Back-to-back 100-point seasons, two lengthy playoff runs in the ever-tough OHL, and an OHL Rookie of the Year award under his belt – but the one thing that Erie Otters’ forward Alex DeBrincat doesn’t have is prototypical size.
Listed at 5’7” and 165 pounds, what he lacks in height, DeBrincat makes up for in determination.
“You’re going to have to be stronger. You’re going to have to have that one X-Factor that everyone else doesn’t have,” DeBrincat said. “If you have the same stats or traits as someone who’s a few inches taller than you, then obviously they’re going to go with the guy who is a few inches taller. It’s just the way it is, so I think you just need that X-factor.”
And his X-factor? “It’s that I score goals. I think I generate offense for my team,” he said.
Otters’ head coach Kris Knoblauch for one expected DeBrincat to answer that way.
“I’m not surprised Alex would say something like that because that is his mentality – that he’s going to beat you, whoever he is competing against,” he said, adding that the game is starting to embrace players of smaller stature. “I think the NHL has room for smaller guys.”
It is an evolution that DeBrincat has noticed, but he is realistic in seeing that not everyone will see size the same way.
“I think it is changing. I think some people still look at it more than they should. But I think if you can play, you can play,” he said. “I think very soon in the league a lot of small players will be coming in and people will not care as much about size. But I think it’s still a bit of a thing in the league and it’s just something you have to work around.”
The Farmington Hills, MI product grew up a Detroit Red Wings’ fan, but his current role model, of sorts, plays for another Original Six squad.
“I always liked watching [Pavel] Datsyuk, but I don’t think I play like him, so now I like watching [Brendan] Gallagher,” DeBrincat said. “He kind of plays the same type of game as me and he’s not afraid to go to the front of the net to score. That’s who I like to watch and play like.”
His coach, who had a stint in the WHL coaching the Kootenay Ice, has had a front-row seat to Gallagher’s play and said he feels the comparison is an apt one.
“I saw Gallagher out in the Western Hockey League. He was very feisty, competitive, strong on his skates, and scores a lot of goals around the net,” Knoblauch said. “Yes, that’d be a good reference to him.”
DeBrincat took home the OHL’s Rookie of the Year award last season after a campaign where he scored 51 goals and compiled 104 points in 68 games. This season, in 60 games, he nearly matched those totals with another 51-goal campaign and 101 points. He is ranked 25th by ISS Hockey in their April rankings, and he is the 21st-ranked North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting. The recognition is nice, he said, but it is not a focus.
“It’s not really something that I’m thinking about, but obviously you never want to be content with where you’re at – you always want to get higher, you always want to play better,” he said. “I guess that’s where I’m at right now. Try and stay out of paying attention to the rankings as much as possible, but obviously you’re going to see them everywhere.”
“They taught me how to go about the draft year and the whole process,” DeBrincat said. “They definitely gave me a lot of tips and I know Connor gave me one saying you’ve got to keep your head out of all the media and stuff, and try to keep it away as much as possible.
“It can start changing your game and that’s never a good thing, so that’s something I always remember that he kept saying, and they’ve both helped me a lot.”
That said, he admits it can be a little difficult to completely shut the presence of scouts out of his mind.
“A little bit. I think if you see something that you don’t like, try not to dwell on it,” he said. “Just keep playing your game and hopefully you’ll be able to change their mind. There’s always going to be your critics out there, so you just have to prove them wrong.
“I think we’re all aware of it, but you play for your teammates, not the scouts. You want to win the game as much as possible and you want to do all you can do to win the game. You’re aware of it, but I don’t think you’re necessarily playing for them.”
With over 200 points in his first two seasons, combined with the ROY award, one could be forgiven in thinking that the transition to the OHL has been an easy one for DeBrincat. He credits his teammates for helping him succeed.
“It’s definitely not easy, but I think I’ve played with two very good teams and I think that’s really helped me a lot. I know that if we weren’t as good as we were last year, then I wouldn’t have gotten those numbers,” DeBrincat said. “It’s the same thing this year. I’m playing with a lot of good guys and they’re definitely helping me out. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish those things without my teammates.”
Knoblauch added that DeBrincat’s success comes from his dedication and work ethic.
“No, I don’t think it is easy. He’s got tremendous skill; he’s got a knack for scoring. But he works extremely hard,” the coach added. “I don’t know anyone who works as hard as Alex. He’s very feisty and works for every inch of ice that he gets out there. And when he’s playing like that, he gets good opportunities.”
This season, DeBrincat has proven that he can create his own opportunities, maintaining his point performance despite losing a linemate who has been described as a generational player. But Knoblauch was quick to point out that DeBrincat has always shown he can be successful without riding shotgun to McDavid.
“I think last year, he benefited playing with Connor McDavid, obviously. But even those games where he didn’t play with Connor, he still managed to be successful – in the second half of the year, the last month, and playoffs he rarely played with Connor,” Knoblauch said. “I think this year he proved that he’s a pretty good player on his own. Before [linemate] Strome got back, he had seven goals in his first four games.
“Obviously Strome and him complement each other, but Alex is a very good player who can beat guys one-on-one, but I think his release in the slot, I think that’s probably his biggest skill.”
In DeBrincat’s opinion, his role hasn’t changed greatly from last year, even if his linemates have.
“It hasn’t changed too much. I kind of have the same role: score goals and create offense. That’s kind of my role last year, too,” he said. “I think I might have a little bit more of a leadership role this year and trying to help out the younger guys. I don’t think too much has changed, though.”
One thing that he has worked on is his defense. He said he caught himself slipping a bit at the beginning of the year, but has been dedicated to playing at both ends of the ice.
“I know early in the year, I found myself cheating in the defensive zone and that’s never a good thing, so this year I’ve really been working on the defensive zone,” DeBrincat said. “In the playoffs, you’re not going to be able to score seven goals a night, so you’re going to win games 2-1, 3-2, so defense is a huge factor.”
In the offseason, leading up to the draft, DeBrincat said he wants to work on rounding out his game – getting stronger and faster, while working on his shot. “I need to work on everything, just as much as the next thing,” he said.
His coach added that DeBrincat can really take the next step in his development by working on a strength – his shot.
“I think his release is great, his shot – he is going to be a goal-scorer, but he needs to put more velocity on his shot,” Knoblauch explained. “I think how fast he gets his shot off, it fools goalies, they’re not ready for it. That release will be very important. But like all players making the jump from junior to the pros, it just has to be faster.”
Though professing to not watch the draft boards, DeBrincat admitted to keeping his eyes on his colleagues.
“Yeah, I played with [Matthew] Tkachuk at the World Juniors and we’re good friends; I check up on his stats a little bit and see how he’s doing,” he said. “But I think I look at everyone in the league, so I don’t think I check up on one person more than another.”
So no looking at the draft boards and saying, ‘Hey, I’m better than that guy…’?
“Well, uh, no…”
At least not out loud.
“No… definitely not,” he added, laughing. “I mean it’s not my decision where they rank me and I just try to do as much as I can to try to get them to change their mind.
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