To say Nathan Bastian was flying under the radar heading into his season with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads would be an understatement.
Nearly all of the talk when it came to major junior hockey in the Toronto suburb centred around three other 2016 NHL draft-eligible players.
There was Alexander Nylander, the future Swedish world junior star who is the son of former NHLer Michael Nylander (also the Steelheads assistant coach) and brother of highly renowned Toronto Maple Leafs prospect William Nylander.
There was Mike McLeod, like Nylander quickly earning top-10 draft consideration. (McLeod’s younger brother, Ryan, also joined the Steelheads via trade in September after refusing to report to the Flint Firebirds following the 2015 OHL draft.)
And then there was Sean Day, the exceptional status defenceman who wasn’t selected to Canada’s under-18 Ivan Hlinka team and was receiving mixed reviews.
When Bastian’s name was mentioned it was in relative whispers. Now the chatter is getting louder.
“It’s a lot more fun moving up (the draft rankings) and getting better every game,” said the 18-year-old winger. “That’s how I’ve been my whole hockey career.”
Thanks to an impressive first half of the season where he’s averaged nearly a point per game, Bastian is gaining first-round consideration for the NHL draft in June.
He was included on the rosters for the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, which goes Thursday in Vancouver, along with his three Steelheads teammates. Bastian will skate with Nylander on Team Orr, while McLeod and Day face off against them with Team Cherry.
The game features the CHL’s top 40 draft-eligible prospects (injured Vancouver Giants star Tyler Benson who has been replaced by teammate Ty Ronning).
Like all of them, Bastian aspires to the NHL – and he’s especially motivated.
“His character will allow him to get there,” Steelheads assistant coach James Richmond said. “He wants it so bad.
“He’s going to have to work on different parts of his game. He’s going to have to get stronger physically. He’s going to have to improve his skating. He’s going to have to improve all facets of his game to be a pro. But he wants it. So his character will push him above some of those other guys.”
Bastian, a Kitchener native, was selected in the seventh round (127th overall) of the 2013 OHL draft and managed to play 21 games with Mississauga as a rookie. He improved to 17 goals and 29 points in 68 games in 2014-15.
The December 1997-born forward is on pace to shatter those numbers this season. He has scored 13 times and recorded 43 points in 44 games.
When he’s not at the rink, Bastian is constantly watching NHL or OHL games. “That’s what’s making him better now,” Richmond said. “He’s learning how and when to make certain plays.”
The turning point for Bastian this season came in November when he was moved to a line with Nylander and McLeod, replacing Steelheads captain Josh Burnside.
The line has carried the Mississauga attack – a rarity for a trio of draft-eligible players in the CHL.
“We all contribute in our own ways,” Bastian said. “Mikey’s one of the best centremen in the whole league. He’s fast and he’s good on draws. Alex, if you get him the puck, he’s probably going to put it in the back of the net. I’m good defensively and good along the wall in my own end.
“When we’re all working together and playing well it’s pretty obvious that we’re having a lot of fun out there.”
Bastian is the perfect sidekick for the scoring duo of Nylander and McLeod.
“He’s the muscle for those two big guys,” Richmond said of Bastian, a 6-foot-4, 208-pound forward.
That’s the way Future Considerations Hockey director of scouting Dan Stewart sees it, too.
“I really like the game that Bastian plays as he is that big, imposing winger that can complement skilled linemates well,” Stewart wrote in an e-mail. “Some are bred to play the piano and some are bred to move it. On that Steelheads top line with Nylander and McLeod, he is the piano mover.”
Stewart’s group has Bastian rated as the 34thoverall prospect for the NHL draft, just outside the first round.
That’s comparable with NHL Central Scouting’s assessment, where he’s 19th among North American skaters, making him a bubble first-rounder.
International Scouting Services has Bastian at 23rd overall in their most recent rankings.
Stewart counts Bastian’s offensive skills around the net, penalty-killing acumen and the decisions he makes on the ice as strengths. Becoming more reliable from shift to shift will only help his chances of reaching the NHL.
“If he works on adding more strength and being more consistent in his efforts, he could be a real solid addition to an NHL roster a few seasons down the road,” Stewart wrote.
Bastian isn’t the only one who could be there down the road.
In addition to the big four 2016 draft-eligible prospects, defenceman Austin Osmanski is up for consideration in June. Forward Owen Tippett and defenceman Nicolas Hague are touted for 2017. Ryan McLeod’s draft year is 2018.
So Bastian will have to continue to share the spotlight in the future as the Steelheads – currently 23-21-4 – continue to grow. That suits him fine.
“We’ve proved we can beat all the best teams in the league,” he said. “You don’t want to look too far into the future, but it looks pretty promising.”
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