Mitchell Vande Sompel is doing his part to erode the distinction between defencemen and forwards as hockey continues to evolve.
The Oshawa Generals defenceman's unique skillset has been utilized in many ways across his two Ontario Hockey League seasons, with coach D.J. Smith often using Vande Sompel as a forward on the penalty-killing unit. During the latest phase of the playoffs, Vande Sompel was even more versatile; due to injuries, he moved between the blue line and left wing while helping his team win the Eastern Conference and make the OHL final.
"The biggest thing for me with doing both is now I can better tell when certain forwards are going to make moves in certain situations," says Vande Sompel, who is NHL Central Scouting's No. 34-ranked North American skater. "A bunch of people have asked what I like to play more. I like the position, I'm able to play power play and 5-on-5 and move up on the penalty kill.
"D.J. has asked me to fill in certain roles and I've been open and welcome to that," adds Vande Sompel, who moonlighted up front during his final two seasons of minor hockey. "It's been fun for me for me, I've been all over the place. The only position I haven't played is goalie."
The 5-foot-10, 182-pound London, Ont., native has three goals and 12 points across 16 playoff games for Oshawa, which hosts the first two games of the final against the Erie Otters on Friday and Saturday. Vande Sompel, with 63 points in 58 regular-season games, was also the youngest of the four OHL defencemen who tallied more than a point per game.
"The improvement has been gradual but I think he's always been a very good player," Smith says. "I mean, he's a first-rounder, highly regarded. Some think he would have gone higher in the OHL [priority selection] draft as a forward. He makes great offensive plays as a defenceman. He's a great skater, he's a puck mover. By no stretch has Mitch come out of nowhere. He's' been a very good player at all points in his young career."
As a modestly sized blue liner, Vande Sompel is well-aware that he has to work to quell doubts about his reliability behind his blue line. He credits Smith, a former pro, for staying on him about his defending.
"The biggest thing I've worked on has been my defence," Vande Sompel says. "it wasn't much of a concern in minor hockey. The other thing has been skating. Once you come into the OHL you realize how fast the game is. It's also more of a thinking game for me, I'm not going to go into the corner and outmuscle somebody. I have to outsmart people."
1. As a '97-birthdate player on an older team, which teammate can you really credit for helping you adapt to the OHL?
"One guy who sticks out is [captain] Josh Brown. Not knowing him, I skated with him in London. He took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. He's tried to help me become better defensively and in my own zone. Playing with him has definitely rubbed off on me. He's been the biggest reason I've found success so far in this league."
2. Which NHL player(s) do you study closely?
"I try and watch [Ottawa Senators defenceman] Erik Karlsson, how he plays and pushes the pace and be the fourth guy in the rush. Drew Doughty is another, I try to watch all these offensive [defencemen] as much as I can, see what they do and implement that into my game."
3. Who is the most challenging forward you have faced in the OHL?
"I'd have to say — I haven't played [Connor] McDavid yet over the last two years — toughest guy to play against might be [Anaheim Ducks first-rounder] Nick Ritchie, just in playoffs last year. He's a big body and he hits hard and you know when he's out there."
4. How did the bond you formed in London with Kingston's Lawson Crouse and Ottawa's Travis Konecny (each anticipated NHL first-round choices) help you a competitive side?
"We always want to beat each other on the ice. Off the ice, we're supportive of each other and are best friends through thick and thin. We always look forward to seeing each other. Thankfully, it's been 6-8 times a year [with all three in the East Division]. It's really worked out well for us. We push each other."
5. What is the story behind wearing No. 58?
"Honestly, I had a few numbers I'd chosen and they were all taken. I wore 13 in minor hockey and five plus eight equals 13 and I also watched Kris Letang [who wears 58 for the Pittsburgh Penguins] while growing up."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.