Beyond Tomorrow: Spencer a top defenseman from his OHL draft class but still has work to do

By Chau Vo

Matt Spencer - Peterborough Petes

Photo: Peterborough Petes defenseman and 2015 prospect Matt Spencer finished the 2014 OHL playoffs with four assists in 11 games for the Petes (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

As the oldest continually operating franchise in the Ontario Hockey League, the Peterborough Petes knew they had to do right by their fans and not miss the playoffs for a fourth year in a row. The Petes and general manager Mike Oke had the third overall pick in the 2013 OHL Priority Selection and the opportunity to select a franchise defenseman they could build their team around for the next few years.

Prior to the draft, Oke was coy on who he was going to select but when it was leaked that the Petes would select Matthew Spencer over Sean Day, the fourth player to be granted exceptional status in CHL history, many were not surprised at the direction the Petes wanted to take.

Spencer, a 6’2” and 195-pound, two-way defenseman is a player that can best be described as wise beyond his years. He grew up playing minor hockey in the Oakville area, about two hours away from Peterborough. His talent was apparent from a very early age and during the 2012-13 season, he was selected to captain the Oakville Rangers' Minor Midget AAA team.

“I wouldn’t say I’m overly vocal; I let my actions speak for themselves,” says Spencer on what kind of leader he sees himself as. “I always try to help guys and encourage them to meet their full capabilities. That’s really what I’m about, I’m not just trying to make myself better but also everyone else around me better.”

That maturity and leadership led to a spectacular year not only for Spencer, but for his Rangers teammates as well. In the 2012-13 season, Spencer recorded 17 goals and 39 assists for 56 points in 71 games. Personal accolades from that season include an OMHA Player of the Year award and MVP of the Fitzsimmons Towing and Repair Midget Tournament of Champions. For Spencer, it was helping lead his Rangers to the OHL Cup that would be the highlight of his year.

“To come out of there with the championship was unforgettable and something I will remember for the rest of my life,” says Spencer.

The Rangers entered the tournament as the top-ranked team and their finals appearance was their first since the tournament became a minor midget showcase in 2003. Their opponents, the Toronto Marlboros, were in their record seventh straight finals appearance. The Rangers would capture their first OHL Cup title after defeating the Marlboros by a score of 5-1. Spencer had four assists in seven tournament games to help the OMHA win the Cup for the first time since 2006.

With his success for the Rangers, Spencer earned the opportunity to be called up to the Oakville Blades of the OJHL.

“I was fortunate enough to be called up for a few games and I believe I played pretty well for all three of those games. That was a great learning opportunity and my first chance at playing some form of junior hockey.”

Though he recorded no points in his three regular season appearances and one playoff appearance, Spencer used the opportunity to gauge himself against the older players.

“It was a little different and I adapted well and I played within my capabilities,” says Spencer on how he approached his first junior games.

After being selected third overall by Oke and the Petes, Spencer worked hard over the summer so he would not let his new team and teammates down and live up to his status as a high draft pick. The OHL pace and physicality is greater than that of the OJHL and minor midget. As arguably the best junior league in the world, many of the world’s top hockey players are OHL alumni.

“I knew I was going to have to make every play one second faster. You’re going to have to adapt otherwise you’re not going to play,” says Spencer.

Spencer scored his first OHL goal only four games into the season. The goal would also turn out to be the game winner in a 5-4 victory over the Kitchener Rangers. Shortly after, Spencer would also get into his first OHL fight against the much bigger and more experienced Matt Schmalz of the Sudbury Wolves. While he did not win the fight, Spencer made an impression with not only his teammates, but other players in the league immediately took notice that he was not to be intimidated despite his young age.

“It was a bit slow at the beginning of the year and adjusting to the league and adapting. I thought the second half of the season has been a real turnaround,” says Spencer when asked how he felt about his first OHL season.

Halfway through the season, Spencer was selected to represent Team Ontario at the World U17 Hockey Challenge tournament held in Cape Breton. In addition to being selected to the team, Spencer was also named one of the team's assistant captains.

“It was definitely an exciting time. It was a great learning opportunity to see how you stack up against guys in your own country and all over the world. It wasn’t too much fun because we didn’t do too great but it was really interesting and a great experience. I didn’t think I played great, just all right,” admits Spencer.

In five games, Spencer had one assist as Team Ontario finished third in Group B with a 2-1-0-1 record and would close out the tournament with a 6-3 victory over Sweden.

When Spencer returned to the Petes, he set his focus on helping the Petes stay in playoff contention. The Petes would finish out the season with a 32-30-0-6 record, good enough for sixth in the Eastern Conference but more importantly, a first round playoff matchup with the Kingston Frontenacs.

The Frontenacs would jump to a quick 3-0 series lead over the Petes but the Petes would win the next three games to set the stage for a Game 7 matchup in Kingston in front of a crowd of over 5,000 fans. With a 2-1 victory, the Petes walked out of the arena with a historic comeback and series win.

“It was really exciting. Obviously that was the first time we’ve been in the playoffs in four years. I thought we did really well in the first round and hopefully it continues on to the second round,” said Spencer.

Spencer and the Petes ended up being swept in their second round series against the Oshawa Generals, however. Now that his season has ended, Spencer knows he has a lot of work ahead of him going into his draft year. With only one goal and 14 assists for the Petes this year, Spencer knows exactly where in his game he would like to see improvements.

“I would like to work on all areas of my game but mostly my offensive presence. Also staying really solid on defense and not letting anybody get to the net and get any chances. Those are the two main things,” said Spencer. “Next year, I just want to work on my game and do what the coaches ask of me.”

Next time in Beyond Tomorrow

The next feature will look at Ryan Gropp of the Seattle Thunderbirds. Gropp, a winger with both tremendous size and skills, was selected by the Thunderbirds sixth overall in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft.

Follow Chau Vo on Twitter via @chowdersoop