In a Vancouver Canucks prospect pool that is light on defenceman, Matt Brassard is giving fans reason to hope.
The 19 year old has turned in a solid season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals and has probably earned himself a pro contract. Through 63 regular season games (as of this writing), the six-foot-three and 198 pound right-handed blueliner has collected 15 goals and 46 points.
His goal total is fifth highest among OHL defenceman, and he ranks eighth in points.
Most importantly for a prospect, Brassard’s production is up substantially from his draft year when he produced 12 goals and 32 points in 62 games split between Oshawa and the Barrie Colts.
Twenty four games into the 2017-18 season things didn’t look so rosy for the native of Barrie, Ontario. Brassard had no goals and eight points, and it looked like his development had flat-lined. The idea that the seventh round pick (188th overall in 2017) would be offered any kind of deal with the Canucks seemed far-fetched.
But his production from Nov. 25 on has been eye-popping.
Brassard scored his first goal that night in a 7-3 win over Barrie and in 39 games he’s posted 38 points.
Getting him signed and into the Utica Comets lineup now seems like a no-brainer.
So what changed?
“When you’re in a slump you’ve got to work your way out of it, and that’s what I did, staying after practice to work on shooting pucks and doing drills,” Brassard said. “One of the biggest things I was told by my head coach (Bob Jones), right around that 25 game mark, was to keep focusing on defence and all the other stuff will come.”
Oshawa assistant coach Greg Nemisz said it was a weird start to the season for Brassard.
“We couldn’t put a finger on it because he was still playing well, he was still creating plays and getting his volume in terms of shots on net, but it just wasn’t happening for him,” Nemisz said. “At times he was pressing too much for it, and once he got that first goal he settled in.”
Many prospect prognosticators will tell you that if a player doesn’t produce X amount of points per game in junior, he’s unlikely to become a contributor at higher levels. Like all players, Brassard claims to not worry about goals and assists, but he’s glad that he’s been able to click at a point-per-game rate for the last two thirds of the season.
“I don’t know if I feel any pressure to meet those expectations,” he said. “But if it’s something that the scouts are looking at to determine whether you’ll produce at the next level, then I’m really happy with the way my year has gone.”
The stat Brassard cares most about is one that the hockey analytics crowd would like to stuff into a rocket bound for the moon. Brassard said the Generals don’t keep advanced stats like Corsi and Fenwick. They don’t track controlled zone exits, so plus-minus is the number he checks out after a game to gauge his effectiveness.
“I know plus-minus, a lot of people say it doesn’t show the type of player you are because you can be on a team that plays against the best teams or the worst teams and it can vary a lot,” he said. “I don’t really have a go-to stat, but if I had to pick one it would be plus-minus. Also things liked blocked shots and hits are huge.”
Brassard is a healthy plus-16 this season.
In the lead-up to the 2017 National Hockey League entry draft, Brassard said he was questioned most often about his skating.
“In my pre-draft meetings with teams I told them that I was aware of it and I would be working on it,” the teenager noted. “I spent last summer training for this season with a focus on skating and I think I’ve improved it.
“Obviously it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was in the past.”
Nemisz said Brassard’s skating can still use a little work, but it’s not a liability.
“By no means is he a poor skater,” Nemisz said. “But like anyone trying to go to the professional level where it’s a really fast game, he’s got to work on his agility.”
On the flipside, talent evaluators were impressed with Brassard’s two-way game and his ability to create offence.
“I really take pride in the amount of shots on goal I have. I think I’m third in the league among defencemen (he’s fourth),” Brassard said. “One thing I can contribute back there is getting the puck on net from the point. They’re not always going to be high-quality shots from a defenceman, but getting the puck down there for the forwards to do their work, that’s something that teams noticed about me.
“And I think my commitment to defence and my ability to play against the other team’s top players is something else that stood out.”
“He has been an excellent puck mover, making plays from the back end,” Nemisz noted. “He has a really, really good shot from the blueline too. There’s a dangerous wrister that always seems to get through. He’s got a real good hockey IQ. He’s got a really good pulse for the game and he’s a guy we lean on to provide offence.
“He’s done a good job balancing that because when we really need him to push for offence, he can create, but he can also lock it down and play a real structured game.”
Skating is a must-have skill for a modern defenceman as the game gets faster and faster.
If Brassard’s not going to be the quickest guy on the ice, he feels he can compensate in other ways.
“Positioning, gap control, always being up with the play, always being hard on forwards and hard in the D zone with physical play, I think those are the biggest things a defenceman nowadays needs to succeed,” Brassard explained. “I’ve been told to continue to work on those things and I think I’ve been doing that pretty well this year.”
Brassard has collected 60 penalty minutes in 64 games, two minutes at a time with no fighting majors. In 2014-15, playing for the midget AAA Barrie Colts, he rolled up 172 minutes in 50 games, but Brassard said he doesn’t often drop the mitts.
“I definitely wouldn’t classify myself as a fighter, but I would classify myself as a hard guy to play against,” he said. “I play against top lines night in and night out and I try to get under their skin. Sometimes the ref will take both guys, or just me if I’ve crossed the line a little bit.”
“He’s always involved physically and he’s right on that edge,” Nemisz added. “You notice him every single game. He’s never sleep-walking out there. He’s an impact player for us every night.”
When I talked to him, Brassard said he had recently been playing on the Oshawa D with William Ennis, a draft-eligible 2000-born defenceman.
“He’s a left-handed guy who’s kind of more of a defensive shutdown guy,” Brassard said. “I think we really pair well together where I can join the rush and know that he’ll be back. I’m really hoping he’ll hear his name called on draft day because I really think he’s one of the most underrated guys in this draft.”
“He’s flying under the radar, but he’s a really good guy to play with.”
I mentioned off the top that Brassard now looks like a good candidate to play in Utica next year.
The transition to pro is a tough one for juniors, a leap that separates prospects from suspects.
“I’m all learning at this point. I’m taking everything my coaches and the Canucks tell me and trying to work on it, trying to make them happy so maybe I’ll be lucky enough to earn a contract in the next year or two,” Brassard said. “I’d be happy coming back to Oshawa because I think we’re heading in the right direction and I think we’ll be really good next year, but if I am lucky enough to earn a contract, I’d love to start my pro career in Utica and hopefully take off from there.”
Nemisz, who played 15 big-league games with the Calgary Flames and logged 241 AHL games with the Abbotsford Heat and Charlotte Checkers, said Brassard’s offensive game provides a good foundation, and if he can build up his defensive game he can become a solid pro.
“Like any young player it’s just defending,” Nemisz said. “He’s done a really good job of it and he’s playing against the other teams’ best lines at our level, but the next level is a whole different animal.
“For him to be successful at the next level he’s got to be more of a two-way guy, and his defending’s got to come along a little bit.”