Beyond Tomorrow: Unlikely meeting guided Otters’ DeBrincat to OHL Rookie of the Year

By David Hahn
Alex DeBrincat - Erie Otters

Photo: Erie Otters forward and 2016 prospect Alex DeBrincat posted 104 points in 68 games in 2014-15, then followed that with 16 points in 20 games in the OHL playoffs (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

 

 

If Erie Otters forward Alex DeBrincat goes on to have a successful NHL career, his story should be turned into a book. While he could have written an alternate chapter through the USHL and ultimately the NCAA, a chance meeting that almost didn’t happen spurned a storybook OHL season.

It’s the ultimate underdog affair, one that began in Farmington Hills, Michigan, where DeBrincat played bantam hockey for Victory Honda.

He always had his sights set on playing in the Ontario Hockey League, but member clubs didn’t think the same of him. He was passed over twice through the OHL Priority Selection, and had his sights set on college hockey instead.

DeBrincat was invited to the USA Hockey Select-16 Festival, the first selection camp for players that USA Hockey is considering for their National Team Development Program. Competing against the best of his age group, he was one of the leading scorers in the six-game tournament alongside U.S. NTDP staples Jeremy Bracco and Jordan Greenway.

The USHL was put on notice shortly after that performance, and the Waterloo Black Hawks selected DeBrincat in the second round of the 2013 USHL Futures Draft. In turn, he made a verbal commitment to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for the 2016-17 season.

It wasn’t just his scoring touch that enamored scouts, as the 5’7” forward plays an abrasive style of hockey, often engaging in post-whistle scrums and freely speaking his mind. It was this tenacity and enthusiasm for the game that caught the eye of Erie Otters General Manager, Sherry Bassin.

As if it was meant to be, Bassin was visiting Otters prospect forward Frankie Pucci, who was playing for the Soo Indians U18 midget program. Their opponent on this particular day? Lake Forest Academy, who rostered DeBrincat as a 16-year-old. That game sparked multiple conversations between the DeBrincat family and the Erie Otters. He went on to score 54 goals and 57 assists for Lake Forest, and on April 28th, 2014, everything changed.

“I never thought it would happen, I’m glad he (Bassin) did show up,” a jubilant DeBrincat said when looking back on how things changed.

DeBrincat committed to the Otters, perhaps lured by the prospect of playing with the dynamic duo of Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome. Still, it wasn’t going to be handed to him, despite Erie losing a strong majority of their scoring depth due to the graduation of team captain Connor Brown, 64-goal scorer Dane Fox, Vancouver Canucks prospect Brendan Gaunce, and current Washington Capitals forward, Andre Burakovsky.

At first, his sights were set on accomplishing the easy first steps in the OHL. He notched his first goal in his first OHL game, enjoyed his first multi-goal game just three nights later, and his first hat-trick less than a month into the season.

From there, DeBrincat’s production kept going, as did the Otters climb up the OHL standings. He recorded a 17-game point streak, finishing just one game behind Erie’s franchise rookie record of 18, set by Tim Connolly. He garnered the OHL’s Rookie of the Month in back-to-back months during October and November, finishing those two months with 20 goals and 18 assists in 23 games.

The accolades continued to roll in during January, when DeBrincat surpassed the Erie Otters rookie goal-scoring record, also held by Connolly, with his 31st goal of the year against London. To put that in perspective, DeBrincat set a record previously established over the course of an entire season, and the latter half of that performance was done without McDavid, who missed time with an injury and an appearance for Canada at the 2015 World Junior Championship.

With McDavid back in the lineup, DeBrincat only needed a handful more games to pass his exceptional linemate with his 67th point of the season, breaking McDavid’s rookie-scoring record with two months of competition remaining.

All season long, the Otters’ work on the man advantage was lauded for its performance, especially after the acquisition of Buffalo Sabres prospect, Nick Baptiste. “It’s been huge, you have to capitalize on your opportunities and that’s a huge part of our team,” DeBrincat added about the Otters top-ranked powerplay.

DeBrincat continued his torrid scoring pace, finishing the regular season with an astonishing 51 goals, 53 assists, 73 penalty minutes, and +59 rating. He had more points than the second and third place OHL rookie scoring leaders combined, and for those suggesting that his point totals are inflated solely due to McDavid’s influence, consider that DeBrincat scored at a 1.55 points-per-game rate with McDavid, and a 1.48 clip without him.

“It was important to play the same game every night, everyone plays their role and everyone is contributing,” DeBrincat remarked. He also provided an astute assessment of his own game. “If I’m not going out there and creating turnovers, then I’m not doing my job. I’m going to do whatever I can, and hitting guys is the way it’s going to be.”

Constant harassment from opposing defenseman forced DeBrincat to play much larger than his size. Often times this season, he would finish a game wearing the Otters funky dress suit, awarded to that night’s most valuable player, mostly regarded for offensive performances. However, some of those occasions also featured bumps, bruises, and cuts established when he agitated and frustrated opponents, playing multiple tiers above his weight class.

In the playoffs, the feisty forward finished with nine goals and seven assists in 20 games, as Erie fell just three wins short of an OHL championship. Despite the setback, DeBrincat established himself as a gamer, repeatedly going to the net and engaging in battles with the opposition on a nightly basis.

DeBrincat was rightfully named as the recipient of the Emms Family Award presented to the OHL Rookie of the Year. He became the 25th OHL rookie to reach 100 points in his rookie season, and just the ninth to accomplish the feat since 1983.

Looking ahead, DeBrincat will likely feature for an Otters team again graduating quite a bit of scoring, especially with McDavid heading off to the NHL. He learned a little about what it would take to produce without elite talents around him, and while Dylan Strome is likely to return to the team, DeBrincat is eager to again prove doubters wrong.

From small-school hockey in Michigan, to the OHL Rookie of the Year, the future is bright for DeBrincat. Eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, if his production continues and his intangibles shine, it’s hard to imagine that there are 210 better players than him in his draft class for him not to be picked.

“It feels great now, without the guys in the room, I wouldn’t have had any of this, so I think a lot of credit has to go to them and not all to me,” the budding OHL star said.

Like McDavid did for him, DeBrincat could write the opening chapter for the Otters next-in-line.

It’s a book I’d pick up, and I’d imagine NHL scouts would too.

Follow Dave Hahn on Twitter via @DHahnHockey