Stratford Warriors' veteran trio shouldering the load on defence

From left: Stratford Warriors third-year players Mitchell Casey, Alex Grant and Malcolm McLeod form the nucleus of a defensive unit expected to be a strength this season. Cory Smith/The Beacon Herald

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Success for the 2019-20 Stratford Warriors will rest largely on a trio of defencemen whose faces aren’t going to show up on many highlight reels, and whose names won’t be found near the top of the scoring race.

And that’s just fine, since Malcolm McLeod, Mitchell Casey and Alex Grant are more crash than flash.

“I think the guys coaches appreciate the most usually aren’t the most flashy guys in the lineup,” Warriors head coach Dave Williams said. “Not that they don’t appreciate what some of the more offensive and flashy guys do, but you also recognize you win with guys who play the style they play. Maybe they’re not as noticed on a nightly basis, but that’s because they’re going about whatever their job is.”

As third-year players, their roles are easily defined on a team short on junior hockey experience.

“I think they’ll do a good job mentoring the other three young defencemen we have, but they’ll also do a good job setting an example for what we want from the rest of the guys,” Williams said. “They work hard in practice and go about their business the right way. When you realize how important the culture is to a group, I think those are three guys who can exemplify that and do it day in and day out and be good role models for our players.”

McLeod is coming off a breakout season in which he was named a Midwestern Conference Second Team All-Star. Two goals and 14 points only told part of the story for a local product whose rookie season was cut short thanks to injuries.

“Getting points is always a nice thing, but if I can put forward not necessarily points but just little things like taking hits to make plays, kind of a low-key player but have a big impact, points have never been my thing,” McLeod said. “Playing (regularly last season) definitely helped. Any junior hockey player goes through the years, (and) they’re numbered, so you want to make the most of them as you move up.”

McLeod was named captain this season.

“He’s developed into a really good 200-foot defenceman,” Williams said. “He’s got some good offensive upside, but he plays every shift hard, and as a staff we really appreciate it, and his teammates appreciate just how hard he plays. When he’s on the ice he’s not the biggest guy but he’s a protector and guys know that if things are going sideways, he’s a guy who’s going to have his teammates’ back.”

Casey didn’t score in his rookie season but found the back of the net four times in 2018-19. He added 14 assists and showed his offensive upside in the playoffs with five points in 10 games.

“He’s worked really hard on his shot the last couple years and recognizes that can be a tool for him to be more successful,” Williams said. “If you work hard and continue to try and get better there’s an opportunity to play junior B in your hometown.”

The 20 year old leads by example, which means being the hardest-working player on the ice in games or in practice.

“I’m just looking to bring some leadership to the young group and show them the ropes around the league,” he said. “It’s a tough league to play in, and hopefully I’ll help the young guys get their foot in the door and help them get off to a good start.”

Grant is a throwback blue-liner, and at six-foot-two and 195 pounds, also the most physically imposing of the veteran trio. The 20 year old from Thunder Bay had two assists and only eight penalty minutes last season and has a fearless streak that allows him to regularly block shots.

“Some guys are goal scorers, some guys are passers, some guys are skaters,” he said. “I found shot blocking is something I can do, and I can be effective. I think guys get as riled up when someone blocks a shot as they do when someone scores. It’s something I can do to contribute and something everyone appreciates as well.”

Being part of the team’s structure for a few seasons has helped in his development, though he’s not taking anything for granted.

“Everything is earned, there’s nothing given,” Grant said. “I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve wanted.

“Just don’t get comfortable, work hard, and compete.”

Williams called Grant a low-maintenance player.

“He’s the first guy to the rink almost every time regardless of where we’re playing. He’s excited to be here. In practice he does everything the right way and works incredibly hard. He probably blocks more shots in practice than most guys do in a season. It’s not hard to see why his teammates really love him as a person and a teammate by how he carries himself every day.”

Rookie defencemen Nolan Adkins, Zach Hatch and Dan Heath form the rest of the blue-line. They’ll help second-year netminder Tyler Parr (2.06 GAA, .915 SV%) and former Elmira Sugar Kings goalie Rhett Kimmel (2.55 GAA, .896 SV%).

Up front, Drew Ferris (3G, 4A), Evan Dowd (6G, 13A), Drew Welsch (14G, 14A), and Clayton Lewis (9G, 16A) are the lone returnees. Lewis will miss several weeks with an injury, which means more opportunity for first-year Warriors like Blake Wideman, Zac McCann, Jacob Uridil, Cole Melady, Cam Daigle, Kyle Kuznik, Jacob Murray, Sheldon Pryce and six-foot-nine behemoth Aaron Davidson.

“We’re young, but I think the whole league is going to be young,” McLeod said. “Our lineup so far is looking pretty promising. We’ve got a lot of guys who love to come to the rink. I think we’re going to be a fast team this year and I think we’ve got the guys with the compete and the skills.”