Soft Mitts, Heavy Hits was a blog that I was incredibly proud of, co-authored by two wonderful friends. While that site is no longer available, I wanted my work from there to be preserved somehow. I will be reposting a few of my 2013 articles here and backdating them so I can revisit them whenever I want!

Since the 2011 NHL draft, there has been a hum of dissent amongst Edmonton Oilers fans over a pick made in the third round that weekend. With their 5th selection (#74 Overall, acquired from the Calgary Flames with defenseman Aaron Johnson on March 3rd, 2010 in exchange for Steve Staios), the Oilers took hometown kid Travis Ewanyk from the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings. Two years later, Ewanyk has likely finished up his WHL career with a 6-game Championship Series knockout at the hands of the Portland Winterhawks. He served the Oil Kings for parts of five seasons and played in all but one of the total playoff games in team history (49, a franchise record), and signed with the Oilers on March 22nd.

The main criticism of Travis Ewanyk stems from his lack of point production, despite playing on a stacked Oil Kings team that scored nearly four goals per game this season. Although Ewanyk has always projected as a shutdown, energy-type role player, the idea at the source of this criticism is that bottom-six NHL players should traded for or acquired as free agents, not drafted and developed internally; that the Oilers went for a glorified-enforcer, “character”-type player where they should have drafted a scorer, even one to be converted to a checker later; that third round picks can be used for more valuable assets.

At 6’2” and roughly 195 lbs, Ewanyk is a big body. His dedication to off-ice training has helped him grow steadily, showing a marked increase in weight in each of his Oil Kings training camps since being taken 48th overall in the 2008 WHL Bantam Draft at 5’10” and 155 lbs. This, combined with his strong skating, hockey sense, and spatial awareness, has helped Ewanyk to develop an excellent physical game. He has been known to throw the big open-ice hit, but will back off and maintain his defensive gap rather than being out of position. He also possesses a natural leadership ability that has seen him earn the “C” in nearly every level of minor hockey, and be entrusted with an alternate’s letter on his chest after barely half a season of WHL games. His real strength, however, lies in his defensive game.

Ewanyk is known throughout the WHL as an elite shutdown centre on one of the league’s most effective checking lines. Ewanyk and fellow Oilers prospect Mitch Moroz were put in the traditional third line role, tasked with checking the big guns of the opposition, and swinging the momentum in their team’s favour. Ewanyk’s line usually saw a lot of ice time directly after failed powerplays or goals against, and was often in the starting lineup to set the tone for their teammates.

Ewanyk’s best minutes probably came as a key component of a penalty kill that led the league with an efficiency of over 90% for most of the season. He is also one of the only forwards in the league to be regularly used as a defensive “shadow”, a role he has found success with since his draft year when he was lauded for his assignment to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the 2011 WHL Playoffs. More recently, he was tasked with shutting down Medicine Hat Tigers forward and top NHL draft prospect Hunter Shinkaruk in the second round of this year’s playoffs, holding the high-octane scorer pointless at even strength. (Meanwhile, Ewanyk potted a couple goals of his own.) The Oilers and Oil Kings have loved his dedication to defensive responsibility–and so has Hockey Canada, reflected in his appearance at the 2011 Under-18 World Championships where he was assigned to Nail Yakupov and heralded for his astronomical faceoff percentage. He was also reportedly a strong candidate for the 2013 World Junior team prior to getting injured in the Subway Super Series, another Hockey Canada event.

Ewanyk has shown a decrease in his scoring output since his draft year, but this can be explained by a better understanding of how the Oil Kings function. In the 2010-2011 regular season, Ewanyk scored 16 goals (including a franchise record of four shorthanded that still stands today) and dropped the gloves 10 times, making his name as a gritty 17-year-old energy player. The expected trajectory would, of course, be upwards from that point. However, Ewanyk’s already refined defensive game had really shown itself towards the end of that season, and by the time he returned from his management-ordered shoulder surgery, his role had changed to full-time shutdown centre. Ewanyk has continued to work on his offensive ability with Oilers Skating and Skills Coach Steve Serdachny, but is rarely called upon to use these techniques in game situations. He’s certainly more versatile than his numbers would suggest, as was shown in late October and November during perhaps his best stretch of hockey. He hit the scoresheet for 5 points in 6 games while spotting in on the Oil Kings’ top line and powerplay prior to an appearance with Team WHL at the Subway Super Series.

Having such a well-developed defensive game is the reason Ewanyk was considered a safe pick as a shutdown centre. Usually teams will draft scoring players and attempt to convert them into defensive players if they can’t find their scoring game at the pro level.  This process can take time, as players need to adjust to the defensive mindset required of bottom-six players.  As Ewanyk is already playing a defensive game, it should take him far less time to transition to the same style of game in the pros than it would for a player who’s used to playing top-six minutes. His defensive awareness and simple, physical style of play should make his transition to the pros far easier than the point production of an elite-level junior scorer. The luxury of being able to allow Ewanyk to develop his defensive game even further at the pro level is a great thing for an NHL team that has lacked defense and grit over the last few years.

There is one myth in particular about the Ewanyk pick that should be cleared up. There is a belief that the Oilers made a gamble on Ewanyk, drafting him higher than necessary due to his presence on their baby brother team, the Oil Kings, and the repetition of the words “character” and “work ethic” on his scouting reports. True; it is rare for a defensive forward with just 27 points in his draft year to be ranked in the top three rounds–in fact, Ewanyk had the lowest points-per-game average of any non-pro player selected to that point. Really, though, this should be viewed more of a reflection of just how good Ewanyk’s defensive game is. It should be noted that NHL Central Scouting had Ewanyk at #66 in their final ranking of North American skaters; he came in at #64 on TSN’s draft ranking, and International Scouting Services had him as the #42 pick in their final list. (The CSS rankings came out prior to Ewanyk’s impressive showing at the U18’s, leading many scouts to believe he had improved his ranking substantially.) In other words, Ewanyk was drafted right around where he was expected to. It could easily be argued that he actually slipped to where the Oilers selected him.

Some of the Oilers’ more common problems this year included a lack of grit, size, character, defense, and centres. Then there’s the fact that Oilers management’s best uses of third round picks in recent memory come in the form of Theo Peckham, Mike Brown, and Mark Fistric. So, even if drafting Travis Ewanyk in 2011 was a gamble on their part, it’s hard to argue that it was a bad one to take.

Travis Ewanyk (@T_Ewanyk) recently signed an Amateur Tryout Offer with the Oilers AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City, and is observing the Barons on their playoff run with fellow Oil Kings/Oilers prospects Martin Gernat and David Musil.

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