Kevin Bahl is a big man but his observations about the small details in his rookie professional season are interesting.
"I think we are on the verge of dominating teams," said the 6'6" Binghamton Devils defenseman. "With COVID and everything, things have been up and down. We are also a really young team (so) it has taken some time (to learn). We have a unique system but we are close."
Bahl's story needs no introduction for most Devils fans. He was dealt to the organization as part of the Taylor Hall trade 15 months ago. Bahl was considered the key piece coming back in the multi-player deal and given that Hall was not long removed from a Hart Trophy season, the expectations that surround Bahl are understandable.
The 20-year-old has not really had a full opportunity to show what he can do. Sure, he helped Team Canada win a World Junior gold medal shortly after the trade (Ty Smith and Nolan Foote were also members of the tournament champions) but the global pandemic has thrown convention out the window. The first disruption was the cancellation of the Canadian Hockey League season and playoffs that deprived Bahl and his top-ranked Ottawa 67's a chance to make a long post-season run.
"It still seems strange," remembers Bahl, who, along with fellow Devils prospects Graeme Clarke, Mitchell Hoelscher, and Nikita Okhotyuk had helped the 67's make the Ontario Hockey League final in 2018-19.
"Especially being at the World Junior, where we were hearing rumors about this coronavirus thing, we couldn't have imagined (what would happen) after."
A year later, it's now mid-March and Bahl has just 10 professional games to his credit. On top of that, a shortened training camp and strict regulations that govern play have seriously limited Bahl's exposure.
If the world were normal right now, training camp would have started in September and Bahl would have gotten a long look that included several exhibition games for coaches, management, and fans alike to see the big fella up close.
Instead, he came to New Jersey in December, waited out quarantine, participated in the abbreviated training camp, and then reported to the B-Devils, who are playing out of the training facility in Newark.
He's now settled into a different hotel in West Orange and though he's comfortable, he makes no bones about how much of a grind the routine can be with little to do but go to the rink.
"I have a nice place here, it's like an executive suite," said Bahl.
How does he pass the downtime?
"A lot of Netflix and PS4," he said.
On the ice, Bahl has an assist as the club has struggled to a 2-5-2-1 record ahead of Wednesday's tilt against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Points are nice but they'll likely never define Bahl in his journey to get to the NHL, or his worth once he gets there. His upside is as a shutdown second-pair defender, or as a steady third-pair guy with an ability to move up if required.
"The AHL is another level for sure," said Bahl. "Every player here has great hockey sense, nobody cheats (without the puck). That's the game (in pro hockey), you just try and grind the other team down."
Of course, grinding the opposition down is easier when you're almost a head taller than opposing forwards. The book on Bahl was that he has always moved well for a player of his size but that sometimes his movement was more mechanical than instinctual. He made strides in that regard in his final season of junior and he says he feels like the progression has continued with Binghamton. Another interesting element to Bahl's development is that he only recently stopped growing. He sprouted up almost three inches after his rookie season with the 67's.
"We do testing for things like that, foot explosion," he said, "And I'm coming out as one of the fastest guys so that's good…I just have to keep it up."
Bahl seems content, if not exactly satisfied. After suffering through eight months of no competitive hockey, he's looking forward to what the next couple of months bring. The most recent week-long shutdown the B-Devils went through came when a game against the Phantoms had to be stopped after one period.
That only seemed to sharpen Bahl's desire to soldier on.
"Right now, I don't even want to think about the off-season, I just had eight months off," he said.
Through the spartan existence, Bahl did recently receive a nice bit of news: his younger sister Kristina, who just finished her first season with the St. Lawrence University women's team, was recently named to the conference rookie all-star team.
Big brother was gushing describing his sibling, who is two years his junior (and 10 inches shorter).
"You have to see her, she has got great hands, skills," he said, "The things she can do with the puck are amazing."