DETROIT – Xavier Ouellet’s time in Detroit last season may have been short, but it was very sweet.
The 20-year-old was called up from the Grand Rapids Griffins on Oct. 21 and made his NHL debut with Detroit during the team’s 1-0 shootout loss to San Jose. The defenseman skated in place of Jonathan Ericsson, whose fiancé delivered the couple’s first child, a daughter named Liv.
“I was really excited,” Ouellet said of making his debut. “I was happy to have my opportunity and I just wanted to get the best of it. It’s a loss so it’s kind of hard to say I feel good but I’m pretty proud of my game. There are a few things to still work on but it was really exciting and a great experience.”
The Bayonne, France, native returned to Grand Rapids the following day, and appeared in three more regular-season games throughout the season, making a lasting impression on his coaches and teammates during his short time wearing the Winged Wheel.
“I think he played very well, he made it easy on myself too,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “I think he’s got a lot of skill and he understands the NHL or the professional way to play. You have to get the puck in the top guy’s hands, we have some great forwards and he understood that. He made the easy, simple play and that’s how he stayed out of trouble and it actually ended up working out really well for our D pairing.”
Ouellet recorded one shot on goal and one hit in 17:15 of ice time against the Sharks, including a hit on San Jose’s Joe Thornton that couldn’t be ignored.
“I thought he was great,” goaltender Jimmy Howard said. “He did a great job keeping everyone in front of him. He battled, he had a big hit on Joe (Thornton) there in the first, first game of many for him. He wasn’t afraid to be out there against him and that’s great to see, for X to step up and put a guy of his stature on his rear end.”
It was Ouellet’s first hit, and one that stuck out in his mind after the game.
“I’m pretty proud, I did what I had to do and we’ll see what the coaches think about that,” he said.
The coaches noticed, too. Coach Mike Babcock liked Ouellet’s play through training camp, and recognizes that as a young defenseman, it’s not always about making big plays, but more often about how few mistakes you make.
“Obviously we want them to play and make nice easy plays,” Babcock said. “We want them to do it every time. That’s what Nick Lidstrom made a career of. It’s not a bad way to play. We talk about it all the time. Sometimes we turn the puck over a little too much. … ”
In 23 shifts during his debut, Ouellet avoided committing any turnovers and spent his time on the bench soaking up knowledge from his fellow defensemen. Smith spent a lot of time after shifts talking to Ouellet to ease the transition between the Griffins and Red Wings systems, a gesture that the rookie greatly appreciated.
“They’re the best players in the world so I learned a lot, how to prepare and get ready on the ice talking and just learning how to play with a lot of structure,” Ouellet said. “These are things I learn every day here.”
Ouellet took advantage of every minute spent in Detroit, learning as much as he could from the veteran players. As Smith mentored the young defenseman, he was reminded of a situation he was all too familiar with.
“I did that whole stint where I was up and down, I got my few games in here and there and it was always exciting,” Smith said. “I think you just have to be a sponge and learn from all of the veterans and that’s what I did when I came here. I got to learn from Nick (Lidstrom) and (Niklas) Kronwall and all the guys that are here now. I think that’s the biggest thing for him is just to keep your eyes and ears open and just keep learning so when you get here you stay here.”
Ouellet appeared in four games with the Wings last season, recording four shots and two penalty minutes.
Through 70 regular-season games with the Griffins, he produced four goals and 13 assists.