Defenseman Max Iafrate following in father’s footsteps

By Jason Menard

He’s a Michigan-born blueliner, like dad. He has solid offensive skills, like dad. And he’s a first-round selection looking to make an impact — also like dad. But unlike dad, Max Iafrate, has the added pressure of a 12-year career looming over him.

“I think there’s pressure in living up to what he did, but he also helps me in everything I do,” the younger Iafrate said. “That’s why I’m a great player, because of him.”

Max Iafrate was drafted 15th overall by the Plymouth Whalers, who play in a building that Max is greatly familiar with, as his Tier 1 Compuware squad played in the same arena — the Compuware Arena in Plymouth, MI. Familiarity is something that Iafrate has going for him in spades, thanks to advice he’s received over the years from his father, Al.

“Most of the game’s mental, so he’s told me all the secrets about that — what to think and what to do on the ice,” he said. “He’s taught me all the physical things, like skating, shooting, and stick-handling — he’s taught me everything.”

Mike Vellucci, the Plymouth Whalers’ president, general manager, and head coach, said that the comparisons are going to be a fact of life for the 16-year-old blueliner, but the organization is going to do everything in its power — including using past experience — to smooth Iafrate’s transition.

“I think there is going to be a comparison, of course. But he has all the tools that his father had,” Vellucci said. “We’ve gone through it all with Tyler Seguin (BOS) in terms of the media spotlight that Tyler had last year, and Max is going to get some of that just with his father’s name. But we’ll talk to him.

“I’ve known the family for a long time and if we see that he can’t handle it or if it’s getting a little too much for him, then we’ll do stuff to help him out.

Iafrate acknowledges the comparisons and he knows that he has plenty of work ahead of him to even get to the level where he can dominate at the junior level.

“Yes, there’s a comparison. He was an offensive defensemen and I’d like to consider myself that myself,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to get into better shape and get to where these guys are. This is a totally different level and you need to get into better shape to compete.”

Vellucci said that it’s going to be a long-term process to manage the expectations that come with the Iafrate name, and that the team is not going to rush him into a role for which he’s not prepared.

“I’m going to take it slow with him at first. I’m not going to just throw him out there with all the pressure,” Vellucci explained. “He’s going to play every night and he’s going to get his opportunities. Is he going to play a lot on the power play? No, but we’re going to break him in slowly. I don’t want to throw him in right there at the beginning.”

In his first two games, If you wanted to count the number of shifts that Iafrate played, you’d barely need to use the fingers on a second hand.

“By Christmas I think he’ll be at a point where he says, ‘OK, I know how to play in this league and I’ve been to most of the buildings, and now it’s my time,’” Vellucci added. “Max is a good kid and his ability is tremendous, but again it’s the intangibles — where to be at positionally in the d-zone and how to prepare for every game.

“It’s a grind compared to midget-minor, playing 68 games with three games in three nights like we’re doing to open the season. Those little things, those little pointers, we’re going to help him.”

One of those people who will be helping is veteran blueliner Austin Levi. The Carolina Hurricanes’ prospect said the team understands what they have to do to help the 16-year-old teammate succeed.

“We definitely need to bring him along nice and easy, but Max is a great player — he’s got a hell of a shot,” Levi explained. “It’s been great working with him. Although I haven’t been around too much because I was away at an NHL camp, but from what I’ve seen he’s been a great player and he’s going to bring a lot to this team.”

Iafrate said that he’s appreciated the support he’s received to date. “It’s been great. The team’s great, all the guys are really nice in the locker room, so it’s been awesome, “ he said.

Vellucci added that Iafrate’s got natural gifts that are beyond what he normally sees at this age group. “Just his talent level is tremendous,” he said. “It’s probably one of the best skill sets that I’ve had a the 16 [year-old-level] in terms of size and strength right now. Most of the guys at 16 are either frail or they haven’t fully grown yet — they’re 16.

“Physically, right now, he’s mature so now we just have to work on good habits.”

In the meantime, Iafrate’s taking it one game at a time — and one infrequent shift after another. “I just take all the opportunities they give me and make the most out of it,” he said. “That’s all I have to do.”