In 2001, one would have easily forgiven goaltender Adam Dennis for not being able to see the heights he would eventually reach. After all, when 270 players are picked before you to play at the major junior level, the message is clear – there are a lot of teams that don’t have confidence in you.
Yet back on that fateful day, as 13 rounds passed and player after player was called before the Guelph Storm took a flyer on him in the 14th round, few could have imagined that this also-ran would end up leading the pack as he prepares for the next stage of his hockey career. Few except for the Buffalo Sabres sixth-round choice in 2005 himself.
“From a personal standpoint, I knew I could get a job in this league,” Dennis said. “I saw some of the guys that were going before me and I knew I was as good, if not better, than them. I never thought that I couldn’t make it.”
Dennis more than made it – he’s redefined what it actually is. Dennis was recently named the OHL’s goalie of the year following a superlative year wherein he surpassed a 23-year-old single season record for wins with 44 (passing former Kitchener Rangers netminder Wendell Young in the process). He played in a career-high 57 games, including a stretch in which he backstopped the London Knights in 45 straight contests, en route to posting a 2.82 GAA and .915 save percentage – numbers that are outstanding on their own, but even more so when one considers that the Knights lost their top four defensemen to graduation this year and have frequently converted forwards to rearguards to make up for the deficiency.
But more than his individual accomplishments, Dennis has embodied the one intangible that can’t be measured – the ability to win. Dennis shared goaltending duties in Guelph with Los Angeles Kings prospect Danny Taylor en route to the Storm’s 2003-04 appearance in the Memorial Cup. The next year, the Knights traded for him and he, along with Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Gerald Coleman, took the Knights to the promised land – the 2004-05 Memorial Cup, won in the Knights home rink.
This year, Dennis has backstopped the high-powered Knights to their third straight 100-point season, led them to within one win of being the first CHL team to earn back-to-back-to-back 50-win seasons, and has them rolling in the second round of the OHL playoffs against the Owen Sound Attack in the hopes of defending their CHL crown.
“I’ve been fortunate to be on some really great teams,” Dennis explained. “Obviously that’s been a huge part of my success. After all, goalies can’t score goals.”
And while Billy Smith, Ron Hextall, and Martin Brodeur may disagree with that, Dennis’ role has been key to the Knights continued success.
“He’s a rock back there and he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get bent out of shape over anything,” explained Knights captain and fellow Sabres prospect Dylan Hunter. “With a team like ours, it means a little more to have him back there because of the way our team is set up. This year, he’s probably the best goalie in the CHL.”
As the recipient of the OHL’s top-goalie prize, Dennis is the automatic nominee for the CHL’s equivalent award, and Hunter said there’s no doubt in his mind that the Knights goalie should be the one to have his name engraved.
“On a lot of teams with great defense, the goalie only has to deal with outside shots,” Hunter explained. “But with all the change in our team and the young ‘D’ that we have, many of the shots that he’s facing are quality chances from close in.”
This team dynamic has had an effect on how he views success, as well, Dennis added. “On a run-and-gun team like ours, the key thing is to make the big save at the right time,” he said. “For us a 7-6 win isn’t out of the question and you’re not going to see too many 1-0 games.”
Solid fundamentally, Dennis’ goaltending coach Dave Rook, said that his pupil’s greatest asset is his mental game. “His work ethic is good, he’s a good listener and he loves to learn,” Rook said. “He’s one of the more vocal guys in the dressing room, but he also leads by example.
“He’s just such a competitor, he wants to be in the net each and every game.”
And this year, for the first year, he almost got his chance. While in the Sabres camp, Dennis was forced to miss the opening four games of the Knights season – all losses. When he returned, he set up camp in the London crease and rarely relinquished it.
“Coming back [from the Sabres camp] I knew I was going to get a larger workload,” Dennis said.
In fact, his 57 appearances far and away exceeded his largest total of 46 set in 2003-04 in Guelph. Last year he saw action in 23 games for Guelph before being traded to London and donning the green and gold for 16 more prior to the playoffs. With this season marking the first where he was the clear-cut No. 1, and not entering into a platooning environment, Dennis said he was faced with a new challenge.
“The main thing this year was finding motivation when you know you’re going to be playing night in and night out,” he said. “It’s not like when you’re platooning – it’s different when you know you’re the guy. A lot of credit has to go to the coaches, especially coach Rook, for helping me stay motivated.”
Rook explained that one of the key ways to motivate Dennis in the present was by having him think about the future. “We used a few different things to get him ready and we gave him the odd practice day off, especially when we were playing three games in three nights,” Rook added. “But I just kept reminding Adam that he’s playing for a contract this year.”
Dennis had a taste of the NHL during training camp and he wants to take a bigger bite this coming summer. “[Training camp] gave me a good chance to find out what the NHL’s like,” he said. “It’s comforting to know what to expect the next time and hopefully they like what they see.”
Now that the ball’s in the Sabres court, Rook said there’s no doubt in his mind that the NHL club should be happy with his development.
“There are really not too many things he’s left undone on the junior level,” Rook explained. “He’s done everything he can possibly do to impress Buffalo.”
That’s for another day. Dennis has his eyes focused on another prize. “I’ve been in touch with [the Sabres] a couple of times,” he explained. “But I’m not focusing on that too much – right now my focus is the playoffs and the Memorial Cup.”
And, at the very least, Dennis has proved one thing since being the 271st player taken overall in the OHL draft – he knows how to win.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.