Alex DeBrincat has the Erie Otters on the brink of winning the OHL title, and a league MVP award. Next on his list? Crack the NHL lineup with the Blackhawks.
Given how elite the Erie Otters have been in the past four seasons, it’s pretty surprising the OHL squad has yet to win a championship in this era. Connor McDavid, Andre Burakovsky and Connor Brown all had a go, but ultimately fell short. Now, a cohort that includes Dylan Strome, Taylor Raddysh and newbies Anthony Cirelli and Warren Foegele are on the cusp, with a 3-1 series lead over Mississauga in the final. But the scoring leader so far has been Chicago Blackhawks prospect Alex DeBrincat, an Erie lifer who has become a dominant junior player.
The 5-foot-7 Michigan native leads the league with 37 points in 21 playoff games, but offense has never been an issue for the right winger. The breakthrough this season has been in rounding out his game.
“He’s become such a reliable player,” Strome said. “Not only scoring goals, but he kills penalties now, too. He’s reliable 5-on-5 and he’s on the ice late in the game whether we’re winning or losing. That says a lot about how much he’s grown and what type of player he is.”
The last time DeBrincat made big headlines, it was because he was snubbed by Team USA for a spot on the 2017 world junior team after making it the year prior. The Americans went on to win gold, so it’s tough to slam them in hindsight, but DeBrincat has certainly proven himself to be a top-end prospect this season. So much so, that he won the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s most outstanding player. The award is voted on by the league’s media (I had DeBrincat No. 1 on my ballot), with each franchise nominating one candidate. Past winners have included McDavid, Tyler Seguin and Doug Gilmour.
“You look at the names on that trophy and it’s pretty surreal,” DeBrincat said. “But with that said, it doesn’t happen without your teammates and linemates and coaches. It’s more a team award – a lot of players who get it are on good teams, so it’s a testament to what our team can do.”
Well, yeah…but DeBrincat has been pretty amazing himself. Quick and smart with a great release on his shot, the right winger has hit the 100-point mark in all three of his OHL seasons, which is a pretty stunning accomplishment.
A second-round pick of Chicago in 2016, DeBrincat is exactly the type of prospect the Blackhawks can use to restock the team after two disappointing first-round playoff exits in a row. The youngster has already had Strome, McDavid and Auston Matthews (at the 2016 world juniors) as his centers, so he knows how to play with an elite pivot. Now imagine how well he’d fit on a line with Jonathan Toews, or even a hypothetical kid line with Nick Schmaltz at center. The Hawks have kept tabs on DeBrincat’s progress and he has been happy to lap up the lessons.
“They want me to be in the NHL just as bad as I want to be there,” he said. “They’re helping me a lot and I really appreciate that from them. If I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, then I can’t change it.”
Becoming a more complete player will obviously help DeBrincat’s chances with the NHL organization and being around so many other top juniors has allowed him to develop in a great environment.
“My 200-foot game has gotten a lot better,” DeBrincat said. “I’ve learned where to be at the right time. I’ve developed a lot playing with the guys I have and watching them. Right now, I’m a whole lot better than I was when I came into the league.”
But first, the mission is to clinch that OHL title. The last and only time the Otters won it all was in 2001-02, with a squad featuring Brad Boyes, Carlo Colaiacovo and Chris Campoli. That team dyed their hair blonde for the run and DeBrincat’s crew has done the same thing, using “Gold Rush” as their rallying slogan.
With his blonde mane and bushy beard, DeBrincat looks nothing like the clean-shaven kid he was when he came into the league in 2014 – and he’s got the grown-up game to match.
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