As with any young player, Nick DeGrazia’s first few weeks of junior hockey have been a learning experience.
Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
Fortunately for DeGrazia, and for the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, the 16-year-old Thunder Bay native and Sudbury Wolves prospect is proving to be a quick study. Two goals and two assists in an 11-2 win over the Elliot Lake Wildcats on Thursday night gave him 14 points in 13 NOJHL games.
“It has taken me a little while to get settled in, but I think I’m settled in now,” DeGrazia said. “I thought I had a great game tonight and I’m just going to come better tomorrow.”
A standout at the midget level in 2018-19, DeGrazia still needed time to adjust to the physicality of junior A hockey.
“You have a lot more time than you think, but I didn’t know that when I started,” he said. “I’m getting a lot more used to that now.”
Not just a good game for the Canadians, the dominant win over Elliot Lake was an encouraging one for Wolves prospects in general — Ethan Larmand, playing his first NOJHL game, was had a goal and two assists, while Samuel Vachon had a goal of his own and David Bowen, though certainly not busy, was sharp in making 21 saves.
“I thought we played a solid game overall,” DeGrazia said. “We didn’t take these guys lightly. We came at them fast and found a way to come out on top.”
That has been another lesson — not taking an outcome for granted, something the Canadians were guilty of, in DeGrazia’s opinion, in a 5-2 loss in Cochrane last weekend, which halted his team’s eight-game winning streak.
“We took them a bit lightly and we ended up losing that game,” he said. “We have learned from it and we’re not going to do it again.”
Gavin Brown had two goals and Avery Chisholm, Zachary Hauseman, Oliver Smith, Alex Fowke and Mitchell Martin also tallied for the Canadians, who improved to 9-4-0-0.
“We have a rough weekend last weekend, three in three,” Rayside head coach Dan Cuomo said. “We played a real good game Friday, so-so game on Saturday and we were pretty tired and pretty bad on Sunday, so this was a good bounce back. It’s a rough week for the kids, with mid-terms and exams, they miss a lot of practice and everything else, so I thought in the first period, we were a little bit rusty and a little bit slow, but after a while, we started to skate and it was nice. This is a good-skating club.”
Eric Vanderhoff and Austin Brunet scored and Dominic Boily made 25 saves for the Wildcats, who will hope for a better result when they rematch the Canadians in Elliot Lake on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Elliot Lake did get on the board first on Thursday, on Vanderhoff’s goal just 51 seconds into the first, but Chisholm replied with a pinch and a well-placed shot for his third of the season at 9:05, then DeGrazia walked out of a corner to score his fourth at 10:23, giving the home side its first lead of the evening.
After Canadians forward Jett Leishman was ejected for a hit to the head, Brunet pulled the visitors even with a power-play tally at 13:02, but again the locals struck back quickly, this time on a short-handed marker by the fleet-footed DeGrazia at 14:08.
“DeGrazia is really good, a really talented hockey player,” Cuomo said. “But we have a few more guys who are pretty talented, too. The only thing I’d like to see more from some of them is if we try to pass more, instead of trying to do individual stuff the beat guys one on one. A little more give and go, stuff like that would be nice, and it would be a lot easier on them, too, instead of trying to do too much with the puck themselves, but it’s a young team and they have to learn.”
Vachon, another Sudbury Wolves draft pick, popped the water bottle with a shot at 18:54, sending Rayside to the room with a 4-2 lead.
The Canadians only picked up steam in the second, with Larmand scoring his first NOJHL goal at 1:12, after picking off an errant pass.
The Wolves’ second-round choice in this year’s OHL Priority Selection, Larmand showed well at both ends of the ice Thursday night, breaking up a rush before going coast to coast for a scoring chance, with Hauseman cleaning up the rebound at 5:24.
Brown redirected a pretty feed from DeGrazia at 7:31 to give Rayside at five-goal advantage.
Mathieu Dokis-Dupuis went all around the Elliot Lake zone before feeding Brown for his second of the game, and fourth of the season, at 4:40 of the third.
Smith tipped a Dylan Bertrand point shot past Boily for his eighth of the season at 7:14.
Fowke scored his first of the year on a laser from the point, on the power play at 11:06, to lift the Canadians into double digits, then Martin added his fifth at 13:46.
“This is a talented hockey team,” Cuomo said. “We have some talented players on this team. There’s still some little parts, we’re grinding gears at times, our power play is terrible, penalty kill is good and five on five, we’re all right. But what I like most of all is we’re a good-skating club and, I think, an entertaining team to watch when we play. I love that.”
If Rayside can continue to fill the holes in its game, DeGrazia believes there’s no limit to what the team can accomplish this season.
“I think we can win the Noj, for sure,” he said. “Then, whatever comes after that, we’re going to have to see.
“The boys are just going to have to come together. Know your role and do what you have to do and we should be fine.”
The Canadians will get a good test next week, when they travel to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. for the annual NOJHL Showcase. They face the Timmins Rock on Tuesday at 11 a.m., then the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners on Wednesday at 1 p.m.