Freak injury behind him, Chicago Steel’s Nick Moldenhauer riding explosive spring into NHL Draft

Moldenhauer, the highest of four ranked draft prospects coming out of the Geneva-based junior team this year, recovered from a gash in his face to produce a fantastic second half of the 2021-22 season.

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Nick Moldenhauer skates with the puck for the Chicago Steel.

Nick Moldenhauer tallied 45 points in 44 regular- and post-season games for the Steel in 2021-22.

Chicago Steel

The first thing Nick Moldenhauer felt was frustration, not pain.

He already had missed the first two months of the Chicago Steel’s 2021-22 season — a crucial one for Moldenhauer heading into the 2022 NHL Draft — with a mononucleosis-like illness. Then on Oct. 29, in his first shift back in action, he had suffered a new injury.

What Moldenhauer, 18, wasn’t immediately thinking about was how terrifying the injury was. His face had been sliced open by a skate in a freak accident along the boards.

‘‘It was kind of like a blur,’’ Moldenhauer said. ‘‘I don’t remember a whole lot. I didn’t even really know I was hurt, if I’m being honest. I just felt something hit my face. I started to skate back to the bench and put my hand there and then realized it was drenched in blood.

‘‘I didn’t really know how bad it was. I was more just angry and disappointed that I couldn’t go back into the game.’’

The inch-deep cut stretched along his entire right-side jawline, from just below his ear to his chin, and scratched his carotid artery. Moldenhauer had a four-hour emergency surgery that involved 175 stitches and a blood transfusion.

The surgery was a success. The worst pain afterward came from eating. And Moldenhauer remarkably was cleared to return to play within a month, although he was out of shape and well behind the curve of other draft-eligible prospects.

It turned out that didn’t really matter. Moldenhauer, a 5-10 forward from the Toronto suburbs, exploded in the second half of the season.

‘‘The first few games or so, I was playing a little bit timid,’’ he said. ‘‘Then that got out of my system, and my main thing was just trying to get back into shape. . . . When that happened, the game started to slow down for me, [and] I started to get more and more confidence as things moved forward. It definitely took me a little bit to get going. But once I got going, I felt really, really good.’’

Moldenhauer finished with 45 points in a combined 44 regular-season and postseason games, including 26 points in his last 17 games. He added three points in four games for Canada at the under-18 world championships.

After all that, Moldenhauer enters the draft Thursday and Friday in Montreal as the 39th-ranked North American skater in the Central Scouting Service’s final rankings. He’s a projected second- to fourth-round pick with the upside to look like a steal in a few years.

He headlines a group of four players from the Steel, the Geneva-based junior-hockey powerhouse that sends several players toward the NHL every year, in the 2022 rankings. Defenseman Jake Livanavage is ranked 54th, and forwards Zam Plante and Jack Harvey — Moldenhauer’s linemates for most of the season — are ranked 64th and 135th, respectively.

‘‘I just kept getting better and better as the season went on,’’ Moldenhauer said. ‘‘I’m super-happy with where I ended up, considering everything.’’

The scouting report on Moldenhauer says he’s a well-rounded forward, skills-wise, who is driven by a relentless compete level. He describes his abilities to ‘‘make plays, read off my teammates and find the soft areas of the ice’’ as his strong suits.

His skating is a weakness, so it’s the primary focus of his summer training. He hopes to become more explosive with his first three strides and more deceptive, in general, to hide his weight shifts and speed changes better.

But after overcoming the injury he suffered last fall, the work that lies ahead seems straightforward by comparison.

‘‘It was definitely tough, but it developed me as a person,’’ Moldenhauer said. ‘‘Going through that adversity is only really going to help me in the future, just being prepared for everything that’s to come.’’

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