VANCOUVER -- As an undersized center, Winnipeg Jets prospect Nicolas Petan could have picked an easier path to pro hockey.
Petan could have played college hockey instead of the Western Hockey League, giving him more time to fill out a slender 5-foot-9 frame. But he wanted to prove his game already was big enough for a pro-style game, so he went to the Portland Winterhawks instead.
"As a small guy he could have looked in another direction, taken his time in college, but he wanted to prove he could play in a physical, demanding league," Portland coach and general manager Mike Johnston said. "Everybody asks if a small guy can play with the big guys. He wanted to prove to everybody he could play major junior."
Petan has done just that. He tied linemate Brendan Leipsic for the WHL scoring lead with 120 points in 71 games last season and was picked in the second round (No. 43) by the Jets in the 2013 NHL Draft. And after a strong showing at a preseason camp and tournament for NHL prospects, Petan has continued to dominate in the WHL this season.
Despite having his season interrupted by a stint with Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he scored four goals in seven games and signed his first contract with the Jets hours after scoring the winning goal against Slovakia, Petan again is tied for the WHL scoring lead with 100 points (32 goals, 68 assists) in 50 games.
"His on-ice intelligence is at another level," Johnston said. "He's got special skill and his compete is as good as any big guy."
There was a bit of a production dip in January when an exhausted Petan returned from the disappointment of failing to win a medal at World Juniors and had five goals and 18 points in 11 games, including a stretch of four in five nights right after returning. But Petan, a Vancouver-area native who doesn't turn 19 until March 22, was back above his two-points-per-game average in February with seven goals and 16 points in the first seven games.
Much like that decision to play in the WHL, however, Petan is more focused on building his game -- and body -- for the NHL. Like every other time he has moved up a level, he knows he'll have to prove himself all over again as a smaller forward.
"For sure," Petan said. "Everyone is always doubting the size and the strength, but I think for me it's motivation and I've overcome it on every team I've had to make. So whether it's two years or one year or three years, my goal is to make the Winnipeg Jets."
Petan made the decision to play in the WHL when he was 14, in part because he grew up dreaming of it while watching the Vancouver Giants, and in part because he saw it as the best path to his other hockey dream of playing in the League. The Giants also provided Petan with a good role model in 5-foot-9 forward Brendan Gallagher, now in his second season with the Montreal Canadiens.
"I still like to watch him a lot, the way he plays and how he competes out there," Petan said of Gallagher, a friend of his older brother Alex, who is in his second year playing NCAA hockey at Michigan Tech. "[Gallagher] has a little more grit to him, getting into those dirty areas, but I think that's another thing I have to work on, getting to those areas and play a little more of a gritty game along with my skill."
Johnston, who spent eight seasons as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings before joining the Winterhawks, sees a different comparable for Petan.
"I coached against [Joe] Sakic when he was still in his heyday and I think Nic can learn from the way Sakic played and use his speed and acceleration. And that's what I try to get Nic to do," Johnston said.
Jets prospect Nicolas Petan is focused on building his game –- and body –- for the NHL. Like every other time he has moved up a level, he knows he'll have to prove himself all over again as a smaller forward. (Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI)
For Johnston, that means getting Petan to use his speed more often instead of relying on his puck skills to try and slow the game down.
"Nic likes to slow it down and control it, but there is a time to slow it down and a time to really accelerate into those holes and Sakic had real balance to his game that way," Johnston said. "For Nic, it's using his speed all the time. He can think the game a high level. I want him to think it at high speed at a high level. Don't slow the game down; keep it going fast because he can do that better than most guys."
Petan remembers cheering for Sakic, who also is from the Vancouver suburbs, growing up and models parts of his game after him.
"Just his skill set, his shot, his deceptive speed," Petan said. "He wasn't the biggest guy out there so I always looked up to him."
Tampa Bay Lightning star Martin St. Louis is another player Petan looks up to, and the 173-pound Petan knows there is work to do in order to match the strength players like Sakic and St. Louis brought to the League.
"All this playing hockey is not helping, but it's more important in the offseason," Petan said of his busy season, pointing to brother Alex, who is almost three years older as one reason he is confident the extra weight will come with summer workouts. Alex is listed by Michigan Tech at 5-9 and 180 pounds. "It comes with time. Last year he hit his stride, hit his weight and gained all his weight.
"Now he looks like a box. That's what I am looking forward to."