When a rookie defenceman instantly becomes his team's second-biggest blueliner, one might presume he's a project, a raw specimen who needs to grow into a big frame.
It is quite the contrary with Belleville Bulls first-round pick Justin Lemcke. During preseason, when the NHL training camp absences of Brady Austin and Jordan Subban meant ample opportunity to learn on the job, the 6-foot-2, 198-pound Lemcke showed that he has more than decent puck skills for a 16-year-old defenceman. That deft touch was developed well during a youth where Lemcke was an accomplished lacrosse player, who attracted serious interest from NCAA powerhouses.
"Hockey was the way to go," says Lemcke, whom the Bulls selected No. 18 overall in the OHL priority selection draft. "Going to school through lacrosse would have been cool as well but this way you get to play in the OHL and get an education after. I talked with some big D1 schools like Duke, Syracuse, but I always told them hockey's first. Once Belleville drafted me, this decision was easy.
"It [his lacrosse background] helps with seeing the ice and working on the hands in the off-season," adds Lemcke, who helped his Whitby Wildcats win the Ontario Minor Hockey Association minor midget title last season.
Austin, who is 20, is trying to win a spot in the AHL with the Buffalo Sabres organization. The Bulls already stand to be a fairly young club, but if Austin goes pro, there will be a lot of minutes available on the back end. It could be interesting to see how far Lemcke can climb on the depth chart by the end of the season.
"We certainly fully expect him to be a big part of our club," Bulls coach-GM George Burnett says. "He's been captain of his minor midget team, a leader, a guy who's really mature beyond what you would assume with a 16-year-old. He's handled himself well and the pace of everything seems to have improved with every game [during the preseason]. He thinks the game really well and now we just have to get everything happening a bit quicker."
Along with growing mentally, Lemcke might have a bit more to do physically. His father, Chris, a former University of Ottawa basketball player, stands 6-foot-7.
Speaking of big, Lemcke is eager to play home games on the OHL's only Olympic-size ice sheet. He believes it focuses the mind when it comes to tasks such as gap control and the first pass out of the defensive zone, which are staples for a reliable D-man.
"They talk a lot about skating, but it's seeing the ice," Justin Lemcke says. "There's more passing lanes out there, which makes it a lot easier."
1. Aside from the faster pace, what do you see as the biggest adjustment from minor hockey to major junior?
"Physicality, I think. Every time you make a pass, you have to have your feet moving. If your feet aren't moving, you're not going to be able to hit the guy and you're probably going to get hit, for sure."
2. What NHL defenceman do you watch just to get an idea of what it takes to be successful at that level?
"[The New York Rangers'] Dan Girardi makes simple plays in his end, makes the first pass, blocks shots and keeps it simple."
3. Is there any player or team in the OHL you are really looking forward to facing?
"Connor McDavid. I can't wait to play against him because his skillset is so good."
4. Hockey players need to practise strict nutrition, but you can tell us, what's your go-to cheat food?
"Probably Tuesday night popcorn when we don't have a game on Wednesday."
5. Favourite TV show or movie?
"A lot of Trailer Park Boys."
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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