As he often is, Mike Kelly was right.
The former Guelph Storm general manager raved about Keegan Stevenson when the team signed him in 2017.
The Storm had drafted the Sault Ste. Marie native the year before in the sixth round. He had been injured during his draft year, limited to 21 games at a time when exposure is everything.
He was also a couple of inches shorter and a few pounds lighter.
But Kelly loved the kid. He raved about his skating, his versatility and his hockey sense.
Kelly once told me that Stevenson, who was born on the last day of 2000 and drafted in 2016, might have ended up being a first round pick in the 2017 OHL draft if he’d been born a day later.
Kelly might have seemed way off when Stevenson scored just five goals last season in 61 games and looked like a player who could be on the outside looking in as the team looked to curate a lineup capable of winning the Western Conference.
But then, as it often does, things changed in a hurry.
Alway a sound defensive player with excellent hockey instincts, Stevenson suddenly began scoring.
Heading into Friday night’s game against Sarnia, the guy who saw 101 players drafted before him has 17 goals on just 80 shots and sits at number 148 among North American skaters for the upcoming NHL draft, a position that will likely get be higher once the final rankings comes out.
Looking back at that 2016 OHL draft, there are 12 forwards taken in the first round that year currently playing in the league and Stevenson has more goals than five of them.
But it’s not the goals that will get Stevenson drafted. It’s the intangibles, namely that he reads the ice exceptionally well and rarely gets caught or makes defensive mistakes. He’s a plus-17 on the season.
Those hockey instincts come from his father Jeremy, a rough and tumble winger who racked up 85 goals and 709 penalty minutes in four years in the OHL with Cornwall, Newmarket and Sault Ste. Marie before embarking on a long pro career that included 228 games in the NHL.
While Keegan may have got his hockey sense from his father, he apparently got his temperament from his mom. Jeremy had 199 fights in his junior and pro career. Keegan hasn’t had a fight yet in the OHL.
Easily the team’s most improved player this season, he’s now become a fringe forward to one who can step in on any line at any point and not look out of place.
Sometimes it takes a little while for things to click with players, but when it does it can make the wait, and the faith, all worthwhile.