You never quite know what you are going to get when you bring on players fresh out of college. After all, the jump from the NCAA to professional hockey is substantial regardless of the league a player joins. Many players fail to live up to expectations, but an elite few make their presence known from the moment they take the ice. Toledo has been fortunate in that our rookie acquisitions have all performed marvelously, including two young defensemen. Nolan Zajac and Simon Denis are both in their first full season of professional hockey, and have proven themselves to be crucial parts of this 2016-17 Walleye team. Both players have settled into and embraced the Toledo style of hockey flawlessly, with significant contributions on both ends of the ice. Zajac’s performance earned him an All-Star selection when Jacob MacDonald was unable to participate due to his call up, while Denis earned his first ever ECHL Player of the Week award due to his most recent play.
First, the All-Star. A graduate of the University of Denver, Nolan Zajac is the youngest of four brothers who all play professional hockey. The oldest of the brothers is Travis, who plays for the New Jersey Devils, followed by Darcy playing pro hockey in Norway, then Kelly who is currently with the South Carolina Stingrays. It’s almost like there is a pedigree with the Zajac boys guaranteeing hockey talent! Nolan is unique in that he is the only one of the four brothers that plays as a defenseman, as all of his brother are forwards. His body of work could fool you into thinking he plays forward though, as Nolan has accumulated 38 points on the year. That’s enough to rank second among all rookie ECHL defensemen, only behind Wheeling’s Kevin Schulze. Nolan has proved to be potent on the power play unit as well, having scored himself 3 power play goals (PPG) so far to go along with his many assists. Defensively speaking, Zajac continues to perform well and has a current +/- rating of +13, which places him fifth on the Walleye and sixth among rookie ECHL defensemen. Despite defensive pairing shifts due to call ups and injuries, Nolan has played effectively regardless of his partner and continues to progress well in his rookie campaign. He is routinely making the correct decision in terms of when to press, hold, pass and shoot. As a reward the Hershey Bears of the AHL brought him up for three games, where Nolan earned an assist before returning to the Walleye. As long as he continues to minimize mistakes, expect Zajac to stay as a cornerstone on this Walleye defensive unit.
Joining Zajac for the foreseeable future is fellow Canadian Simon Denis. A product of Ferris State University, Simon played five seasons with the Bulldogs and earned 60 points during his collegiate career. As a junior and senior Denis also served as an alternate captain for Ferris State, and was a part of three NCAA national tournament teams. Turning pro hasn’t slowed down the youngster a bit, as he continues to accumulate accolades. Denis actually made his professional hockey debut last season with the Fort Wayne Komets, tallying two assists in three games during an Amateur Tryout Agreement. Upon the conclusion of the 2015-16 season Simon decided to play his first full season with Toledo, and it’s safe to say both parties are satisfied with the results so far. Denis has 33 points so far this season, which ranks fifth among rookie ECHL defensemen and eighth on the Walleye. In terms of +/- Denis holds a distinct advantage over his buddy Zajac, coming in at an impressive +20. Only Evan Rankin has a better rating for Toledo at +21, and +20 ranks second for rookie ECHL defensemen. Just like Zajac, Denis has seen significant time on the power play and also has three PPG to show for it. Though he hasn’t had a crack at the AHL, don’t be surprised if Simon manages to get an opportunity before the end of the season. In fact, I’d be surprised if teams weren’t considering him after earning ECHL Player of the Week honors by scoring seven points in three games last week, including his first professional hat trick against Brampton. Hopefully a Denis call up doesn’t happen before Toledo is able to stabilize their defensive core, as we have looked shaky in recent games.
Youth can make up for a lack of skill in some cases, but for Denis and Zajac their youth compliments their skill. After a tremendous showing during the first two-thirds of the season, the boys look to close out the year right and help propel the Walleye into a deep playoff run. Heading into this weekend’s road trip our defense is on a high after holding Cincinnati to 16 shots, which was the perfect response to a five game slump. Zajac and Denis were the best defenseman on the ice: Zajac had a +5 rating with 3 assists while Denis had a +3 rating and 2 assists in the route of the Cyclones. Look for them to get plenty of ice time down south this weekend, as the Walleye look to reclaim first place in the league from the Florida Everblades. Hopefully we will see Denis extend his point streak to five games or more, and for Toledo to begin a new winning streak to make up for lost time. We’ll see tomorrow as the puck drops against the Wichita Thunder! Let’s Go Walleye!