Balancing act for IceDog
Jesse Graham walks a tightrope each time he is on the ice.
The 18-year-old Toronto native is among the fastest and smoothest skaters in the Ontario Hockey League, but as a defenceman, ultimately must take care of his own end first before using that speed.
“I like joining the rush, it’s part of my game,” said Graham, who was selected by the Niagara IceDogs in the first round of the 2010 OHL entry draft. “You have to know the situation of the game and pick and choose your times. If it’s a close game and more of a high-risk situation, then obviously you don’t want to go then. You have to wait for the right time.
“Playing a good game and solid defence is also a big thing. If you have a solid game overall, that’s great, and if you’re able to add some points or create some offence, it’s sort of a bonus.”
Graham is off to a bit of slow start in both aspects of his game this season. He has just three assists in 16 games and is a team worst minus-six.
“Obviously, our team is trying to play defence first and then let the offence come after that,” Graham said. “I’ve been trying to do that and maybe got off to a bit of a slow start this year, but hopefully it can pick up.”
IceDogs coach Marty Williamson encourages Graham to use his speed.
“We like him jumping into the rush,” Williamson said. “He brings the puck out of our zone very well. We have to get him moving it to the forwards and then trying to jump in rather than always leading it.
“The problem is our forwards end up standing still and watching him and you don’t end up generating a lot of offence that way. We like how he can dart in and dart out.”
Graham’s skating makes it a natural for him to be looked to as a go-to player for points, but Williamson said there’s more to generating offence than just speed.
“They have to translate,” Williamson said of Graham’s skill set. “The offensive potential is that he skates so well. But offensive potential is also how you shoot and distribute the puck and make plays. That’s where he’s still a work in progress. Skating is no issue at all. He is one of the best skaters in the league, but he’s got to learn to make that valuable unless he’s just going to get breakaways and that doesn’t happen in this league. His passing has to get a little bit better and his shot has to get a little bit better and that’s how he’s going to round out his offence.”
Having said that, Williamson also wants Graham taking care of his own end.
“One of the things he needs to concentrate on is his defence,” Williamson said. “He’s slightly undersized, but he’s got very good feet and a good stick, so he needs to always concentrate on defence.
“I still think the offence will come for him. He’s improved his shot, it’s still not a great shot, but it’s improved over the last year. He worked hard at that.”
Graham began the season playing the point along with Dougie Hamilton on the first power-play unit. Luke Mercer replaced Graham recently, but Williamson said he is considering giving Graham another shot.
“Jesse is a little more dynamic and he can help in a few more ways,” Williamson said. “You just can’t have offence from one guy on a power play and that’s starting to be our problem a little bit. We need to get more spread out.
“It just can’t be Dougie or (Ryan) Strome because teams isolate and take time and space away, and that means there should be more room and they have to make the teams pay.”
Graham is confident the IceDogs can turn their power play around.
“We had a great power play for two years and some great chemistry,” he said. “We had some new guys this year and it’s been a little tougher to start and hopefully we can get it going again.”
The IceDogs (9-6-1-0) are home to the Kitchener Rangers (8-4-1-1) Thursday and the Guelph Storm (10-4-0-1) Saturday before heading to Peterborough (4-7-2-1) Sunday afternoon.