Austin Levi embraces leadership role for Plymouth Whalers

By Jason Menard

With Tyler Seguin still making a case for an NHL roster spot, there’s a huge void to fill on the Plymouth Whalers’ roster — and although Austin Levi doesn’t have the offensive upside that the 2010 second-overall pick has, he’s looking to step in and assume a leadership mantle on the squad.

“I feel like that’s something I really want to be. One of the leaders of this team and lead by example, and help the young guys come along this year,” Levi said. “We’ve got a really young team this year, so that’s definitely something that we need to pay attention to.”

One idea he insists the team puts to the back of its collective mind is the thought they should wait for Seguin to return.

“We just look at is as though he’s not coming back, so we’re going to play like he’s not going to be here, so we have nothing to lose,” Levi said. “If he does come back that’d be great — he’s a great player and a great guy.

“That being said, we still have to look at it as this is our team and this is what we have to work with, so we’re going to do the best that we can.”

Whether or not Seguin returns, Levi said that he expects the squad to band together — and that there’s no added pressure on any one unit or player to help guide what is a much younger squad than years past.

“I wouldn’t say that it changes our game at all, but we do have a younger team and we’re still trying to do our thing, make our plays, and feel comfortable in doing it,” he said. “I don’t think a younger team adds any extra pressure or calls for a different style of play. Everyone’s just got to come together and put the work in on the ice.

Levi, a 6’3 blueliner, was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the third round of the 2010 NHL entry draft. The Farmington Hills, MI product recently returned to the Whalers after spending some time in the NHL club’s camp — including playing in one pre-season game. Levi explained that he’s hoping to apply some of the things he learned at camp to his junior squad.

“It was a great experience. The play is so much faster there, so coming back it’s definitely a much different pace of game,” he said. “I think that I’ve come back with some great experience under my belt and something that’s going to help me in the OHL to be a better player. I look forward to getting back there next year and giving it another run.

Mike Vellucci, the Plymouth Whalers’ president, general manager, and head coach, said he’s looking forward to reaping the benefits of Levi’s experience.

“I think the biggest thing is the positional play that, hopefully, he brought back with him from [Carolina] because he has all the raw talent and skill,” Vellucci explained. “He has to get stronger, but his positional play is something he needs to work on because he can get a little carried away out there.

He added that it’s an eye-opening experience for young players to participate in NHL camps — in a positive way.

“Confidence. They go up there, they’re nervous because they’re playing with the big boys and then they can find out that they can play with those guys, so I think confidence is the greatest thing that they can bring back,” Vellucci said. “The other thing is how to be a pro. They see the Rod Brind’Amours and guys like that who work so hard all year long, not just when the season starts, and how they prepare themselves mentally and physically.”

Levi explained that there was one particular Hurricane he paid particular attention to and from whom he hopes to apply his teachings to his game.

“There was Joni Pitkanen — he’s one of the greatest defencemen that I’ve ever had the opportunity to play with,” Levi said. “He was a very good influence on me and it was a great experience to get to play with him and practice with him — to see how he does thing and how simple he makes the game.

“He just does everything so simply and it works out well for him — he’s just a great defenceman.”

The Hurricanes have imparted some direction to Levi for the coming year, but the young blueliner said there’s no issue with conflicting messages between the Hurricanes and the Whalers — in fact, he feels the messages complement each other and should act for the benefit of both player and team.

“There’s been no conflict. I mean, there are things that I’ve been told to work on in Carolina to improve my game, but that wouldn’t contradict anything [with Plymouth],” Levi explained. “If anything it will help me get better and improve my game.”

There’s a marked jump between the junior ranks and the pro game, but Levi explained that he’s seeing some similarities that allow him to benefit from his professional education.

“It’s kind of similar to the OHL in that the OHL is very much an NHL style of game. Guys are usually where they’re supposed to be,” Levi said. “At the NHL level it’s definitely a much faster game and you have to think a lot faster, but at the same time people are where you want them to be and people are ready to make the right play and help you make the plays that you need to make.

“The OHL is a lot like the NHL — it’s just that the pace is a little different.”

Vellucci said there are a few things that Levi needs to work on this season to take that jump to the next level — preparation being first and foremost.

“He just needs to get physically more mature and mentally more mature in preparing for games and practices — I want him to be a pro,” he said. “A lot of kids, they’re kids. They want to be a pro, but they don’t know how to prepare themselves to be a pro. Hopefully those are the things that he’ll have brought back.”

Levi is humble in his assessment of his talents and is looking forward to having the opportunity to improve this season.

“I think that I need to improve all facets of my game — I definitely need to improve my defensive play,” he said. “That’s something I really want to focus on and take care of my defensive responsibilities. Also this year, I want to try to work on my offensive capabilities in the OHL as well.”