The Steelheads got back in the win column on Wednesday night at CenturyLink Arena with a convincing 4-1 win over the Wheeling Nailers. On Friday night they will welcome a few new pieces to the lineup, among them ECHL All-Star defenseman Aaron Harstad. After a busy week that included cross-country travel and his first practice with his new team, the newest member of the Idaho blue line is set to make his mark in Boise.
A former seventh-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 2011, Harstad is in the midst of his second professional season. Harstad spent the first half of the season in Norfolk where he had two goals and ten points in 33 games for the Admirals, and he split last year’s rookie campaign between the Tulsa Oilers and AHL Manitoba. Although he has had a few different addresses in his two seasons, Wednesday was the first time he had ever been traded.
“It’s only my second season and obviously there are no trades in college, so this was my first time being traded,” said Harstad, who played four seasons at Colorado College before turning pro. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but it seems like there is a great group of guys here and they welcomed me in. It’s been a great transition so far.”
For Harstad, it’s also an opportunity to be part of a playoff push. The Admirals are currently 15-25-4, last in the South Division and 19 points out of a playoff spot. Harstad now joins an Idaho team sitting third in the Mountain Division, but still with work to do before springtime hockey kicks in. That doesn’t mean Harstad’s mentality at the rink needs to change.
“Whether you’re on a winning team or a losing team, you need to bring a strong work ethic,” said Harstad. “It’s exciting to come to a team that’s in playoff position, but I’m looking forward to working hard.”
Harstad likes to describe himself as a two-way defenseman, a player who is capable offensively and also strong in his own end. The Steelheads got a firsthand look at both aspects of Harstad’s game earlier this season in Norfolk, but also last year when Harstad was an Oiler.
Then a rookie, Harstad was sent down from AHL Manitoba to play his first ECHL game when the Steelheads made their first visit to BOK Center on December 10th. Harstad scored his first professional goal that night. The following night, he did it again.
“He’s a big, physical defenseman who skates well and has a heavy shot. We like the way he plays with his head up,” said Steelheads Head Coach Neil Graham. “He’s a hard-working kid and we bring in good people. We expect him to fit in very well.”
The new blue-liner also improves the Steelheads’ depth. With some lingering injuries affecting the back end of the Idaho bench, including Zach Bell on injured reserve and Charlie Dodero missing the last five games, adding a player of Harstad’s caliber at this point of the season was a vital opportunity. With more forwards entering the fold, including Bryce Van Brabant making his debut this weekend, the Steelheads were able to make the difficult decision of parting with a player like Travis Ewanyk.
“You do have to give something to get something in this league. We liked Travis Ewanyk and we wish him well because he’s a very good hockey player,” said Graham. “But we felt we needed to improve our back end and our depth moving forward for the last quarter of the season here. Aaron is going to step right in and play big minutes for us.”
Harstad played two games at CenturyLink Arena last season with the Oilers, so he’s not a complete stranger to Boise. Still, he did his homework before making the trip out to Idaho. Harstad spoke with Brian Nugent, who was his teammate last season in Tulsa, as well as a former college teammate who also played a big role in Boise just a few years back.
“Everyone says Idaho Is one of the best places in the league to play. I know William Rapuzzi from college and he said nothing but great things from his time here,” said Harstad.
Still a young player but with 78 professional games under his belt, Harstad approaches each contest with a workmanlike mindset. Still, Harstad admits he is looking forward to his first game in his new home.
“I’m excited. I’m not going to lie and say that I’m not excited for Friday night. I just have to prepare and I look forward to it.”