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Focus shifts to college for trio of young defensemen

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks
L-R: Chad Krys, Jake Massie and Ryan Shea used Prospect Camp to prepare for the challenges of the NCAA. (Chase Agnello-Dean)

For most people, the summer before college is a pivotal time, usually filled with excitement and nerves alike. It might mean moving away from home and taking on additional responsibilities, like learning how to cook, or do laundry, or manage a monthly budget—the trial and error of young adult life.

It’s a little different for hockey players.

Some have already left home, for one, and are more accustomed to billets and bus travel and the balancing of school and sports. Secondly, there’s an immediate goal for them to chase. Break into the roster. Play their minutes. Make the team better. Win games. Win the conference. Maybe even win a national title.

Three Blackhawks prospects are about to embark on the transition to campus life this fall. This experience might be the cap on a whirlwind summer, or represent the starting line in their path to the pros.

For defenseman Ryan Shea, the Blackhawks’ fourth-round pick in 2015, entering college actually means going home to Boston, where Northeastern is a quick, familiar trip down the highway.

“The rink (Matthews Arena) is kind of an old style, so it gets loud in there,” he said. “I’ve got a couple buddies on the team already, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Shea feels physically ready for the grind of college hockey, especially after missing the first few months of the 2015-16 season to an injury. After returning to action for Youngstown in the USHL in January, Shea put up two goals and five assists over the last 28 games of the season, citing his last 15 outings as a return to his “normal” form.

“I want to go in and hopefully play in the top four—that’s my goal,” he said of his personal expectations for his first college season. “But if not, then I’ll have to battle my way to that spot. Academically and hockey-wise, just be the best I can be.”

Playing with velocity and keeping the puck moving in the offensive zone are a big part of the college game, Shea noted, and he viewed July’s Prospect Camp in Chicago as an opportunity to show he belonged. In his second camp, the biggest difference was his comfort level.

“It’s definitely not easier, but the experience helps a lot from last year,” Shea explained. “Playing with better players and a bunch of college players—some of them I’m going to see down the road next year and in the years ahead. Getting that feel of a high pace and a physical game really just gets me ready for the next level.”

Jake Massie, a 2015 sixth-round pick acquired from Carolina last summer, says his transition to college hockey actually began last season, when he jumped from prep school hockey to the USHL, where he skated with the Omaha Lancers. The defenseman accumulated 10 points (4G, 6A) in 44 games and will join the University of Vermont Catamounts in the fall.

“It was tough to adapt,” Massie said. “I was used to playing high school hockey, where I was able to go on offense a lot more. The USHL was really a wake-up call. It was a great experience, and the coaches were amazing. I really can’t thank them enough.”

A Montreal native, Massie is a big fan of P.K. Subban and liked to play a similar style, but he’s recently shifted his focus to watching Duncan Keith for inspiration on improving his two-way play. That maturation in his game, he says, will be the key to succeeding at the college level, and Vermont is an ideal setting for him to grow into his frame and develop his skills against top-notch competition.

“I think I have a good mindset on offense, but I definitely need to work on my defense, and that’s something I’m going to be able to do in the four years I have there,” Massie said. “I’m going to take it one step at a time. Obviously it would be ideal to step right in and play in all situations, but then again, I’ve got to work for my spot. Nothing is given out.”

Earning a spot is also the goal for 2016 second-round selection Chad Krys, who at 18 years old will be a true freshman at Boston University. And despite his age, Krys played the most intensive schedule of the trio of defensemen. He posted 29 points (3G, 26A) in 53 games with the U18 team and competed at both the U18 and U20 World Championship tournaments, winning bronze with the U18 team in the spring.

“With all of the college games that we played at the NTDP, and playing with older guys at World Juniors, and coming to [Blackhawks Prospect Camp] and experiencing that, I think I’ll be ready to go,” Krys said.

His immersion into college hockey also came earlier in the summer, as he left Prospect Camp early to start classes at BU, whose hockey program has long been a virtual factory for high-end, pro-ready prospects. Krys was one of six incoming Terriers selected at the draft, and four were taken in the first round alone.

“We’re all really excited,” Krys said of the freshman class. “We’re all up in school now, and we can’t wait to get the season going. We’re hoping for a national championship this year. I know all of those guys pretty well, so that’ll help our team chemistry.”

Krys anticipates the standard adjustment to college hockey—adapting to the systems and learning his way around the facilities and locker room. His goal is simple: “Try to be a big contributor to the team however I can, really. Going in as a freshman, I have no college experience, and I want to be ready to go right off the bat, try to make a big impact right away.”

With Krys, Shea and Massie joining the college ranks, the Blackhawks are slated to have 16 prospects in the NCAA next season, with Hockey East claiming seven names, including the three incoming defensemen. HE has been the most competitive of the collegiate conferences after the most recent realignment in 2013, and those seven players will see plenty of each other throughout the season.

For Shea, Prospect Camp was the perfect place to gauge expectations. He was assigned to room with future teammate and 2014 sixth-round pick Dylan Sikura, who helped Northeastern win the HE title during his sophomore season.

“I got to ask him as many questions as possible,” Shea said. “He answers all of them.”

Massie and future Vermont teammate Liam Coughlin were on enemy sides during camp, but as he assured, “I’m sure we’ll get together soon at the end and get some conversations going.”

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