Lodge finds home on Spirit’s top line with effort, consistency

By Jason Menard

Jimmy Lodge - Saginaw Spirit

Photo: Saginaw Spirit forward Jimmy Lodge has stepped up his play after a slow start to his 2012-13 season (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

Jimmy Lodge may have found himself under the microscope early in the season courtesy of the NHL’s Central Scouting preliminary rankings — but inconsistent and tentative play made it hard to see the Downington, PA native on the ice. But through effort and consistency, he’s worked his way to the top of the Saginaw Spirit’s depth chart — and he hopes to parallel that rise up the NHL Draft charts.

“In the beginning it was pretty up and down,” Lodge said. “But in November I started playing on the top line, getting some power play time, and really started creating an offensive game for me. I started scoring more and getting confidence.

“I was playing not too well at all during the beginning of the season, but I got the opportunity to move up there and just took advantage of it. I kept playing well and creating offense — whatever the coach wants me to do.”

Lodge was ranked 14th among OHL skaters, but admitted that thoughts of the 2013 NHL Draft were impacting his play.

“I had some rough games and I may have been a little bit nervous about it being my draft year and it was on my mind,” he added. “I had to learn to play around that, play my game and just go out there and compete every day.”

Spirit head coach Greg Gilbert deferred to Lodge for the rationale, but said whatever was behind it, his on-ice performance didn’t warrant top-line minutes.

“If that’s what he says was the problem, that’s the problem. He was in and out of the lineup early in the season just because he wasn’t competing the way he needs to compete,” Gilbert explained. “He was shy some nights, but now he’s starting to bring a more consistent game — he’s competing shift in and shift out and he’s getting his opportunity and ice time. It’s something that he earned — it wasn’t given to him, and I think the early part of the season was a wake-up call for him.”

And it also served as a learning experience for the 17-year-old center, his coach added.

“It doesn’t matter what year it is, you have to learn the play the same way whether you’re drafted, undrafted, or in your draft year,” Gilbert added. “It’s all about how you play shift in, shift out, game in, and game out. Young kids have to learn how to overcome that. They put pressure on themselves, the parents put pressure on them, the agents… it’s hard for some of these young kids to handle that type of situation. They have to learn how to focus on their game.”

It was a learning process, but Lodge feel he’s better equipped to handle it.

“I’m kind of used to it now. You know every game that someone’s watching you. NHL teams are at every game in the OHL,” he said. “You just have to get used to it, block it out, and learn how to play with the pressure.”

By playing his game and supporting the team’s success, Lodge explained, his efforts will be noticed on their own merits.

“I think if your team is doing well, everyone notices it. If you make it to the Memorial Cup, everyone knows why you got there,” Lodge said. “Even if you’re a fourth-line guy, you’re playing the right role. As long as you’re playing in the team, the attention will come along with it.”

Lodge enters the New Year fourth on the Spirit in scoring, with 13 goals and 19 assists in 38 games. His offensive development was in part spurred by his experience with the U.S. under-18 team.

“It was really a great experience to head over to Europe and play with the top players in the world,” he said. “I’d been to Europe before — I was in Russia for an exhibition game once — but nothing like playing for my country.

“It was a pretty big thing playing with the best players in America — everyone there was pretty good and sometimes they’re the best players in the country. There’s a lot of skill and a lot of talent out there, and playing on the bigger ice surface was a really cool experience.”

And playing against the best in his age group enabled him to check out the 2013 draft competition.

“Obviously, you know that they’re competing for the same positions as you in the draft, so you do measure yourself against them. It’s a factor,” Lodge said.

He added that he’s been getting plenty of advice from his coaches about the process.

“They’re all helping me out,” he said. “The coaching staff is always giving us tips about what it takes to get to the NHL. Obviously it’s a long journey, but if you keep working hard and keep focusing, you’ll get there.”

Gilbert said one thing the coaching staff has been stressing to Lodge is the need to commit in all facets of the game.

“He’s got some good skills. He knows how to finish in tight, he has a knack to see the ice and see plays develop before they happen, but we’re continuing to push him to play better without the puck,” the coach explained. “He needs to be a little more consistent in his defensive-zone coverage and not think offense over defense all the time. He’s starting to learn that the better he is without the puck, the more time he’s going to play with the puck over the course of a game, so he’s starting to really understand that he’s got to play both ends of the game both with and without the puck.

“He’s got some habits of curling and circling, and putting himself in bad ice. Offensively he’s got to start challenging defensemen a little more; he’s got to start taking pucks wide and going to the net — going to those tough areas to score those goals. When he does that he’s going to be a pretty complete player.”

Off the ice, Lodge said he needs to fill out. At 6’2”, he’s listed at 160 pounds. Asked if its an accurate description, Lodge said, “I’m around 160-165 now…” but he believes with effort and patience, he’ll get there.

“I think just building strength, but I think that will come over time with me,” he said. “I’m a slow developer; I’ve got the height, but I’ve just got to put on the pounds. Over time, working out hard in the summer, getting in the gym when I can here — that’s a big thing for me.”

It’s a situation that’s not unique to Lodge, Gilbert explained, saying that many young players have to work through the same struggles — but that it’s going to take time.

“It’s something that young players have to build. It’s not something that’s going to come in one year and it’s a multi-year process,” Gilbert said. “He’s got a good base and if he keeps eating the right things and continues to work hard, then the weight’s going to come on and the muscle’s going to come on.

“It’s just one of those processes that some kids get faster and earlier, and others it takes a little more time.”

Born and raised just outside of Philadelphia, Lodge explained he was a Flyers fan by geography.

“The eastern part of the state is all about the Flyers — it’s a big rivalry with the Penguins,” he said, adding that he progressed through the local house league, AA, and AAA ranks in Pennsylvania. But playing in the OHL was his goal, so he moved north to make his dreams a reality.

“Eventually I moved to Toronto and played my minor midget year there, for my OHL draft. That was a big thing that I wanted to do — play in the OHL — so that’s why I went up there and played,” Lodge explained, adding that while the option of going the US collegiate route was appealing, his heart was in the CHL. “In the first half of my OHL draft year, the thought was always there — going the college route — but towards the middle of that year, I decided on the OHL.”

While the NHL Draft is still a little too far away for him to plan or anticipate — “it’ll get here when it gets here,” he said — he is willing to consider Team USA, both in the long-term and in the immediate short term.

“Representing Team USA at the World Juniors would be an amazing experience,” he said. “It’s such a great tournament and so many NHL'ers have played in it. The best players under-20 are there.”

And while he takes pride in the fact that the US squad eliminated Team Canada in this year’s edition of the tournament, you won’t hear him ribbing his Canuck teammates too vigorously.

“It was pretty fun with USA upsetting Canada in the last game,” he said. “But not really… I’m not going to say too much,” he added, laughing.

Not that he had a personal recollection of the semi-final match. “I didn’t watch the last game. At 4 in the morning? It’s tough to make it” he said. “But I’ll try to watch the finale.”

And, next year, hopefully he’ll have a first-hand view of the tournament to share.