The legendary Shattuck-St. Mary’s Preparatory School in Faribault, Minnesota is known for producing some of the greatest hockey talents the NHL has seen in recent years. Names like Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews and Derek Stepan have all donned the Shattuck-St. Mary’s Sabres sweater. But it was another Shattuck player and another Stepan that drew the Nashville Predators attention.
“When Zach Stepan was available in the draft we knew we had a very intelligent, two-way player that we couldn’t pass up,” Predators Assistant General Manager Paul Fenton said. “He thinks through the game and sees the ice better than a lot of players that were available at that point.”
The Predators selected Stepan, a 5-11, 171-pound forward ranked 53rd among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final rankings, in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Prior to the draft, the Hastings, Minn., native had just finished his senior season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. Stepan took the ice in 50 games, posting 65 points (22g-43a) during the regular season as the Sabres finished 50-5-2. That success carried over into the Elite League, where he added 20 points (7g-13a) in 15 games as Shattuck went on to win the U18 Tier 1 National Championship for the second consecutive season after defeating the L.A. Junior Kings in the championship game.
Following his senior season, Stepan, who is committed to Ohio State University, decided to forgo his first year of college, and instead joined the United States Hockey League’s Waterloo Black Hawks for the 2012-13 season. He finished his first USHL season with 78 points (32g-46a) in 56 games, and was named the USHL CCM Player of the Week on four separate occasions, most recently on April 8. Prior to last week’s award, he held the honor on Jan. 7 and shared the title on two other occasions (Nov. 26 and Oct. 29).
“The thing about playing in Waterloo and at this level is the opponents are a lot bigger and a lot more skilled,” Stepan said. “So the key to my development with Waterloo has been learning to play at a consistent level against this level of players. Down at Shattuck, there were some teams that weren’t as big or as skilled, so you didn’t have to work as hard on some nights. Here you have to work hard and be consistent every time you play because all the teams are the same skill level.”
Thanks in part to an eight-game winning streak at the end of the regular season and Stepan’s play, the Black Hawks are currently facing the Fargo Force in the opening round of the USHL playoffs. Stepan recorded 12 points (6g-6a) during that eight game stretch.
“There were some really good players at Shattuck and the practice speed was nearly at this level, but not everything was that high-paced,” Stepan said. “As this season has gone on, the game has slowed down and it’s been easier from the mental side.”
While Predators fans are eager to see a player of Stepan’s skill level make it to Nashville, concerns over his size still linger among professional scouts and pundits. Waterloo’s head coach P.K. O’Handley – an 11-year coaching veteran who recently won his 500th game – disagrees with those concerns and assessments.
“There have been some questions about his size, but size doesn’t matter in his case,” O’Handley said. “He plays bigger than he is. He is still young and he is going to continue to grow and mature. I don’t think his size will be a factor in his career.
“Zach is a very intelligent player on both sides of the puck. He has great vision and his defensive game is really coming around. He has a certain tenacity about his game and he just won’t be denied. He also shoots the puck like a pro.”
While physical and mental maturity has helped with his recent success, Stepan believes it wouldn’t be possible without the coaching prowess of O’Handley.
“There are a couple of reasons why P.K. is a successful coach,” Stepan said. “First, he’s been around the game for a long time and he’s just an intelligent, seasoned coach, who knows the game very well. Also, he genuinely cares about all his players. When you have a coach who cares so much about preparing players for the next level, I think that really helps guys focus on giving him their best. I think those two things are why he’s been able to win so many hockey games and have so many players move on to the next level.”
Another Predator was also able to mature and develop within P.K. O’Handley’s system and he went on to post one of the best rookie seasons in franchise history. That player is second-year forward, Craig Smith.
O’Handley, who Smith lists as the most influential person in his career, said he’s humbled by the recognition, but it’s more about the players growing up as good men than growing up as good hockey players.
“I’m a demanding coach who doesn’t let his players cut corners,” O’Handley said. “They have to embrace the work ethic and be willing to give everything they have. These guys have to be able to play through any adversity in order to be successful at the next level. Successful players that I have coached, like Craig and Joe [Pavelski], were able to embrace everything – the work ethic, the adversity – and they went on to be pretty successful at the next level.
“I try to help them grow not only as hockey players, but as men – to develop them as a whole. I care about what they do on and off the ice. I want them to be just as good off the ice as they are on it. I’m very humbled that they see me as a role model, or as an influential guy, but I just want to see my players do well in everything.”
Stepan hopes to follow Smith’s career path as he decides on the next step of his career. In Smith’s case, his next stop after Waterloo was the University of Wisconsin, but for Stepan that next step is still taking shape.
“It’s an inspirational thing for me, knowing that such a good player developed in Waterloo and did so well in this system and had that much success in Nashville,” Stepan said of Smith. “His success shows just how good the Waterloo system is and I’m excited to use what I’ve learned while playing for P.K. as I move on to the next level.”
Other than O’Handley, Stepan has another eye watching him as he develops as a player – his cousin and third-year forward for the New York Rangers, Derek Stepan.
“He told me to just have fun with it,” Stepan said of his cousin. “He and I are kind of on the same page of – If you get too serious, it can almost throw you off your game. You have to always play your game and play it the way you know you can be successful.”
Even at a young age, Stepan seems to already have a grasp on the work ethic we’ve come to expect from the Nashville Predators.
“If you work hard and play your game, the success will come with it.”