April 15, 2014
Calling his coach's bluff, in a matter of speaking, led to the Oshawa Generals' Josh Sterk making the change that should lead to him landing in a NHL organization this summer.
Aside from a select few, young players who put up points at will in minor hockey have to adapt in junior. After an up-and-down sophomore season with the Kitchener Rangers, Sterk capitalized on an opportunity to be the No. 2 centre with the Generals after coming east in a preseason trade. As the season went along, though, coach D.J. Smith, as a former pro defenceman, challenged Sterk to be more vigilant behind his own blueline. The message was received, eventually.
"He pretty much told me that if I didn't start playing defence I wouldn't be playing," says Sterk, whose Gens begin the OHL Eastern Conference final vs. North Bay on Friday. "At first I didn't think he was serious and I saw my time going down and down with every game. When I started getting frustrated, that's when I started bearing down and now my numbers are up to 20, 25 minutes a game. I can't thank him enough for making him the player I am.
"I wouldn't have had my breakout year if I didn't get that trade," adds Sterk, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound centre who is ranked No. 84 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. "Obviously [Generals GM] Jeff Twohey did a good job to get me. As for the opportunity I got in Oshawa, I worked hard this summer, but the OHL is all about opportunity. D.J. Smith put me on the second line with [surefire NHL first-rounder] Michael Dal Colle and Hunter Smith at the beginning of the year and I started off hot. Then they put me in more of a shutdown role in the second half because we knew we would need that coming into playoff time. He switched me over to over to Dal Colle and Cole Cassels."
Sterk tallied 20 goals and 54 points across 66 games in the regular season for the conference-winning Generals. In the playoffs, the Georgetown, Ont., native has been steady with nine points (5G-4A) over an 8-0 run through the first two rounds. Sterk's ability to read the ice and get a quick shot away has also made him a cog in Oshawa's five-forward power-play setup, meaning teams can't always sag toward Dal Colle, Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Scott Laughton or imposing 6-foot-6 wing Hunter Smith.
"Picking Sterky up at the start of the year, as well as Hunter Smith is as much a reason as any that we've had success," D.J. Smith says. "Josh plays with some of our better players and complements them. He's a guy who wants to win and wants to prove people wrong. Obviously being traded out of Kitchener, not by will, and being traded for a draft pick [a fourth and sixth], usually that means the team didn't want [the player]. He's out to prove something and gives me another option."
Sterk cast his lost with the Rangers in 2011 after eliciting strong interest from Bemidji State and Penn State. Injuries and being below a surfeit of veteran forwards on the '12-13 Rangers depth chart limited him to six goals and 22 points over 51 games. Both he and Hunter Smith (who is No. 39 in Central Scouting's domestic ranking) have each used the Generals' success as a springboard to becoming re-entry candidates for the NHL draft.
"I had some injuries last year and didn't play as much as I wanted to Kitchener, where we had a high-end talented group that should have made farther than we did," Sterk said. "That hurt me for the draft."
1. Every young player needs to have quicker feet and increased strength, but what is one on-ice skill yo?
"Probably still my defensive game. It's not just sticking with my guy when he has the puck, it's my play away from the puck too. I have to keep my head on a swivel."
2. You have to be yourself, but what NHL players do you watch since his, or their, game is similar to yours?
"Probably my favourite players right now or Pavel Datsyuk or Jonathan Toews. But I try to model my game after a Brad Marchand or a Brendan Gallagher. A guy who's smaller in size but still works hard. I like how they play in front of the net and battle for every single inch of space. I think if you battle that hard every single night, you'll make the NHL."
3. Outside of immediate family and your current coaches, whom do you really credit for helping you reach this phase?
"Probably my minor midget coach, Mark Filippone. I've got to his camps since I was probably six years old and he's helped me with everything, my shooting, my passing. I still, to this day, call him to ask for his opinion. He's usually right there for me."
4. Who is the toughest defenceman you have faced at any point over your three seasons in the OHL?
"Can he be from my team, too? I played with Cody Sol my first year [with Kitchener] and he was so strong and so tough to get around in practice. I played with Julian Melchiori [who made his Winnipeg Jets debut earlier this season] my first year as well and then he got traded to Oshawa and was one of the better defencemen we played. Or someone like [former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds star] Ryan Sproul."
5. Out of all you've done so far in hockey, what gives you the most pride?
"Probably helping out in the community, it's good to go and see little kids' faces, like go to schools and read with them. Making conference finals is a huge thing, but sometimes it's not all about hockey, it's about the little things too. Like the school events. You go and read to the kids and afterward play a game of floor hockey and let them score and just see their faces light up because they just scored against an OHL player."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.