When Michael Downing suited up for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League last season, he had the perfect security blanket -- his older brother and defense partner, Jake.
However, Jake was traded during the offseason, leaving younger brother to stand on his own. And after a slow start, Michael Downing finished the season strong and remained a top prospect for the 2013 NHL Draft.
Downing had 23 points, a plus-16 rating and 107 penalty minutes in 52 games this season, and is No. 49 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for this year's draft.
"I really like him," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "I think he was raw coming out of Catholic Central [High School] in Detroit and going to that level. I just think when you start at that level and you continue to move up … I think Michael Downing has a terrific upside."
Downing -- by his own admission -- wasn't showing anyone much of an upside at the start of the 2012-13 season. Troubled by the departure of his brother and struggling under the pressure of trying to impress scouts following him during his draft season, he had a rough start. In his first 18 games, he had just eight points, all assists. Downing said he was putting too much emphasis on big offensive plays and glass-rattling hits rather than playing the smart, two-way game that got him noticed in the first place.
"It was fun playing with him," Downing told NHL.com of his brother. "We grew up our whole lives playing on older-age teams. We finally got a chance to play together, then when he got traded it was tough for a little bit, just because being with him a whole year and playing with him, then seeing him go through that and thinking he's not a good enough player, all the things he would think about. It was tough for a little bit.
"In the first half I wasn't moving my feet at all. I was trying to make big hits and I would miss them a lot. Just a bunch of little things that made me look bad."
Downing spent time going over video with coaches, but it was a trip home over the Christmas break and a visit with Jake, two years older than Michael, that finally made the breakthrough. And he did it really in the way only an older brother can.
"He just pretty much ripped me a new you-know-what, told me to quit [messing] around and get back to my game," Michael Downing said. "Most of the time, the stuff he says I listen to."
Downing took to heart what his brother said, and the change in his game was obvious.
"In the last four months Mike has been everything we could dream about," Dubuque coach Jim Montgomery told NHL.com. "He's been a force physically, he's been breaking up plays, he's been making the good, sound decisions, and he's been really good helping out on our power play."
The consistency in his game returned, and the offense Downing pushed too hard to create early in the season returned. In part because of his strong play, Dubuque finished atop the USHL standings, and he contributed two assists and a plus-4 rating as Dubuque advanced to the league championship series.
"The first half I tried doing a little too much," Downing said. "Once I started making the simple plays, more points were coming just because I was doing things the right way instead of trying to make a pretty play. Once I stared doing that, then the points started coming. Ever since then I've been good."
The scouts certainly have noticed.
"As the season progressed he played a much more confident and complete game," Central Scouting's David Gregory told NHL.com. "He carries the puck well out of the zone and makes good decisions on when to hang on to it or move it ahead. Sees the ice well in transition and has a pro pass. He is willing to mix it up, especially when defending down low. He is also very good at moving the puck on the power play. He has a good, hard shot that he gets through to the net, but can and will fake his shot and make a quick pass to the open man. He is not afraid to jump to an open hole on the offensive attack to create scoring chances. He will need to show all of this with more consistency for the next level."
And it's not just neutral parties like Central Scouting that have been paying attention, as Montgomery said the volume of inquiries he gets about Downing have risen "immensely."
"I hear the comments all the time about how impressed they are with what he's doing now," Montgomery said. "A lot of teams are calling to find out our playoff schedule. … The number of scouts who are coming back and more frequently, it shows they're happy with Mike's progress this year."
However, Downing said he's trying not to worry about what will happen June 30.
"I just kind of forgot about it," Downing said. "I got so wrapped up around it, reading stuff on the Internet. It came down to the only thing I paid attention to was what the NHL [teams] said and not anything else."
And if he loses that focus, well, he's got an older brother who can set him straight.