Players chosen in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League’s Priority Selection are generally more scrutinized than those taken after them. For the most part, there is an expectation that this player will impact your team right away. They will step in as a 15 or 16-year-old and find ways to help their team win.
Last years group of 20 players drafted in the first round combined for 217 goals and 562 points in their first trip through a 68 game OHL schedule. Seven of those registered 14 goals or more and 13 of those players contributed at least 20 points.
With numbers like those it is easy to see why fans do not assume there will be the same kind of learning curve for "said player" compared to his peers.
But for Pacey Schlueting of the North Bay Battalion, it wasn’t about the numbers in this first season. As a young defenceman, the team was looking to put him into positions where they thought he could exceed, gain some confidence and work his way into more playing time along with some bigger responsibilities.
There will be plenty of opportunities for him to continue to do so as the Battalion will be without three players who had played a ton of minutes on the back end.
Theo Calvas has graduated and both Zack Malik and David Maier are moving on. That leaves some room for Schlueting to take hold of at least a top-four defensive spot and make it his too lose this season.
“Pacey is a first-round pick so expectations come with it," Adam Dennis, Battalion assistant coach said.
"Having said that, defencemen take time to develop. Going into his second year, the opportunity will expand and hopefully, he can take advantage of it.”
Drafted ninth overall by the Battalion in 2018, Schlueting appeared in 60 games in his first season in the OHL and every time he stepped on the ice, he took it as a learning experience.
“At the start of last year, I learned quickly that I have to be more physical than I’d ever been before. I was playing against bigger guys and it was really good for me to get some playing time and learning against experienced guys in practice like Justin Brazeau, Matt Struthers, and Brad Chenier.”
That trio of players exemplifies the idea that if you put the work in, you will continue to improve. Each of those players had a better season than their previous one, with Brazeau finishing his overage year with a franchise record-setting 61 goals, and Chenier and Struthers are coming back for their overage seasons for the 2019-20 campaign.
“Those guys got better every season and that’s what I’m looking to do, I’m looking to take what I learned last year into this season, continue to work hard this off-season and come back and have a stronger year.”
Schlueting has approached his summer as if there really has been no off-season.
“I work out four days a week, so I go to the gym in the morning, have a workout there, and then a couple of days a week I get on the ice and do some high-speed skills drills and battle drills where the focus is to get better at one-on-one battles down low. I’m also working on stick handling and different high tempo stuff just to have better control of the puck.”
His coaches behind the bench in North Bay are looking for him to reach another gear this season and Coach Adam Dennis says they like what they are seeing so far.
“Like any young player in our league, Pacey is putting in the work this summer and the hope is he can take a step and play a bigger role.”
It’s a commitment to getting better that Schlueting is forcing himself to keep due to his high aspirations this year.
“I want to get drafted. I want to put myself in the best possible position to get that call,” Schlueting says about getting drafted.
However, Schlueting is not giving in to the idea that it’s all or nothing next June when the National Hockey League will hold its annual NHL entry draft.
“I don’t want to get passed over, but it isn’t the end of the world," he said.
"Brazeau had four years to prove himself and he applied himself and got rewarded with a contract. So even if it doesn’t happen you still have a couple of years to prove yourself and earn your own contract. But for this year that’s the ultimate goal. Getting drafted is what I’m aiming for.”
From talking to Schlueting, it seems as if he has done his homework on what the scouts are looking for in a defenceman.
“Making the right plays, getting it to the right guys' stick and doing that quickly and then getting into the rush; that’s the way most guys like to play," said the former North Bay AAA Trappers blueliner.
"They are good defensively, but if you move the puck up quickly, you’re playing offense more often and you don’t have to constantly be defending. It’s one of the things I really noticed and when you are defending, you have to be so physical because all the guys are big and strong and with me being in the youngest group this year, everyone knew how to be hard on the puck and that’s what I have to do. Not let up and continue to be hard on the puck.”
To this point, Schlueting has enjoyed being a hometown drafted player.
“The fan reception has been pretty good. It’s really nice to be able to see my family all the time and I really enjoy playing in my hometown rink. I’ve grown up in that rink. Everything has been very positive so far.”
It’s the second time this franchise has chosen someone from the Gateway City with their first-round draft pick, following in the footsteps of Brady Lyle who is going into his overage season this year with the Owen Sound Attack.
Despite some of the names of the players who are moving on, Schlueting is part of a group of second and third-year players who have playoff experience under their belts. It is a group that Schlueting believes will come in determined right from the start of training camp.
“We have a great core of guys coming back and we really ended up bonding over the year and even though we got knocked out in five games in the first round of the playoffs we found a lot of common ground together and it wasn’t the way we wanted to end the season, but I think starting that series on the road and spending all that time together really brought us together and I know everyone is just excited to get the season going. I think it’s going to be a really good year.”
If the Battalion is going to succeed it will be because of the improved play of Schlueting who is taking the right approach mentality to achieve those gains
“You have to keep getting better every year,” he says.
“You have to keep getting better every day. That’s the mentality that you have to bring to the rink, to come in thinking ‘I’m going to be better today.’”