Like any young hockey player, Nick Abruzzese is trying to improve his game and impress NHL scouts enough so he can hear his name called at the NHL draft.
The second-year Chicago Steel center has certainly done that this season. He went from scoring 13 goals and 36 points in 56 games last season to winning the USHL’s scoring race with 80 points (29 goals, 51 assists) in 62 contests.
So what led to Abruzzese’s doubling his point production? Confidence.
“The play is at the same level, but my confidence is just higher and I’ve adapted to the play a lot better,” he said. “I got a little stronger and little faster in the offseason. I think that’s helped me create some more offense and better production.”
Abruzzese has also benefitted from the Steel’s partnership with Darryl Belfry and Adam Nicholas, founder of Stride Envy Hockey. Belfry and Nicholas created individual development plans and on-ice skills sessions for players. Those skills sessions range from skater’s stride and weight transfer to how to manipulate and create space against the opposition and more. For a smaller player like Abruzzese at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds being able to find and create space plays a vital role in his success.
“The biggest thing I’m looking for on video are tendencies I have and trying to make sure all the habits I’ve built are really good,” he said. “Being unpredictable on the ice is another big thing, trying to make plays that maybe aren’t obvious ones and that no one else sees on the ice.
“That creatively really helps being able to play the game that I want to play.”
First-year Steel head coach Greg Moore raves about the soft-spoken Abruzzese’s attention to detail and desire to attack his development.
“His brain is functioning on a completely different level than the majority of the kids,” Moore said of the Harvard commit. “It’s fun as a coach to watch that process and help him through that process and even for me to learn for myself. I didn’t think that way when I was his age (19).
“It’s really his perspective of how he looks at development and taking part of every piece he can during the week.”
Moore is quick to compare Abruzzese’s game to Calgary Flames winger Johnny Gaudreau based on his play-making skills, soft hands and ability to quietly generate opportunities for his teammates.
“(Abruzzese is) not often the period at the end of the sentence where he gets the puck and it’s in the net,” Moore said. “He’s the beginning of the sentence, the middle of the sentence and the end of the sentence. He does it all. It’s really been impressive to watch what he’s been able to do this year.”
Abruzzese’s performance was noticed by NHL Central Scouting, who moved him up 78 spots to No. 122 among North American skaters from its midterm rankings to the final rankings that were released Monday. The USHL had the most players of any junior league in the world named to the list with 68.
“That’s as much validation for (the team) as it is for me. It’s pretty cool knowing the work that I’ve put in and getting the results,” he said.
Abruzzese is already locked into the modest hockey culture way of thinking about the team first and not himself. He brushes off talk about his personal achievements. He focuses on how far the Steel have come from being a preseason pick to finish 16th in the 17-team league to now being a Clark Cup playoff team.
The Steel, who call Fox Valley Ice Arena in the Chicago suburb of Geneva home, earned the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the postseason. They’ll play the highest remaining seed in the Eastern Conference semifinals, starting Saturday at home.
“We have really good depth scoring throughout the lineup and a lot of guys can put the puck into the net and make plays offensively,” Abruzzese said. “I think that’ll make us really dangerous come playoffs.”