Stephen Dhillon has been biding his time and his big opportunity has arrived.
The 18-year-old from Buffalo, NY, has spent the last two seasons working on his game, serving as an understudy to both Brent Moran and Alex Nedeljkovic in St. Catharines.
With Nedeljkovic moving on to the pro ranks, Dhillon looks to make his mark playing behind a young IceDogs team this season.
“He’s done everything that’s been asked of him and has worked very hard every step of the way,” said IceDogs Director of Player Personnel Joey Burke. “He’s a good teammate and a happy-go-lucky guy that is very focused on his game.”
Dhillon appeared in 24 games with Niagara last season, going 11-6-2-2 with a 2.69 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage. The 6-foot-4 former third round pick in the 2014 OHL Priority Selection is at training camp with the Detroit Red Wings this week after spending time with both the Wings and Boston Bruins at summer development camps in July.
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Though he appears to be the clear-cut starter in the Niagara crease this season, Dhillon is taking nothing for granted.
“Nothing is ever guaranteed,” he told Bill Potrecz of the St. Catharines Standard. “You have to perform or the next minute you could be back on the bench or in the stands. You have to keep working because there is always someone behind you ready to take your spot.”
Dhillon, who won the Ivan Tennant Award as the OHL’s Top Academic High School Player in 2015, was a second team all-rookie last season. The IceDogs have been intentional about taking a patient approach to his development.
“We never wanted to put too much pressure on his shoulders too soon,” Burke noted. “Sometimes with young goaltenders you bring them along too fast and if things don’t go well, they can lose their confidence. That’s never been an issue with Stevie. He’s performed admirably and we’re really proud of what he’s accomplished so far.”
Dhillon works closely with IceDogs goaltending coach Ryan Ludzik. The Dogs feel he’s capable both mentally and physically of carrying the load behind a young, rebuilding group.
“He’s got that X-factor, that special ability some goaltenders have of not to allow anything to get between their ears and bother them,” Burke affirmed. “He’s got a great makeup and we fully expect that he’ll be able to handle the challenge set before him.”
Passed over in the NHL Draft last summer, Dhillon’s pro aspirations fuel his drive to succeed. He’ll be given plenty of opportunity to show what he’s capable of.
“I would never put a number on it but he’s going to play the bulk, two out of three or three out of three,” newly instated head coach Dave Bell told the St. Catharines Standard. “If he’s healthy and rested, he’s going to play a lot. It’s good for his state of mind. The players like him and will play for him. They want to play for him and they know what he’s going to give every night.”
ontariohockeyleague.com will feature one team each day in advance of the 2016-17 season which begins Wednesday September 21.
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