The moniker ‘Big Joe’ tells you all you need to know.
Still filling out a 6-foot-6 frame, 17-year-old Joe Vrbetic has spent the extended offseason in the Eastern Ontario hamlet of Dunvegan, about 45 minutes east of the nation’s capital. It’s there that he spent a few minutes earlier this week reflecting on an arduous but ultimately productive rookie season in North Bay, one that saw the Battalion finish at the bottom of the standings but resulted in significant development progress for the lanky puckstopper.
“Our finish to the season was huge for us,” said Vrbetic, finding the silver lining as he recalled his best memory, a 41-save shutout of the Barrie Colts on February 15th that snapped an eight-game losing skid and sparked Battalion wins in six of the following eight contests. “We were a young team that had some rough nights, but we didn’t quit and I think it was good that we made a push to try and get into a playoff spot before things were cancelled.”
Wins were tough to come by for the Troops, but Vrbetic recorded 14 of the club’s 17 victories, posting a 4.23 goals-against average and .881 save percentage over 42 outings. OHL general managers took notice of his strong play, voting him to the league’s Second All-Rookie Team behind an outstanding First Team performance from London’s Brett Brochu.
“Joe’s whole year was a direct correlation to how much work he was willing to put in on and off the ice,” said Battalion general manager Adam Dennis, who took over following the reassignment of long-time Battalion coach and director of hockey operations Stan Butler on December 10th. “The one thing I’ll tell anybody that’s listening about Joe is that he seems like a big, quiet, unassuming kid but he has a killer instinct and he’s got a confidence that I think is required to be a starting goaltender in the OHL and beyond.”
The big goaltender’s shot didn’t come right away.
Despite being drafted 31st overall in the 2018 Priority Selection, the Troops were clear that they wouldn’t be rushing the late 2002-born netminder into OHL action anytime soon, opting instead to assign him a season’s work with the Powassan Voodoos Tier II Jr. A program.
Vrbetic, who had spent his minor midget season away from home billeting in Toronto as a member of the GTHL’s Don Mills Flyers, was willing to put in the work and take the necessary steps to follow the Battalion’s development model.
“Obviously when you’re drafted so high you want to come in and play right away, but after talking with the Battalion and discussing what things were going to look like, it made a lot of sense to be going to an environment where I was going to play a lot and still be able to practice in North Bay and be a part of what they were doing.”
The final results from Vrbetic’s 16-year-old development season were pretty impressive as he yielded a 16-9 record with a 2.80 goals-against average and league-leading .928 save percentage over 30 regular season games. He proceeded to go 4-2 in the playoffs with a 2.44 G.A.A and .921 save percentage.
“We really felt being patient was going to be the key for him,” said Dennis. “The one thing that you’ll see that shines in Joe’s game is that he’s a patient guy. He likes to see how things develop and I think it’s been one of his strengths. A lot of kids his age, they want to get to the finish line right away, but Joe’s been willing to work at it, willing to listen and he’s been a lot of fun to work with.”
The road forward for Vrbetic and the Battalion looks promising, with first overall picks Ty Nelson (OHL Priority Selection), Matvei Petrov (CHL Import Draft) and Kevin Henstock (Under-18 Priority Selection) added to the depth chart along with offseason acquisition Matvey Guskov from the London Knights.
With an eye to climbing the standings and putting his best foot forward in his NHL Draft year, Vrbetic is doing his part to prepare for the OHL’s targeted start date of December 1st.
“I took a week or two off to rest and got right back to it,” Vrbetic said of his offseason schedule. “We’ve got some dates circled on the calendar now and I’m going to be ready to be a workhorse when the puck drops again.”
Throughout the month of August, ontariohockeyleague.com will shine a summer spotlight on storylines from all 20 OHL clubs. See more from the OHL Summer Spotlight series.