It says something – about how quickly things can change at the American Hockey League level, about how young professional hockey on the whole is becoming – that, at age 22, defenseman Stuart Percy
has played more games for the Toronto Marlies than anyone else on the roster. But it’s true: the Oakville, Ont., native played his first game with the team in the 2011-12 campaign and, in between stints with the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads and a nine-game stint with the Maple Leafs last year, he’s been honing his craft at Ricoh Coliseum and arenas around the AHL.
Given that it often takes longer for blueliners to blossom into full-time NHLers, there’s no urgent deadline demanding Percy’s attention. But with more than 130 pro games under his belt, he’s hungry to continue his development and, sooner or later, stick with the Leafs on a permanent basis.
“I guess I’m a bit of a veteran now,” Percy said after a recent Marlies practice. “But I still feel young, and it’s been great.”
At 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds, Percy doesn’t have the heft of a Dustin Byfuglien or Zdeno Chara to make his job easier – and considering his career best in goals came in 2012-13 when he scored 13 for the Steelheads, he’s not the next coming of Ottawa offensive powerhouse Erik Karlsson. For Percy to be successful, he’s got to play a positionally-sound, physically efficient game that takes advantage of his smarts.
“When he’s got the puck, he’s in control, he’s got a lot of poise with it,” Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said of Percy, who had one goal and 11 points in 43 games with the team last season. “He sees things and makes things happen on the ice that others aren’t quite capable of. At the same time, we want him to continue working on his skating, his intensity, and to defend hard as well. He’s an intelligent player that’s usually in the right spot. We just want to make sure he’s competing and he’s strong to win battles.”
When Percy speaks of what he needs to improve, he talks about the 200-foot-game Leafs head coach Mike Babcock prefers. But he’s also attuned to the expectations of his bench boss with the Marlies and understands both coaches want essentially the same thing from him.
“You definitely watch (the Leafs) when they’re on and when you can,” Percy said. “But you’re trying to follow what Sheldon’s preaching as well. He preaches a similar structure to what they’re doing up top, and I think we’re doing a great job of that so far and we just need to keep building on it.”
When he does get to check out a Leafs game, Percy finds himself paying particular attention to a veteran blueliner spending his first season in Toronto, and a guy who has earned his NHL stripes by playing an honest, low-risk game.
“I like to watch (Matt) Hunwick a lot,” Percy said. “He’s really strong positionally, he skates well, and he does the little things well that get noticed. I really like watching him play, and I try to play like him a bit.”
As a local Toronto guy, Percy couldn’t help but be swept up in Blue Jays fever this summer, and although his heart was broken by their Game 6, season-ending loss to Kansas City in the American League Final, Percy and some of his Marlies teammates attended a Jays playoff game and count themselves as fervent supporters of their fellow T.O. athletes.
“Me and my buddies have been big Blue Jays fans for the last couple summers,” Percy said. “We were pretty heartbroken in Game 6 there…but they had a great run, and it was awesome for the city.”
Percy dreams of playing on a team like the Jays – a team that captured the imagination of the entire city – only he aims to do it on a sheet of ice. That’s why you’ll find him working on his game, remembering he’s still at the beginning of his pro hockey journey and that process matters as much as the end result, and preparing for the next opportunity to elevate himself into hockey’s best league once and for all.
And what does he need to do in order to accomplish that, you ask?
“Just stay patient,” Percy said. “I’m a young guy, still only 22, so just work day-to-day to get better – and hopefully, I’ll get another chance.”