For Scott Mayfield, adjusting to college hockey is only one step in the journey to the National Hockey League.
The Islanders selected the defenseman with their second-round pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, after he’d completed two seasons with the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms. With Youngstown, Mayfield was a physical defender in front of his own net and averaged over 150 penalty minutes each season. When he made the transition to collegiate hockey at the University of Denver this past season, the Pioneers head coach, George Gwozdecky, knew the 6’4”, 200-pound blueliner had his work cut out for him.
“The defensive position is extremely difficult to be able to adjust to at this level, especially as a freshman, because things happen so fast,” Gwozdecky said. “There’s no question that Scott did a real good job of making that transition and learning on a daily basis.”
The transition for a d-man from the USHL to the University of Denver is a familiar one for the Islanders, who saw another prospect, Matt Donovan, patrol the Denver blue line for two years following two USHL seasons with the Cedar Rapids Roughriders.
Donovan, the club’s fourth-round pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, played with the Islanders AHL affiliate in Bridgeport following his second collegiate season (2010-11), scoring five points (one goal, four assists) in six games. In 2011-12, he led all Sound Tigers defensemen with 45 points before making his NHL debut April 3 at New Jersey.
“I don’t think it’s really sunk in that I played a couple of games in the National Hockey League,” Donovan, who played the last three games of the season with the Islanders, said. “I got that call at the end of the year and it was just an awesome experience. You can’t even describe it with words.”
Mayfield, who is just two years younger than Donovan, got off to a slow start in his freshman season at Denver, but picked up the pace in the second half. The St. Louis, MO native put together a four-game point streak (one goal, three assists) in back-to-back series against Alabama-Huntsville and conference rival Bemidji State in January.
“The first year is always kind of a building up year,” Mayfield said. “It always takes a few games to get used to playing at the next level. I definitely did some growing over Christmas, and I think I got better the second half of the season.”
At Denver, Mayfield led his team in penalties (27) and penalty minutes (76), but mistakes are expected for a freshman playing against the opposition’s top line most nights. The good thing, as Gwozdecky pointed out, has been his ability to adapt.
“There were a couple of times early in the season where he ran into some penalty trouble, but he learned from that, and certainly became a physical force with us in a good way,” Gwozdecky said. “He really improved from day one until the end of the season.”
While Mayfield is staying in Denver this summer to work out with his teammates in preparation for next season, he can do so knowing that the Pioneers’ hockey program has a track record of getting players to the NHL, including Islanders defenseman Matt Donovan.
|Defenseman Matt Donovan made his NHL debut on April 3 at New Jersey |
Donovan left the University of Denver after two seasons for the professional ranks, it was a decision made with an end goal in mind.
“After we lost in the NCAA Tournament, I think it was a day or two after that the Islanders called me and they said they wanted to sign me to a contract,” Donovan said. “I had to have a lot of conversations with my family, friends and agents and what they thought about the decision to leave school and leave the free education behind and play professional hockey like I’ve dreamed about doing my entire life. Ultimately, we all kind of made the decision that I was ready to make the next step, and become a professional hockey player."
Donovan’s goal now is to earn a full-time spot on the Islanders roster when training camp opens in September. While the 6’0”, 202-pound defenseman plays a more offense-oriented game than the younger Mayfield, Donovan, who just celebrated his 22nd birthday, can look back on his journey and offer his protégé advice.
“I think on and off the ice, both of those places (the USHL and University of Denver) helped me grow as a person, as well as on the ice as a hockey player,” Donovan said. “Keep working hard. Whether it’s a year, two, three or four, you’ll develop into the player that’s good enough to be a professional hockey player and one day play for the New York Islanders.”