This year, the NHL Draft has seen the biggest emphasis on top end goal scorers that we’ve seen in many years. That’s hard to dispute when you’re looking at guys like Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome and Mitch Marner. But what about the role guys, the players who won’t put up high end numbers but will still bring a high value to the team? That’s where Mitchell Stephens comes in to play.
Stephens was drafted by the Saginaw Spirit in 2013 following a successful stint with the powerhouse Minor Midget team, the Toronto Marlboros. Trailing just future top five pick Dylan Strome in scoring at the end of the year, Stephens posted 44 goals and 84 points in 58 games, good for third place overall in the GTHL Minor Midget scoring charts.
Stephens would skate in his first full season with the Spirit in 2013-2014, putting up just 21 points in 57 games in a very limited role. He did, however, look very strong in international competition, competing in two separate tournaments during the season. Playing for Canada’s Ontario roster at the U17 World Championships during the Christmas holidays in 2013, Stephens posted two assists for a team that struggled to gain much traction throughout the tournament.
His coming out party really took place at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic. Featuring a team future stars Mathew Barzal, Mitchell Marner and Strome, Stephens scored four goals and added two assists for six points, good to tie with five other Canadians for third in team scoring as Canada went on to win the summer event.
Heading into his sophomore season with a lot of momentum, Stephens really grew into a solid role with the Spirit during a weak campaign for the club. In 62 games, Stephens finished with 22 goals and 48 points, sitting in second behind San Jose Sharks prospect Dylan Sadowy for the team lead in scoring.
With a solid season under his belt, Team Canada called upon Stephens for the second straight year at the U18’s, an event that Canada had a legit chance at battling for a gold medal again. Stephens was consistently one of the better two-way forwards, finishing seventh in tournament scoring after potting 10 points in seven games en route to a bronze medal. Some of his success may have come due to the fact that he was playing on the top line with Mathew Barzal. But when you look back at his tournament, you can see that Stephens was easily one of the more dangerous players when by himself, creating some really impressive plays all over the ice.
One of the fastest players in the 2015 NHL Draft, you can always count on Stephens to get to the puck faster than most of his OHL competition. At top speed, Stephens can create an explosive rush that makes all the defense around him look weak. He’s able to manage his speed throughout the game, knowing not to waste it early on in order to help his team late in a match when his speed is still top notch.
Stephens plays kind of like a bigger Brendan Gallagher. He loves playing around the crease, whether it be to screen the goalie, pick up a rebound or make a quick deke before going top shelf. Because he’s a two-way centre, he’s useful in getting back into his own zone, only to go back the other way after using his speed to create a turnover. When back in the zone, his shot is very impressive, with a good mix of speed and power. If he doesn’t have a good lane to get a good slap shot away, look for him to make a deke around a slow moving defenseman before eventually giving himself something to work with.
Offensively, Stephens hasn’t really blown away anyone just yet, so that’s why it’s likely you’ll find him landing somewhere late in the second round or early in the third. There’s always a chance that whoever picks Barzal, who could find himself in the top ten of the draft this month, could look to also select Stephens thanks to their tremendous performances together at the Under-18’s. Stephens is still a few years away from making the NHL, but with two or three seasons of AHL seasoning at the end of his OHL stint, Stephens could turn into an effective third line winger at the end of the day.
Steven is a junior hockey reporter for the Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, and also focuses on international hockey for his website, TheHockeyHouse.net. You can follow Steven on twitter @StevenEllisNHL.