Vanderwiel aims for A-list draft status

By Jason Menard

Danny Vanderwiel - Plymouth Whalers

Photo: Plymouth Whalers forward Danny Vanderwiel has so far seen limited action in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility (courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

NHL’s Central Scouting may have ranked him as a C-level prospect in its early ratings, but has only served to motivate the Plymouth Whalers’ Danny Vanderwiel to prove that he’s more suited to the A-list.

“I look at is as motivation to try to step up my game and try to work my way up to a B ranking and possibly an A,” Vanderwiel explained. “It gives me motivation and drive to work every day at practice and perform in the game.

“I think personally I have the ability to play higher than a C-level skater.”

His coach, GM, and team president Mike Vellucci said he feels the ranking’s not reflective of the player that Vanderwiel is — and will become.

“I think it’s a low ranking too to be honest with you. Our guys don’t come out of the States, or wherever they’re from, with a lot of fanfare and being the number-one guys,” said Vellucci. “He had a try-out with the Top 40 of the U.S. program and did great. We felt fortunate to get him and I think he’s going to do some great things for us.

“He’s a big power forward, skates great, been injured a little bit and I think that’s put him behind the eight ball a little this year.”

While Vanderwiel does not believe his ranking is reflective of his ability, he said he understood why he is where he is.

“Last year, being in Plymouth, we had such a great team with a lot of older guys, so coming in as a 16-year-old on that team, it’s kind of hard to show how good you are,” he said. “With the amount of games I’ve played so far this year [due to injury] — I think I’ve only played six, so I think it’s a pretty fair representation so far from what scouts have seen.”

And don’t think he’s not looking and watching the other players on that list.

“I definitely compare myself to them,” he said. “I look at them and obviously there are guys like [the London Knights’] Max Domi that’s clearly an A skater, but I look at guys on there — especially guys that I know — and it’s a little competition for me to be as highly ranked as they are.”

The lower profile is all part and parcel of the Whalers’ way, explained Vellucci.

“You look at [Stefan] Noesen, he didn’t have a lot of opportunity his first year either — we break guys in slowly and make sure they understand the league and what we expect and then give them the opportunity to play.”

And the injury didn’t help. Vanderwiel was forced to sit out six games with what he termed, “an upper body injury.” Vanderwiel professed full health and his coach said the results are showing on the ice.

“Danny, just getting back from his injury where he was hit from behind, that put him back a bit,” Vellucci explained. “But he’s had a great first weekend back last weekend and hopefully he’ll have that again this weekend.”

Although Vanderwiel’s in the top NHL development league now, his start in hockey started modestly in the town of Island Lake, IL — with a population of just over 8,000 people (“it’s a really small town,” he said. “A really small community.”) His start not only began modestly but early.

“I got involved in hockey because I had some older cousins that played hockey. When I was about two years old, my parents said that I was really good on roller blades, so they figured why not put him on the ice?” he said. “Once I was on the ice, from there I just fell in love with the game. I played locally until I was about 12. Then I started traveling — I played for Chicago Mission for about two years and Team Illinois for two years.”

And that love of the game has continued to this day — it’s what motivates him each and every day and helps him deal with the pressures of having scouts and NHL team officials watch his every move.

“I put it all in the back of my head and try not to think about it,” Vanderwiel explained. “Everyone plays hockey for a reason — and that’s because they love playing the game. I just love playing the game and I go out there, have fun, and I’m going to keep playing until it’s not fun anymore.”

He’s also had some guidance through the draft process.

“Last year I went to high school with Tom Wilson every day, so I got a first-hand view of watching what a draft-eligible guy has to go through,” Vanderwiel said. “Especially Tom, being such a highly-ranked guy, going first round — I got to watch and see all the things he went through and all the pressures he had to go through and the ups and downs that he had to deal with.

“I kind of knew, coming into this season, what I had to deal with, but then again like I said I’m just going to put that all behind me and play my game.”

Vanderwiel played in 2011 with the U.S. Selects squad. He failed to make the cut for the national team, but he said the experience — especially for someone coming from such a small town — was memorable.

“That was a lot of fun — that was a great experience, just getting together with the guys who mostly didn’t make the Team for the U.S. national development program,” he explained. “That was a great experience playing against kids who are my age from all different countries around the world like Germany and the Czech and Slovak Republics; it was a great experience.

“I think that helped me because that gave me the confidence that even though I got cut from the national team, I still am in their sights.”

And while he measures himself against his fellow draft-eligible's on the CSS list, he said he didn’t do that in the international tournament.

“Not really, I just thought the coolest thing was that I was playing kids that lived in Germany! I thought that was really cool,” Vanderwiel said. “You don’t really think about it too much, especially being from the States and growing up in a small town, just playing kids from Germany was a really great experience.”

While Vanderwiel credits Wilson for his off-ice guidance, he said the Whalers’ franchise has been a phenomenal source of information and experience on the ice.

“This year, and with my development last year, I’m really pleased with the patience I have with the puck and my overall view of the game,” he said. “Just practicing with guys like Stefan Noesen or J.T. Miller — all the older guys, drafted guys, signed whomever it may be — the things you can learn and soak in from them. I referred to myself last year as The Sponge, I just soaked everything in and applied it to my game.

“This year it’s a lot better — I’m getting a lot more ice time. Last year I worried a lot about making mistakes; this year Vellucci told me to go out and play hockey and not to worry about mistakes, so I am. I’m just going out there, playing hockey and playing the game I love.”

That attention to detail is one of the reasons Vellucci feels his young forward will do well. “He’s such a good kid and such a smart hockey player who worries about everything — he was so focused on making the right plays, sometimes you can start thinking too much and hockey’s a reaction sport with anticipation,” he said. “He’s great at both of those things — he just has to play. If you’re working hard, you’re going to make mistakes — it’s just going to happen.”

Vellucci added that he feels Vanderwiel will improve his draft standing just by being himself and working on his game.

“He’s going to have to be physical, he’s going to have to get to the net, and he’s going to have to get some points,” he said. “But if he does what he’s capable of, he’ll get drafted and I think he’ll get drafted high.”

Vanderwiel, a Chicago Blackhawks fan who counts Pat Kane as his favourite NHL player, said he agreed — but he’s not going to overwhelm himself with thoughts of his draft year.

“I need to work on my puck skills — handling the puck. I think I have a pretty good shot. I just think I need to focus on playing my game, which is a physical, in-your-face type of game, and taking the puck hard on the net,” he said. “I need to focus on just playing my game and not making too many mistakes — just playing hockey and having fun.

“Yeah, it’s my draft year and it’s a big year for me, but I can’t really allow that to affect me. Just because it’s my draft year doesn’t mean it’s the only chance I have to make it, so I just play my game.”

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