Stefan Legein’s had his ‘welcome to the NHL moment’ happen on his first day of Columbus Blue Jackets training camp in September. The 18-year-old Legein, selected 37th overall in last summer’s Entry Draft, got the chance to line up with a few of the more talented Columbus regulars – Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev and David Vyborny.
It was an eye-opening experience for the Oakville, Ontario native.
“Seeing some of the stuff they did three-on-two it was like, ‘Wow, these guys are really, really good hockey players,’” said Legein. “It made me feel proud to be a part of it and be on the same sheet of ice.”
The feisty, high-scoring forward of the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs says he went into camp with the intent of impressing the brass, knowing that the road to the NHL will take time to travel. Camp only increased his desire. However, it was also an education as Legein began the long process of understanding what it takes to be a regular contributor. He says that what stood out the most was the pure simplicity of the NHL game, something he has incorporated into his play in Niagara where he is off to a torrid start with 11 goals (including one hat trick) and eight assists through his first 14 games.
“They simplify the game into little things and do the little things so well,” Legein said. “That’s what makes it so easy for them. Hard passes on the tape, handling every pass, hitting the net with every shot, those are some of the things that I took away from it.”
While that information has had an impact on Legein’s impressive beginning to his junior campaign, it was actually last season that the 5’10”, 185-pounder broke out. In his third year with the IceDogs – the team’s last in Mississauga prior to moving to the Niagara region – Legein exploded for 43 goals and 32 helpers in 64 games, posting 115 penalty minutes to go along with the boatload of points.
After two seasons of filling the checker role, Legein was given more responsibility and he ran with the opportunity.
“When I first started in the league, I saw the guys who were regular contributors like (the Los Angeles Kings’ Patrick) O’Sullivan and (the Phoenix Coyotes’ Daniel) Carcillo,” Legein said. “I wanted to be one of those players. We had a lot of solid guys in our system so I had to wait it out until it was my turn and last year was my coming out party.”
Two-way play is an integral part of Legein’s game. He has come to understand that good offense evolves from good defense, so he doesn’t necessarily worry about putting up points – they simple come from disciplined play beginning in his own end.
Legein also has an abrasive side, which is ironic given that the players he admired most growing up were even-tempered superstars like Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman. He can certainly score but Legein likens himself more to super pests like Sean Avery and one-time Columbus favorite Tyler Wright, now a development coach with the Blue Jackets.
“That’s the kind of game that I try to play every night,” Legein said.
Legein will put those varied skills on display while representing the OHL at the fifth annual ADT Canada-Russia Challenge set for November 19-29. All-star teams from the OHL, Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will suit up against a team of junior Russian all-stars in six different games throughout Canada and Legein is thrilled to be a part of it.
“Any time you get to play for Canada or the OHL, it’s always a big honor because there are so many good players in the league,” said Legein, who will get the chance to suit up with his childhood buddy John Tavares, the 2007 Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year.
He says he likes the idea of playing against skilled players from abroad, which is exactly what he’ll face at the top levels like the American Hockey League and the NHL. Legein believes the game has changed significantly at those highest levels. Speed and skill have become more important than ever and that is exactly what he can bring to the table.
“I’m not the biggest or the thickest, but I can move well out there,” Legein says. “It’s putting more emphasis on all the guys to be more skilled and have more skating and puck handling ability.
“I think it’s going to help me eventually get into a Columbus jersey.”