Warren Steele is a small-town guy who is known to find solace with a rod and reel in hand — and he's also helped the young Kingston Frontenacs reel in some big fish of late.
Steele's name was absent from the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings that were released four weeks ago Monday. However, the adverb conspicuously should probably be in that sentence. The 17-year-old is emerging as a smooth-skating skilled defenceman with a good shot and some offensive derring-do who is also getting tougher to play against in his own zone. Steele was expected to be a regular as a rookie this season, but the rate of his progress has been a pleasant surprise for the Todd Gill-coached Frontenacs. Kingston is in Year 1 of a long-overdue rebuild, yet Steele and his mates have scored road wins over both conference leaders in the OHL in recent weeks.
"I've just taken those opportunities and made the best I can out of them," says Steele, who has six goals and 20 points in 51 games with a -9 plus/minus. "I think I've progressed really well since the start of the season both points-wise and with my play. Coach Todd [Gill] lets me do that. I'm very thankful to him for letting me to do that."
The reasons why Steele might have been left off Central Scouting's list are fairly evident. He's 5-foot-11 and 187 pounds, so it's fair to question whether he will develop a NHL body. Steele, who played Junior A a year ago, also spent the first half of the season adapting to the faster pace of the OHL. His coach was doing the same; since he and Gill were on rival Central Canada Hockey League teams (Smiths Falls and Brockville) last season.
"Steele's game has blossomed," says Gill, the former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman who played more than 1,000 NHL games. "Here's a 17-year-old kid who has the poise of a 20-year-old. He's playing huge minutes and again, you have to remember that he's 17. He's a great skater, that's his asset. Because of that ability to skate, he can get himself in and out of good and bad situations. He is thinking the game a lot better now and because of that he's playing some very good hockey.
"He's slippery, I guess is the best way to put it," Gill adds. "It's hard to hit him because of his skating ability. A lot of times he can make the play and get out of the check all at once."
Steele actually played more of a shutdown role in Smith Falls, judging by the fact he had 72 penalty minutes. That the strong skills he came in with somewhat surprising.
"For development, it was huge," he says. "I got lots of ice in Smiths Falls. It's a great organization. I would do it the same again [go to Junior A for his age-16 season] because of the development I was able to get there, while coming up to Kingston for a few games. That helped me feel that much more mature coming into the year."
1. Apart from the obvious such as building muscle, quickness and speed, what do you think scouts would say is the biggest skill you need to improve in order to be a successful pro?
"Everyone needs to get bigger and stronger, like you said. But in my own end, I'd like to improve, be more solid and stronger the puck and just defensively sound. I feel my game is more offensive so if I can just focus on my defensive skills things will come for me."
2. You are not the biggest guy, but it seems opponents do have "finish your check against No. 7" in their game plan. How do you push through that when teams are bumping you around almost every time you play the puck behind your own goal?
"As a younger guy, you're going to have bigger guys try to take you off your game. It's definitely a mental thing where you have to stay prepared and stay mentally tough. It's a big thing against the older guys to keep a level head. If you have to step up against them, then you have to do what you got to do."
3. What teammates have had the most impact on you?
"Some of the guys last year come to mind. We [Smiths Falls] had some older defencemen like Dustin Darou and Nate Livingstone that just took me under their wing. They showed confidence in me and kind of critiqued my game a little bit. This year, I find some of our older players are showing confidence in me again, obviously our leaders like [Kingston captain Cody] Alcock and [overage forward Conor] Stokes and [goalie Igor] Bobkov. They've shown me little tricks and definitely helped me confidence."
4. You've described yourself as a bit of a country boy. What do you like about going fishing?
"Just being outdoors fishing and hunting is the relaxing part. You're at the rink every day in the winter, so to go out on the pond or fishing and hunting with some friends, that really helps put my mind at ease ... I like pretty active fishing, like going for bass and pike."
5. During the season when you need to get your mind off hockey for a few hours or a day, what do you do to zone out for a while?
"The team has activities that we do. You spend so much time with these guys and you bond so well, but you almost need that alone time to reflect on the season and reflect on your play. I think it's just being at home relaxing. Maybe throwing on a movie or throwing on XBox. Playing NHL 12. Playing as yourself, even."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).