It’s been a busy couple of seasons for the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats. For their hottest young star, Chandler Stephenson, it’s been an even more hectic two years.
The 18-year-old forward spent the 2010-11 season, his first in the WHL, adapting to the pace and strength of major junior hockey -- and finished with just 19 points in 60 games. But last summer marked a sea change for Stephenson, as well as for the Regina organization: Former NHL player Pat Conacher joined the Pats as coach and immediately instituted an every-shift policy with his team.
“They’re not just getting a shift, they’re earning a shift from me,” Conacher told NHL.com of his players. “Yeah, maybe you were drafted and all that other stuff -- but guess what: You have to earn your next shift to play here.”
The 2011-12 Pats did earn those shifts, as well as their first playoff berth in four years. Stephenson thrived under Conacher and his staff, notching 22 goals and 20 assists despite missing 14 games with a knee injury.
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“Pat really stressed systems and made sure that we were all on schedule, our team on the ice, and that we all knew what our roles were and what each other was doing,” Stephenson said. “It was really good. The coaches helped a lot.”
His offensive surge -- along with his increased physicality and overall development as a player -- elevated him to his current No. 33 ranking for of the 2012 NHL Draft. In fact, NHL Central Scouting’s Peter Sullivan has pegged him as “one of the best cornermen in the WHL,” noting that his puck protection and vision make him lethal in the offensive zone.
Those qualities -- along with soft hands, skill on the puck and top-end skating ability -- make Stephenson a likely second-round pick when the draft comes around June 22-23. But don’t think that means much to this soft-spoken Saskatoon native.
“No, no, not yet,” said Stephenson, when asked if he was ready to take the next step. “I’m still developing lots of things in my game, still trying to get better. Hopefully one day I’ll be good enough to play in the NHL.”
At his current rate, he’s well on his way. Stephenson plans to remain in Regina for at least another season, and with that comes the tall task of replacing Jordan Weal in the lineup. Weal -- drafted in 2011 by the Los Angeles Kings -- recently joined the Kings’ AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, but not before scoring 116 points (41 goals, 75 assists) this past season. Stephenson, who often skated on a line with Weal and fellow prospect Lane Scheidl, hopes to emulate Weal and lead by example.
“You learn a lot from the older guys, and I want to be there as much as I can to lead by example for the younger guys,” Stephenson said. “I’m not the most vocal guy, so I try to lead more on the ice.”
Stephenson is also a leader off the ice, where Conacher told NHL.com he is usually among the first to give back to the community. Stephenson’s humility both on the ice and off won him the team’s Hub Bishop Memorial Trophy as the most sportsmanlike player.
“He’s just a great character player,” Conacher said. “He’s a fantastic teammate, he gives a lot of himself to his teammates. He’s a young guy, and all young guys make mistakes, but he makes them through hard work.”
Stephenson may be on the fast track to an NHL future, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few speed bumps along the way. While Sullivan tentatively slots him as a solid second- or third-liner in the League, his coach cautions against premature placements.
“The big issue with Chandler right now is that he has to learn to bring everything he has each and every day,” Conacher said. “He’s got to learn how to use all the skill sets he has, raising his compete level and being that type of guy.”
Luckily for Conacher and everyone in the Pats organization, Stephenson has no interest in letting his game slide anytime soon. While he concedes his biggest attribute is his skating, Stephenson says he is working on “everything” in order to get to the next level.
For his part, Conacher isn’t worried about his most promising prospect heading into the offseason.
“He wants to be a player, he wants to learn and he’s a very good person,” Conacher said. “He lives right, he trains right. He was our best-conditioned athlete at camp last year. He comes in every day wanting to get better.
“He wants to earn it. He wants to be a great player.”