Nicolas Petan said he didn't change much from last season to this season -- mainly, just the curve on his stick.
So how much is that slight change to the blade of his stick worth? How about two more goals and nine more points for the Portland Winterhawks center than he had all of last season, with more than half the season still to play.
Through 25 games, Petan has 44 points, tops on his team and third in the Western Hockey League. He also leads Portland in goals (16) and assists (28), and is second with a plus-25 rating.
Petan credits a great deal of that improvement to a slight change in the curve on his stick. It's not that he went from a flat blade to an over-sized banana curve, but he believes his minor alteration has been a help.
"It helps me physically with playing, but it helps you mentally," Petan told NHL.com. "You think you're going to do better with a different curve, you practice and work with it, you're really used to it. You go out there and you have success with it and you gain confidence with it."
So far, it's paid off in a big way. Thanks to his outstanding start, NHL Central Scouting ranked him 15th in its preliminary top 25 ranking of WHL skaters for the 2013 NHL Draft.
"Petan has really improved even from the start of the year," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "The difference from last year is that he is playing with much more confidence and has gained a step, which allows him to drive to net. He has improved his quickness. He is beating defensemen out of the corners with his quickness. He's improved his overall play in handling the puck and distribution to linemates. The biggest difference, though, is he has turned into a take-charge guy. He is leading his team -- the team goes as he goes."
Part of that metamorphosis started last season following a talk with coach/general manager Mike Johnston.
As a 16-year-old rookie in 2011-12, Petan had 14 goals and 35 points in 61 games, and at times played on the top two lines. However, Johnston didn't think it was enough.
"I remember at 16 years old talking to Nic and saying to him last year, if he didn't become better defensively it was going to be hard to put him on the ice in a lot of situations because I have to trust him defensively," Johnston told NHL.com prior to his season-long suspension by the WHL, part of penalties assessed to Portland for player benefit violations. "I don't think anyone had ever asked him to focus on his defensive game before. We are a team that plays an up-tempo style and does play a fairly dynamic offensive game. But young kids, if they make mistakes defensively, other teams will take advantage of them out there on the ice."
Rather than chafe at his coach's suggestions, Petan took the advice to heart and focused on rounding out his game.
"It was hard at the beginning," he said. "I learned a lot last year. He was always on me as a rookie in the league, playing defense first and then offense. This year I really focused on defense. I came into the season knowing I would get a lot more ice time, [but] my mindset was playing defensively. As a smaller guy, you have to be good in your own end.
"I had a few areas I needed to work on and I did. This year I feel a lot more comfortable in my own end. There's no hesitating."
Johnston was happy with what he's seen, using Petan and St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie as his second-unit penalty-killing forwards. As much as Petan's offensive output has been good for his confidence, so has the coaching staff's trust in him in key game situations.
"For them to put me on the second penalty-killing unit, me and Rattie, shows me how much trust they have in me right now," Petan said. "That's another confidence booster."
"The big change in Nic was he really took some ownership for his game away from the puck last year," Johnston said. "Now he kills penalties, I trust him in late-game situations. He's very good in those areas."
Petan has proved himself to be good in most areas, and it's been that way since the season started. Actually, his improved play started when he had two points in five games to help Canada win the gold medal at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August.
"I saw it right away in training camp," Johnston said. "You could tell he was stronger. I could tell that away from the puck he was more patient, a little bit smarter. You could see the maturity in him right from training camp on. He's a hard-working guy in practice, he leads a lot of the conditioning drills. He has that real strong work ethic in him.
"He took ownership for his game. He became more of a well-rounded player. I think he continued to focus on developing and becoming better. He's not a guy that sits by the sideline and waits for things to happen. He takes ownership for his game all the time. We stress that with a lot of our players -- they have to be continually improving. The opportunity at this level doesn't last very long. He's going to turn around and be 19 years old, and he's got to take advantage of every opportunity, whether it's on the ice training, off the ice, game situations. Nic is one that does take advantage of all those opportunities to get better."
Petan plans to keep doing exactly what he's been doing to keep his strong play going. He said it's nice to see his name so high up the league scoring chart, and knows what's still to come -- notably, the 2013 NHL Draft -- but said the key is to keep the focus where it needs to be.
"My mentality is just to keep going," he said. "I know the season is going pretty well right now. But to let it get to your head right now is pointless."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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