Drewiske More Physical Than Ever
Yet when Drewiske committed his most aggressive act as an NHLer, eyebrows raised all around.
Last Thursday night, Drewiske, typically kind and soft-spoken, dropped the gloves with Dallas Stars veteran tough guy Steve Ott. It was Drewiske's first NHL fight and, unofficially, Ott's 68th.
Drewiske didn't knock down Ott, or land any particularly heavy blows, but the fight was more symbolic than anything. No longer could anyone call Drewiske a soft defenseman.
For the better part of the past two seasons, the Kings searched for ways to get Drewiske to use his size to his advantage, to take that 6-foot-2, 218-pound frame and use it to pound opponents. To be successful, it seemed clear, Drewiske would have to develop something of a mean streak.
So far, Drewiske has stayed true to his personality -- he's still quiet, humble and polite -- but he's also the defenseman the Kings had hoped for. Heading into Monday's game at San Jose, Drewiske had a plus-1 rating in 15 games and had even contributed four assists.
``He wasn't in the lineup in the last half of the year very often, and there was a confidence issue,'' Kings coach Terry Murray said. ``There was coming back from an injury, and it never seemed to get into those competitive situations on a consistent basis. Now, he's the kind of player we first saw when he came from the minors, when he came from Manchester, to play for us. He's confident with the puck, making good decisions with it. He's involved physically.
``I was very happy to see what happened (against Ott). That's something I've been waiting for him to get involved in. That's just, you've had enough. You're supporting yourself, you're standing up for yourself, for your own territory out there. Every player has to do it, whether they like it or not, over the course of their career. To me, Whiskey made a big stride in buying himself some space when he's playing the game.''
Drewiske's success has helped ease the loss of Willie Mitchell, who is out with a broken wrist. Drewiske has been solid at even strength and on the penalty kill, and he Kings have trusted Drewiske enough to recently pair him with a 21-year-old rookie, Jake Muzzin.
``It's good at times,'' Drewiske said. ``I think there are still times when it slips away a little bit, so it's something I still have to be aware of and continue to work on. That's definitely something I can do. It's just about anticipating, and using my size and strength. I'm fairly agile, so it's just about using those things together and anticipating and getting those pins and seals, because that usually shuts down the cycle of the other team, and that's an important thing to do.
``I'm just trying to take it one game at a time. I think this is about the time, last year, when I started to have some trouble, so I'm just focused on trying to take care of myself and play hard every night and compete.''
It would be unwise to underestimate Drewiske, given everything he has endured already.
Drewiske grew up in Hudson, Wisc., a city of approximately 12,000 residents near the Minnesota border, and as a junior at Hudson High School, Drewiske fractured two neck vertebrae in a game. Drewiske wore a metal ``halo'' for a couple months and his hockey career was in question.
Drewiske made a full recovery though, played his way through the junior-level United States Hockey League and then joined the University of Wisconsin, where won a national championship and later served as team captain. All that, though, was not enough for Drewiske to get drafted.
The Kings signed Drewiske to a free-agent contract shortly after his college career ended in 2008. They saw potential, but there were clearly some parts of his game that needed to be ironed out.
Drewiske split time between the Kings and the AHL Manchester Monarchs in 2008-09, and played 42 games for the Kings last season but was regularly a healthy scratch late in the season.
The Kings' coaching staff loved Drewiske's attitude, but found frustration in his apparent inability to play more of a physical game. The search for a plausible answer led the Kings to examine ovals.
More than a bit flummoxed as to why Drewiske couldn't seem to use his size to his advantage more often, Murray at one point last season theorized that Drewiske's college ice surface might have impacted the way he played in the NHL.
The Kohl Center at the University of Wisconsin has an ice sheet 12 feet wider than NHL regulation. Perhaps, Murray wondered aloud, the wider surface lent itself to a less-aggressive defense, and more of the ``contain'' style that the Kings were trying to get Drewiske to stop playing so often.
It was sort of a far-fetched theory at best, and fortunately for Drewiske and the Kings, the search for answers appears to be over. Drewiske, often understated, is off to a strong start for the Kings and is doing a solid job as a stay-at-home defenseman who also has puck-moving skills.
What has seemingly clicked for Drewiske? It's tough to say. Part of it is mere experience. Drewiske is still only 25 years old, and entered this season with only 59 games of NHL experience. It's certainly not uncommon for defensemen to take a couple years to figure out the NHL game.
``That closing-fast mentality, that pinning and sealing, it does take time,'' Murray said. ``It's a huge change in a player's style of play and in a team's style of play. I'm seeing a big, heavy body that now is having confidence in using it to do things in the right way when playing in that 2-on-2 look, outside of the dots, alongside the boards. It ends everything.
``When you're leaning up against the skill player, who you have 15, 20 pounds on, there's no better play to make than that attitude of, `I can end this thing right now.'''
Moreover, though, it seems to be about a change of attitude. Drewiske embraced the Kings' offseason workout program -- as did many players -- and came into training camp stronger and with the mindset that he would play the type of game the coaching staff wanted from him.
Murray showed confidence in Drewiske in training camp, asserting early on that Drewiske had earned a roster spot. That confidence appears to be paying off, as Drewiske has been consistent and, in the highest compliment a stay-at-home defenseman can be given, often unnoticed.
``I think I had a good summer, so I feel good physically,'' Drewiske said. ``That helps. I think, at times last year, I got away from anticipating, and that's a big part of the game. I was more reacting than anticipating. That can be a half-step, a quarter of a step, and that makes a big difference. A foot here, a foot there, all over the ice, that makes a big difference.
``So it's anticipating, and then using my size and strength to try to get pins and seals. It's good at times, but there are still times when it slips a little bit, so I have to be aware of it.''
Drewiske is intelligent and self-aware enough, though, to realize that his work isn't done. The Kings have a deep stable of defensemen, at the NHL, AHL and junior levels, and he's not in a position to assume that his spot on the team is secure in the long run.
Consistent success is needed, and that's the next goal for Drewiske.
``I've had some stretches where I've had some success, but they haven't been too long,'' Drewiske said. ``So I'm just trying to go one game at a time and continue to build, and keep winning. That's the most important thing.''