Alex Young had a good feeling about last October’s NHL entry draft. He had every reason to be: Young had just finished one of the best two-year stretches of play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) for a forward his age in recent memory. Yet, the fourth round passed, then the fifth and sixth. Still, Young’s name was not called. As the seventh and final round began, the soon-to-be-20-year-old forward had no choice but to head to the rink for practice.
As a result of pandemic postponements, Young was already well into his freshman-year season at Colgate University when the 2020 draft began. At practice that day, he tried to not think about the seventh round, then in progress.
With offense in spades, Young must focus on defense
There’s a good chance Young worked on his defensive reads at the rink. He told San Jose Hockey Now via phone interview that he’s a “playmaker who plays with patience and poise,” but that he has to be more focused in his own end.
Colgate’s head coach, Don Vaughan, echoed his player’s analysis. Vaughan told San Jose Hockey Now, also by phone, that Young is, “exceptional when it comes to offensive instincts.” Young’s playmaking ability already a strong suit, one of Vaughan’s major goals is to help his star player continue to develop the defensive side of his game.
High-end offense with room to grow on defense are hallmark traits of would-be NHLers these days. As the league gets smaller and faster, amateur scouting staffs seem more willing to take chances on prospects who have dazzling puck skills but a more limited defensive acumen.
So Young, like many other exciting offensive talents before him, must learn to be more “detailed,” as Vaughan says, as they get closer to the NHL.
Coach speak explains what separates Young from his peers
Listen to any random NHL postgame interview, and you’re likely to hear a hockey cliché or two. Coaches bench players who show a poor “compete level.” Prospects fall in drafts because they don’t go often enough to the “dirty areas” of the ice. Younger skaters lose playing time when they aren’t “detailed” enough. Like many of the oft-repeated hockey phrases, the term “detailed” is an all-encompassing word on its face. Ask enough bench bosses for a more descriptive definition of these sayings, though, and you start to understand the specifics beneath the surface.
For Vaughan, a detailed player is one who understands their role and responsibility in each of the game’s three zones. Young’s college education, then, must happen both in the classroom and below the faceoff dots.
A careful attention to detail is not the only attribute that separates would-be NHLers from others in the college ranks. According to Vaughan, compete level and hockey IQ—two more famous coach speak terms—are the other major pieces in the NHL puzzle.
To Colgate’s skipper, the higher compete level belongs to the player more likely to emerge from battles with possession of the puck. “It’s mind over matter,” he adds, a concept that ties together many of these qualities.
Players with high hockey IQ have the wherewithal to navigate the game’s most stressful moments. They are “able to think under pressure, make plays under pressure.” For them, the game just moves at a more manageable speed.
To help players hone their mental approach to the game, the Colgate coaching staff creates as much chaos as possible during practice. Through the manufactured maelstrom at the practice rink and the constant pressure of games, Young delivers.
No matter the situation, the forward, “gets into open space where the puck is going to be,” says Vaughan. He has good east/west ability in the neutral and offensive zones. He does things instinctively, things that are hard to teach. For him, even as chaos builds, the game slows down.
In Young’s game are the hockey IQ and compete level that signify a player can rise above his peers.
A familiar name illuminates Young’s path to pro hockey
Halfway through practice that evening, Young’s teammates, among them Young’s older brother, Colton, started jumping up and down and cheering. Colgate’s electric forward and leading scorer had separated himself yet again: The San Jose Sharks selected Alex Young in the seventh round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, with the 196th-overall pick.
At the time of this writing, the intriguing member of the Sharks’ 2020 draft class has 12 points in 17 games for Colgate. That scoring rate puts Young in the top 20 percent of forwards skating in the NCAA the second year after their draft eligibility, according to Elite Prospects.
While Young isn’t keeping the company of NHL stars, his path to the league is not without precedent. Players like Gustav Nyquist and Torrey Mitchell were drafted as overagers either in or on their way to college. Sharks fans will recognize another name who scored in the 0.7-0.9 point-per-game range at Young’s age in the NCAA: San Jose Sharks forward, John Leonard.
Like Leonard, Young is, according to his coach, “an elite offensively gifted player.” Whereas Leonard played exclusively on the wing at UMass Amherst, Young has moved from the wall to center ice at Colgate.
Vaughan moved Young to center to get him closer to his brother Colton, another winger on the team, to take advantage of whatever Sedin-like communication abilities the two have. He also wanted Young to have the puck more often, to make him the focal point of the team’s breakouts. At center, Vaughan encourages Young to use his excellent east/west ability and create time and space for himself, because he’ll “ultimately make a play” with the puck on his stick.
Another late-round NHLer in the making?
To hear his coach tell it, Young is a veritable firecracker, always on the verge of a playmaking explosion. The coaching staff leans on him when the team needs to make something happen. He orchestrates the first power play unit, and he leads his fellow Colgate Raiders in scoring by a handful of points.
More than anything, Young loves the game, says Vaughan. He’s “committed to his craft and wants to get better, do the things necessary to give him the best opportunity to play at the next level.” That drive, like his offensive talents, is inherent to him. Young will need those abilities to reach the NHL; Vaughan and the coaching staff are determined to help him get there.
The first sign Young has taken another step in his development will be next season’s scoring pace. After an impressive freshman-year showing, a point-per-game scoring rate should be within his reach during the 2021-22 campaign.
Scoring rates aren’t the only indication of a player’s development. After the draft, Young was in contact with Doug Wilson and Doug Wilson Jr., who called to check in on him and wish him Merry Christmas. One of the Dougs is likely to provide public updates about the progress of their most recent draft class once the current NHL season ends. And, if all things pandemic-related go well this summer, Young may even join the Sharks for development camp in the fall.
Until then, he will, as he said, continue to, “treat every game as if it’s an important game, and just think about the next shift.” The approach has worked well so far, undoubtedly aided by his remarkable abilities, especially from his own blue line on in.
The Sharks have made a habit of turning late-round draft picks into NHL contributors. So far, there’s every reason to believe Alex Young will add his name to that list.
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