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Ottawa 67′s Travis Konecny, OHL’s No. 1 pick, is game’s No. 1 star in debut

Travis Konecny (left) celebrates after earning his first OHL point on Friday (Mike Carroccetto photo)

So overagers can be taught new tricks. Outside the dressing rooms at Canadian Tire Centre on Friday night — junior hockey's equivalent to the spin zone in politics — the talk was about how Travis Konecny made heads spin, not the two assists he actually notched in his OHL debut.

Earlier this week, Belleville Bulls overage defenceman Brady Austin was in the Buffalo Sabres training camp, skating against seasoned pros. Then one of the Ontario Hockey League's most respected defenders ended up being the foil for the Konecny hype. In the third period, after Konecny had helped spark that eventually led to a 5-4 Ottawa win, the 16-year-old turned a player four years his senior inside-out with a toe-drag that unloosed a collective gasp from much of the crowd of 12,379. The move took Konecny off course just enough that he had to try a circus shot, a spinning 180-degree backhand. The puck ricocheted off his skate before reaching Belleville goalie Charlie Graham, but a figure skating judge would have given it at least a 5.9.

"Right out of the gate," marvelled 67's centre Joseph Blandisi, the winning goal scorer. "Austin's an older guy and, 16 years old, he pulls that on him.

"We're definitely excited to see what he can do this year but for us," Blandisi added. "We've been watching it every practice so it's almost not even a surprise anymore."

Nearly everyone else was seeing Konecny, whom Ottawa took No. 1 overall in the OHL priority selection draft ahead of 15-year-old defenceman Sean Day and others, in meaningful game action for the first time. It might not be too long before such virtuoso vignettes become accepted as routine, the way it does with can't-miss teenagers. How about by the end of his second game?

"I guess I just got a little confidence as the game went on, and I guess I just decided to pull something," said Konency, who notched two primary assists in his debut. "It felt good to get my feet wet and get the first win out of the way. There's a good chemistry on the team right now. I'm just one part of it."

For sake of posterity, it should be noted that Konecny blew a tire whilst trying to accelerate out of his own zone on his first shift as an OHLer. On his second time out, with the 67's in an early 2-0 hole, he blazed down the left wing and dished the puck cross-crease just beyond Graham's reach to Sam Studnicka for an important response goal.

Belleville was up two again in the third when Konecny, on a power play, played keepaway in the high slot while getting away from Bulls veteran Garrett Hooey. He looked off the defenders, carving out a slew of time for Fielding to make a read after taking a pass while standing along the goal line. That was rewarded when Fielding's cross-crease pass caromed in off a defender to pare the score to 4-3. On his next shift, Konecny raced back on defence to steal the puck, which led to Belleville's Chad Heffernan chopping him down, sparking a skirmish. Ottawa tied the game on the ensuing power play.

That offered a reminder of what the 67's believe they have for the next two of the years: a speedmeister with safecracker sleight-of-hand who also plays with an edge. Ironically, that's already reflected by how teams are targeting the young star. In the preseason, 67's defenceman Jonathan Duchesne and coach-GM Chris Byrne were each tagged with two-game suspensions after Duchesne, while avenging a liberty taken with Konecny, got into an altercation while coming on to the ice to start a shift.

"Travis is still a young player," said Byrne. "We're not feeding him too many minutes, or too many situations where he's up against guys who are a lot older. I think with Travis, it will just be a situation where he outgrows the ice time he's getting now and moves into more and more ice. We're not going to put him into situations where he's not likely to do well.

"Guys are obviously knowledgeable about who he is and what he's going to mean to our team in the future," added Byrne. "We have to help him out on the ice but obviously be smart about it."

Comparable with MacKinnon?

The question to be answered over the next year or two will be how high Konecny's ceiling reaches. The Erie Otters' Connor McDavid is the head-and-shoulders consensus top pick in 2015. There is also Mathew Barzal out west with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Konency, sleek and built low to the ice at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, is going to make a case for himself.

As a sixth-round choice of the Colorado Avalanche, Blandisi skated with reigning Memorial Cup MVP Nathan MacKinnon before returning to junior to skate with Konecny. Blandisi will gladly put the NHL and OHL's No. 1 overall picks in the same sentence.

"Their personalities are very similar," Blandisi, 19, says. "They're not cocky at all, they just come to work every day. Konecny, he puts me in awe, even in practice every day. He could definitely succeed like MacKinnon. He comes every day and he does something different and does something special. Puck skills, smarts, his work ethic — he always wants to go the gym. He's not satisfied with where he is. He's always asking me questions about everything. It's good to see and it's exciting to have a teammate like that.

"He'll ask me about camp and how did it feel when I was drafted. All of the things he's looking forward to."

There's no certainty if a collaboration with star Sean Monahan is in the offing for Konecny. Monahan, the NHL's No. 6 overall pick, is vying to stay up with the Calgary Flames. Should he return to the 67's, even if only for a few weeks before playing out his OHL string with a contender, there is the possibility of Konecny teaming up with his fellow member of the High Hockey IQ club.

"That would be a honour, to play with Sean Monahan," Konecny said. "I'm not too worried about if he comes back because that would be great to play with him."

All in all, not a bad start. Even that wipeout on his first shift seemed apropos.

"It felt good," Konecny laughed. "I embarrassed myself and I just moved on."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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