When the 2008-09 season started, not too many NHL eyes were focused on Brampton Battalion defenseman Matt Clark
By the time the season ended, however, he was attracting scouts like a flame draws out moths.
"He's a kid that probably has improved the most of the kids in the draft this year from how they started in September to how they finished in April," one Eastern Conference scout told NHL.com.
So just how did the 6-foot-3, 205-pound blueliner go from No. 23 among Ontario Hockey League skaters in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings in November to No. 58 in the midterm rankings in January to No. 31 in the final rankings in April?
"I just worked hard all season," Clark told NHL.com. "I spent a lot of time working with the coaches and assistant coaches working on my game, working on the mental part of my game. My work ethic and my desire to succeed got me to improve a lot in the eyes of the scouts."
Clark had 3 goals and 23 points in 63 games this season, but was tied for third among the team's defensemen with a plus-21 rating, and was second on the team with 91 penalty minutes. By the end of the season, he was playing big minutes on a top team against some of the best offensive players in the league. Clark's play was a big reason the Battalion advanced to the OHL championship series.
What helped Clark the most was him believing he could be this kind of player.
"A huge part of it is confidence," said Clark. "I worked hard for that, developed it over the year. … The confidence was the biggest thing for me."
Clark said he talked with a sports psychologist, but also said a lot of help came from Brampton assistant coach Jamie Allison
, who spent 10 NHL seasons as a defenseman with the Flames, Blackhawks, Blue Jackets, Predators and Panthers.
"We had a lot of private meetings," said Clark. "He told me I'm a good defenseman -- just go out there and trust my instincts."
"The first few games that he played I noticed he was a little hesitant, holding back a little bit, and it was affecting his timing," Allison told NHL.com. "I just told him, you're a big, strong guy, skates really well. I said just be aggressive all over the ice. Have confidence in your skating, and once you start doing that players are going to respect you and you're going to get a little more room and guys are going to find different routes around the ice rather than going through you."
The route Clark found is straight up the draft charts.
"Matt has improved 100 percent over the course of the season," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "Early on he was a fifth or sixth defenseman who did not get any special teams shifts; as the year went along, he became a steady, reliable top-four defenseman.
"He turned himself into a very good penalty killer. His skating has improved a lot over the course of the season. He is smart with the puck and makes simple but very good outlet passes. Late in the season he was rushing with the puck and he started to show more confidence with the puck. He does not make many mistakes in his own zone."
That Eastern scout said Clark compares favorably with New York Rangers
blueliner Marc Staal
"He has a lot of Staal-like characteristics -- the work ethic, the mobility, the size. I think at the beginning of a night, when a forward is lined up and looks at the other team and sees him, he says, 'Oh my god I have to play against him tonight?' -- he's that type of guy."
Clark's skating still is something he knows he needs to work on.
"Everyone at the OHL level is big, fast and strong, so I wanted to be a mobile defenseman as well as being big and strong," said Clark. "I came by those naturally, so I worked on my speed."
He's certainly done enough in the eyes of some.
"It would not shock me to see Matt drafted in the first round in Montreal," said Edwards.
Allison may be a bit biased, but he believes Clark is going to have a long, successful NHL career.
"He's going to make a scout a job for a lifetime," said Allison. "He'll be a 20-year steady NHL defenseman. Whether or not at that level he'll be No. 1 or 2, I think he has the potential to be. He'd be a good, solid first-round pick to me. He's going to be a for-sure top-four defenseman for a long time."
Clark said that kind of lofty standing only adds to his growing confidence level.
"I wouldn't say I was surprised (with the rank), but it's nice to see that," he said. "I knew I was capable of that, I knew I was important to my team. To have other people notice it was a nice compliment. It's great to see. You start to build a name for yourself, get some respect around the league. It's been great to see; I'm just enjoying the ride."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.