Mitchell Vande Sompel grew up in London, ON. He was a London Knights’ fan growing up and drew inspiration from some of its biggest stars. And, as a member of the powerhouse Oshawa Generals, the defenseman is looking to join some of the Knights’ famous alumni in the NHL.
“I was here a lot, doing 50/50 tickets. I wore the colors growing up. It’s nice to come back,” he said prior to a recent game at the Budweiser Gardens. “I kind of watched all the good players. On the one Mem Cup team I’d watch [Rob] Schremp, [Dave] Bolland, [Corey] Perry.
“Over the years I’ve followed [Sam] Gagner, [Pat] Kane, and [John] Tavares — all guys who have gone through the league in this system. I’ve supported the team since I was little.”
As a smaller, offensive-minded defender, Vande Sompel explained that he closely watches players who emulate the style of game he wants to play.
“Obviously there’s a lot of guys that I look up to and watch. I think [Kris] Letang — I think I try to keep a close eye on him,” he said. “And [Erik] Karlsson — all those guy who are offensive-minded defenseman.”
Vande Sompel was ranked 33rd by NHL Central Scouting in their midterm rankings for the 2015 NHL Draft.
“Honestly I found out from my parents. My dad texted me and just said, ‘You’re number 33.’ I really didn’t know where I was going to be,” he said. “I’ve kind of been all over the place, so I didn’t know what to expect. It’s nice to be recognized in a way, but the draft’s still a long way away and I’ve still got a lot of hockey left to play.”
So who was more excited, him or dad?
“I think it was a bit of both.”
Oshawa Generals head coach D. J. Smith said he also feels that Vande Sompel’s ranking is appropriate, adding that the rearguard’s versatility is going to hold him in good stead.
“I think it’s fair. I think he’s a player that can go anywhere from the first round to the second round,” Smith said. “He’s a dynamic player that can make things happen, that can jump in plays, that can keep pucks alive. He can play four-on-four, short-handed, up front.
“He can do a bit of everything and I think he’s going to help an NHL team — in what capacity it remains to be seen — but he’s going to help that NHL team.”
That versatility has been shown in a number of ways over the 2014-15 season. Due to injuries and penalty situations, Vande Sompel has been pressed into center duty on occasion — sometimes moving from defense to forward in the same game.
“It’s alright. I played a bit of center through minor hockey, and up and down. It’s not too new to me,” he explained, adding that playing forward has its advantages. “Being able to control the play. It’s easier for me finishing checks.”
His coach said he appreciates Vande Sompel’s versatility because he brings the same superior level of play to any position.
“He played center in minor midget. Some think he would have been drafted even higher had he been drafted as a forward,” Smith added. “He’s a guy who can play in all situations: wing, center, defense. The only thing we haven’t asked him to play is net so far. And he plays them all well, it’s not like he just goes in there and fills in in those situations.
“He’s an invaluable guy to have in all situations and he just brings speed and intensity.”
Vande Sompel has nine goals and 51 points in 49 games so far this season. He also appeared in the Subway Super Series and feels that his production and style of game should outweigh any concerns brought about by his 5’10”, 180-pound frame.
“The game’s becoming a lot faster. As long as you can skate and you have skill, those are the two most important things I think for playing in the National Hockey League right now,” said Vande Sompel. “The game is changing; it is a thing to have size, but at the same time the game’s changing and they’re open to it.”
His size also impacts the way he currently approaches his position and where he’s focusing his efforts.
“Just playing both ends of the ice — and focusing on the defensive end is a focus for me now, especially since I’m a smaller guy,” Vande Sompel explained. “You need to use your head instead of your body when you’re this size. Outsmarting the opponent is the biggest thing for me right now. Strength will come over time.”
Smith said his defender has some pro-caliber skills already, but needs to continue to bulk up to take full advantage of them.
“He just has to continue to get stronger because, up there, they’re just so big and so strong, for him to defend at that level — he can skate at that level — but for him to hold off guys like [Michael] McCarron and guys like this he’s going to have to get stronger,” Smith said. “He’s already a lot stronger than last year and he’ll continue to do that. He’s got two or three more years here in junior. By the time he leaves junior hockey he’s going to be a dynamic and elite player.”
Two or three years is long into the future. Vande Sompel is already appreciative of his development from his rookie campaign (in which he scored five goals and 20 points in 47 games) to this year. He credits the Generals somewhat surprising playoff run last year with helping his development and transition to the junior game.
“Just getting used to the speed and strength of everyone. Playing with guys last year, learning from them, and just trying to incorporate things into your own game while still being your own player,” Vande Sompel said. “I think the experience helped me a lot, including going pretty deep in the playoffs last year as a team that wasn’t expected to go far — or even get in the playoffs at all. Last year was pretty huge for me.”
This season, the Generals are running away with the OHL’s Eastern Conference and are one of the favorites, along with the West’s Soo Greyhounds and Erie Otters, to earn the league’s berth at the Memorial Cup Tournament. That type of team success can only help improve his stature in the eyes of the NHL, Vande Sompel said.
“I think it always helps. Teams want winners and taking a team deep into the playoffs and being a key contributor to that is huge,” he said. “We’re expecting a lot from ourselves this year and we’re going to push to hopefully be in the finals. And, obviously, the ultimate goal is the Mem[orial] Cup.”
To that effect, Vande Sompel has been appreciative of the addition of former London Knights Dakota Mermis and McCarron
“It’s a lot. They bring an attitude to the team where winning is everything,” he said. “We haven’t won that much lately — well, we have won a lot, but we haven’t won big things. There are big things coming and using that experience is going to help down the road.”
The Memorial Cup run is first, but Vande Sompel also knows he’s got a few months in the weight room ahead of him.
“Strength — at the end of the summer that’s going to be the big thing,” he said. “You’re going to be going to camps, so you have to be ready for that. Other than that, during the season, just staying healthy and not letting anything bother you.”
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