One number hints at the strides Roland McKeown has made so far in his NHL draft season.
The Kingston Frontenacs' bright young defenceman leads the Ontario Hockey League in plus/minus at +23 after finishing his rookie year in the red at -24, which was excusable for a rookie logging 20-minute nights for an also young team. It's a signal that the Listowel, Ont., native is on course to stake his claim as a NHL first-round pick next June, which has been expected of him since the Frontenacs drafted him second overall out of minor hockey in 2012.
"The element where I've improved would be strength," says McKeown. "You could say I’m better defensively but I think that comes back to the strength that I’ve added. I’m able to get on the forwards a lot more and break up the ice quicker, because I'm stronger.
"You really realize, playing as a 16-year-old, what you need to work on to be successful."
The 17-year-old's potential suggests that he could, should preparation meet opportunity, be on a fast track to the next level. Of course, younger defencemen who are expected to make advanced decisions also that mishandle can be magnified and perhaps have a stickiness among learned hockey minds. In English, that means McKeown, an earnest, friendly type off the ice, is focused on showing his mind is keeping up with his impressive tools. At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds with top-notch speed, the latter are not in doubt.
"I want to keep working on my neutral zone play," says McKeown, whose father Neil was one general manager of the Listowel Cyclones Junior B team. "If you ask me, games are won and lost in there. Whether it’s making a pass to a forward who goes down and creates a chance or gapping up against the opposing forwards."
Kingston coach Todd Gill, who knows a little about having a long career on the blueline in the NHL, says McKeown has "cleaned up his work in his own zone by leaps and bounds from last year." A lot of the Fronts' flurries into the attacking zone start with McKeown making a sharp pass to put foes on the defensive. Kingston will often use McKeown, D partner Mikko Vainonen and star centre Sam Bennett's line in a true five-man unit, in the model of the 1990s Detroit Red Wings.
"He makes clean passes that other people that can’t make," says Gill, whose team is 9-3-1-2, good for third in the OHL's Eastern Conference. "He's just a very solid all-around defenceman for us ... I compare Roland to a Scott Niedermayer type of player. He's not going to crash and bang too much, but he’s going to do a lot things very well."
Gill notes that he has had to counsel McKeown not to take individual numbers to heart, as much as he wants to do well.
"He was more worried about his plus/minus last year," Gill says. "My message to him was, 'you’re 16, you’re playing against the other team’s top lines, you’re going to be a minus player by times.' Just keep working at it and getting better."
McKeown's skill set also includes running a power play. The fact the Frontenacs' are 17th in the 20-team OHL at converting with the extra skater(s) doesn't sit well with him. On Tuesday, though, he helped create the deciding goal in Kingston's 2-1 win at Ottawa, threading a low, rebound-inducing shot that created a sequence which ended with Spencer Watson scoring.
"I’ve been a little bit bothered that our power play isn’t where we want it to be," he says. "I take it a little bit personally as well. Even though it’s a five-man unit, there are people who’d like to turn it around. And I’m one of those guys."
1. What did you really take to heart from playing with two gold medal-winning under-18 teams in the spring and summer?
"I think I learned that winning is a true attitude and it’s so much fun. You really have to experience it to know what it’s like."
2. You've mentioned the Los Angeles Kings' Drew Doughty as a NHLer you really admire, but what other pros are you really watching closely?
"All these younger guys are coming into the league now and it’s fun to relate to guys like them. When there’s someone guys like Jacob Trouba and Morgan Rielly [teenage defencemen with the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs], those are the guys you look up to, to model your game after."
3. What is the biggest asset you bring to a team?
"I would say Boone Jenner [the former Oshawa Generals captain who is now a rookie with the Columbus Blue Jackets]. He was a horse out there. Every shift, every game, he was really going. He could affect a game in many ways — offensively, playing a gritty style, being out defensively in key situations. I would say Boone was the best player I’ve faced."
4. Where is your favourite road rink in the OHL?
"I’d say Sudbury [Community Arena]. Last year I liked that rink. It’s a good atmosphere, a good northern town."
5. Favourite place to eat in Kingston?
"Woodenheads — great pizza spot."
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.
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