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Mississauga's Day moves past 'exceptional' label

by Aaron Vickers

Every Thursday, will look ahead to the 2016 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Mississauga Steelheads defenseman Sean Day doesn't necessarily want to be known as exceptional. The 2016 NHL Draft prospect would prefer to be himself.

Day still is trying to move past the heightened expectations of being granted exceptional-player status and allowed to play in the Ontario Hockey League as a 15-year-old in 2013.

"To this day there's still pressure about it," Day said. "I'm kind of scrutinized more than anyone else because of that label. I can't really make excuses for it. I just kind of play and hopefully people see that I'm the same age as everyone else in the draft. I did play an extra year [in the OHL], but I'm on the same development curve as everyone else still. To me it doesn't really matter. I don't think too much about it. I just play."

Sean Day is a top prospect for the 2016 NHL Draft in June. (Photo: Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

But much has been made of the 6-foot-3, 230-pound defenseman who was born in Belgium to Canadian parents but calls Rochester, Mich., home.

Day followed John Tavares (2005), Aaron Ekblad (2011) and Connor McDavid (2012) as the fourth player granted exceptional-player status by Hockey Canada. But he was the first not to be picked No. 1 in the OHL draft, going fourth to Mississauga.

The drop immediately put Day in the crosshairs.

"It's a smaller version of the NHL draft, but I remember watching Seth Jones and this year Noah Hanifin, they were ranked in the top-three best players in the [NHL] draft and falling down to fourth and fifth," Day said.

Jones was No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of prospects for the 2013 NHL Draft and went fourth to the Nashville Predators. Hanifin was ranked third for the 2015 draft and went fifth to the Carolina Hurricanes.

"It's obviously not the same scale, but it's kind of one of those things of what the team needs," Day said.

"You're still the same player. Whether I would've went first or fourth or whatever it was, it's me. Whatever team picked me is getting me. Nothing really changes, I guess. You just go and show up."

It's a mature approach from Day, 17, who has seen his buzz diminish as his draft day nears.

Tavares had 157 goals and 329 points in 191 games with the Oshawa Generals leading into his draft year. Ekblad was a cornerstone for the Barrie Colts and one of the more imposing defensemen in the OHL by the time he turned 17. McDavid had 53 goals and 165 points in 119 games, and represented Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship at age 16.

Day had 16 points in 60 games as a rookie in 2013-14, and 10 goals and 36 points in 61 games last season.

Tavares (2009, New York Islanders), Ekblad (2014, Florida Panthers) and McDavid (2015, Edmonton Oilers) each went on to be selected first in the NHL draft. The same expectation doesn't fall on Day.

"The nice thing is that he's now a hockey player," Hockey Canada director of player personnel Ryan Jankowksi said. "He's not a special player. He's a hockey player playing in his draft year and hoping to have a good year in Mississauga. That makes it easier for him to go through the whole process and just play hockey."

Day has the same approach.

"It's weird because I've taken it like I know it's my draft year but I don't feel a lot of pressure," he said. "I feel like I can just be me and play."

This season, Day has eight points in 13 games and earned a B rating from NHL Central Scouting in its September players to watch list.

"He's an exceptional NHL skater," Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "He's got size and strength assets going for him. I still think he's still got to show everybody what his identity is as a player, what kind of player he's going to be and what kind of player he has the potential to be. He's got his time under his belt now. He's going into the OHL season with experience under his belt. It's showtime for him this year."

So far, Day hasn't lived up to the lofty levels of the players previously granted exceptional-player status. And he knows it.

"It's the last year; all the scouts are talking about you," Day said. "'Oh he's not going to be that good,' and all that stuff. This year you have 68 games to prove what you are and then it's over, and you go right into the draft.

"If I didn't play my 15-year-old season [in the OHL] I think a lot of people would have me, think of me, as one of the top guys still. I still am rated up there. But a lot of the guys scrutinize me more, saying I haven't developed as fast as everyone else.

"To me that's just another challenge. I talk to my parents and agent about it all the time. It's just another thing I have to battle through. I think it's kind of fun, to be honest, sometimes."

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