Mario Scalzo was named to the QMJHL All-Rookie Team in 2002-03 after scoring 10 goals and 34 assists from the blue line for the Victoriaville Tigres. He went undrafted. The St. Hubert, Quebec, native then scored 16 goals and 52 assists in 68 games with the Tigres the next season, and still went undrafted. Fast forward to 2005-06, Scalzo is proving all the naysayers wrong in his rookie season with the Iowa Stars.
Last season, a mid-season trade to the Rimouski Oceanic gave Scalzo a chance to play with Sidney Crosby, and the offense really followed. The 20-year-old blueliner scored 13 goals and added 31 assists to finish the regular season and then added 21 points in 13 playoff games for the Oceanic and helping them earn a berth in the Memorial Cup. Though Rimouski lost 4-0 to the London Knights in the championship game, Scalzo was still named to the Memorial Cup All-Star Team. The QMJHL recognized Scalzo by naming him to the QMJHL First All-Star Team.
Too small to draft apparently, at 5’9, 187 pounds, the Dallas Stars were sufficiently impressed to sign the offensive defenseman under the new CBA, their first free agent prospect signing of the summer. Scalzo is off to a strong start in the AHL. After 37 games he has 3 goals and 12 assists, second in I-Stars defensemen scoring to veteran Patrick Traverse. While Traverse was injured 16 games with a broken foot sustained blocking a shot Nov. 25 against Omaha, Scalzo established himself as a reliable power play quarterback.
A strong skater with slick stickhandling and a hard shot, Scalzo has concentrated primarily on improving his defensive game in 2005-06. Outmatched early in the season, the diminutive Scalzo is winning more and more one-on-one battles through improved positioning, intelligence, and his skating ability.
Hockey’s Future caught up to the 21-year-old defenseman Jan. 21 after a 4-2 victory over the Manchester Monarchs, in which Scalzo scored the insurance tally midway through the third period, and discussed his transition from the QMJHL to the AHL, his development in 2005-06, and his efforts to prove himself NHL-worthy.
HF: How do you feel your season has been progressing so far in Iowa?
MS: I think it’s progressing pretty well. The beginning of the season I was just trying to understand the game. It’s my first season, and to learn to play, and I think it’s progressed pretty good. I think it’s going to be better at the end of the season too.
HF: How’s the strength of the players in the AHL?
MS: It is, it’s kind of hard. The guys are big and tough. I’m not a big size, so I have to be more intelligent than those guys. It’s pretty hard.
HF: What are the areas you feel you’ve improved on this season and what else are you looking to improve?
MS: I think now just my defensive zone, I play better now, I win my one-on-ones in corners, try to play a little physical to, and get the puck out and bring some shots on net, and I got a goal tonight like that, so we’ll keeping firing shots at the net and we’ll be good.
HF: What was it like playing with Sidney Crosby last season?
MS: Last season was real different than this season, that’s why I think it was kind of hard for me this season. Last season with Sidney, we had five good guys on the ice. With all of us together it was good, it was amazing. I think Sidney is doing well too in Pittsburgh.
HF: What are some of the biggest differences you’ve noticed between the Q and the A?
MS: I think the game is a bit faster. All the guys are good here. Some people said the American League is not that good, but it is pretty good. All of the guys have skill, so you have to play quicker and make fast decisions. I think that’s the difference from the Q.
HF: I’ve noticed you’ve been winning more and more physical battles as the season has worn on. What are some of the things you’ve worked on to help your defensive game and help overcome not being as big as say Shawn Belle or Nicklas Grossman?
MS: I think, like I said, it’s to learn the game. When you don’t know the game a lot, it’s kind of hard. I’m small, so I know I can’t throw a guy into the third row, so I have to be real intelligent and to learn the game pretty well. So, I have to be really smart, that’s what I need to keep doing to improve.
HF: If, or perhaps when, you play in the NHL, what type of defenseman do you think you’ll be?
MS: I’ll still be an offensive defenseman. I’ve always been like that. I’ll stay that kind of defenseman, but I have to play well in my zone too.
HF: What are your goals the rest of the season?
MS: I think it’s to finish really strong, and like I do now, play well defensively and bring more shots. I think just keep improving that and play stronger on the puck too, and I think it’ll be good for the end of the season, a good strong end to the season.
HF: You weren’t drafted, were you disappointed that you weren’t drafted?
MS: At first, yeah, I was kind of disappointed. On a sheet of paper I’m not big. I have good statistics, but that didn’t change nothing, so the only choice I had was to play harder than the other guys. That’s what can make a difference, like Martin St. Louis in the NHL. Never been drafted and he was the NHL top scorer last season, so I think he’s the kind of role model I can follow.
HF: What made you pick Dallas as a free agent?
MS: I think Dallas was more decided to take me. Guy Carbonneau and Francois Giguere called me and I talked to them a lot, and they explained everything to me about Dallas. That was the only team that did that to me, so they showed me more appreciation too, that’s the difference.
HF: How did attending training camp help you?
MS: That was a hard camp, because that was really different than the Q and the AHL. The Modanos, Billy Guerins, Turco and those guys were really good. So, it was kind of special for me to be their first undrafted guy to sign a contract. It was a little bit hard, but I’ll just keep playing strong and who knows what happens.
HF: Did going to training camp help you identify what areas you need to improve on to play in Dallas one day?
MS: Yeah, they tell you what you need to improve. They work with you, they show you what to do, so they really help. I think if do that, if you keep working, you’ll do it.
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