The most significant early season play for young Alyn McCauley was not one where he blistered a wrist-shot past a stunned goaltender, or when he slipped a beautiful, blind pass to an open teammate for a goal. It was a play which caused the young, Leafs’ centerman to be shoved hard from behind as he was charging the net and run headlong into Blues’ netminder, Roman Turek. Alyn bounced off the crossbar and was sent sprawling between the pipes himself. As we all held our collective breath, Alyn got back up on his skates and came away in one piece. Despite his injury history, here was Alyn, in just his fourth game back on the ice, driving to the net leaving caution to the wind. The timing may still be off a bit, but the heart and soul of the player is still there.
To see what makes McCauley tick, one gets a glimpse into that heart and soul when you watch the Maple Leafs go through their rounds of a pregame skate. The last one off the ice is always Alyn McCauley. “When your best player is also your hardest worker, it makes it easier for the other players to follow his lead”, states Ottawa 67′s coach, Brian Killrea. “Alyn meant everything to us”. He should know, as he coached Alyn on the 67′s for four years.
“We drafted him with the first overall selection in the 1993 CHL draft and his reaction was ‘Where do I sign’? There were no demands, no hesitation. He wanted to play, it was that simple,” says Killrea. And play he did. He was voted the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player and was the runnerup for Canadian Hockey Player of the Year following a 34 goal, 48 assist season in 55 games in 95-96. He topped that with a 56 goal, 56 assist season in 50 games in 96-97. That year he was only the 3rd player ever, to win back-to-back OHL Most Outstanding Player. He was also named Canadian Hockey’s Junior Player of the Year.
Born in Brockville, Ontario, McCauley was able to play his junior hockey within a couple of hours of home. “Playing in Ottawa made my adjustment easier as I was closer to home. It was good for my parents as well, as their support and being there at the games helped me to become a better player”, states McCauley.
“I would say my happiest moment in Ottawa was my last year there. I made some great friendships and knowing it was my last year, I really enjoyed the time. Of course, we won a lot and that made it easier for everyone to be happy. At the same time, it was also disappointing to not go to the Memorial Cup that year”, states McCauley.
McCauley was drafted in the 4th round, 79th overall, by the New Jersey Devils in the 1995 NHL entry draft. The Devils had stockpiled several, young forwards in their system and made McCauley available to the Leafs late in the 96-97 season. The Leafs sent Doug Gilmour and defenseman, Dave Ellett to New Jersey for defenseman, Jason Smith, forward, Steve Sullivan and the rights to McCauley. McCauley quickly signed with the Leafs and made the NHL team coming out of training camp prior to the 97-98 season.
McCauley was immediately impressive, particularly with his defensive prowess, despite the fact he is not a big-time, physical player. “I rely on positioning and making a player go through me to make a play. There are many players in the NHL who can beat anyone one-on-one, but if you are in the right position, you can make it harder for him to make that play. I try to make the offensive player uncomfortable with the puck and anticipate where I need to be when the puck arrives”, states the young centerman.
Interestingly, Alyn has drawn some favorable comparisons to the man he was traded for, Doug Gilmour. “I found myself a bit nervous when I went up against Gilmour the first-time. He was with New Jersey and on my first shift against him, he beat me on the faceoff and then I lost him. He ended up tipping the puck in for the score, so it was not one of my favorite memories”, states McCauley. “I play somewhat of a similar style to him, but I obviously have not had the offensive prowess that he has had”, he adds.
McCauley has shown some real offensive sparks, though, in his brief NHL career. “The thing about Alyn is that he has some real good offensive skills. These really began to take hold with us in Ottawa, but he has some real potential to be a scorer at the NHL level”, states Killrea. “There have been a few sparks so far, offensively, but I have a ways to go”, adds McCauley himself.
Before his injuries cut short his 98-99 season, Alyn centered a line flanked by Derek King and Mike Johnson. The “MAD” line, was freqently the Leafs most effective one early in that 98-99 campaign. Arguably, that line was not as dangerous without Alyn in the lineup. His skating, playmaking and willingness to drive to the net are of standout potential.
He scored 6 goals and added 10 assists in his inagural NHL season in 97-98 and scored 9 goals and 15 assists in 39 games in 98-99. He missed 22 games his rookie season, 17 of them due to a broken fibula he suffered in a New Year’s Eve game against Boston. Two major injuries, a knee sprain suffered on December 31st and the concussion suffered following Sheldon Souray’s hit into the ACC’s boards on March 3rd, limited his action to half a season in 98-99. Each injury occurred just as McCauley was showing serious progress toward establishing himself as a solid, 2-way, NHL center.
If McCauley didn’t have bad luck in his first two NHL seasons, he would have had no luck at all. But, this young man’s inner strength will simply not allow him to quit. He will not sulk or complain about his rotten misfortune. No one will work harder to get back to the point where he was and then surpass that on his climb up the ladder. Maple Leafs’ coach Pat Quinn has stated that he has no player more competitive than McCauley and it is that drive which will give him the chance to right his career.
His progress back from a potentially career-threatening concussion has been slow in the early stages of the 99-00 season. His icetime has been limited to mostly 4th-line duty to this point. His spirit is willing, but the timing is still off a bit. His confidence has not yet fully returned.
The Maple Leafs know the potential that Alyn McCauley has and they will be patient. No one who knows Alyn is betting against him.