Two months ago, rookie forward Justin Bowers
was simply trying to make a name for himself with the Florida Everblades.
These days, he's the leading scorer for the Dayton Bombers.
After being the final piece of the deal that sent All-Star forward Yannick Tifu
to Florida, Bowers has been sensational in Dayton. Eleven games into his first professional season, the 23-year-old is pacing the club with 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists).
His contributions have helped the Bombers get off to a terrific start. They currently reside in third place in the North Division, trailing the first-place Johnstown Chiefs by only three points.
"I went to camp in Florida, and then after training camp was done they traded me to Dayton," Bowers said of the deal that went down on Oct. 17. "I just kind of jumped right into the mix of things. I started feeling comfortable in Florida. In my first exhibition game, I had a four-point night. I felt pretty good. But the next week, I got dealt to Dayton. It worked out for the best, though."
Indeed it has. Not only is Bowers leading his team in scoring, but his 15 points have him tied for third among all ECHL rookies. While he's not considered to be flashy, Bowers has been a model of consistency for the Bombers.
"He's got a good set of hands on him," Dayton coach Bill McDonald said. "We didn't put any pressure on him. We worked on his defense, and we're still working on his defense. He's one of these guys that when you look at the stats at the end of the game, he's got one assist, two assists or a goal and an assist ... he makes the smart plays when he has to."
Bowers truly is one of the surprises in the ECHL this season. Less than three years ago, the 6-foot, 185-pound center was playing for the Woodstock Slammers in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League, where he played for three years. In his final two seasons, he tallied 88 goals and 129 assists in just 104 games.
"I had a couple of good years in Junior A," Bowers said. "I was unfortunate where I didn't play in the Quebec Major Junior League, but my confidence grew (in Woodstock) and I got to play the kind of style I wanted to play. I had a couple of good years there and I got a chance to win a championship, which was probably the highlight. I met a lot of good people along the way."
Clearly, though, the level competition wasn't stiff enough for Bowers. From there, he returned home to play for St. Thomas University. College hockey proved to be a better fit. While his numbers decreased dramatically -- he had 68 points in 56 games over two seasons -- St. Thomas provided Bowers with a better chance of playing professional hockey.
"I grew up where St. Thomas is in Fredericton, New Brunswick, so I knew what to expect going to the CIS level," Bowers said. "From Junior A, it's a big step. It's a bigger, stronger, faster league. It's above the CHL, it's above the Quebec Major Junior League. I got off to a good start there, and I just kept building on it and kept trying to get better. I got a great opportunity to play a lot. It worked out for me."
McDonald said Bowers was highly sought after by several ECHL clubs, but the latter ultimately chose Florida. But when the Everblades were able to acquire Tifu, they obviously had to send some talent the other way. Bowers was the final piece of a package that thus far has worked out for the Bombers, considering Tifu has appeared in just five games for Florida, which leads the South Division with 17 points.
"He's a good fit," McDonald said. "He sees the ice very well and he's very smart with the puck. He's enjoyable to coach. He's got visions of playing at the next level."
Despite signing a deal to play for the Everblades during the offseason, Bowers said he was not disappointed about the trade to Dayton. After all, without ice time at the ECHL level, how could he ever expect to get a crack in the American Hockey League?
"Florida had a bunch of older veterans that were proven in the league," Bowers said. "I was just trying to make a name for myself, so they really didn't have room for me. They kind of did me a favor rather than holding on to me and not playing me as much. They sent me to a team that needed me and was going to make me a better player."
"That's my ultimate goal ... to sign a contract and not have to work in the summer. I'm just working hard and trying in every practice and every game to become a better hockey player. Hopefully, someone gives me a chance in the American League." -- Justin Bowers
So far, that's exactly what's happened. McDonald is committed to helping Bowers improve in the defensive end, while Bowers intends to working on his skating, which usually is the determining factor as far as promotions to the AHL are concerned.
"Skating's always been my knock," Bowers admitted. "I'm a decent skater, I'm just not a quick skater. That's always been my thing. It's a puck-possession game now, so it's just a matter of being able to hold on the puck longer. That's kind of what I have to work on."
"I think he has to get up to the tempo a little bit," the Bombers coach said. "We've got some drills that we practice with him. He's playing center now, and he'd rather play on the right side. But I like him at center. He can learn a little bit more. He has some upside."
Whether or not Bowers gets a crack in the AHL this season remains to be seen. But if the rookie continues to produce for the Bombers at this rate, one has to believe that he'll receive a promotion at some point down the road.
"That's my ultimate goal ... to sign a contract and not have to work in the summer," Bowers said. "I'm just working hard and trying in every practice and every game to become a better hockey player. Hopefully, someone gives me a chance in the American League."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.