Life was great for Red Deer Rebels defenseman Josh Mahura entering the 2015-16 season. He had just come off a 10-point rookie season where he earned steady ice time as a 16 year old and was given a ‘B’ ranking on NHL Central Scouting’s Futures List in the summer.
That rating meant Mahura was on scouts’ radar leading up to the 2016 NHL Draft. All he had to do in the coming season was continue playing his game and developing. But he didn’t get that chance.
In the first game of the season, playing against the Calgary Hitmen, Mahura jammed his knee along the boards trying to make a hit. It didn’t feel serious at the time – he even played the next night – but it resulted in an injury that ended up costing him his season.
“I didn’t really think too much of it and it didn’t hurt too much – I obviously felt it – and then we played the next night and it was fine,” said Mahura. “Throughout the week I just kept feeling it.”
He had an MRI later that week and that is when he found out the extent of the injury and the timeline required to get back on the ice.
“(Head Coach and General Manager) Brent (Sutter) told me in the trainers room. It didn’t really hit me at first, it was just kind of like, ‘Oh my God, what does that mean?’ Because I didn’t really know. They told me the timeline and it was tough,” he explained.
“For the first week I was kind of like, ‘Why me? Why me?'”
But it didn’t take Mahura long to focus on getting back onto the ice. Though it was evident the injury was going to keep him out the entire season, he was fortunate to be playing for the Rebels, a team that expected to go on a lengthy playoff run and was to play host to the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
He said there was a chance he could have played in the team’s final few regular season games – “Obviously I’m saying I’m ready to go” – but he was held out until the start of the playoffs. When he stepped on the ice for Game 1 of the WHL Eastern Conference quarter-final, it was his first game action in more than five months.
Mahura was held pointless in Red Deer’s five-game series victory over Calgary, but was a +1 and settled in nicely after such a lengthy layoff. He recorded his first point of the playoffs – an assist – in Game 1 against Regina in the next round, and in Game 2 scored his first goal of the entire season. He finished the postseason with two goals and two assists in 17 games.
“It was tough obviously, you just take it game-by-game and try to get better, try to get used to the speed,” he said of the transition. “You don’t really realize how fast of a league it is until you start playing again.”
After his surgery in October, Mahura went back home to St. Albert to rest for a week, but rest soon turned to restlessness. He wanted to be back in Red Deer, beginning the rehab process and working toward being ready for the playoffs.
“Even school was hard; my whole mindset was just on working out and rehab and trying to get back … I was supposed to be resting but I would be doing stuff at home too,” he said, with a laugh.
And though he was able to spend more time of his schoolwork, a lot of his studying came high up in the press box, where he would watch his team on a game-by-game basis, trying to get a feel for the game from a different perspective.
“You see different things up top than you would see on the ice. You take into account the other team’s top players and what they’re doing, what your team is doing and see the systems better up there,” Mahura explained.
One of the other benefits in playing for the Rebels this year was that Mahura was able to watch – and learn from – some talented, veteran WHL defensemen. Hadyn Fleury (CAR) is a fourth-year Rebel who was drafted seventh overall in the 2014 NHL Draft and has some World Junior Championship experience; Colton Bobyk is a 20-year-old who led the team’s defense in scoring and plays a similar style to Mahura; and Nelson Nogier (WPG) has experienced the pressure of hosting a Memorial Cup as part of the Saskatoon Blades in 2013.
“Those guys have helped me all year, just trying to stick with it and coming to the rink with a smile on my face,” Mahura said. “Playing with those guys on the ice and their calmness helps. (Nelson) Nogier has been at a Memorial Cup before so he kind of knows what it’s like, and Fleury and (Kayle) Doetzel have been around the league too.”
Mahura isn’t sure what to expect at the NHL Draft in June. He is a strong skater and still growing at 6-foot and 179 pounds. He has some physical attributes that stand out, not to mention untapped offensive potential. But he hasn’t given scouts much to look at.
That could all change with an eye-opening performance on junior hockey’s biggest stage.
“You can’t worry about it too much when you’re not playing,” he said of his draft stock. “It’s out of your control at that point. For me, my focus this year was to put that aside and just get back and playing.”
And that is why it won’t be too disheartening for Mahura if he isn’t property of an NHL team following June’s draft. There’s always next year – and for that he is thankful enough.
“You’re doing something you love every day, and at any moment it can be taken away from you.”
Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7