When Jeff Blashill was named head coach at Western Michigan in 2010, he inherited an incoming freshman, who today might be the hottest hockey free agent on an American college campus.
“I had no idea how good Danny was when I took the job,” Blashill said. “Through that season Danny did an outstanding job for us. He played the game very efficiently. He never tried to take too much and he was great offensively through transition, but he didn’t take unneeded risk.”
Now the head coach of the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Blashill has followed Danny DeKeyser’s development and believes that a successful NHL career is in the junior defenseman's future.
“I watched him play last year and he’s definitely improved,” Blashill said. “He has a chance to be a very good (NHL) player.”
The Warren De La Salle alumnus is a hot commodity, who will likely be pursued by all 30 NHL clubs, including the Red Wings, at the end of the collegiate season. League-wide interest in DeKeyser remains on the rise since last season when he made measureable development as an excellent mobile, puck-moving defenseman.
“A lot of people say that I’ve come out of nowhere,” DeKeyser said. “But I really don’t like to think of it as that. I’ve always thought that I was a pretty good player and I’ve always had confidence in myself, but it’s been fun playing for Western and developing into a better player. We’ve had a pretty good team in the three years that I’ve been here, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
The excitement will grow next month when DeKeyser leads the Broncos into the 48th Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena. WMU will face Michigan State in the 3:30 p.m. EST opener on Dec. 29. Michigan will face-off against Michigan Tech at 7 p.m. The tournament championship will be held Dec. 30 at 7 p.m.
“Growing up near Detroit I would watch the GLI on TV around Christmas or sometimes we would just go down to The Joe and catch the games,” DeKeyser said. “It was a good opportunity to watch some great hockey. When I was younger, I always admired those guys and always thought about how cool it would be to play in that tournament.”
It was about that time DeKeyser, who was playing AAA hockey in the Detroit area, that he realized the sport could be more than just an after-school activity.
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“Hockey kind of came to me maybe in my junior year of high school,” he said. “I was playing for Compuware and it was pretty far from my house in Clay Township, which is about an hour away. I made the sacrifice back then to drive out there for practices four times a week, but made the most of out it. I always made sure that I was getting my workouts in after practice. It kind of dawned on me in high school that if I work hard I might have an opportunity to do something pretty cool.”
A handful of NHL teams attempted to fulfill DeKeyser’s dreams, but couldn’t persuade him to sign on the dotted line last spring after the Broncos won the CCHA championship, capping one of the best seasons in school history. But DeKeyser’s desire to return to Kalamazoo was seeled when he told WMU coach Andy Murray that he would return for the 2012-13 campaign.
While DeKeyser has always been confident in his own skills and ability, it wasn’t until he sat-down for a conversation with his boyhood idol Steve Yzerman that he knew an NHL career could be within reach.
|Danny DeKeyser |
“I always admired Yzerman, especially for the kind of captain that he was,” DeKeyser said. “Just to sit down and talk to him about possibly playing in the NHL one day kind of left me awestruck.”
So what did the Red Wings’ legend, turned Tampa Bay general manager, tell the Clay Township, Michigan native?
“He just said that he liked how I played,” DeKeyser said, “thought that I had a really bright upside, and possibly a future in the NHL.”
Most scouts believe that DeKeyser’s future is based on a combination of his size (6-foot-3, 190-pounds), his exceptional skating, and terrific shot from the point.
“He’s very, very smart and has great lateral movement and can close down on guys very easily,” Blashill said. “His shot is something that’s definitely improved. Over the course of a season, (Broncos assistant coach) Pat Ferschweiler really helped him with his shooting.
“Danny has to create offense through transition and getting the puck through from the blue line.”
DeKeyser’s shot is both powerful and remarkably accurate, and it isn’t often that he misses his intended mark. But when he missed the net before the start of last Monday’s practice, it caused the 22-year-old to do a double-take.
“I fired a wrister and it just went over the net and hit the back glass and it just shatter,” he said. “That was the first time I’ve ever done that.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose