Devon Toews is a hockey scout’s worst nightmare.
For every Victor Hedman and Drew Doughty — who had the “look” of a top defenceman from an early age — there are dozens of projects who check off some boxes but not others, and get passed over by talent evaluators time and time again only to haunt them down the road.
Toews was one such prospect.
Standing just five-foot-two and weighing in at 102 pounds during his bantam year, the native of Abbotsford, B.C., — where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend — didn’t look much like a potential major junior rearguard, let alone one at the NHL level.
And scouts in that season’s WHL draft agreed.
“You’re at school and your buddies are getting picked and you’re so happy for them, and you’re just kind of hoping your name gets called…. (But) mine didn’t get called,” said the New York Islanders defenceman, who’s now listed at six-foot-one and 191 pounds.
“Now when I look at it, I’m very fortunate for it. It can be very frustrating, but I think it’s good to see guys that don’t get picked in the draft and make it (anyway). Even if it’s just they have a great college career and play a little bit of pro — even that is a big success for a lot of guys.”
The Islanders were fortunate, too. In a quintessential late-bloomer story, the now 25-year-old Toews is flourishing in the NHL. He has 13 points across 30 games in his second season for the defence-first Islanders (21-7-2), and is averaging a career-high in ice time as coach Barry Trotz has placed more faith in him.
That said, the journey to this point wasn’t always easy.
While smaller defencemen have become commonplace in the NHL and appear to have lost some of the stigma attached to selecting them in the draft (see: Quinn Hughes seventh overall in 2018), Toews says views hadn’t shifted yet when he was coming up.
“People just didn’t think I was big enough to be able to handle bigger and stronger players,” he said. “And I can’t really blame them. I was pretty small, but I was still putting up points and playing really well. So it was definitely a little bit frustrating for me.”
While Toews was often overlooked, one person who had faith in his talent was Brad Bowen.
Bowen, who is the director of hockey operations at the Yale Hockey Academy in Abbotsford, coached Toews at various levels since he was about six years old, and recalls talking to him after he was passed over in the WHL draft.
“I just kept saying that, “It’s not your time, bud. As good as you are, it’s not your time,'” said Bowen.
“‘So there are going to be guys that get drafted that are bigger than you and stronger than you and don’t work hard and then fall off the map. And there are going to be guys like you that don’t get drafted, that will work harder and continue to improve, and you will grow and then you will slingshot at the back-half.'”
During his second year in bantam with the Abbotsford A1 Hawks in 2008–09, he helped carry the underdog club to a provincial title and a second-place finish at the Western Canadian championships. It was also his second year playing defence in the face of continued pressure that he was too small and should switch back to forward.
But it didn’t matter — he was the “best player on the ice” on a team stocked with other WHL draft picks.
“We had, I think, about four or five guys who were drafted in the first round, and he’s the only one still playing,” said Bowen, whose son was also on the team.
Then Toews started growing, and he kept on scoring.
In 2010 — at the age of 16, when many NHL prospects would already be playing in major junior — he sprouted up to five-foot-10 and was the top-scoring defenceman in the B.C. Major Midget League. The following season, he had 29 points in 54 games with the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL.
Luckily, his assistant coach, Matt Erhart had played at Quinnipiac University. Erhart got Toews a foot in the door at the small program in Connecticut, and he eventually earned a scholarship.
“The college game was something that appealed to me,” Toews reflected. “When I had that opportunity to go and get my college degree while playing hockey, it was something I really wanted to do.”
The college game helped along his NHL dream as well. Toews had been passed over by NHL teams twice already. But after scoring 17 points in 37 games in his freshman season at Quinnipiac, the Islanders finally snapped him up in the draft at age 20.
Toews spent two more years in college, racking up 50 points in 71 games, before the Islanders sent him to their AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. There, he put up 67 points in 106 games before getting shelved for surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
It was another bump in the road for Toews, as the big club had been planning on giving him his first taste of NHL action shortly thereafter.
But in his return, Toews notched 19 points across 24 AHL games to start 2018-19. The Islanders had seen enough, and he got another shot at The Show in December.
Toews finished the campaign with 18 points in 48 games, adding five more — including his first post-season goal — in eight games as the Islanders made a surprising run to the second round.
He didn’t take anything for granted ahead of this season as the Islanders boast a deep blue line, but he has continued to show he belongs.
Toews currently boasts the fourth-best Corsi For percentage on the team (52.72) and fifth-best expected goals percentage (52.52), and is proving to be a quality offensive defenceman in the NHL.
That said, to the people who saw past his size, he has always looked the part — even if others didn’t recognize it.
“I think the biggest thing with him is his perseverance. I mean, he’s had the opportunity to quit hockey 15 times: people saying, ‘You’re too small, you should play forward, you should just do this, you should do that,'” reflected Bowen.
“But the fact of the matter is, he was just determined and his work ethic was through the roof and (he) just said, ‘I’m just playing for fun and if I don’t go any further, I don’t go any further,’ and he just kept proving everybody wrong. So I mean he’s one of those stories (where) people in the hockey world didn’t want him to succeed and he found a way to do it.”