Following Tampa Bay’s selection of Peterborough, Ontario, native Mitchell Stephens with its first selection (second round, 33rd overall) at the 2015 NHL Draft, Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray raised a few eyebrows when he compared the 18-year-old center to Bolts alternate captain Ryan Callahan.
Murray pointed to Stephens’ size, compete level and ability to play all three forward positions and in all situations to support his statement. Both Stephens and Callahan stand 5-foot-11. Stephens, at 188 pounds, is only a couple trips to the training table shy of Callahan’s 190.
With Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League, Stephens rarely came off the ice in 2014-15, skating on the power play, penalty kill and at the end of games for the Spirits. He ranked second on the team in goals (22), assists (26) and points (48), all career highs.
And, in two games at the Lightning prospect tournament in Estero this weekend, Stephens gave Bolts supporters their first glimpse of his high-motor, two-way game that mirrors the frenetic, all-over-the-ice play of Callahan.
In the Lightning’s 5-1 rout of Nashville on Saturday, Stephens led the way offensively with two goals, including the game-winner midway through the second period.
“It’s always good to score goals, but for me it’s a hard-compete game,” Stephens said. “If I’m not doing that, then I’m not doing my job. (The goals) are just bonuses. I just need to stick to my game, a hard, two-way game.”
Tampa Bay prospects head coach Rob Zettler said comparisons to Callahan are a bit premature for a player with just two seasons of juniors on his resume, but he’s been impressed with Stephens’ attitude and work ethic over the first half of Lightning rookie camp.
“I don’t want to put those expectations on the kid right now,” Zettler said when asked about the Stephens-Callahan correlation. “He’s fresh out of junior. He just got drafted. He’s sort of feeling his way and trying to figure out what it takes to play at this level. We can answer those questions three or four years down the line when he turns pro. Right now, he’s just starting to learn the game. He’s a good kid. He’s a good player. He’s just got some more growing to do, that’s all.”
Stephens said he follows Callahan to pick up nuances of the game, but it’s another player, fellow Peterborough native and current Nashville Predators center Mike Fisher, who he molds his game after.
“Fisher’s a guy that is a role model for me with the compete game that he plays,” Stephens said. “But Callahan, he shows an all-around, 200-foot game, and he’s someone to watch, for sure.”
Callahan and Stephens have one more trait in common: they’re both natural leaders.
Callahan was traded to the Lightning in March of 2014 and seven months later had become one of the more respected voices in the locker room and an alternate captain for the 2014-15 season. In New York, Callahan was the Rangers’ captain for two-and-a-half seasons.
Stephens also displays great leadership qualities. He captained Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF Under-18 World Championships and racked up 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) in seven games, helping Canada win a Bronze Medal.
Stephens will serve as an assistant captain for Saginaw during the 2015-16 season.
As for the remainder of his debut rookie camp experience, Stephens said he wants to learn how to be a professional and how to handle the ups and downs of life in the NHL while continuing to develop his all-around game.
“You have to come in night in and night out and compete right,” he said. “For me, it’s being consistent. Every shift, every play is 100 percent. That’s the biggest thing.”
Even at his young age, Mitchell Stephens sure talks a lot like Ryan Callahan too.