If the first third of the OHL season is any indication, both Nathan Pancel and Matthew Campagna are hungry for an opportunity.
Both players are in their fourth season with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves (Pancel played two playoff games in 2010-11) and have been amongst the league’s top duos in terms of offense. Only Erie’s Connor McDavid (2015) and Connor Brown (TOR) and Guelph’s Scott Kosmachuk (WPG) and Brock McGinn (CAR) have combined to score more than Pancel and Campagna this season.
It’s not so much an earth-shattering surprise given that Campagna scored at over a point-per-game pace last season and Pancel led the team with 26 goals, but it’s certainly impressive for a pair of forwards that have been passed over in the two most recent NHL Drafts. Even more impressive is the fact that Pancel leads the entire league in goals with 21, and Campagna’s 26 assists ties him in that category with McDavid.
In fact, of the OHL’s top 10 scorers, Campagna and Pancel are the only two whose rights aren’t owned by a NHL team, aside from the 2014- and 2015-eligible players. And chances are they won’t experience the feeling of being drafted in 2014, but that’s partly because they could sign as a free agent with a team well before the draft.
Campagna, for instance, is perhaps a player on the radar of the Los Angeles Kings. The 2012 Stanley Cup champions invited the playmaking centre to their rookie camp this past August, and Campagna did enough to earn a spot at the team’s main training camp in September. Pancel, meanwhile, with his goal scoring ability and ever-developing two-way game, appears to be the type of player every team covets.
Both players, during the past two years, were ranked in most draft guides, so it’s not as if their surge in 2013-14 is something new. So why wasn’t either player drafted?
“(Campagna’s) critics have accused him of lacking intensity,” said Ben Leeson, Wolves’ beat reporter for the Sudbury Star. “I think some of that comes from his playing style, which sometimes makes him look laid back, and some may have been deserved, but there's probably more hustle in his games these days than ever before.”
What may have hurt him most, noted Leeson, is a series of injuries in 2012 that limited him to just 45 games.
“He was really on a roll at mid-season, then suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the lineup until late in the year and he never found the same form after returning.”
Both Campagna and Pancel are similar in size – 5’11 and roughly 180+ lbs – and had either been an inch or two taller they would have been more attractive to NHL teams.
“There was also the belief (Pancel) wouldn't have scored so much if he hadn't played with Michael Sgarbossa (COL) as a 17-year-old,” Leeson added.
Campagna was selected fifth overall by the Wolves in the 2010 OHL Priority Selection, and came into the league with high expectations. Upon entering the league, playmaking was by far his strongest skill, and while that remains true, he has become a more well rounded player.
In his first two seasons, for instance, he scored 15 goals; last year he scored 24 and is on pace to equal that number again this season. He’s also emerged as one of the team’s leaders, earning an assistant captaincy role prior to the start of this season.
“Campagna has been emerging as a leader,” said Leeson, “mainly through his on-ice performance, but he has also become more vocal.”
Pancel, unlike Campagna, didn’t come into the league with a much hype. A fifth round selection in 2010, he didn’t make the Wolves out of training camp until the following year. But, playing critical minutes as the season wore on, he proved a potent offensive threat for the team, scoring 44 points in 63 games.
And while many attributed his scoring prowess to playing with the high-scoring Sgarbossa, as Leeson noted, the left winger scored 26 goals the following season without Sgarbossa, and already has 21 this season in just 19 games. There has been just five games this season that he hasn’t celebrated a goal of his own.
Pancel’s evolution, then, has certainly been more rapid than Campagna, and similarly he has taken this, his final OHL season, to work on improving in other facets of the game.
Under new head coach Paul Fixter, Pancel has not only earned rave reviews for his work on the Wolves’ power play, but also their penalty kill.
“He's also more committed than ever to playing defence, killing penalties and even blocking shots, all of which has made him one of Sudbury's most effective players so far this season,” said Leeson.
Leeson also noted that Pancel is viewed as a good teammate, who is well liked and has earned a lot of respect amongst his teammates for the way he plays.
But regardless of any off-ice qualities, should both Pancel and Campagna continue their on-ice domination, particularly in the offensive zone, they’ll certainly be more than worthy of a second look from NHL teams.
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