Transition game: How will prolific Alex DeBrincat fare as a pro?

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — It doesn’t take long to see how Alex DeBrincat, all 5-7, 165 pounds of him, put up such preposterous numbers in the Ontario Hockey League.

Watch him slither through traffic in the slot, corral the puck and fire off a quick shot. See him maneuver around bigger bodies to find patches of open ice, head always up, stick ready to receive a pass. Note his uncanny, Patrick Kane-like ability to avoid contact. Look for his preternatural ability to anticipate where a rebound will end up. Gawk at his remarkably quick release, snapping off a shot from the left circle inside the far post and in or roofing one from the low slot.

It’s how he scored 65 goals in 63 games for the Erie Otters last season, joining the likes of John Tavares and Eric Lindros near the top of the OHL single-season record book. It’s why he’s the Blackhawks’ most hyped prospect since Teuvo Teravainen, maybe even since Kane.

But there are other things you notice about DeBrincat, too. His feet aren’t nearly as fast as his hands. He’s not as effective in the defensive zone as he is in the offensive zone. And yes, he’s very, very small. Toying with teenagers in the juniors is one thing. But will DeBrincat be able to sneak through the Predators’ defense unscathed? Will he be able to find open ice against the Wild? Can he avoid contact against the Blues? Is his shot sneaky enough to beat the best goalies in the world?

Alex DeBrincat will be one of the most intriguing players at Blackhawks training camp, which starts on Friday. (Brian Jackson / For the Sun-Times)

The hockey world can’t wait to find out.

“I’m not curious at all,” said Kyle Maksimovich, a Hawks free-agent invitee at the Traverse City prospect camp and a three-year teammate of DeBrincat’s in Erie. “I know he’s going to do well. I watched that guy score 65 goals in 63 games. He’ll be great.”

Nobody doubts DeBrincat’s shot, his vision, or his hockey sense. But while his teammates are sold, most talent evaluators are curious to see just how productive he can be against bigger and better players — men, not teenagers; pros, not amateurs.

“I like that he’s very creative,” Hawks director of player evaluation Barry Smith said. “I like that he can create space for himself with his quickness, his stop-and-start. I like the way he moves the puck. He’s a great passer — not good, great. But defensively, it’s going to be a challenge for him. It’s a stronger league, a bigger league, with better players. The trick is going to be the physicality — winning puck battles and getting to the spots he’s used to getting to.”

There’s no set timetable for DeBrincat, who is only 19 and who has never played professional hockey. He’ll probably get a look in the NHL at some point during the season, but there’s no organizational push to rush him. The Hawks want him to learn how to navigate bigger, tougher defenses; how to get his shot off in tighter spaces; how to work within the confines of Joel Quenneville’s system without stifling his own creativity. That takes time.

When he’s ready, he’ll play.

“He’s got to find his space,” Rockford coach Jeremy Colliton said. “Guys are bigger, they’re quicker, they’re more experienced, so they know how to take that space away.”

DeBrincat said he spent his summer in the gym, trying to “bulk up” and get faster. One Hawks scout noted that he’s changed his diet and his work habits during the offseason to better prepare himself for pro hockey. And as for that quick release, DeBrincat said, “It can always be faster.”

DeBrincat has been fielding questions about his size and his doubters for more than a year, even as he tore through the OHL. In the coming months — and years, perhaps — he’ll get a chance to answer them once and for all. 

“It’s a man’s game” he said. “But I think I can compete and play. I’m confident in my ability.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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