Alex DeBrincat doesn’t remember how he played the day he caught the eye of then-Erie Otters GM, Sherry Bassin, two seasons ago.
DeBrincat was playing for Lake Forest Academy, and Bassin was there to scout another player. But he found himself distracted by a kid who’d been passed over—twice—in the OHL draft. “[Bassin] tells me I scored three goals and had two assists,” DeBrincat says, from his home in Detroit. “But I don’t know.”
Here’s what Bassin knows, after having signed DeBrincat as a free agent: “He makes us look really smart.” (Bassin said that late last season; he’s since been succeeded by Dave Brown).
DeBrincat, whose small frame no doubt scared a lot of teams off—he’s now listed at five-foot-seven and 160 lb.—won OHL rookie of the year in 2014-15. The winger put up 104 points; a little more than 1.5 per game. He finished seventh overall in scoring and had 59 more points than the next-best rookie.
And he’s just the 25th rookie in OHL history to reach the 100-point mark.
The big question ahead of this season is: Can this undrafted kid, the one who’s really superstitious and doesn’t like it when anyone touches his stick before a game, repeat the performance considering who the Otters have lost? Can he deliver at the same rate with a centre who’s not Connor McDavid?
DeBrincat played much of his rookie season with McDavid, who’s since been drafted No. 1 overall because there was no other possible scenario for a player that good. When McDavid was out for the month of December with a broken hand, DeBrincat still put up more than a point per game, with five goals and seven assists.
But the team’s second-line centre was Dylan Strome, who won the OHL scoring title and went third overall in the NHL Draft, to the Arizona Coyotes.
“When you have the team we did, everyone’s successful,” DeBrincat says. “Everyone had their role, and my role was to score and do stuff like that. I mean, it’s a lot easier when you’re playing with those guys.”
With McDavid a shoo-in to play for the Oilers this year and Strome trying to make the Coyotes, DeBrincat could be the team’s No. 1 offensive weapon. That’s a new role, to be sure. “I guess we’ll see how it goes when the season starts,” he says.
His goal: “Hopefully have as good of a year as I did last year. That’d be nice.”
It would. After a summer spent in the gym (every day) and skating (most days), DeBrincat heads into his draft-eligible season probably more ready than anyone in the OHL for the attention that comes with it. He lived it last year with McDavid and Strome, and played in big games with scouts in the stands. “You learn from those guys,” he says of his teammates, “how to be a better player and how to handle all the hype.”
He laughs when he thinks about what he learned from McDavid: “The things he does in practice are unreal. How fast he goes, and how he makes the plays he does at that speed—it’s ridiculous. When you’re watching him you learn how he does it and try to put that in your own game. Obviously you’re not gonna do it as well as him, but you try to, and hope it works for you a little bit.”
This sophomore year will be the big test for DeBrincat; opposing teams will no longer have to focus their efforts on (unsuccessfully) shutting McDavid down. Much of their focus will be on DeBrincat.
Though he’s small, DeBrincat isn’t one to shy away from physical play. He finished his rookie year with 73 penalty minutes. “I like to get in there,” he says. “You’re gonna end up playing against big guys at some point in your life, so you can’t really take that into consideration. You can’t be scared.”
What’s certain is the twice-undrafted DeBrincat will have a lot of eyes on him this year, many people wondering whether he can make an impact without McDavid on his line.
He’s used to proving people wrong, though.
“Some people don’t really give me a chance since I’m so small,” DeBrincat says. “But I think once I get my chance I can maybe overturn what they think. It helps me battle that much harder.”