Erie Otters' Nick Betz, Alex DeBrincat eager to spread wings as Connor McDavid recovers

DeBrincat, who was in U18 hockey last season, leads the OHL in goals (OHL Images)
DeBrincat, who was in U18 hockey last season, leads the OHL in goals (OHL Images)

Not just anyone can put up points while playing with Connor McDavid.

It's understandable that anyone scanning OHL stats would believe that Nick Betz and Alex DeBrincat, a free-agent signing, owe their success greatly to flanking the injured Erie Otters superstar. There's no pretending that their numbers aren't sprinkled with McDavid magicl, but it's only fair to aver that the undrafted 19-year-old Bet and the 16-year-old DeBrincat, whom Erie signed as a free agent in the summer, are unique complements to Erie's No. 1 centre. Both Betz and DeBrincat were threatening throughout the game on Wednesday when Erie earned its first points since McDavid's injury with a 4-3 shootout decision over the Plymouth Whalers and Team USA goaltending hopeful Alex Nedeljkovic..

"Both of them possess a certain amount of skill — DeBrincat a little more than Betz," Erie coach Kris Knoblauch said in a recent interview.  "I think the two of them work so hard at creating turnovers, which complements Connor because obviously he's so gifted when he gets the puck. The two of them, especially Betz, are good at creating turnovers. Certainly, a lot of recognition should be directed at them.

With Nick, you've got a pretty good skater who's got a long reach. He puts his stick on pucks and creates those turnovers. Alex is smart about getting in the forecheck and knowing his position, he knows where to be.

"It's a nice story in how they came out of nowhere," adds Knoblauch, whose team is second overall in the OHL with an .833 point percentage after 21 games, trailing the Oshawa Generals (.875 after 20). "One was playing minor hockey last year and the other has been on the fourth line and they've both made the most of it."

The 19-year-old Betz, who's 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, has been a full-time OHLer since age 16 but was typically a depth player. He went into the off-season without a NHL camp invite and modest numbers (14 goals, 44 points across 171 games). The Mt. Clemens, Mich., native got into the gym, focused on building more corner strength

"Not going to a NHL camp, that's something that made me work," said Betz, who has 10 goals and 25 points over 16 games. "I knew I was going into my fourth year and I knew I had to change. The work is paying off.

 Betz said the onus was on him to produce as a 19-year-old this season (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)
Betz said the onus was on him to produce as a 19-year-old this season (Terry Wilson, OHL Images)

"There was a wake-up call and an opportunity all in one," Betz added. "I knew I had a chance to play with Connor this year after [2013-14 OHL player of the year] Connor Brown moved up to the AHL. Our coaches kept touch me in the summer, showing a lot of confidence in me."

DeBrincat, a Farmington Hills, Mich., native, is fourth in OHL scoring with 21 goals and 36 points over 21 games. He was convinced to sign on with the Otters in the summer after managing partner Sherry Bassin happened across him while scouting another player during a game in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. At a listed 5-7 and 160 pounds, DeBrincat is perpetually bent on overcoming doubters, real or imagined.

"I have to prove to people that I can actually play with my size," said DeBrincat, who turns 17 a week before Christmas, making him NHL draft-eligible in 2016. "I try to act bigger than I actually am. It can come back hurt to me, but it's from wanting to prove to people that I can play. It helps my motivation.

"This summer, I spent every day in the gym. I had to get a lot stronger and still skate enough to keep from losing my touch on the ice."

DeBrincat initally committed verbally to UMass-Amherst and took a patient approach to his progress, plyaing under-18 AAA-calibre hockey last season. However, he said Bassin was able to win over both him and his parents, David and Tracey.

"I was in Sault Ste. Marie, playing against Frankie Pucci whom the Otters drafted," DeBrincat explained. "Sherry [Bassin] was actually looking at him and saw me. We talked after the game and he sounded interested. Personally, I've always wanted to go the OHL route but my parents, they really weren't sure. The way everything worked out, they were fine with it."

Betz's big frame and DeBrincat's knack for flitting around the offensive zone to find gaps in coverage are big contributors to McDavid having 51 points over 18 games, still six more than fellow 17-year-old super-prospect Dylan Strome. Betz maintains it's not that hard to read off McDavid.

"Connor plays with a lot of tempo, a lot of speed, I go into the corners and open up space with him. We do a lot of give-and-goes," Betz said. "Alex DeBrincat, he's a playmaker with some grit, he's slippery. He'll get open and make the nice play.

"As a team, everyone's opting in and we're having success," added Betz, who had the only conversion of the shootout in Erie's win over Plymouth..

"He can obviously get the puck to you whenver," DeBrincat said in reference to McDavid. "You just got to be ready."

Some wondered whether Erie would have tear down and re-assemble its roster after losing Brown, 65-goal scorer Dane Fox and NHL first-rounders Andre Burakovsky and Brendan Gaunce to the pros. Yet, at least prior to McDavid going down, they've remained an offensive machine.

"We had most of our defence and centres back, but we were missing a lot of our wingers and a lot of our goals, almost 80 per cent of our goal scorers," Knoblauch says. "Every team goes through that, but 80 per cent is quite high."

The Otters were already braced for the reality that they would lose McDavid for about a month during the world junior championship. Team Canada's selection camp begins Dec. 11 and the WJC ends on Jan. 5. Ultimately, the entire Erie team has something to prove for next stretch of the season until No. 97 is no longer among the scratches.

"We have the team where the guys are going to step up and maybe everyone will take on difrferent roles," DeBrincat said. "I think we have the team where we can battle through this."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.