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PROSPECT REPORT: Vukojevic Developing Nicely

Read up on Devils prospect Michael Vukojevic in our latest prospect report

by Peter Robinson NJDevils / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

It took just a few minutes during a phone conversation with Devils prospect Michael Vukojevic to show that the 18-year-old Kitchener Rangers defenseman has a balanced short- and long-term perspective. 

Asked about his team's eight-game win streak, at the time, he was quick to point out a minor detail. 

"Well, it's actually nine games," he corrected his interviewer, before offering the wider view. 

"I think we came into this year and we were considered a contender. 

"Now, I think we are starting to show that. We went through a (tough stretch) when we lost 10 of 12 games but now we've won nine in a row so we are more the team we were (supposed) to be.

"I think we have an opportunity to do something special."

Along the way this season, Vukojevic has been a leading contributor for the Rangers. The single biggest example was a four-assist game against the Oshawa Generals in which he was named first star in a 6-4 win. That victory over the Generals was just one of four wins that the Rangers have posted over nationally-ranked teams, including the London Knights and the defending Ontario Hockey League champion Guelph Storm (twice). 

The Rangers, Guelph, and London, along with the Owen Sound Attack and Erie Otters, play in the OHL's ultra-tough Midwest Division. A breeding ground of future pros, more than 50 graduates of those five major junior teams were on NHL teams' opening night rosters. 

But playing in the OHL wasn't always the plan for Vukojevic. For a time, he was committed to the University of Michigan, the storied NCAA program, that in much the same way the OHL Midwest produces future pros, has a knack for churning out NHL defensemen. 

Had things gone according to plan, Vukojevic may well have been the latest prized Michigan defenseman. But two years ago, while playing for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL, he made the decision to return home and suit up for the Rangers, who had drafted him 33rd overall the previous spring. 

"It was really his decision," said Miro Vukojevic, Michael's father. 

Miro and his wife Ana are high school teachers in suburban Toronto, where they raised their three children, of which Michael is the youngest. 

"He was set on Michigan but it really came down to him playing for Kitchener, who had drafted him."

The elder Vukojevic can't cite a magic elixir that set his youngest child down his current path. Miro Vukojevic was born in Croatia and came to Canada as a small child and has no background in hockey, save for one exception. 

"I loved to collect hockey cards," he said. 

A physical, smooth-skating blueliner, Michael's stride is as pretty as any picture on a hockey card; Miro's youngest child also cuts a fine figure in the classroom, recently scooping up OHL academic player of the month honors. He's currently enrolled at Wilfrid Laurier University, which is located just a few miles away from the Rangers home rink. His older brother Mathew recently graduated from that school and his sister Rebecca is also a student there. 

A psychology major, Vukojevic doesn't play any sort of mind games with what he wants to do with his immediate future. 

He wants to be a pro hockey player. 

His strengths are obvious. Blessed with good size, it's the finer points of the game he needs to work on, such as puck skills and making decisions at high speed. There have been noticeable improvements so far this season with more room to go. 

For now, Vukojevic wants to help the Rangers pile up wins well into 2020. If they can, Vukojevic should be able to reprise his performance from two years ago, when he played 17 post-season games as a 17-year-old OHL rookie as the Rangers made a run to the OHL's conference finals. 

Beyond this season, Vukojevic is eyeing his second Devils development camp this summer and then get on Hockey Canada's radar again. He won a gold medal at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in 2018 and was part of Team Canada's fourth-place finish at last spring's U18 Worlds in Sweden. 

"Puck handling, the things you need to do be a good pro," he said, when asked about areas of his game he's working on. "This is what I want to do for a living. I don't want to be just a good junior defenseman…there are things I need to keep working on now (in the short-term) for what helps in the long run."

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