GRAND FORKS, North Dakota - Chaz Lucius looks nothing like a player adjusting to a new level or a new position.
Like most 18-year-olds making the jump to the NCAA ranks, there is the usual need to mature physically and get a little stronger and faster. But as he skated around the ice at Ralph Engelstad Arena on Saturday night, it was easy to see the potential that Winnipeg Jets scouts saw when they made him the 17th overall selection in the 2021 NHL Draft.
Lucius is nearing the midway point of his freshman season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and it’s clear that he’s finding his groove.
In a 3-2 loss to the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, Lucius chipped in an assist on the power play and scored an extra-attacker goal that made things interesting.
But what stood out during this live viewing wasn’t just the points he put up, but the way that he processes the game.
Throughout the course of the game, the puck seemed to be following Lucius around - and not because he’s constantly out of position chasing it.
His ability to anticipate was on full display.
“He’s just a smart player. He knows how to find where to be and the soft spots on the ice,” said Golden Gophers centre Ben Meyers, who plays on a line with Lucius and Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Matthew Knies. “On the forecheck, he knows where to be and pucks seem to just funnel toward him. Not everybody has that. It’s not really something you can describe and you probably can’t teach it either.”
You might say Lucius has a knack for making the right reads and being in the right place at the right time.
He’s also got a nose for the net and there were also plenty of examples to highlight his heavy shot and quick release on Saturday night.
“He’s going to be a terrific player,” said Golden Gophers head coach Bob Motzko. “He’s got great instincts and he knows what he’s going to do with the puck when he gets it. He’s got a great brain, he’s got great hands and he knows how to score goals. Just physically, he has to catch up. That’s just nature.”
There’s a good reason Lucius is playing catch up and that’s related to health, as a knee injury that required surgery limited him to 25 games last season — which is one of the reasons he slipped to the Jets at 17th after being projected to be a top-10 pick going into his draft year.
Rather than lament the lost time, Lucius seems to relish the opportunity to be playing for the program he committed to when he was just 14 years old.
Suiting up in his home state in front of family and friends has been everything Lucius imagined it would be.
“The biggest thing is just gratitude for being in the lineup,” said Lucius, who has three goals and six points in 10 games as a freshman and recently returned to the lineup after missing four games with a thumb injury. “I love the game so much and you don’t ever want to be hurt. So (I'm) just continuing to play and to do as well as I can.
“It’s been nothing but awesome with my experience here so far. Transition-wise, just keep continuing to get better, get stronger, get faster while I’m here.”
Lucius appreciates the responsibility he’s been given already, but he’s also determined to push for more.
“It means a lot, the confidence (Motzko) has been having in me,” said Lucius. “But from Day 1, my biggest goal is to keep earning that ice time and proving to the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff that I belong in those scenarios.”
Lucius was named to the United States selection camp on Tuesday and he’s hoping to join fellow Jets first-rounder Cole Perfetti at the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton and Red Deer in the pursuit of a gold medal.
“It’s definitely on the radar. Hopefully, I get the opportunity to represent my country,” said Lucius. “That would be something that would be really cool and awesome for me to do.”
Perfetti is a lock to represent Canada in December, while Lucius is considered more of a bubble player.
Because of the depth down the middle for Team USA, the best chance for Lucius to grab a spot on the roster is by playing on the wing — so spending his college season on the wall should have some benefits for him.
“I’d say these last four games, I’ve really started to get comfortable on the wing,” said Lucius. “Obviously, it takes some adjustment to get used to, since I’ve played centre my whole life. But now that I’m getting adjusted, I’m liking the wing a lot.”
Given what he’s endured on the injury front, Jets fans are going to need to be patient when it comes to the arrival of Lucius to the professional ranks.
This isn’t going to be a one-and-done scenario like when Kyle Connor left the University of Michigan Wolverines program after a prolific freshman campaign that had him in the running for the Hobey Baker Award.
And that’s OK. It’s not a race.
Lucius is laying the foundation for his future, focusing on improving his all-around game while leaning on his greatest assets.
“Absolutely. It has been for sure. I feel like hockey intelligence, you don’t really lose that,” said Lucius. “You always have it. I feel like good players, great players, they figure it out.
“I always try to believe in myself and do the right thing on the ice. Most importantly, just help my team win. I want to be an impact player for my team, so we can win as many games as possible.”