He is one of the youngest members of a predominantly youthful University of Vermont team this season. But watching winger Jack Downing play, you’d never know that he’s a freshman who just turned 19 on Jan. 24.
Downing came to Vermont after spending a shortened 2006-07 season with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, posting 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in 40 appearances. Prior to Omaha, Downing played at the Taft School, where he posted 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 26 games during the 2005-06 season. That same year, he helped guide the Rhinos to the New England Prep Championship game.
It was also during that season that the New Canaan, CT native began to draw the attention of both the scouting community and collegiate recruiters alike. A number of schools heavily recruited the young winger, but his final choices came down to Vermont, Michigan State, Miami and Providence College. Downing says that Vermont became his school of choice in part due to location.
“To be honest, Vermont seemed like the best place for me. It was closer to home than some of the schools in the CCHA, but Vermont is a prestigious program that’s in Hockey East," he said. "I’ve always wanted to play in Hockey East. And Vermont showed the most interest in me and they wanted me more than any of the other schools, so that was the thing that made me want to come here.”
In the beginning, there was the possibility of Downing remaining in Omaha for another year, but as Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon explains, fate would step in and change all of that.
“We had considered Jack playing another year in Omaha, but with Torrey Mitchell possibly signing with the San Jose Sharks, it was a situation where we had agreed that if that did happen that Jack would come in as a true freshman. The fact that we had made that offer to him and that there was a good potential for him to come in as a true freshman versus having to play another full year of junior hockey, I think made us a little more attractive to him than some of the other schools that wanted to wait and see Jack a little bit more.”
Downing is a power forward with good size (6’3, 200) who thrives on the physical side of the game. He is a fierce competitor who can deliver some punishing checks. While Downing enjoys the physical play, he also understands that there has to be a balance maintained between being tough and being smart.
“I know that I need to be one of those guys that plays physical to create space for my linemates out there, but it’s also really important to keep it under control," he said. "As an athlete you’re taught to play hard between the whistles so you can’t think about things like dropping the gloves here in college to impact the way you play. The emotions are so high in these games that sometimes things like that happens, but I do my best to keep it under control and play hard between the whistles.”
One of Downing’s greatest strengths lies in his play around the net and playing below the dots. He is opportunistic and possesses very good finishing ability that will only get better with further maturity and progress. He has excellent hands and has demonstrated great poise and patience with the puck. He utilizes his large frame superbly in protecting the puck. And as his develops more strength, he’ll be able to use his size more effectively and advantageously.
An area of concern about Downing coming into the season was the effect that the shoulder injury, and more significantly, the sports-induced asthma that he dealt with last season in Omaha would have on his on-ice performance this year. Both player and coach were quick to point out that the shoulder injury has healed up completely and the asthma is well under control, without any lingering effects.
“It hasn’t inhibited me at all," Downing said. "I was able to take care of it early on last year. The asthma was more of a sports-induced asthma, which is a lot different from having asthma attacks. It was just some shortness of breath that I just had to deal with and that was taken care of last year. With the shoulder, I was out for a while and rehabbing it took care of that. It hasn’t given me any problems this season.”
“It hasn’t affected Jack’s game at all," added Sneddon. "He’s a specimen for us and he’s fine that way. He didn’t know what was going on and had to go through some tests to find out why his lungs were feeling the way that they were feeling. It was ruled that he had sports-induced asthma. Once he was placed on some meds to help him with that, it hasn’t been a factor at all. And the shoulder was just a situation where it needed time to heal in the offseason."
For a big man, Downing skates extremely well, combining powerful strides with some good speed. However, one of his most glaring weaknesses is in his transitioning. Developing quickness and smoothness in his edges should not only vastly improve his transitioning, but it is also crucial to his success both at the collegiate level and beyond.
Another of Downing’s best attributes is his shot. He combines a laser of a shot with a quick release. But what sets Downing apart from many other young players in the collegiate game is how deceptive he can be with it. He does an excellent job of catching opposing goaltenders off guard, and coupled with his great on-ice vision, it has allowed him to be more creative as well as giving him more offensive options. Furthermore, he can always be counted on to shoot the puck as well.
One notable part in Downing’s maturation process this season has been in his growing confidence level and his willingness to take more calculated risks. While the end result doesn’t always translate into points, it does offer glimpses into his enormous potential and what he is capable of providing to his team.
An area that Downing has working diligently to improve this season is his defensive game. While he has made some progress, Sneddon would like him to continue working on the finer points of playing defense.
“That’s all fine-tuning right now from a defensive perspective as far as what to do without the puck," he said. "I think that’s essentially the area that we tend to have to do the most work on. Jack’s use of his stick when he’s defending tends to be with keeping two hands on his stick rather than just one and taking away a pass lane, even when you’re far away from the puck. I think once those things become a habit for Jack, he’ll be a great player.”
Like all young players who aspire to play in the pro ranks one day, Downing’s off-ice training is a year-round ritual that focuses on developing specific areas. For the young Catamount winger, it is a combination of strength and speed training.
