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Sbisa Shines in the Present, Looks to the Future

by Al Alven / Philadelphia Flyers

There are a couple of ways Luca Sbisa could have taken his reassignment to the major junior ranks back in early February.

Naturally, he endured the inherent letdown any player, let alone an 18-year-old rookie, would feel after getting an extended taste of life in the NHL. At the same time, he understood not only the reality of the situation, but the opportunities afforded to him as a result.

Besides, Sbisa fully expects to be back in Philadelphia for good next season.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, I’ll be back,” noted the Ozieri, Italy native, who became the fourth youngest Flyer and second youngest defenseman in franchise history while suiting up for 39 games with the team this season.
Luca Sbisa played 39 games with the Flyers this season before returning to him junior club in Lethbridge. (Photo courtesy Lethbridge Hurricanes)

“I did not expect to make [the Flyers] out of training camp this year, but I learned so much in my time there, even when I wasn’t playing after some of the injured players came back.

“I met so many great people, and played with some great teammates. And I really fell in love with the city. It was a disappointment, for sure, to have to leave, but I had to accept the reasons why and move on for now.
“I’ll be ready for next season, and I will be back.”

Prior to returning to the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL, the team from which the Flyers drafted him 19th overall last summer, Sbisa was reassured by general manager Paul Holmgren that the move was not a demotion, in the typical sense of the word, and was best for his development.

“He wanted to let me know that he was very happy with the way I played this season, and the way I carried myself,” Sbisa explained. “He said I wasn’t just there because the team had injury problems.

“I hadn’t been playing as much as I had earlier in the year and both Paul and [head coach] John Stevens felt it would be better if I was back in Lethbridge playing regularly.”

Said Holmgren of his decision at the time: "I struggled with it and how it would affect his development. But when you weigh it against not playing at all, I don't think we had a choice."

Back in Lethbridge, Sbisa wasted little time getting reacquainted with his old surroundings.

“Once I came back, I was really glad I was there,” he said. “I missed Philly… well, I still miss Philly. But, it was great to see so many of my friends and teammates, and to meet some of the new young guys on the team.

“I realized when I got back to Lethbridge that this was a chance for me to do some things I missed, like playing lots of minutes and getting power play time. I really did miss that stuff. It was also a chance to go for a championship and try to contend for the Memorial Cup, which would be great.”

Within a week of his return, Sbisa was playing upwards of 35 minutes a game for the Hurricanes in all situations. He was reunited with his defensive partner from last season, Ben Wright, and immediately reassumed the leadership role he took on as a 17-year-old over the course of last season.

“It wasn’t too hard to adjust and get comfortable again,” he said. “For me, the biggest thing is that my role here in Lethbridge is a much more important one. I’m playing 30-35 minutes a game: even strength, killing penalties, working the power play. My role was more limited in Philly, of course, because I was just a young guy getting started.

“But as far as the game goes, the size and pace of the NHL is so much different. Down here, I can go into the corner and outmuscle guys, come away with the puck and just skate it up. Up there, the big guys wear you down, the hits are harder, everything is faster, and if you make one mistake, it can cost your team a game.

“There isn’t as much pressure [at this level], but this is still a very good league. Nothing is going to come easy, no matter where you’re playing.”

In 18 regular season games with Lethbridge, Sbisa went on to record 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) and 19 penalty minutes, with all four of his goals coming on the power play. Though he appeared in less than half the number of games he played in with the Flyers earlier in the campaign, he probably saw close to the same amount of total ice time, over the span of just a month and half.

“Luca stepped right back in and was a huge late-season addition to our team,” said Lethbridge General Manager Roy Stasiuk. “To tell you the truth, I think he had to slow down a bit and reacquaint himself to the pace of the game at this level.

“He was moving at a slightly different speed when he got here, but it didn’t take him long to adjust. He’s been outstanding for us, as expected.”

Stasiuk made particular note of Sbisa’s focus on the present, noting a common concern WHL managers and coaches have when players are returned after stints in the NHL.

“These are young guys, and when they get to experience the bright lights of the NHL, sometimes it’s tough to get their heads back to where they should be. This was honestly not an issue with Luca at all. And, think about it; we’re talking about a player who wasn’t just coming back from a preseason stint here. He spent half a season in the NHL.

“I’m sure he was disappointed to leave the Flyers, but he came back and totally dedicated himself to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and our push to the playoffs.”

The Hurricanes finished the regular season with a record of 35-32-3-2. As the seventh seed in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, the team drew a tough first round match-up opponent in the second-seeded Saskatoon Blades (49-18-3-2).

Lethbridge holds a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series heading into Game 6 on Monday night, March 30.

The Lethbridge faithful are looking to Sbisa for a repeat of his outstanding playoff performance from last year. It was then that he truly hit his stride and put his name on the map as a legitimate NHL prospect, notching 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) and 17 penalty minutes in 19 games while leading the team to the WHL finals.
I feel like I am a big game player. Like, when the pressure is on, I can play my best. I’ve always felt this way, but I really like the big game atmosphere, and the playoffs, when everything is on the line. That’s when I feel that I’m at my best." - Luca Sbisa

By comparison, he recorded 33 points (six goals, 27 assists) and 63 penalty minutes in 62 games during the regular season in 2007-08.

