Connor Chatham’s path to the NHL Draft was diverted thanks to a coaching change in the U.S. collegiate ranks — and an American team’s success at grooming American players has led to another top U.S. prospect passing through Plymouth en route to the 2014 NHL Draft.
“I was committed to the University of Denver but coach [George] Gwodzecky was unfortunately fired,” Chatham explained. “[Plymouth] Coach [Mike] Vellucci and I kept in touch and he started calling. I came to Plymouth for a visit and was really impressed, so I made my decision.
“Coach Vellucci has had a ton of success with American guys — especially in the NHL Draft. They give you the education package, so it’s really all covered. They give you the tools you need here, so it was the best option for me.”
Chatham added that the volume of games that one plays in the OHL is also appealing.
“In my opinion [the OHL] is the best quality you can play to make it to the real pros. The 68 games is a huge help,” he said. “I talked to my buddy who plays in college and he’s only up to 20 games by the time we’ve played 50 or so.”
This is Chatham’s rookie season in the OHL. Last year, he played with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL.
“From the USHL to the OHL I wouldn’t say it was a very big jump,” he explained. “I mean, there are a bunch more skill guys [in the OHL], but the level of play is pretty much the same. I felt that I adjusted pretty quickly.”
Prior to joining the Lancers, Chatham was part of the U.S. National Team Development Program — an experience that he says has been invaluable, and has created some life-long friendships.
“It was awesome. I got to play overseas, you get to see a lot of things,” he said. “I learned a ton there. I went straight from AAA to [the NTDP], so it was a great experience.
“Some of the guys from the national team are still my best friends today. Same with the guys from Omaha — I still talk to a lot of them all the time. I miss them all.”
The move to the OHL has paid off for Chatham. In Central Scouting’s most recent rankings, the 6’2”, 225-pound Belleville, IL native was ranked 30th among North American skaters. Chatham admitted that he was surprised that he was listed so high — not because of a lack of faith, but rather because of a slow start to the season.
“I was a little surprised, because I missed a lot of the first half with an injury. But I felt that I worked hard enough and I deserved it. It’s not that big of deal this early in the year, but yeah — I was excited,” he said. “I was sitting in math at high school. One of my teammates who is in my class said, ‘Hey, did you see where you were ranked?’ I said no and he showed it to me. It was pretty cool.”
Chatham said that he feels he can rise in the rankings — especially when he looks at those on the list ranked above him.
“I definitely have a competitive edge. I’m always looking at guys and comparing myself to them,” he said. “Obviously, in my mind, I think that I’m a better player than them, but that’s up for other people to decide. I just play my game.”
In his second OHL game, Chatham broke his finger in a fight, which kept him out of the lineup for about a month. Transition-wise and opportunity-wise it set him back a bit.
“It was tough because I was just getting adjusted to the league. It was only my second game in the league and I broke it, so it was a bit of a setback. But I’m not making any excuses,” he said. “I had a bit of a slow first half, production-wise, but I’ve really picked it up lately.”
In 42 games so far this season, the right winger has scored 12 goals, added 12 assists, and has spent 39 minutes in the penalty box. The one blemish on his record is a -12 rating.
“Our team, we’ve got a few guys on it who are in the minus, so I try not to look at that too much,” he said. “If we get better, we’ll all get better. I’m not the worst guy on the team, but obviously I’d like to improve those numbers.”
Plymouth is almost a lock to make the OHL playoffs as they’re currently seven points up on the ninth-place Kitchener Rangers. The club is succeeding with a fairly young roster that features a number of draft-eligibles, all of whom are dealing with the stress of auditioning for a job in front of arenas full of scouts.
“It’s something that you keep in the back of your mind, but we’ve got six or seven guys who are up for the draft this year, so we’re all dealing with the same things,” Chatham explained. “It helps a lot. We’ll talk to each other and we’re all in the same boat, so it kind of helps.”
All the players are supportive of each other, Chatham added, but he knows it’s only natural that there’s some friendly, if unspoken, competition amongst each other.
“It’s not anything we discuss with each other,” he said. “We all have the same goal, to make it to the NHL, and we all want to be the best. I’m sure it’s in the back of all of our heads, but it’s not something we talk about.”
And they have some solid role models in the dressing room who can help show them the way. Players like Gianluca Curcuruto, Carter Sandlak, and Victor Crus Rydberg have all been through the process. Chatham said that another veteran has been an invaluable resource.
“Ryan Hartman, who went in the first round with the Blackhawks, talks to us a lot and shares his experience from last year, the prospect games, and what we should be aware of,” he explained. “He just said not to worry about it. He just says some of the stuff’s weird, some of the stuff’s normal. Just try to take it all in stride and enjoy it all.”
Chatham said he’s aware of what he needs to improve upon this year — and apologizes for slipping into hockey speak.
“I just have to keep working hard and using my body. I have to get better in the corners effectively — the little things I need to work on, just like everyone else does,” he said. “I want to keep producing. I’ve been producing well of late, but I want to keep my head down and work.
“I know it sounds cliched, but that’s what I need to do.”
Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard