Mitchell Stephens (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
The Saginaw Spirit center flew under the radar for most of the season on a low-scoring team, but his star turn at the world under-18s for Canada pushed him into the spotlight. How high will he go in Florida now?
Despite his six-foot, 183-pound frame, Mitchell Stephens answers to the nickname 'Chubby.' And the origin story behind the moniker is pure hockey culture, right or wrong.
When the Saginaw Spirit center was five or six years old, he was skating at a local rink when his foot began to hurt. He told his father, who assumed the tyke was just complaining, as kids tend to do at that age. So Stephens kept skating, but his foot kept aching. Once his time was up, his dad took off the skate boot, only to find the bottle cap from a chubby pop drink inside.
Henceforth, 'Chubby' was born.
For most of the season, Stephens toiled in relative obscurity on a middling Saginaw team. The OHL franchise traded away known names such as Jimmy Lodge (Winnipeg) and Nick Moutrey (Columbus) midway through the year and offense was an issue. But when Stephens got a chance to shine on the international stage, he made it count.
Playing on a line with fellow 2015 draft prospects Matt Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier (and later Graham Knott when Beauvillier got hurt) at the world under-18s, Stephens put up 10 points in seven games for Canada, trailing only Barzal for the team lead. Stephens also captained the bronze-medal entry, which ran into the American buzzsaw in the semifinal.
“We had a good group of guys of that fed off each others’ strengths," Stephens said. "It was good to play with really good players and show that other guys that may not get the looks can succeed with those guys.”
His performance got NHL teams excited, flooding agent John Walters with inquiring phone calls. At the draft combine, Stephens had interviews with 23 different teams and a chance to further make a statement about what kind of player he is.
“Most teams understand that with me you’re getting what you’re getting," he said. "There are no surprises. I’m a hard competitor. I show that through my versatility and the two-way style I play.”
Stephens still wants to improve on his overall game, but he is blessed with natural speed to go along with his tenacity. And as Saginaw gets better, his numbers will blossom as well. Tye Felhaber was one of the team's top scorers this year and did so as a 16-year-old rookie. Next year, the team will welcome another elite draft pick, Brady Gilmour, into the fold. Saginaw also has San Jose Sharks pick Dylan Sadowy, who led the team in scoring by a wide margin this year with 74 points in 65 games. Stephens, who played on a different line, was second with 48 points in 62 games.
“Next year and the year after will be prime years for our club," Stephens said. “We have to grow as a team to succeed. Everyone has to buy into systems that will bring us together, because we’re so young.”
But thanks to leaders such as Stephens, the Saginaw crew can indeed head into the 2015-16 campaign with confidence. And if he continues where he left off at the under-18s, expect a monster year from the speedy center. I expect Stephens to go in the top-40 at this point – and even then, 'Chubby' may prove to be a steal.