Loren Ulett has cracked the Frontenacs lineup as a 19-year-old rookie (Mike Carroccetto for Yahoo! Canada Spor …Breaking in as a 19-year-old rookie inthe OHL is a rare feat, but doing it at a new position is rarer still.
The OHL's Kingston Frontenacs believe they have collected many of the ingredients essential to being a contender — namely, a bumper crop of 17-year-olds with the Sam Bennett-Roland McKeown-Spencer Watson trio and two capable imports in 19-year-old Finns imports Henri (Hank) Ikonen and Mikko Vainonen. Little did they another essential component, some toughness on the back end, might come from converted forward Loren Ulett.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Ulett's resumé as a rearguard was limited to some fill-in work with the Junior A Trenton Golden Hawks. Yet here is, holding down a D spot after being convinced to try his luck with Kingston as a 19-year-old rookie.
"In the summer [Kingston GM] Dougie [Gilmour] said that we had a kid who could come in and add some physical play," says Kingston coach Todd Gill. "I was kind of anxious to see him at camp. The first day, he was at forward. The second day we said, 'have you ever played D before?' and he said, 'ya, 22 games last year.' I thought he handled himself very well back there [in Kingston's exhibition opener on Tuesday]. He's a good skater, as tough as they come. That's something we were lacking and he's going to add that piece of the puzzle to the mix."
Ulett, from Port Perry, Ont., was in camp with the Peterborough Petes in 2012 and also got a look-see from the Windsor Spitfires one year prior. This was his last bid to get a foothold in major junior; he also had interest from the QMJHL's Rimouski Océanic and Gatineau Olympiques.
Ulett believes he might have been caught in a numbers game as an 18-year-old. The NHL lockout meant established juniors weren't away at big-league camps, which might led to OHL teams reducing their rosters to a more manageable number of players earlier than usual.
"I got a call this summer from [Kingston head scout] Jeff McKercher to see if I was interested," says Ulett, who turns 19 on Sunday. "I've always had an opportunity to go to the OHL, but I think this year I just capitalized. Last year when I went to Peterborough it was just a really tough go with the lockout and having everyone pushed down a bit [since veteran players weren't away at NHL camps]. That might have had a little bit to do with it. Also, my game has improved so much since then and that helps.
"It is kind of interesting how it's all come about," Ulett adds. "To come in playing a forward role and ending up playing D. I did play there last year, but it wasn't all at once. It was more sporadic."
Ulett tallied 13 goals, 26 points and 115 penalty minutes across 52 games last season with the Cobourg Cougars and Trenton. He built a strong bond in Trenton with his coach, former NHLer Jerome Dupont, which Ulett believes led to him blossoming.
"I had a really good season there. I played really aggressively while not making many mistakes, I'm really excited I'm here now. Earlier, I think I was high-risk/high-reward and now I'm lower-rish but hopefully still with the same reward."
Kingston's point percentage was above .500 through Jan. 1 last season before its relative inexperience caught up to it afte the calendar flipped to 2013. Gill notes the second half of the season also revealed a need to have more jam to complement the likes of Bennett and Watson. The OHL's fight limit also means a team needs a handful of players who can hold opponents accountable without necessarily doffing the gloves. This off-season, Kingston beefed up front by adding 6-foot-3, 200-pound first-rounder Lawson Crouse and 6-foot, 194-pound Conor McGlynn, who had been committed to Boston College.
"Last year, I thought at times our 16-year-olds were taken advantage of, not in the sense of fighting, but in terms of physical play," Gill says. "Now we've added McGlynn, Crouse, Ulett — a lot of guys with a lot more size. We can be the team that goes out to hit instead of the one
"You can't beat him to the outside," Gill adds in praise of Ulett. "He's pretty good in his own end as far as a guy who's never really played there and I think he's only going to get better as the year goes on."
It's early yet, but as far as the first exhibition game was concerned, Ulett looked at home at the blueline.
"It's pretty good — as long as I'm doing well," he says.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.