“Over the summer, two of the things that I worked on most were getting stronger all the way around as well as quickness and speed. I trained at a place called Blue Streak in Stamford, CT. and we did a lot of Apex program type of training where it’s a lot of resistance training. They have you running with someone holding you back with a band to work on quickness right off the bat. There was a lot of quick feet stuff with box jumps and things like that.
"Here at Vermont, we have Monday and Tuesday workouts with Paul Goodman (Vermont’s strength and conditioning coach), who is a very good strength trainer. We work on stuff for the legs, arms and shoulders and a lot of core stuff. We also do things like high repetition stuff during the season to avoid having sore or weak muscles, as well as to maintain strength without losing weight and just staying healthy.”
So how does Downing describe himself?
“I would definitely describe myself as a two-way player who is more offensive and likes to take chances. I like to make sure that I’m getting in there first and taking it to the play instead of not waiting back for the play to come to me. I would also say that I’m an aggressive player.”
Downing lists current New York Ranger and former Boston University standout Chris Drury as his favorite NHL player. While he doesn’t have any particular NHLer that he patterns his style of play after, Downing tries to integrate into his own game some of the facets of Drury’s game that he admires the most.
“One thing that I notice that he does is that he’s always in the right spot and is able to find the open ice to help his teammates out. I think finding the open ice and finding a place to receive the puck is something that he does so well. Another thing that Drury does better than most guys, especially the bigger guys, is using his back in the corner to try and keep guys off of him with his hip. I think smaller guys like Drury need to be able to do that and use their backs to hold off and feel players in puck protection. That’s something that Chris does that I try to do.”
At the University of Vermont
Downing can currently be seen playing at left wing alongside towering sophomore Brayden Irwin and junior Corey Carlson on the Catamounts’ second line. Downing leads the team in rookie scoring with 10 points (eight goals, two assists) appearing in all 32 games to date.
Downing’s first collegiate point and goal came on Nov. 9 versus Northeastern. His most memorable game came on Jan. 5 versus Boston University. In that contest he posted a pair of goals, including the game-tying goal, with the teams skating to a 2-2 tie. The performance also earned Downing his second Hockey East Rookie of the Week honor of the season.
While the adjustment was challenging at the start of his collegiate career, Downing has since settled in quite nicely with his Vermont teammates.
“Right at the beginning of the season, I felt that the puck was just moving a little bit faster than I was used as we were making more passes through the neutral zone on entry instead of holding on to it," he said. "The guys who are already at this level are older, kind of know where their linemates are and know how the game is played. So it took me a while in getting used to that kind of setup. I think that maybe the physical play along with the quick, quick passing were maybe the first things that I had to adjust to. But I have great teammates to help me out with that in practice so that I can get better. This has been one of the easiest teams to gel with. Every guy likes everyone else’s company and every guy has a blast coming to the rink.”
Downing explains that Sneddon is not only an equal opportunity coach, but also one who also emphasizes the importance of individual accountability as being vital to the team’s success.
“It’s been great playing for him. He’s been one of the fairest coaches that I’ve ever had. He’s fair in the sense that he wants each and every player to have an equal opportunity to be both offensive and defensive. Everyone has the same responsibility under him. That’s one thing that I really respect about him. Everyone’s got their responsibilities to contribute on both sides of the rink.
"I think that individual accountability is definitely one thing that he stresses. You don’t want to be the weak link on the ice that’s not following the systems. I know that there have been times where I personally have been out of position when we’re running a certain kind of forecheck and I would hear about it when I would get back to the bench. When everything is right, you create not only more offense for yourself but also for everyone else. You’re working as a unit of five out there and you’re not the weak link. So I think that holding yourself accountable is something that he has stressed all year and he’ll continue to do so and that has really helped me out.”
“Well, Jack is a likable guy and has been fantastic to coach," Sneddon said of his young power forward. "He’s kind of quiet but always has a smile on his face. He’s a player that obviously goes to class and works hard at that part of being a student-athlete. He’s obviously been a sponge in terms of trying to learn as much as he can. He’s a player that you can certainly correct and discipline without any concerns about his mental toughness. He’s able to handle criticism very well, and the accolades that he receives never goes to his head. We certainly don’t feel that Jack is over-confident, but he has confidence. I think the other thing that really impressed us about Jack was that in the early going when we weren’t playing that well and the team was really struggling to find its identity, he was always bringing a lot of very, very positive energy to our bench, which is unusual for a freshman and really nice to see out of a young player.
"The one word that I would say describes Jack is competitor because he loves to win. I think he loves to score goals, be relied on by his teammates and be in situations where it’s a tight game and he’s being relied upon. He just loves the competitive side of things.”
Outlook for the draft
Downing is ranked 125th on Central Scouting’s midterm rankings. He is projected to be a late-round selection, but there has been some speculation that Downing could potentially go as early as the third round.