As Sean Durzi was preparing for his draft season in the summer of 2016, he noticed something wasn’t right with his ankle. With his ability to train hampered, he sought medical advice, and was told it was a minor issue that would heal itself with time. Just before the season was set to start, and the situation not improving, it was finally discovered that he had an extra bone in his ankle, and surgery was required to remove it.
Because of the procedure, he missed the start of the season, and wasn’t the same player he had been as a rookie the year before. After posting 10 goals in 45 games as a 17-year-old, converting on 16.4% of his shots, he recorded just two in a season heavily scrutinized by NHL scouts out to see how he would follow up a good freshman campaign. His shooting percentage of 1.8% was among the lowest in the OHL after being ranked first among blue-liners to play at least half of the season the previous year.
While he was still able to contribute to the offence, with 36 assists on the year, the finishing ability was non-existent. With few other standout skills, his draft stock was low when he headed to Chicago for the 2017 NHL Draft. Sitting in the stands on June 24, he witnessed many players heading down to the floor to join NHL organizations, but he went home without hearing his name called.
“A lot of people leave that weekend and they’re crushed, and they’re not motivated anymore and they just ... want to give up,” he said in an interview on Sportsnet 650’s The Playbook. “I left that weekend more motivated than ever.”
Birthplace: Toronto, Ontario
Date of birth: October 21, 1998
Weight: 196 lbs.
Team: Owen Sound Attack (OHL)
His draft season wasn’t a total loss. His resume was still impressive enough to earn invites to the development camps of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers, and he also took part in the New York Islanders’ rookie camp later in the year, giving him some experience with players on the path to professional careers.
Just as crucial for his development was the time spent with one of those players who had his name called as a late-round pick in 2017; his Owen Sound Attack teammate and friend, Petrus Palmu. Despite not being as mobile as he needed to be, Durzi and the over-age Finn would work on stickhandling drills together, giving the undrafted defenceman a few new tools in his arsenal.
Healthy to begin the 2017-18 season, and with more aptitude in possession of the puck, Durzi had a breakout campaign.
He had eclipsed his previous total of two goals by the eighth game of the season. By the end of October, he had seven goals and 25 points.
The offence came about from not only a willingness — and, unlike in 2016-17, the ability — to jump up into the rush at the right time to take advantage of holes in opposition coverage, but knowing when to abandon his post to become another attacker in the offensive zone. A good read of the situation is one of his strengths, and he was able to convert that to production.
Durzi does have a decent shot (more of a snapshot than a slapshot from the point), but the keys to his offensive game are reducing the distance between himself and the net before taking a shot, and getting pucks into traffic in front of the opposition netminder.
A high-ankle sprain threatened to derail a second consecutive season for the Toronto native, putting him out of commission from mid-January to mid-March. He was able to pick up right where he left off when he came back with three games left in the regular season, and had an exceptional showing in the OHL post-season.
After recording the first point-per-game season of his life, he actually increased his production rate in the playoffs. He had 16 points in 11 games for the Attack, held pointless just once, and tying for the team lead in that category. None of the games was more impressive that his showing in Game Seven of the second-round series versus the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, in which he had two goals and three assists in a losing cause.
The results of all that time spent practising with Palmu also showed up on the ice in perhaps Durzi’s most impressive skill: his ability to break the puck out of his zone.
He’s a puck-carrier who will lead the rush up the ice, and the increased confidence with the puck let him beat forecheckers in one-on-one situations to quickly get his team an advantage on the way to the offensive zone. His awareness also allows him to easily find a teammate with open space to hand off the transition.
The good lateral movement and gliding stride that are evident in his breakouts also help in the defensive end. Being a fairly undersized defender, that agility is critical to his ability to play defence. He’s not strong enough to be able to physically prevent forwards from establishing themselves around the goal, so he relies on positioning himself between the player and his own net to prevent shots.
The lack of physicality also doesn’t help him in board battles, so he is unable to win the puck back with regularity to put his puck-handling skills to use. He is intelligent enough to know what works and what doesn’t for him, so he is still able to play an effective game in his own zone.
At season’s end, he was a named to the OHL’s Second All-Star Team, and is a nominee for the Max Kaminsky Trophy.
It’s important to remember Durzi’s age when looking at his play versus his peers. He was already one of the oldest prospects at the 2017 draft, born about a month too late to be eligible in 2016. He will turn 20 shortly after the 2018-19 season begins, and that advantage of experience over some of the players in the prospect pool is one of the reasons why he’s projected for more of a mid-round selection.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Future Considerations: #52
The Hockey News: #67
NHL Central Scouting: #37 (North American skaters)
Having never played a full season in the CHL, there will be some injury concerns for teams looking to spend one of their early picks. The corrective nature of his ankle surgery shouldn’t result in any recurring issues, and he appeared to suffer no lingering effects from his high-ankle sprain this year, so those doubts should be eased for scouting and management staffs.
There is a high-risk element to his game, which won’t be as effective in the professional ranks. His skill level is undeniable, however, and his puck skills are something he can continue to improve and refine as his career goes along.
For the Montreal Canadiens, they have enough second-round picks to be able to take a chance on a player like Durzi, but in a draft with so many centres and defenceman slated to go early on the draft’s second day, it will be difficult to overlook the age difference when comparing him to players with similar ceilings.
The decision would be much easier should he be available when the Habs are handed the mic to make their third-round selection, but it’s possible he will be gone before that can transpire.
He had a good approach to the new season after being snubbed at the draft a year ago. “It wasn’t really a proving people wrong situation, it was proving people right; the people who believed in me....” That goal will come to fruition when Sean Durzi heads down to join his new NHL team on June 23 in Dallas.