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Kitchener centre Justin Azevedo named OHL's outstanding player

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Kitchener Rangers head coach Pete DeBoer told Justin Azevedo he'd lead the Ontario Hockey League in scoring one day.

DeBoer was prophetic. The 20-year-old centre from West Lorne, Ont., was named the OHL's outstanding player Tuesday after compiling a league-high 124 points in 67 games for the Rangers.

Azevedo scored 43 goals and added 81 assists in 2007-08.

"I think Pete was the one who said I would be leading the league in scoring one of these years, but I didn't think I'd actually be receiving this award," Azevedo said during a conference call Tuesday from Kitchener, Ont.

"But I knew I could be successful in this league."

Azevedo earned the Red Tilson Trophy, which is voted on by OHL media, as the league's top player.

The five-foot-eight, 180-pound forward hasn't been drafted by an NHL team. Azevedo attended the Atlanta Thrashers' rookie camp two years ago.

"The nice thing about Justin is he doesn't know he's five foot eight. No one has told him that yet," DeBoer said. "He plays a lot bigger. This is the kind of kid who is going to find a way to put the puck in the net."

Azevedo's consistency and competitiveness helped the Rangers weather extended absences of top forwards Matt Halischuk and Nick Spaling this season due to injury and illness.

Kitchener finished first in the OHL at the end of the regular season.

The Rangers face the Belleville Bulls in the opener of the league's championship series Wednesday and the Rangers host the Memorial Cup from May 16 to 25.

Azevedo has six goals and 21 assists in 13 playoff games.

OHL commissioner David Branch believes the crackdown on obstruction and interference by the OHL in recent years has helped smaller, skilled players such as Azevedo.

"The whole focus of the new standards of enforcement was to open up the game and allow the skilled players to perform and clearly that is the case with Justin," Branch said. "He is arguably the most, exciting dynamic player in our league today."

Azevedo agreed the enforcement of rules helped him, but DeBoer says his star centre would have been successful in the OHL regardless.

"I saw Justin play and our scouts saw him play under the old rules playing Junior B and he was just as successful and just as dynamic and just as dominant playing under the old rules," DeBoer said.

Azevedo isn't sure what his pro prospects are, but he's preoccupied now with the OHL final and the Memorial Cup.

"I'm trying not to think about it too much. I think I'll get a tryout somewhere, but I don't think anybody really knows what will happen,"Azevedo said.

"I think you've got to prove yourself no matter where you go. I am a smaller guy and I've been trying to prove to everybody that I can play at a higher level my whole life growing up. It's nothing new to me."

Oshawa Generals forward John Tavares won the Red Tilson Trophy in 2007.

Previous winners of the OHL's highest award for an individual player include Anaheim Ducks forward Corey Perry (2005, London Knights), San Jose Sharks defenceman Brian Campbell (1999, Ottawa 67's) and Nashville Predators forward David Legwand (1998, Plymouth Whalers).

"I wouldn't say I had my fingers crossed, but I had the year I wanted to have," Azevedo said. "I did my best to lead this team and we've been doing a good job so far.

"I didn't expect to get it. I was just hoping for the best."

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