Alex DeBrincat’s Ontario Hockey League career appears to be over. He and the Erie Otters advanced to the Memorial Cup championship before falling to the Windsor Spitfires. There isn’t much DeBrincat didn’t do with the Otters, be it team titles (they claimed the OHL crown this season) to individual awards (OHL and Canadian Hockey League player of the year).
So now the big question: how will DeBrincat, the Blackhawks’ second-round pick in the 2016 NHL draft, fare at the next level? Plenty are curious to see what he can do, and that includes his coach for the past three seasons.
“I think Alex is really close,” Otters coach Kris Knoblauch said in a phone interview on Thursday night. “It’s been a pleasure coaching Alex, seeing him come in as a young player but not too often do young players have an immediate impact. A lot has to do with his skill. Obviously he was fortunate to play with skilled players like (Connor) McDavid but his game has come a long way.”
DeBrincat’s offensive talents are pretty obvious. After recording back-to-back 51-goal seasons with the Otters, DeBrincat tallied 65 goals and 62 assists this past season. He and the Otters claimed the OHL championship before advancing to the Memorial Cup for the first time since 2002. He can move around the lineup — DeBrincat started the Otters’ season at center, played a few games at right wing but was mainly at left. As for defense, DeBrincat said in early May that improving that was a focal point for him this season. Knoblauch said DeBrincat made strides there.
“The biggest part of his defense is the ability of stealing pucks, pressuring the defensemen, forcing them to make bad decisions,” he said. “Just being able to have the stick in the right lane an intercept passes. He got better at those little subtle skills.”
The transition to professional hockey can always be tricky. Players are bigger, faster, stronger, better. We could go on and on about DeBrincat’s size (5-foot-7, 165 pounds) but that is what it is. He wants to get stronger and will have to be, Knoblauch said, given the battles he’ll be facing in the pros.
“I think it’s just playing against the big, strong guys. It’s not that he’s afraid; he’s very good at battles. But just playing against the opposition, against five strong, fast players and just finding out how much time he has, where the room is,” Knoblauch said. “One-on-one battles in our league, there are strong guys and he does fairly well. But when you have a unit of guys, it makes the game a little more difficult.”
DeBrincat accomplished plenty in the OHL. Last month, he wasn’t sure what his immediate future held regarding the Blackhawks — at that point, he hadn’t talked with Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman about what came next. There’s a great anticipation for what DeBrincat can do at the next level. Knoblauch said the 19-year-old’s physical abilities, as well as his mental toughness, have served him well to this point. They’ll come in handy at the next level, too, for which DeBrincat is just about ready.
“I’m sure many people are telling him he won’t be able to play in the NHL or questioning if he ever will. That’ll be just more motivation for Alex,” Knoblauch said. “He feeds off that. When people tell him he can’t do something, he loves to show them they’re wrong.”