Chris Bigras' head for the game is putting him ahead of the game.
Nearly a year ago, the Owen Sound Attack felt safe and secure in trading two older defencemen with the expectation Bigras would be ready for a major role in his sophomore season. It is paying off. The 17-year-old has emerged as a main cog on the blueline on a contending team. The 6-foot-1, 189-pound Bigras' all-around game led to him being the OHL's 10th-ranked skater when NHL Central Scouting released its preliminary rankings last month.
"The coaches have put a lot of trust in me and I've been learning a lot from [his defence partner] Nathan Chiarlitti, who came here from Sarnia," says Bigras, who scored Wednesday when the Attack eked out a tense shootout win over the Plymouth Whalers. "[How the season has gone has] definitely exceeded my expectations so far."
The native of Elmvale, Ont. — same hometown as Garrett Wilson, who captained the Attack's 2011 OHL championship team — began his season by helping Canada win the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament in August. Bigras is also getting it done at each end of the rink. He leads the Attack defencemen in scoring with 20 points in 30 games (also fourth on the team) and his +20 plus/minus rating is fourth among defenders. If he plays like a veteran, well, he has the vets to thank for it.
"Chiarlitti has been great to play with and [Attack captain] Keevin Cutting's really helped me out, especially last year," Bigras says. "Having a great goaltender, [Team Canada hopeful] Jordan Binnington, has been huge for my confidence on the defensive end. He's always talking to you back there and letting you know what's behind you."
Defenceman of Bigras' ilk who move the puck wisely — and well — and play a solid positional game often make very good second-round NHL picks. Bigras notes he has to be "stronger in front of the net," no doubt to show he's physically up to the rigours of the NHL. At the junior level, the former second-round pick has been a find for Attack general manager Dale DeGray and coach Greg Ireland, who increasingly gave Bigras more and more rope as a rookie.
"They told me had seen some good things," Bigras recalls of his season-end exit meeting. "I was expecting they would put more trust and responsibilities on them."
Bigras was the Attack's scholastic player of the year last season; his current course load in Grade 12 includes biology, chemistry and advanced functions (a pre-requisite for calculus). His intellectual curiosity goes beyond the periodic table and the quadratic equation, though.
"I'm trying to learn guitar," he says. "I'm thinking about lessons with a couple of the guys. A couple of my uncles play and it's something that interests me."
1. You have to play your own game, but when the NHL is playing, whom do you watch closely because he plays a style that is close to what you hope to play?
"I used to watch [retired Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas] Lidstrom all the time. He was just so good in his own end. His positioning and his use of his stick was always so perfect."
2. In your mind, what would scouts say is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and when you'll be on the cusp of turning pro?
"I just want to show that I'm consistent. I can do what I'm best at night-in, night-out over a full season ... Being stronger in front of the net is something I want to work on."
3. You were the Attack's scholastic player of the year last season. Where does the drive come from to emphasize schoolwork?
"It's certainly important. In this day and age with concussions, you can never not have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. You never hope for that, but you have to be have something there."
4. Outside of your parents and family, who is one person you really credit for helping you get this far in hockey?
"One of my coaches in the springtime down in Brantford (Ont.), Dalton McDole ... he just really taught work ethic and keeping yourself and your teammates accountable."
5. Hockey players have to be really strict with nutrition. So what is your guilty pleasure, like your favourite unhealthy snack?
"Guilty pleasure? Cookies. Homemade chocolate chip cookies. My mom [Heidi Bigras] makes pretty good ones."