The Los Angeles Kings have two enforcers currently patrolling the ice at AHL Manchester. King draft pick Kip Brennan, who just returned from his first stint in the NHL, and the recently signed free agent Ryan Flinn. Both are big, both are young and 21, and both can handle themselves and protect their teammates. It would appear than neither will win any scoring titles, so it would be difficult for both play for the Kings at the same time (although fans would love it). So the question is, who will be the future enforcer?
Kip Brennan (6’4, listed at 222 but closer to 200) was chosen in the fourth round of the 1998 draft by the Kings and has emerged as the top fighter in the system. Brennan went to Lowell last season but was clearly not ready for the AHL and was returned to Sudbury for the balance of the season. This seaso, that appears to have helped because Brennan has taken on all comers in the AHL and more than held his own. Brennan has an enforcer’s demeanor and is learning to pick his spots effectively. Brennan’s recent stint is the NHL was effective if not impressive. He fought two of the most difficult players to fight in the NHL- the awkward Steve McKenna, who he struggled to stand up with, and Andre Nazarov who grabbed the rear numbers of his jersey and held on until the officials came in. He also tried and failed to get Steve Webb to go on the island and drew his first NHL penalty. He used this as a lesson (that was in his NHL debut) and he seemed to learn from that. As he became more comfortable, he was more effective in the low cycle with his linemates and carried the puck better in his last two games. His final stats- 4 games, 27 PIM’s and a +1 rating. Brennan was returned to Manchester because, but he showed something the Kings have needed this season- a big man who skates angry and protects his teammates.
Ryan Flinn is large and tough. He comes in at 6’5 and pushes 230. Flinn came out of nowhere in training camp, catching the team’s eye before ending up in Reading of the ECHL. In camp, his fights stood out because he seemed to have an iron head, taking punches off his bald dome and walking away unaffected. In Reading, he received ice time and the result was 130 PIM’s. He was promoted to the AHL where he has battled the likes of NHL tough guys Louis DeBrusk and Gino Odjick. Most fans gave Flinn the victory over Odjick, which is a feather in the cap of any emerging enforcer. Flinn was impressive enough to earn an NHL contract from the Kings last week, although he will remain at Manchester. Flinn is probably not as good a skater as Brennan but he might be a better fighter. Flinn needs to work on two things to get to NHL level, one is that he has to become a better player. He doesn’t need to score, but as Brennan is learning how not to be a liability on the ice, Flinn needs to do the same. The other is that he needs to pass on the small fish to get to the big one, so to speak. Flinn has tangled with what many would call middleweights, while his priority should be the opponent’s toughest guy. That is not a lack of desire, but rather a lack of experience. Flinn is mean and tough and alot of enforcers have made it to the NHL with less.
So who will it be? Right now, it is probably Brennan. He has learned what Flinn needs to in terms of play with the gloves on. Brennan’s biggest hurdle is that he needs size, or he may end up being a light heavyweight which does not speak to his strengths. The result would be skating on a third line, and he does not have the skill level right now to do so, but he may pick that up. There is no question that Brennan has the mental side down as he is always willing to go and as stated, he skates angry. He could turn into what the NHL is shifting to — a tough guy who can play a little too. Ryan Flinn’s fate is tied to Brennan’s. If both stay, then Flinn needs to hope Kip’s game develops. If Brennan does emerge as an effective third line player, then the Kings could afford to have Flinn on patrol on the fourth line. If not, Flinn doesn’t seem to have the NHL game, yet. Both are only 21 years old, so the chance to develop the finer side of the game is still possible.