Pats’ Klimchuk working to become all-around player

By Glen Erickson

Morgan Klimchuk - Regina Pats

Photo: Regina Pats winger and 2013 NHL Draft prospect Morgan Klimchuk is one of the highest rated WHL forwards according to Central Scouting (courtesy of Keith Hershmiller)

There would seem to be some merit in applying a “sharpshooter” label on Morgan Klimchuk of the Regina Pats.

It’s a handle that would relate to his off-season penchant to occupy time with friends as a paintballer. And of course, during the winter months, Klimchuk has become effective at directing pucks past opposition goaltenders in an accurate and timely fashion.

Of late, on the Pats’ busy road trip through the B.C. Division, Klimchuk proved the point by delivering a pair of clutch goals along the way. In Vancouver against the Giants, Klimchuk tallied with 54 seconds to play, pulling the Pats even and sending the tilt into overtime. While the Giants prevailed in the shootout, the tie earned Regina an important point in the standings. The next night in Victoria, with the teams tied 2-2, Klimchuk scored with only 25 seconds, propelling Regina to victory over the Royals.

Not only are WHL opponents being forced to take notice, the National Hockey League is also up to speed with Klimchuk’s on-ice exploits. When Central Scouting released its preliminary rankings in November, the Calgary, Alberta native appeared as the top winger among WHL prospects. Klimchuk is fully aware he is on the NHL radar, although he is prepared to maintain a healthy perspective.

“You can’t think about the draft too much because you can end up putting too much pressure on yourself,” Klimchuk said in an interview with Hockey’s Future. “I just try to focus on the moment, day by day and game by game. The draft is always in the back of your mind, but you just can’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

Regina Pats’ assistant coach Josh Dixon agrees with Klimchuk’s take on things.

“He’s certainly aware of what’s at stake and how important this season is,” Dixon said. “But Morgan is pretty level-headed and doesn’t allow himself to get too distracted or too worried about what perceptions might be or how scouts might evaluate certain plays. He’s much more focused on improving himself, taking advice and direction from the coaching staff and making himself better in that regard.

“He is aware that there is a lot of attention, but he seems very well-rounded and very grounded in the fact that he just wants to make himself better and stay true to the type of player that he is.”

Now in his second full season with the Pats, Klimchuk has become prominent primarily for his offensive skills. The organization can boast some high-octane alumni in recent years, with the likes of Jordan Eberle (EDM) and Jordan Weal (LAK), but the Pats are somewhat cautious about trying to anoint Klimchuk as “the guy”.

“We certainly count on him for offense,” Dixon said. “But as a coaching staff, we don’t want him to feel that is the only way he can contribute to the hockey team. He kills penalties very well, is playing well defensively in our zone, and is getting in early on the forecheck to create chances for himself and his linemates. All of those things add up to team success.”

Looking back at his minor hockey days, Klimchuk says he had some success in the peewee division, but it was his first season in bantam hockey that confirmed in his mind that he wanted to advance as far as possible. He was selected by the Pats in the first round, fifth overall, at the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft.

“I think my last year of peewee hockey was good,” Klimchuk said. “But when I stepped into bantam AAA and had a successful year, I kind of knew then that I could try and make a run at this. I have really tried to develop myself as both a player and a person on and off the ice. So that was probably the year that things started to come together for me the most.”

Before arriving in Regina, Klimchuk also played in the Alberta Midget Hockey League for the Calgary Buffaloes. At the time, he developed plenty of friends and foes, a number of whom he is quick to acknowledge from his days in the AMHL. He counts Blake Orban (Vancouver Giants), Jay Merkley (Lethbridge Hurricanes) and Brayden Point (Moose Jaw Warriors) as pals from his minor hockey days.

As a 15-year-old, Klimchuk appeared in five games for the Pats, the maximum allowed under WHL rules. Now, with over 100 games under his belt in major junior hockey, Klimchuk’s commitment to excellence has been very evident. Dixon explained how he felt Klimchuk has become a blue-chip prospect.

“Morgan wants to be a player,” Dixon said. “He wants to be the best player he can be and he’ll stop at nothing to get to that point. I think he learned a lot last season from Jordan Weal about just what it takes to be a top player in this league and how to prepare yourself to compete at this level. I think Morgan has taken those lessons to heart and we can really see that maturity in him now.”

The speed of the game is so evident these days at the professional level, but also in major junior hockey. Skating continues to be a priority for all players who aspire to play in the NHL and Klimchuk has made considerable progress in this regard during his time in Regina. Dixon is impressed with the improvements Klimchuk has made.

“There’s no question that when he came into the league last year, after having played his five games the year before as a 15-year-old, there is that pace to get used to,” Dixon said. “Morgan worked very hard on his skating last season and during this past off-season.

“He worked to ensure that not only is he fast enough to keep up, but he worked to make sure his first couple of strides are quicker so that he can pick up the puck and get away from defenders more quickly. These things have really evolved. Again, he’s faster at the top end, and also has developed a quicker start. It all helps him to create more space out there.”

Last season, Klimchuk scored 18 goals and 18 assists in 67 games, while compiling a plus-3 rating as a rookie. This year, with 14 goals and 15 assists in 27 games, he has become a consistent contributor to the Pats’ fortunes on a nightly basis. He has skated for much of the current campaign alongside 20-year-old veteran Lane Sheidl, the Pats top scorer to date. With veteran Chandler Stephenson (WAS) out of the lineup until the New Year, Klimchuk is finding out that teams across the league are well aware of his skills and he is seeing more teams preparing specifically to neutralize him. For his part, he believes he is up to the challenges.

“We’re playing against top lines and top defensive pairings a lot now,” Klimchuk said. “That’s been a challenge in itself. I like the extra pressure and I try to thrive off guys coming at me or taking extra runs at me. It demands the best out of me and I know I am playing my best when other teams are doing that.”

The Pats continue to use Klimchuk in all situations, which means he is already seeing plenty of ice time. While key injuries have not necessarily turned into significantly more minutes per game for Klimchuk, he knows it is important to be productive at all times.

“It’s something I’ve had to adjust to this year, playing some bigger minutes,” Klimchuk said. “With the loss of Chandler and also Trent Ouellette, we have some big guys out of the line up, so I had to step up. I’m starting to find my groove and starting to produce offensively, and that’s one of the things the team is looking for me to do and I’m happy to do that.”

He is also quite frank in his assessment of his own skill set, and also in sharing his personal goals.

“I think probably my work ethic and hockey sense,” Klimchuk said when asked to highlight the main keys to his game and his development. “I try to be the hardest working guy on the ice at all times and I try to make the right play at all times. I really try to focus on doing things right, especially the little things, game in and game out.

“The coaching staff is really helping me to improve defensively and how I play away from the puck. I think you can be good with the puck, but if you’re not good without the puck and in your own end, you can’t really play at the next level. So that’s something I’m really working on and I think I’m making pretty good strides so far.”

We’ll leave the last word to Dixon, who suggests Klimchuk continues to do all the right things along the way. He is respected by his teammates and coaches, more keys that ultimately contribute to team success.

“First and foremost, Morgan is a great person, and being a great person, he pushes himself every day to get better,” Dixon said. “He is extremely focused on improving every aspect of his game. He’s never a player that will just be satisfied with getting points. He continues to try and make himself a better defensive player, a better special teams player, and he is focused on individual skill development.

“He’s a great team guy and his teammates like playing with him.”