The year was shaping up to the best of Mitchell Stephens' young career.
After completing his second full season with Saginaw in the OHL, finishing as the Spirit’s second-leading scorer (22 goals, 26 assists), Stephens was picked with the 33rd overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were coming off the franchise’s second-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. A responsible, two-way centerman, Stephens drew comparisons to the Bolts’ Ryan Callahan on draft day from Tampa Bay director of amateur scouting Al Murray.
Through the first seven games of the 2015-16 season with Saginaw, Stephens scored five goals, including a hat trick in game No. 4 versus Guelph. But in the seventh game, Stephens blocked a shot during a tie game against London, the puck striking his foot and breaking it.
Stephens could tell immediately there was a problem.
He also didn’t want to come off the ice.
“I kept playing,” Stephens recalled following a morning workout session during the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Development Camp at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum.
“Honestly, I couldn’t put any pressure on it. I thought there was something wrong with it. I could obviously feel it, but, in a 1-1 game, you’re not going to be able to come out of that.”
The comparisons to Callahan it would appear weren’t without merit.
“If you want to be a sustainable player, you’ve got to have that toughness, that drive to not give up even if you’re hurt,” Stephens said. “Going through that shows your mental toughness is a lot higher than some people who would cave. It’s a leadership aspect too. I think if you show the guys you’re hurt but battling through for them, it’s something that is a great quality in a person.”
Following the game, Stephens learned the extent of the damage, a promising third season in Saginaw derailed by the first significant injury of his hockey career.
“Obviously, I was pretty mad,” Stephens said. “I thought it was going to be a setback, but I was very fortunate to have a good training staff in Saginaw and that helped me for the first couple weeks to stay on top of the swelling and things like that. I ended up going home and working with Dr. Robin Valliquette in Toronto, and I trained in my home gym in Peterborough.”
Stephens missed a month-and-a-half of the season. Upon his return, he scored goals in consecutive games.
“You always want to be on the ice no matter what,” the Peterborough, Ontario native said. “It was hard watching my team play when you weren’t able to help them out. And credit to them for battling through that and helping me keep my spirits up when needed so when I came back I didn’t miss a beat.”
Despite the injury, Stephens’ trajectory continued to trend upward. He averaged nearly a point a game for Saginaw in 2015-16, scoring 20 goals and adding 18 assists in 39 games, ranking fifth on the Spirit for points, tied for fourth for goals and earning the team’s Most Valuable Player award despite missing 29 games. Not all of the missed games were due to injury, however. Stephens was selected for Canada’s National Junior Team and competed at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki in late December and early January.
Following the season in Saginaw, Stephens signed a three-year, entry-level contract with Tampa Bay. He was assigned to the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse on an amateur tryout and played in the final five games for the Crunch, scoring his first professional goal in his second game versus the Toronto Marlies.
Stephens said the size of the players and speed of the game are the two biggest differences between juniors and the AHL.
“You have to use your body a lot more,” he said. “You have to skate through checks a lot harder. It’s more difficult to put up points for sure. It was a good experience for me. I went in with an open mind and was fortunate enough to play five games.”
At 19 years old, Stephens will have to return to Saginaw unless he makes the Lightning out of training camp. During his fourth season at the junior level, Stephens has just one goal: dominate.
“I’m going to be one of the older guys in the league,” he said. “I’m going to come in with an attitude that I want to be one of the top players in the league. You want to help your team succeed.
"To get better throughout the summer and to come into Tampa Bay camp in August and make a big impression is a main priority for me.”