Joshua Burnside is a quick study on top of being fleet afoot.
In 12 months, the speedy left wing has gone from playing midget AAA hockey to being on the first line with the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads. Burnside's work as a strong two-way player with a high motor has made him a strong candidate to be a middle-rounds pick in the next NHL draft (he is modestly sized at 5-foot-11 and 176 pounds), but he's aware this has come on suddenly.
"I just have to keep it out my head, just for now," the Brampton, Ont., native says of being NHL Central Scouting's 20th-ranked OHL skater for the 2013 draft. "It's still early in the season and I still have a long way to go."
Burnside, who has 18 points in 30 games while playing mostly with 20-year-old centre Riley Brace and 19-year-old right wing Dylan Smoskowitz. His breakout really started last season, when the former 122nd overall choice in the OHL priority selection draft got into games with Mississauga as a late-season call-up. Burnside was only 145 pounds at the time he was drafted in April 2011, but has since had a growth spurt.
"The 13 games I played last year gave me a boost to work harder in the summer and know I can make the team this year," he says. "I really worked hard. I was eating a lot, the same things, but just more."
It's fair to say Mississauga did not anticipate how quickly Burnside would become a top-six player. On top of being a later bloomer physically, he also played defence for the Toronto Red Wings midgets during his OHL draft season.
"At his first training camp the thing that stuck out about Josh was that he was very, very slight, but man, could he skate," Steelheads coach-GM James Boyd recalls. "He went back to play midget. Just before Christmas, our scouting staff said, 'you'd better watch Burnside. He's playing forward and he's playing really well.' We started to track him a bit more closely. We ended up bringing him in as an affiliate player when we had injuries. Then he joined us full-time and ended up playing for us in the playoffs at 145 pounds or whatever he was at the time.
"He's effective defensively, he's got a good head for the game and veers on the side of caution," Boyd adds. "His real strength is in his defensive play. He has the positional savvy but he also has the speed to get back and catch guys. He is managing to score. If he continues to progress, the sky's the limit for Josh.
Burnside, whose parents Marjorie and Micheal grew up in Jamaica before immigrating to Canada as teens, got first skated on wheels instead of blades.
"Me and my brother [Matthew] used to roller-skate together a lot, every day down at the basement," he says. "I got really good at so my mom put me in skating classes and as soon as I stepped on the ice I was really good."
The Steelheads (17-11-0-2, fifth in the OHL's Eastern Conference) are having a fairly successful season. Boyd notes Burnside, being a young player, is "quiet as a church mouse" around the team. The youngster is very family-oriented. A rare non-gameday Friday might find him, his parents and older siblings Matthew and Mechelle going tooth-and-nail over a board game.
"We've very competitive," Joshua Burnside says. "We might play maybe some Monopoly or some cards. There's a game called Spoons. They would do anything to grab a spoon, doesn't matter who they were grabbing it from."
1. What is one skill you really want to show improvement at as you get closer to the draft?
"My shot. I need to get a lot stronger and be able to put the puck on the net a lot harder."
2. You have to play your own game, but whom in the NHL do you really look at for tips on to be the type of player you'll have to be to get there?
"Jarome Iginla, because he's a power forward. He's very strong in the corners and can put pucks in the net. Also Dustin Byfuglien, because he can play D and forward like I can."
3. There was a recent article about Seth Jones perhaps being the first black player selected first overall in the draft. What do you think that would do for hockey if Jones went No. 1 or even No. 2 in the draft?
"I think that would be big because it would show a lot of black people that you can really do it. I guess a lot of little kids would want to join into hockey."
4. What teammates do you credit for being influential for you?
"Riley Brace, Stuart Percy and Dylan DeMelo, the vets of the team. They've come up and talked to me about what I have to do."
5. If hockey had never existed, what sport do you think you would be playing?
"I played a lot of sports in elementary school. I think volleyball, probably basketball, one of those two."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet .