Heady play: K’s forward comfortable and thriving
Justin Kea had never scored more than 11 goals or had more than 20 points in a season before he broke through for 18 goals and 54 points in 65 games for the Florida Everblades last season.
Oh, and in the playoffs, he was just as good : totaling six goals and 11 points in 15 games : as the Everblades reached the Kelly Cup finals.
So what was the difference? His mental game.
“I’ve struggled with confidence in the past,” said Kea, who is 14 games into his tenure with the Komets. “But last year, I kind of found it and that helped me score a lot. I know I can score. But getting a bounce here and there can get that confidence sky high, so it just comes every night.”
Kea always had the ability to score, as the forward showed in juniors with the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit, where he had 44 goals and 97 points in 126 regular-season games between 2012 and 2014. He also brought a physical edge : 199 penalty minutes : and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound size NHL teams crave.
He was a third-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2012 and he’s since played 71 games in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans.
However, the scoring hasn’t always been consistent because he would get too down on himself.
“You know how hockey players are, they’re super critical of themselves,” he said. “I would sometimes take it too far. Through maturity, that helps, but learning to keep things even keel and not get too high or too low, just to stay positive, that’s been huge for me. I’ve been trying to do that here.
“Having a good group of guys in the (locker) room helps. Having a good atmosphere helps, for sure, I like being around these guys.”
Kea’s rights were traded by Florida to the Idaho Steelheads in the offseason for forward Tommy Thompson. The Komets, who had coveted Kea throughout the summer, didn’t give up hope of getting him, though. On Oct. 17, after the opening weekend of the season, they sent defenseman Jeff King to Idaho for Kea.
Since then, King has totaled one goal, eight points and a plus-4 rating in 17 games for the Steelheads. Kea has two goals, three points, a minus-1 rating and 31 penalty minutes for the Komets (8-8-0), who have won three straight games to get back to the .500 mark for the first time since the trade was made.
“I’m still kind of disappointed that I haven’t been scoring as much, but I think I’m still doing a lot of the things that I normally do well : I think I’ve been pretty good on draws, good defensively, good physically : and I usually keep working on those things until I get the bounces. And hopefully a couple more goals will come in the future,” Kea said.
Heading into today’s 7:30 p.m. road game against the Cincinnati Cyclones (12-5-2), Kea is tied with Taylor Crunk for the Komets’ team lead with three fighting majors.
“I don’t know if I’d say I like (fighting), but being a big guy I pride myself on being able to handle myself and not taking any crap from anyone out there,” Kea said. “Even in juniors, I would fight a few times during the year, so I’m pretty familiar with fighting. I’m not too scared to do it. But I’m not out there trying to goon it up at all. ...
“If I’m not scoring, I’m trying to bring something else to the table, like physicality, winning draws, being good defensively, the standard stuff I can bring every night.”
Other players acquired after the season began, such as Jake Kamrass and J.C. Campagna, have been scoring plenty, and Kea would like to join them. If not, after the way last season played out, he’s not going to panic.
“I always knew I was a good player, but (sometimes) I had a bad attitude or wasn’t in the right mindset,” he said. “Last year, I was super positive. Scoring helps, sure, but even when I wasn’t scoring I knew to stay positive and keep my confidence up.”