The minor midget age group can be a crossroads for young players with big-league dreams.
On one hand, future NHL stars are flashing their potential and ready to become impact players in major junior the following year. For others, it’s an extremely stressful time. The challenge of juggling high school and a demanding hockey schedule is tough enough. But now, you have to decide which career path is right for you. Do you go straight to major junior if you’re offered a spot and lose your NCAA eligibility as a result? Do you try Jr. A for a year and hope for more ice time, knowing all too well that the lower level of competition could result in fewer opportunities down the road?
While a super-prospect such as Connor McDavid will follow a direct route from minor midget to major junior to the NHL, other players have to take a road less travelled. That’s where major midget, the bridge between minor midget and junior, has proven to be a worthy development path. While minor midget in Ontario is for 15- and 16-year-olds looking to make the jump to the OHL, major midget is for players aged 16 to 18, many of whom were drafted to OHL teams but without a contract to show for it.
Take the case of right winger Matt Luff. The 21-year-old NHL rookie didn’t seem like an obvious candidate to play in the big leagues, let alone make an early splash. But with the Los Angeles Kings struggling to find consistency from their top stars, Luff was called up to the NHL in November after ranking among the AHL scoring leaders through the first month of the season.
Luff was a member of the Oakville Rangers minor midget AAA team that wreaked havoc on teams across the country in 2012-13. Current NHL prospects Matthew Spencer (Tampa Bay) and Kyle Capobianco (Arizona) were on the club, and Oakville was strong enough to beat teams featuring the likes of Travis Konecny, Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse, Mitchell Stephens and Victor Mete.
After his OHL draft year, however, Luff didn’t sign a full-time deal with any junior team, instead spending his time with the Oakville Rangers major midget AAA team, while most of his teammates either went on to Jr. A or major junior. For many players, that would be disheartening.
But Luff used that as motivation and excelled at the major midget level in 2013-14, scoring 54 goals and 98 points in 66 games to lead the league in scoring. He also played 10 games in Ontario Jr. A as an affiliated player with the Oakville Blades, recording six points. He’d sign with the OHL’s Belleville Bulls the following year and play three years of major junior with the organization (the Bulls relocated to Hamilton in 2015-16).
How did a player go from major midget to a prominent role in the OHL and then the NHL? “In minor midget, he was kind of a bit behind the top players,” said Mike Daley, Luff’s former coach on the Rangers’ midget team and now an assistant with the Ontario Jr. A League’s Toronto Patriots. “In (major) midget, he was the guy and took the ball and ran with it. He played in every situation, scored a ton of goals, played his games with the Blades and his confidence just skyrocketed.”
Other players who have gone from major midget to the NHL include Tyler Toffoli, Jeff O’Neill, Ron Francis, Cory Conacher, Scott Wilson and Brendan Morrison. Most prospects from Canada who are capable of becoming impact NHLers never play major midget as they jump directly to junior hockey. Yet the players above prove that you can excel without moving up right away.
It’s still too early to know Luff’s NHL ceiling, especially since he cruised under the radar the past few years. Luff, who’s 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, went undrafted in the NHL after a lackluster start to his OHL career and had a pedestrian AHL rookie season last year, with 12 goals and 29 points in 67 games. “Did I think NHL? No,” Daley said of Luff’s pro probabilities. “But once you started to see the success he was having in the OHL, with his frame and skill set, it was only a matter of time before people took notice at higher levels.”