So just how much can you really expect out of a young kid fresh out of juniors and thrust under the spotlight of a pro hockey organization and its fans?
Apparently, Steelheads fans can expect a lot.
Head Coach Neil Graham has put six rookies on the front lines right out of the gate this season- forward Brandon Magee, defensemen Cole Martin, Jake Rutt, Zack Kamrass, and Andrew Panzarella, and goaltender Philippe Desrosiers. Through three games, the kids have caught on quickly.
“Everyone’s been really good, willing to learn, coachable, and asking the right questions. I think those results have shown in their play so far,” Graham said after the team’s off-day practice in Anchorage. “There will be young mistakes made. As long as they’re aggressive mistakes and they’re willing to learn and keep moving forward, which they have been, we’ll be successful.”
So far the youngsters have found their way onto the highlight reels more often than the cutting room floor. Martin has two goals in his first three games and a plus-5 rating that’s tied for second-best in the ECHL. Zack Kamrass dished out two assists in Idaho’s Wednesday night win over the Alaska Aces, one coming on rookie forward Brandon Magee’s first professional goal.
Martin has mentioned several times in recent days that he was a more defensive-minded player in juniors last season with Kelowna, despite seven goals and 39 points, but spoke of the importance of keeping things simple and letting the game come to him. Kamrass, who is at his most effective when he’s jumping into the offense and active from the point, still had that same mantra heading into Friday night’s rematch with the Aces.
“The more simple I am, the more effective I can be,” said Kamrass, who played the final six games of last season with the Steelheads after finishing his college career at UMass-Lowell, scoring five points and then adding two more points in six playoff games.
“I keep it simple. I don’t get too down on myself if I make a bad play, and I don’t get too high emotionally when I do have a big impact on the game. You just try to stay even-keeled and stick to what got you here, and not try to be something you’re not.”
It’s an important lesson for every young player to learn, as the pressure to get off to a good start at the beginning of the season weighs on every player, not just the rookies. Often, a little early success can go a long way.
“I think the first couple of games I definitely had chances to score goals, but things weren’t happening for me,” said Magee, whose nine shots on goal are tied for second on the team. He finally broke through in a big way on Wednesday to tie the game in the first period.
“It’s a huge credit to Coach Graham, for pulling me aside and settling me down and taking the pressure off me. To come up here to Alaska and get one was a nice feeling and I wasn’t gripping the stick as tight. I put a lot of pressure on myself no matter where I’m playing, but now that I’ve made the transition here it’s been fun.”
Players from different backgrounds will adjust differently to the pro game. Hockey is hockey, but players from junior will have a different adjustment to the demands of the pro game than a college athlete. A junior player is accustomed to a 68-72 game schedule, where a college player will need to adapt to those rigors after playing mostly 40-plus game schedules over four years.
“Obviously there are more games so you need to maintain your body a little bit differently off the ice as well as on the ice,” said Kamrass. “Off-ice I think I was prepared for this because of what I did at school. I think the coaches and the rest of the staff at UMass-Lowell really helped out with that kind of stuff. It’s obviously an adjustment, but I think it’s made it a bit easier.”
“I think NCAA players come in here typically a few years older. Most seniors that we have come in here as first year pros are usually between 23 and 25 years old, whereas a lot of the guys coming out of major junior are 20 and turning 21,” said Graham. “So there’s a little difference in that sense, where some of the college guys probably have a little bit more life experience. But at the end of the day, from both levels, it’s a jump to pro hockey, without a doubt.”
The subtle difference in the culture of the two levels is also an adjustment. Panzarella had over 650 penalty minutes in four seasons in the USHL, but fighting is not permitted in the NCAA while Panzarella was on the ice for the University of North Dakota. Now four years older and playing in the ECHL, Panzarella is playing solid minutes on the blue line for Idaho and seeing time in important penalty killing roles. In addition, as he demonstrated on Saturday night against Rapid City when he came to the defense of Magee in a scrap with Jim Bonneau, Panzarella provides some muscle to the Steelheads roster.
While young players try to find their individual roles at the pro level, they always emphasize the need to simplify. That often means adhering to the team systems, and Graham’s systems are well designed to play to his players’ strengths. Young defenseman can find a home in a tight, structured defensive zone scheme until the puck crosses center ice, when the five man unit jumps into one of the league’s more aggressive pressure forechecks.
“If you’re thinking out there too much, then normally things won’t be going your way,” said Magee, who was the beneficiary of that forecheck system and scored after a lengthy offensive zone shift. “I think playing an aggressive style and making mistakes by being aggressive is not a bad thing, as long as you’re working hard back. Playing that kind of system helps a younger group of guys and a faster group of guys.”
It’s baptism by fire for many of the team’s young players that are driving the 2-0-1 start for Idaho, with plenty of work to be done over a 72-game marathon that finishes in early April.
“Our job is to integrate them into pro hockey as best we can and to put them in a position to succeed, and so far I’ve been happy with the response from both groups,” said Graham. “They’ve done everything they can to fit in and to learn the systems of a pro style. I’ve been impressed with them.”