November 09, 2011
The Guelph Storm's Matt Finn might not be his league's best-kept secret on the blueline for too much longer.
The Western Hockey League has its fantastic five of defencemen who could be selected in the first round of the NHL draft, but the OHL also has a good class of defenders. Finn's name probably isn't on the tip of as many tongues as some others in Ontario. It is hard to stay under the radar when a 17-year-old logs 20-plus minutes per night against the other team's top line and is also the youngest player who's among the league's top 10 in points by a defenceman.
By his own admission, Finn wasn't the buffest guy around as a rookie. That might have played a part in why he was left off Canada's summer under-18 team, a big item on a prospect's checklist.
"It kind of lit a fire under me," the graduate of the Toronto Marlboros minor hockey program says. "I obviously wanted to make the team and I obviously want to be the best player that I can. When you're told, 'sorry, not this time' that really gets me going. I always want to be that guy, the one who gets picked. It sucked for a couple of days, but then I said, 'forget about it, I'm going to do what I want to do' and I used that extra time to keep pushing to get ready for the season."
Finn had a solid yearling season with the Storm. At the end of the year, though, coach Scott Walker, the former NHL forward, bluntly told him he needed to be more dedicated to his conditioning. Finn took that to heart.
"His conditioning is 100 times better this season," says Walker, whose Storm are punching their weight in the OHL's Western Conference, off to an 8-5-1-2 start despite a young lineup. "If you can imagine a 16-year-old being out of shape, he was. I had my year-end meeting with him and I said, 'you can be a top 10 player or in the top seven rounds, you got to decide.' That's really ultimately on the player and, man, he went home and came back in phenomenal shape. I give full credit to him.
"I was talking to Hockey Canada people in the summer and they told me at the camp he was dead after every shift," adds Walker, an assistant coach for Canada's world junior team. "I was talking to them lately about Matt and they're like, 'wow, what a difference.' "
Finn, 6-foot and 197 pounds, doesn't possess exceptional size. He compensates for that with guile and savvy. Walker notes he's not "overly offensive," but Finn has four goals and 13 points in 14 games since his poise with the puck enables him to contribute on power plays.
"I think I'm a pretty solid two-way defenceman," says Finn, whose good start was slowed by a minor groin strain that kept him out of the Storm's games last weekend "I am able to do both, I'm not just a one-dimensional defenceman, I can jump up in the rush but I can also shut guys down."
The OHL's class of blueline prospects mostly revolves around two offensive defencemen in the East, Cody Ceci and Slater Koekkoek. The London Knights' Olli Määttä, Windsor Spitfres' Nick Ebert and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds' Gianluca Curcuruto came into the season viewed as the best in the West. While he was not tapped to play for Team OHL in this week's Subway Super Series, Finn certainly belongs in the conversation.
"I don't think he's talked about near enough," Walker says. "He's better than most of the ones that I've seen, if not better than most of the high-end guys I've heard are going in the first round.
"He's our stud, him and [18-year-old New York Islanders third-rounder Andrey] Pedan. But I think right now he's even a little bit ahead of Pedan."
"Hopefully take this team to the playoffs and see how far we can take it. As a young team, people don't put many expectations on us. They kind of throw us under the bus, 'they're young, it'll be better next year.' I want to prove naysayers wrong."
2. Whom in the NHL do you look at as sort of a role model, someone, you look at parts of his game and say, "I need to start doing that" or "I see a little of my game in his?"
"Definitely [Los Angeles Kings star] Drew Doughty and [Detroit Red Wing captain] Nick Lidstrom. Lidstrom, being the older guy, I've been watching him for years. Just his patience with the puck and his smarts in knowing when to jump up in the rush, when to stay back, when to contain, when to hit. All that stuff has really set in.
"With Doughty [who played for the Storm], it's his offensive flair. He really knows when to jump into the rush, how to create the offence as a defenceman. He was amazing at the Olympics. You could really learn a lot from guys like that."
3. When were you drafted by the Storm last year, you spoke about the example set for you by your grandfather, who immigrated from Italy. What can you say about him?
"His name was Ermino Santilli. He passed away last year, I think Nov. 25, so it's coming up to the one-year anniversary of his death. My parents each worked full-time jobs when I was younger so in the mornings I was always dropped off at his place, from kindergarten until Grade 6 I spent the majority of every day with him. I learned a lot of lessons from him when I look back at. He came over, as as a first-generation immigrant, with nothing, and started going to work, got into construction, put his boots on every day just to give his kids and grandkids a better life than he had. To me, it was really inspiring and I'm sure there's tonnes of stories like that within his generation. Just the hard work he would do every day. He always wanted to fix everything by himself. He made a great life for himself, his family, my brothers and me."
4. Outside of family, who has had the most impact on you in hockey?
"Two guys, probably. Growing up since I was about six until I was drafted into the OHL [at age 16] I was coached by the same coach, Dan Brown. We had a really good team [with the Toronto Marlboros]and we had 10, 12 guys drafted by the OHL teams, six-seven of whom have made it and are doing really well — me, [Storm teammate Scott] Kosmachuk, Scott Laughton on Oshawa, [Connor] Brown and [Matt] Pelech on Erie. He is unbelievable. Without him, we wouldn't be where we are. He knew what each of us needed.
"Obviously, my coach now, Scott Walker, is the other. With the experience in the NHL he has, he's unbelievable. For coming in fresh and coaching for the first time halfway through last year, he's done a fantastic job. I have everything good to say about him. It obviously shows when he's an assistant coach for Team Canada. He explains what has to be done in order to be a pro."
5. What is your favourite workout song?
"Probably Animals by Nickelback. (BTN, trying not to sound plaintive: You're not a huge Nickelback fan, are you?) "It's an I just like that song kind of thing."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).