For Lawson Crouse, the timing and tide is right.
The No. 5 overall pick in the Ontario Hockey League priority selection typically comes to a team which is hoping to make an incremental improvement on a modest result from the previous season. Crouse, the first wing selected last spring, is joining the Kingston Frontenacs right a point where they are expected to be an Eastern Conference challenger. The big-bodied forward with sneaky speed and good patience offensively, is joining a nucleus that includes the highly touted 17-year-old trio of centre Sam Bennett, defenceman Roland McKeown and wing Spencer Watson. Kingston played above-.500 hockey last season until the 68-game grind caught up to its youngsters after Jan. 1 and ultimately had to scramble to get into the playoffs.
"We're coming out of a rebuild year, so this is going to be an important year for the team," says Crouse, who hails from Mt. Brydges, Ont., near London. "We have to show others that we're in the league and it would be nice to keep the train rolling this year. Hopefully we play as a team and things keep going our way.
"Everything's just beginning for me," adds Crouse, who will report to coach Todd Gill's training camp at a strapping 6-foot-3 and 198 pounds. "I just have to keep working."
Crouse credits much of his progress to Dwayne Blais and Scott Jones, who helped buff out the rough edges in his game across the past three seasons at the PEAC School in London. His classmates and close friends, Travis Konecny and Mitchell Vande Sompel, also landed in the OHL's East Division with the Ottawa 67's and Oshawa Generals.
That investment seems to have paid off. Virtually any 16-year-old coming into major junior should still be considered a diamond in the rough, but HockeyProspect.com's OHL Draft Guide's report on Crouse said there should not be any "major concern" about his potential.
Crouse will enjoy a unique support system this season. By the time he was drafted by Kingston, his older sister Kyla Crouse was set on playing for the defending Ontario University Athletics champion Queen's Golden Gaels, while studying health sciences. It's a good setup for Lawson Crouse, whose parents Mike and Kristen would presumably put a lot more miles on the odometer if their offspring were in different cities.
"Between her, me and our older sister we're all pretty competitive," says Crouse, who will wear No. 67 in Kingston since his preferred 77 belongs to 19-year-old defenceman Warren Steele. "We've always had little competitions and jabs and pokes, here and there. So this year it will be nice having her here, it's like a comfort to us both. I'm going to try to get out to as many games of hers [as possible] and she's going to try to come to as many of mine as she can. I know our schedules are pretty busy, but we're going to do our best."
1. Your exhibition debut will be against your best friend, Travis Konecny, and the Ottawa 67's; what do you expect that to be like?
""This past week at the [Team Ontario] U17 camp was a glimpse of it. On the first shift he tried to take my head off, so I can probably expect that. Other than that, you have to treat it just like any other player. You're not friends on the ice.
"I'm also looking forward to playing Oshawa because my other best friend, Mitchell Vande Sompel, was drafted there [going No. 14 overall to the Generals]. He played for the [London Jr.] Knights last year and it was really fun going up against him [as a member of the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs]."
2. Where are you setting the bar for yourself as a rookie in the league?
"I want to do what I can to contribute to the team, I want to play game in and game out and prove to people that I deserve to be there and deserve to be the fifth overall pick. That's going to be the important thing for this year — getting comfortable with the league and hopefully being an impact player.
3. Which NHL player(s) do you watch because he, or they, have a style of play that you're trying to develop?
"I like to watch James Neal from the [Pittsburgh] Penguins. I feel we have a similar style of play — big power forward and can bury pucks. I feel like I have the same work ethic as he does. He's a player who I like to watch.
4. Outside of family, who is one person who comes to mind when you think of people who have helped you reach this point?
"I have to say all of my previous coaches and most importantly, Dwayne Blais. I've talked about him a lot. He's really helped me develop as a player... he is, I find one, a great power skating instructor and skills instructor to work with because he's really good with critical feedback and he's always making sure that you're getting better all the time [rather than plateauing]."
5. What is your favourite workout song?
"I have a bunch of my playlist. I like Enter Sandman [by Metallica], that really gets me going. That's probably one of my better tunes that gets me get jacked."
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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