on.”
Kichton’s devotion to preparing for a shot in the NHL shows wisdom beyond his 21 years.
“You have to work extra hard and be ready whenever, because you never know when you’re going to get called up,” said Kichton. “You’ve just got to try and get your game in order and prove to the coaches that you’re a reliable player down here.”
Rookie or veteran, captain or teammate, his determination to succeed at the highest level remains unwavering.
“You’ve got to be consistent and you can’t take any days off, whether it’s a game or practice,” Kichton said. “My goal is just to work hard every day and try to become a better player.”