Miles Koules says it was only fitting that he spent the Capitals’ five-day development camp rooming with Liam O’Brien, an undrafted free agent who last year literally fought his way onto the Capitals’ opening night roster.
Koules wants to be this year’s Liam O’Brien.
“He didn’t have anything when he came to mini-camp,” Koules recalled, “and he went out every day with a mission and he accomplished that. That’s the same thing I’m doing. I don’t know, I think if I work as hard as I can I truly believe I should be able to achieve my goals, so that’s what I’m doing.”
Koules’ goal is to land his first professional contract and he wants it to come from the Capitals.
A 21-year-old native of Los Angeles and the son of movie producer and former Tampa Bay Lightning owner Oren Koules, Koules, a 6-foot, 193-pound right wing, went undrafted after two years in the U.S. Development Program but was determined to keep his dream alive. He moved to Alberta and played two seasons for the Medicine Hat Tigers, recording 44 goals and 91 points in 139 games.
That was enough to earn him a tryout with the Capitals last summer, where he was given a chair in the middle of a crowded dressing room filled with prospects drafted by the Caps.
“He was arguably, along with Liam O’Brien, in our opinion as a coaching staff, one of the two best forwards in that rookie game last year in Philadelphia,” Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann said, “and he’s been impressive again. We’ll see what the organization decides to do, but he’s certainly got a good skill set and, coming off a pretty good junior career, there’s not much else for him to do.”
Upon getting cut from the Capitals’ rookie camp last September, Koules returned to Medicine Hat with teammate and Capitals defensive prospect Tyler Lewington, but was traded to the Portland Winterhawks after just two games. “Obviously, there are emotions going through you because you’ve just been cut from here,” Koules said. “You get there and you’re tired and you just have to play. Getting off two flights, my legs were cramping up. And then to get traded right away I felt like I hadn’t even sat down to breathe. But Portland made me feel at home right away.”
Playing under coach Jamie Kompon, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings (2012) and Chicago Blackhawks (2013), Koules recorded a career-high 26 goals and 32 assists for 58 points in 67 games with Portland, earning a second trip back to Washington for development camp.
“When I was making a decision to go the Western League what I wanted to do was develop into a complete player, and I think I really did that,” Koules said.
With recently signed forwards Zach Sill and Chris Brown under contract, the Capitals now have 43 players under contract. If restricted free agents Braden Holtby and Marcus Johansson are signed the Caps would be five players under the NHL limit of 50 contracts.
“If we have plans for him we’ll certainly try to accommodate him and see,” Mann said. “If he is a potential signing maybe he has to start in the ECHL. Last year there were 117 NHL contracts in the ECHL. It’s not an easy league. You can’t have everybody in Hershey because, much like the NHL teams, you prefer a smaller roster as well and to me a smaller roster means more opportunity.”
At 21, Koules appears to be willing to wait until September to earn his way onto the Capitals’ payroll and is approaching the rest of his summer with that in mind. If not, he may opt to sign an AHL contract.
“Obviously, at this point in my career I’d love to have been signed already,” he said. “But at the same time I can look at the positives in everything. The fact that I’m not, maybe I wake up and push harder than that guy that’s signed already. It just keeps motivating me to be better and better.
“However I get to the NHL, I guess that’s part of my journey and I look forward to every minute of it.
“They think I’m a talented player and my skills show for themselves,” Koules continued. “The things I need to do to earn a contract is kind of play with a hard-nosed grit and combine that with skill and hopefully people notice more and more every time I step on the ice or I’m in the weight room or whatever activity we’re doing and it gets me that much closer to getting a contract.
“You never know what they’re thinking exactly. Everyone is great people here in this organization and that’s why I love it so much. I feel positive about my situation and I’m looking forward to what comes next.”
Ironically, Oren Koules, who was in attendance for the Fan Fest rookie scrimmage game, also played for Medicine Hat and Portland of the WHL and was invited to two training camps by the Chicago Blackhawks. He was cut both times and stopped playing competitive hockey at the age of 22, becoming a commodities trader in Chicago.
His son has followed a similar path but his seeking a different destination, and he’s using Liam O’Brien as his guide.
“We’re the same age but I look at him almost as a big brother because he’s so big and strong,” Koules said. “I don’t feel I’m in competition with him because we’re polar-opposite type of players, apart from being goalies.
“I can look at him for advice and I feel he’s a great example. I’m not going to fight every game to earn that contract because that’s not my role, but the way he pushed and worked hard towards it is something I need to do as well.”