Kingston Frontenacs’ Ryan Kujawinski could become ‘face of the franchise’
It's only taken two months to confirm the first letter in K-Rock Centre could stand for Kujo.
True, it sounds like hyperbole to talk like that about Ryan Kujawinski, who's worn Kingston Frontenacs black and gold for all of two months and will not even turn 17 for another two weeks. In junior hockey, though, buying and selling hope happens at a faster pace than in the big leagues.
One also has to consider the centre who was the main return in January's Ryan Spooner trade with the Sarnia Sting is also the only 16-year-old in the OHL who has averaged a point a game since New Year's Day. Then there's the fact he's doing it during the first year of the coach-GM tandem of former Toronto Maple Leafs Todd Gill and Doug Gilmour's reboot of the franchise. If any player can leads them out of the wilderness, it's the big kid with soft hands from up north.
"He's an unbelievable skater, he's a big man, he's at least 6-1, 190 pounds at 16 years of age, he gets around the ice very, very well, he's a great passer and has a bomb of a shot," is how Gill describes Kujawinski, who hails from Iroquois Falls, Ont., a 4 1/2-hour drive north of Sudbury. "He has it all. When he matures into that body, he's going to be a scary individual to watch on the ice. I see him as a future star, not only in this league, but in the NHL.
"I believe he's one of those guys, he'll be the face of the franchise," Gill adds. "It's tough for me, I have a 16-year-old son at home and there's no way I would expect him to come in and lead a team at this level. For a kid of Ryan's age, way above his maturity level, he's not afraid of the pressure. He wants to be out there, wants to learn. He's just one of those natural leaders who allows his talent to lead for him."
Kujawinski, of course, was no secret. He was chosen fourth overall by the Sting last spring before he was sacrificed in the deal for the now 20-year-old Spooner, whom he's had only five fewer points than since the trade. He was obscured during his time in Sarnia by a knee ailment and by a surfeit of veteran players. Now he's the one saying words that might be music to the ears to the few, the proud, the Fronts' core fans.
"We can't say that we're going to do it, we have to do it next year and we have to be a winning team," he says when asked about the possibility of the Frontenacs contending soon. "We can't just stand around saying we're going to be a winning team. We have to show it."
Even if he doesn't say so, Kujawinski, one of a dozen Frontenacs born in 1994 and '95 who have grown together during a rebuilding season, probably knows his team is working to re- connect with their city and wider hockey circles. The Frontenacs are averaging 2,546 announced attendance in the 5,700-seat K-Rock Centre, a great building in need of an amped-up atmosphere. Kujawinski's early impact has started a groundswell of support.
"He's all I hear about when I talk about the team," says The Score's Chris Lund, who's worked for the Frontenacs. "He's really giving people a reason to watch them."
It's been a while since the Fronts had a 16-year-old scorer who was so worth getting excited over. Current Florida Panthers rookie Erik Gudbranson's upside was evident from the moment he was drafted in 2008, but the dynamic is different with a shutdown defenceman. Brothers Anthony Stewart and Chris Stewart became NHL first-round picks during their time in the Limestone City. Anthony Stewart had 43 points in 65 games during his age-16 season, while his brother didn't join the team until he was 17.
As so often happens, playing for Team Ontario in the world under-17 challenge gave Kujawinski a springboard into the second half, especially since he was getting back into condition after hurting his knee. After the trade, he soon developed a synergy with Billy Jenkins, who was picked up from the Niagara IceDogs, and 18-year-old Trevor Morbeck, who arrived via a deal with Sault Ste. Marie.
Since then, he's been one of the most productive 16-year-olds in the entire country, and the only one doing so for a non-playoff team. The other three 1995-birth players who have scored a point per game since Jan. 1 all have considerably more hype.
"It's just felt good from the start," Kujawinski says. "The first game went well, My line played well. I played with [Billy] Jenkins that game, but later on we found chemistry with Jenkins, me, and Trevor Morbeck."
Ask him about Gill's impact and he quickly points out how the ex-NHL defenceman is helping with the rough spots in his game.
"He [Gill] has shown a lot of confidence in me and the rest of the young guys. Offensively, he kind of lets us do our thing, but defensively is where I have to improve my game. We both know that and that's where he's keying on me. That's what is making me a better player."
Willing to ask for help
It was obvious knew Kujawinski could play. The revelation is that's he's a sponge for coaching.
"He's one of the few kids who will come to me and say, 'Giller, this isn't working, what do I have to do?' " Gill says. "I love that. One thing he has to understand is teams are start going to focus on him and he's not going to be able to freewheel. You got to learn to play this game more than one way and he's going to to learn that."
Since last spring, when GM Gilmour selected Max Domi and flipped him to the London Knights for a package of picks, the Fronts have been stockpiling building blocks. Along with a dozen young players, Kingston holds four top-25 picks in next month's OHL priority selection draft, including the Nos. 2 and 9 selections. This season has been a nice modest start, with Kingston arguably exceeding expectations by going 19-40-3-4 with a young team in front of Anaheim Ducks goaltending prospect Igor Bobkov, who is moving on.
"There's obviously a lot of talk about it [contending]," Kujawinski says. "Of course, we have to still work hard and listen to Todd and learn the systems. We have a hard-working group and some skill. We have size, too. We just have to grow together and hopefully it pays off for us."
Drive comes from dad
Kujawinski comes by his drive honestly. To many in northern Ontario, his last name doesn't evoke hockey but fastball. His father, Frank Kujawinski, is an accomplished fastball pitcher. Ryan says he learned a lot from watching his dad, still playing competitively at age 48, dig in against opposing batters.
"I obviously get the competitive edge from him and it's helped me battle through slumps and stay positive. That helped me a lot. Even if a guy hit a home run off him, he'd always go back and try to finish up strong."
The Frontenacs have taken their lumps, but they've had their a-ha moments in the second half, including road wins over two of the division leaders, London and Ottawa. The casual fan might not see a reason to fork out to watch them yet, but that could change if most of the rookies this year take another step next season.
"Your second year, you feel you belong, you've paid your dues now," Gill says. "Just the mentality of it makes you a better player. I think we can say we beat expectations even though we've lost a lot this year."
Meantime, Kujawinski knows the off-season before his NHL draft year is be vital for him. He will spend the summer back in Iroquois Falls, sweating through workouts with his trainer, Hervé Leroux, and best friend, Sudbury Wolves left wing Brody Silk.
"I'm excited to do it," he says. "All I'm going to do this summer is focus on hockey and training really hard. We're going to have to push ourselves. It's Brody's draft year, too, so we'll have to work that much harder."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.