Top-two OHL scorers meet in first round when Battalion face IceDogs

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TORONTO — There’s more on the line than a league title for North Bay Battalion forward Justin Brazeau when the Ontario Hockey League playoffs begin.

The 21-year-old is in his overage season with the Battalion, who open up a best-of-seven series against the heavily favoured Niagara IceDogs on Thursday. When the series ends, so too could his hockey career with no NHL contract in hand.

“It didn’t really quite sink in at first, coming into the last game (of the regular season) it sunk in then, and obviously now we have to try and win games and prolong our careers in the OHL. If not it’ll all be over in a couple weeks,” said Brazeau.

“Obviously I don’t know where I’ll be at this time next year so there’s pressure.”

Brazeau, a six-foot-six 225-pound right-winger, had a breakthrough year in 2018-19, captaining a young Battalion team in a rebuilding phase with no NHL draft picks on the roster, and wound up leading the entire Canadian Hockey League with 61 goals in 68 games. His 113 points were good enough for second behind IceDogs forward Jason Robertson (117 in 62) in the OHL points race.

Yet, he doesn’t have anything guaranteed beyond this year, going undrafted twice. An American Hockey League contract is a possibility with some NHL teams already showing some interest, however his numbers are deserving of something more in line with an NHL entry-level contract.

“He’s a smart kid, I think deep down he’s probably disappointed he doesn’t have a contract by now,” said Battalion coach Stan Butler. “If you get 113 points in the CHL you should be getting a contract.”

Brazeau grew up in the Northern Ontario town of New Liskeard, a near six-hour drive from Toronto, with a population of 9,100.

He played every sport available to him in the area growing up, but he was never involved in any additional hockey activities to develop his game — no power skating, no summer hockey, no one-on-one skills coaches like many youth players in the Greater Toronto Area.

Butler ended up taking a chance on him in the 13th round of the 2014 OHL draft, with Brazeau playing one more year of midget in his hometown before joining the Battalion for the ’15-16 season.

“He’s probably 2,000 hours (in development) behind southern kids,” Butler said.

“To see what he’s done already with no extra training, and you know he’s a great athlete… with all the development resources (in the NHL) wouldn’t you give him a chance? In all the years I’ve coached junior hockey it’s the biggest mystery.”

Brazeau, at times, was a one-man force for North Bay this season after returning from an invitation to San Jose Sharks rookie camp in September with the message to him being: “go down and dominate.”

He finished 32 points ahead of his closest teammate, linemate Matthew Struthers (81), and had 33 multi-point games and five hat tricks.

“I think if I was coming into the season and I told myself this was the type of year I’d have I’d definitely be happy with it,” said Brazeau. “I think for the most part I’ve done everything needed to do (to earn an NHL contract). Obviously playoffs are here so I need to keep it going.”

Brazeau wasn’t sure if he could win the goal-scoring race, but can pinpoint the game when he realized it was possible.

He scored goals No. 49 and 50 on Feb. 23, ending a season-high five-game drought, in a 4-3 overtime win against the Windsor Spitfires. He then had 13 goals in the final 10 games of the season, scoring at least once in every outing but two, to pass Ottawa 67’s forward Tye Felhaber for both the OHL and Canadian Hockey League scoring title.

“Couple games there at 50 where I couldn’t buy a goal and then after I hit (50) they started to go in all at once,” Brazeau said. “After I hit 50 it was definitely a goal to be No. 1.”

North Bay (30-33-5) enters the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the East and has its work cut out against the No. 2 IceDogs (44-17-7), who produced the highest-scoring offence in the league and have three 100-point players in Robertson, Akil Thomas and Ben Jones.

The No. 1 team in the OHL playoffs is the Ottawa 67’s, while the top team in the Western Hockey League is the Prince Albert Raiders. The top team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and No. 1 in the 60-team CHL rankings, is the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. The winners of each league title will faceoff with the host Halifax Mooseheads at the Memorial Cup on May 16.

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Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press