“I feel like I am a big game player,” said Sbisa. “Like, when the pressure is on, I can play my best. I’ve always felt this way, but I really like the big game atmosphere, and the playoffs, when everything is on the line. That’s when I feel that I’m at my best.

“That’s what I hope to experience in Philly some day. There were some big games I was a part of with the Flyers this year, with the building packed and the fans going crazy. I loved that. I loved the rush and the emotion of it. You can really feed off of it and it fires you up to go out and get the job done.”

While Sbisa’s play will obviously go a long way in determining how far the Hurricanes go this spring, the pressure to perform is evenly distributed among the team’s veteran core, which includes fellow rearguards Wright (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Eric Mestery (Washington Capitals), along with highly-regarded forward prospects Zach Boychuk (Carolina Hurricanes), Kyle Beach (Chicago Blackhawks), Dwight King (Los Angeles Kings), and Colton Sceviour (Dallas Stars).

“We have a great group of guys here,” said Sbisa. “The other thing the Flyers told me when I was sent back was to have fun. Just keep it simple, have fun, and play the game. To have the chance to play with Ben again, and with Zack, Kyle, Dwight, and everyone else, it’s been really special.

“For sure, we would really love to win as a group, and we know this is our last chance. There are a lot of guys on this team who will be playing somewhere else next season.”

Including Sbisa himself; at least, that’s the way he sees it. And he probably isn’t the only one.

“Obviously, Luca has a very bright future ahead of him,” said Stasiuk. “I think the fans in Philadelphia got just a glimpse or a preview of the kind of player he can be. It says a lot that he was able to make the Flyers out of camp, but his body of work this season speaks to his potential.

“He’s also a born leader, which fits that Philly mold. He came in here at 17 last year and had a huge presence in our room. He speaks up when he has to. He knows when to talk and when to let his play on the ice do the talking. As much as he’s added to our lineup with his play, I think he’s been that much more valuable in a leadership role.

“That’s what Luca brings and because he’s such a natural leader, I would imagine that will translate to the next level.”

Stasiuk went on to further praise Sbisa’s advanced level of maturity, both on and off the ice, and offered some insight into what he feels the promising rearguard needs to work on most at this point.

“Luca can play in the NHL. We’ve already seen that,” he said. “To take that next step, to earn a permanent spot with the Flyers, it just comes down to gaining more experience and developing naturally. Like any young player, he needs to establish more consistency in his game, and get a little stronger.

“One thing we’ve been trying to work on with him a little is to not get so down on himself when he makes a bad play or has a bad game. Not that he’s had too many of those, but Luca is such a competitor. He’ll learn to put his mistakes behind him and benefit from them, which will only make him a better player.”

Though he’s been fully invested in the Hurricanes’ efforts since his return to the WHL nearly two months back, Sbisa admits that Philadelphia and his Flyer teammates are often on his mind.

“I’ve tried to continue following the guys as closely as possible,” he said. “I keep in touch with a lot of guys on the team, and we talk on the phone every week. They still view me as being part of the team, and that means a lot to me.

As far as favorite memories of his rookie stint with the Flyers, Sbisa noted that he could not cite any one particular moment or game. But he did come away with some very emotional impressions.

“The first thing is just the locker room, with all my teammates there,” he said. “Mike Richards is the best leader I’ve ever played with. I’ll never forget when he walked up to me and introduced himself on my first day there. Kimmo Timonen is like the captain of the defense, and almost a father figure for the young guys.
Sbisa is currently playing in the WHL playoffs. (Photo courtesy Lethbridge Hurricanes)

“I became extremely close to Riley Cote and his wife, Holly. They are like family to me. They offered me a place to live and took me into their home. That’s another thing I’ll never, ever forget. They showed me around the area and were so good to me.”

And, last but not least, there was the city itself.

“Philly is such an awesome city,” Sbisa continued. “It’s a huge sports town, and they love their teams there. I couldn’t believe how things were when the Phillies won the World Series, but I’m so glad I was there to see it. The whole city came out and went crazy. I was watching the parade with some of the guys and we just wondering what it would be like if the Flyers won the Stanley Cup.

“Some people even said it would be crazier. I can’t wait to see that!

“A lot of times, people around the league asked me what my favorite building to play is, and I always said the Wachovia Center. The building is so loud, and the fans are so passionate. Every time I did an event where I met the fans, they were so nice to me. It’s just a great city and I love playing there.”

While Sbisa is hoping for a deep postseason run up in Lethbridge, he has already laid out his plans for the offseason. Not surprisingly, his summer itinerary is geared toward his goal of making the Flyers roster out of training camp again next season.

“I’m going to go back to Switzerland for a little bit this offseason and will finish up some college credits,” he said. “After that, I’ll be spending lots of time in Philly to work on some things. I want to try to add more muscle, improve my strength and work on my speed, so I’ll be working very closely with [Flyers trainer] Jim McCrossin.

“Hopefully, that will give me a good head start before camp, and will help prepare me to make the team for good. I can’t wait, and I will be ready.”
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