Erie Otters forward Alexander DeBrincat has grown accustomed to hearing he's too small to be a hockey player.
The 5-foot-7, 165-pound left wing has spent the past two seasons showcasing his skills and smarts and is No. 21 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, which will take place at First Niagara Center in Buffalo on June 24-25.
"I'm not scared to get hit, that's not really a problem," DeBrincat said. "The factor of getting in a vulnerable position and being in a position where I'm going to get myself hurt, that's more what it is. I'm not scared to take a hit to make a play."
DeBrincat has made a lot of plays during his two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. He had his second-straight 51-goal season in 2015-16, making him one of three OHL players since 1997-98 with consecutive 50-goal seasons, joining Ottawa's Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings) in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and Sudbury's Norman Milley in 1998-99 and 1999-2000. DeBrincat also is the first OHL player to score at least 50 goals in his first two seasons in the league since Tony Tanti with Oshawa in 1980-81 and 1981-82.
"He has all the skills necessary to be a quality player at the next level," Central Scouting's Matt Ryan said. "He's got elite-level hockey sense. He definitely has a nose for the net. He has a great release, great shot. His ability to read the play and understand where to go to produce scoring opportunities will allow him to succeed at the next level."
DeBrincat had 54 goals in 50 games at Lake Forest (Ill.) Academy in 2013-14 and was committed to the University of Massachusetts. But growing up in Farmington Hills, Mich., the team he watched the most was the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL and that league was his desired destination.
He wasn't selected in the 2014 OHL draft but was invited to try out for Erie.
"Going into Erie, I was just kind of hoping to be on the team and make the lineup every night," he said.
A solid showing at training camp earned him a roster spot for 2014-15, and with Erie desperate for linemates to play with standout center Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), DeBrincat got a shot.
"We were missing guys like Dane Fox, who had the most goals in the league [64 in 2013-14], Connor Brown, [Andre] Burakovsky, Brendan Gaunce," Erie coach Kris Knoblauch said. "We were really depleted. We didn't have a whole lot of guys to play with Connor."
DeBrincat excelled, leading OHL rookies with 51 goals and 104 points, the most by a rookie in the league since London's Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) had 145 in 2006-07.
This season, DeBrincat played mostly on a line with center Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes). Strome plays a more controlled, puck-possession style but DeBrincat adjusted his game and had his second straight 50-goal, 100-point season.
"To be able to play with two players that are so different, both very skilled but just the pace of their game, Alex has been able to adapt," Knoblauch said. "I think that says a lot about his skill but probably more about his hockey smarts."
Those smarts include knowing he has to get to the net to score.
"He is so competitive and plays with an edge and never backs down," Knoblauch said. "The majority of the goals that get scored are within a 15-foot radius of the net. He understands that and he understands that you have to pay the price to score goals. Alex likes to score goals so he's willing to do all those things."
DeBrincat said he's learned to use his size as an advantage when it comes to getting to the net.
"It definitely helps you hide a little bit," he said. "Being small, I don't have to take a big body to the front of the net so I can be elusive and be quick with my steps and stuff like that. … I've been smaller my whole life. And that's helped me with my game. I don't put myself in vulnerable positions. I had to learn early how to get out of bad situations."
DeBrincat also showed he could produce regardless of his linemates. At times, Knoblauch used DeBrincat at center, and said his production with linemates Taylor Raddysh and Kyle Maksimovich was better than when he was with McDavid and Strome.
"Probably only played a dozen games without one of those two guys [McDavid and Strome] being on his line but he has played some really big games this year," Knoblauch said. "This year he was a centerman which isn't his natural position, playing with Kyle Maksimovich and Taylor Raddysh. I would say probably his points per game with those guys was probably three points per game. It's only 10, 12 games but he can't play without Dylan Strome or can't play without Connor McDavid? Well, he's shown that he can do that."
After years of disproving doubters, DeBrincat plans to continue do it as he attempts to advance to the NHL.
"That's what I've been told my whole life, that you're not going be able to do it at the next level," DeBrincat said. "That's something I've had to prove my whole life. Going to the next level from here, that's something I'm going to have to prove again."