While he’s not the only player in major junior hockey to exude athletic ability at first glance, Nick Ross of the Regina Pats will certainly capture and retain your attention. For WHL opponents in particular, that might mean winding up on the receiving end of some open-ice contact.
“Nick is an interesting guy to watch, an interesting study,” explained Pats’ head coach, Curtis Hunt, when asked by Hockey’s Future to assess the second-year defenseman. “He’s a guy who’s very good with the puck and I think he’s as good an open-ice hitter as you’ll find in the game today.”
At 6’1 and 190 pounds, Ross is still growing, although the 17-year-old native of Lethbridge, Alberta makes no bones about the strengths he feels he brings to the ice.
“I try to be a physical presence out there,” Ross confirmed. “I like to go for the big hit once in a while. I try to hit everything defensively.”
Ranked sixth overall among WHL skaters by the Central Scouting Service and 24th by the International Scouting Service, Ross has played well enough to attract attention within the hockey world. He has had experience with Hockey Canada programs and continues to develop in Regina as a member of one of the league’s most mobile defensive corps.
“I think it’s always good to see where other people see you,” Ross commented regarding the rankings. “I try not to think about it too much because I just want to be the best player I can be. But, I’d be lying to you if I said I haven’t looked at the rankings. It’s a great honor that people are watching and then ranking me so high.”
Hunt is impressed with the total package Ross brings to the Pats. He’s comfortable playing him in all situations and currently has the highly-touted prospect paired up on the blue line with veteran Logan Pyett (DET). Hunt, who is busy preparing for a stint as an assistant coach for Team Canada at the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge and the 2007 WJC in Sweden, has seen some positive growth from Ross over the past few months.
“Nick has got a load of tools and talent,” Hunt confirmed. “But I think everything has come easy for Nick his entire life in hockey because he’s been ahead of the curve in terms of how he sees and thinks the game out. I know he had a great experience being part of Canada’s U18 team this past August, but part of that was because he wasn’t the go-to guy there. He was relegated as the No. 5, 6 or 7 defenseman. I think for him it was a bit of a wake-up call in terms of understanding some of his deficiencies.”
Among the backend crew on the U18 team were Thomas Hickey of the Seattle Thunderbirds, John Negrin of the Kootenay Ice, Mark Katic of the Sarnia Sting and Alex Grant of the Saint John Sea Dogs, all of whom are eligible for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Highly-regarded Luke Schenn of the Kelowna Rockets and Drew Doughty of the Guelph Storm, who are 2008 eligible, were also present in Sweden.
While Ross agreed he was caught off guard as the coaching staff elected to utilize other defenseman ahead of him during the tournament, he understood the importance of embracing his role on the squad that ultimately won the gold medal.
“Making that U18 team, meeting the guys from all over Canada and seeing what they come to the rink with, it was great,” Ross said. “It’s definitely hard at first because I always thought I could be out there instead of the other guy. But the coaches went with what they felt was best. Once I got used to it, I suppose it wasn’t too bad. I mean, there was a lot of great talent on that team and the coaches were able to pick what was working well at the time.
“Overall, I really enjoyed it and playing against European teams was interesting, just to see what they come with. And winning the gold medal was great.”
Through 23 games this season, Ross has collected five goals and six assists for a Pats team struggling to produce offensively. Last season, Ross played in 62 games, scoring seven times and adding 16 assists. He feels he has to be better through the remainder of the current campaign.
“I got off to a bit of a slow start but I think I’ve gotten my game back together,” Ross said. “I’ve been more physical and I think that’s good. So far, it’s probably been about an average season, so I feel like I have to pick it up a few notches here before Christmas.
Hunt, like many of the Pats’ faithful, is somewhat frustrated with the team’s current lack of scoring. As the club lingers around the .500 level in the standings, he agrees Ross is one player who is capable of adding more to the Pats’ offensive fortunes.
“He’s a young player and we’re working with him, putting some pressure on him to improve his all around game and continue to be a real key player for our club,” Hunt said. “We’re confident he’ll be a guy to watch for a long time to come.”
Ross, who was the Pats second round pick in the 2004 Bantam Draft, wants to be that go-to guy in Regina. He is confident in his ability and firmly believes the best has yet to come from both him and the Pats this season.
“On the power play, I feel like I have a lot of poise,” Ross explained. “I try to make good plays and get shots through to the net. I feel I can move the puck well and I try to make good first passes. And playing with Logan is great. We work well together and I like the chemistry.
“I think we have a great group of guys here, so it should turn around for us.”
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