Spitfires’ trades provide leadership opportunity for Vail

By Jason Menard

Brady Vail - Windsor Spitfires

Photo: Windsor Spitfires forward and Montreal Canadiens prospect Brady Vail has been scoring at a better than point-per-game average so far in in the 2013-14 season (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

For Montreal Canadiens prospect Brady Vail, working on his future team’s goals, has meshed perfectly with the needs of his present squad. But after a major trade in the OHL, Vail said he believes that his role on the Windsor Spitfires may have to change.

“The way that [Montreal] wants me to play is the same way that my coach here wants me to play in the Spitfires’ organization — that two-way role, playing against the other team’s top line, killing penalties, and chipping in on the offensive end,” he said. “This year it’s been good, but with that big trade a couple of days ago, I feel I need to step it up a little bit.”,

That “big trade” saw the Spitfires send leading scorer Kerby Rychel and the team’s top defender, Nick Ebert, to the Guelph Storm for Brody Milne and a boatload of draft picks. Not only was it a trade to an intra-conference rival, it also came at a time when the Spitfires were playing solid hockey with the team sporting an 18-10 record in 28 games, good for fifth in the OHL’s Western Conference.

Some pundits suggest this is Windsor throwing in the towel this season and building for the future. The 19-year-old Vail said he can understand why people would think that way, but it’s not the attitude inside the dressing room. The team, he said, has not given up.

“Not at all. It’s tough missing those guys — especially Nick on the back end, he played a lot of minutes for this team and he was a big part, so it’s going to be a little tough. But we just picked up two forwards that have scored 20 points so far this year,” he said. “You put the two of those together and you have close to 40 points right there. I think the offense is going to be OK, we just have to focus on team defense and that’s how we’re going to win our games.

“[The attitude] hasn’t changed that much. The players, we just had a meeting, and we’ve decided that we’re going to make this the best season that we can. Best of luck to the guys that were here, but the team mindset is let’s win the games this weekend.”

And Vail said he’s not planning on asking for a trade to another contending squad in the league. “No. I’m happy where I’m at right now and I’m committed to making this the best experience as possible,” he said.

In addition to the arrival of Brody Milne, the Spitfires obtained the services of Sam Povorozniouk from the Kingston Frontenacs on Dec. 5th, in return for a fourth-round, 2016 selection and Ryan Verbeek, who had left the team the past week demanding a trade. Povorozniouk came to the Spitfires with six goals and 17 points in 24 games this year, while Milne also had 17 points in 29 games, including nine goals.

Known for his defensive game, Vail said he feels he needs to step up his offensive production — although he’s already averaging better than a point-per-game with 13 goals and 33 points in 30 games, along with a +20 rating.

“We have our offensive lines, but without Rychel and Ebert, it’s going to be a little different. We’ve got those 40 goals that the team’s now going to have to make up for,” he said. “My main concern is just to make sure that the other team doesn’t score and we can win each game 1-0 if we try. I don’t think scoring goals [is going to be an issue] — we scored five or six last night without them — I think this team can still score goals, but it’s just that everyone’s going to have to step up a little bit.”

As a 19-year-old on the Spitfires, Vail added that he feels he needs to be more of a leadership presence.

“I’ve had the same role the last couple of years, being one of the older guys on the team for three years now. I’ve always had a lot of responsibility on the ice,” he said. “Mostly, I’m just trying to become more of an off-ice guy and show the younger guys what it takes and what they have to do to carry on after.”

Part of that role is translating what he learned at the NHL level and sharing it with his younger teammates. The 6’1, 190-pound center was a fourth-round draft pick, 94th overall, of the Montreal Canadiens at the 2012 NHL Draft, with Vail having now attended the NHL club's off-season camps.

“I went to the summer development camp and [Montreal] gave me some stuff to work on. Then in September I was back for rookie camp and it was good to play against some of those guys and see what it takes off the ice, and see what they do,” he said. “They gave me a lot of stuff to focus on, so I’ve been trying to do that and I seem to be having a half-decent year

“It’s both on and off-ice work. A lot of it’s off-ice stuff, just eating habits. On ice there’s some stuff that they want me to work on, as well. I’m in touch with them at least once every couple of weeks, getting feedback, and everything’s been good.”

It’s been a long route to Montreal for Vail. Born in Hendersonville, North Carolina, he grew up in Florida. While most of his teammates were taking to the ice from a very young age, Vail’s introduction to the sport was a little more circuitous.

“I grew up in Florida and played in-line hockey all the way until I was 13 or 14,” he said. “I started playing ice when I was 10. I played a year under Ray Sheppard with the Florida Junior Panthers. Compuware scouted me out of there. I played one year at Compuware with the ‘94 team. I made the jump to the USHL for one year, then Windsor picked me. It was a tough decision, but we felt that going to the OHL would be the best outlet.”

When he moved to Detroit, he came with his mother — a golf pro — and sister. His father would make weekly trips to Michigan from his job in Florida. Vail said he’s appreciative of everything his family has done to help his career.

“It was a lot of sacrifice for those couple of years, but where I’m at today I owe directly to them,” he said. “”I wouldn’t be playing where I am now if I hadn’t moved to Detroit. Sure, there are always things that you’d like to have changed, but I’m glad where I am right now and I owe that to my family.”

His early start playing roller hockey afforded Vail a different perspective on the game. And he explained that, initially, it was both a blessing and a curse.

“I think a lot of my patience and knowing how to read a play, along with my hands, comes from roller hockey,” he said. “But there’s also some bad habits — you don’t stop much in roller hockey, so that’s a habit you have to break pretty quickly. I think most of my game came from roller hockey — it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I took on more of a defensive role.

“Previously I was pretty much an offensive player, but a lot of what I’m doing now came from roller hockey.”

In fact, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that Vail added defense to his on-ice vocabulary.

“My year in Waterloo [of the USHL], where I was playing under P.K. O’Handley, that’s where I first started to learn the defensive game,” he explained. “I didn’t have the greatest offensive year that year, or during my first year with the Spitfires, so I focused on adding that defensive part of my game.

“I always knew I had the offensive upside and that the points would come, but I had to focus on more of an all-around game. I’m trying to become more of a versatile player, especially as I get older. I want to create more offense, but do it from a solid defensive foundation.”

Vail added that he sees that as his ticket to the NHL.

“I see myself as a third or fourth-line center that you can count on for faceoffs, kill penalties, and just be hard to play against,” he said. “I want to play against the other team’s top forwards and keep them off the scoreboard. That’s what I pride myself on doing in this league and I’d like to carry that over to the NHL.”

Before that, he’s set goals in the OHL that revolve around the success he continues to expect the team to enjoy this year.

“I’ve set points goals and things like that, but the main thing is that I want this team to beat out the Soo and Saginaw in our division so that we can get that second place position in our conference,” he said. “Even with [Ebert and Rychel] gone, that’s our team goal.

“For me, I want to be one of the top guys in plus/minus and a point-per-game player that is known around the league for being one of the hardest guys to play against.”

Growing up in Florida and playing for one year under the tutelage of former Panther Sheppard, it’s no surprise Vail was a Panthers fan. But that has changed.

“I was a Panthers fan and we went to a few games, but once you move to Detroit it’s hard not to become a Red Wings fan,” he said.

And have his allegiances shifted since? Would it be safe to say he’s a fan of the bleu, blanc, et rouge now? “Oh yeah,” he said, laughing.

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard