by Jesse Eisenberg || AHL On The Beat Archive
For many first-year players the hardest part of making the jump from college hockey to the professional game is the transition from a 35- or 40-game amateur schedule to a grinding 80-game docket.
Avoiding the “rookie wall” is as difficult a task as adjusting to the faster play and the more skilled competition on the ice.
Apparently, no one told Albany rookie Nick Dodge, who after averaging just over 37 games a season in four years at Clarkson University is one of just two River Rats this season to have played in each of the team’s first 66 games.
The 22-year-old’s perseverance is no small feat. While the numbers could suggest that Dodge seamlessly hopped over the “rookie wall” back at mid-season, the center admits that he has had to be very mindful of the increased work load all year.
“In terms of the games, obviously there’s a lot more and there’s a lot of wear and tear on the body. You definitely have to adapt and to make sure you’re doing everything that you can to take care of your body.”
River Rats head coach Jeff Daniels thinks that the Clarkson alum, who graduated with a degree in economics, has aced that aspect of being a pro.
“Nick has done a good job of preparing himself every day and looking after himself off the ice,” Daniels said. “It shows a lot about his character to be able to play through some bumps and bruises and he hasn’t had his play drop off at all.”
Avoiding injury is one key to playing a full season, but health alone has not kept this rookie on the ice. The Carolina Hurricanes’ sixth-round pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft leads the River Rats’ rookie class in scoring with 36 points and is tied for third on the team with 26 assists.
Perhaps more impressive than his point total is that Dodge ranks among the team leaders in ice time.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about him (before the season), but he’s played above and beyond anything that we could have expected,” said Daniels. “He’s not playing like a rookie. He’s a guy that we trust in all situations. We play him on the power play, have him kill penalties, take big faceoffs, play solid five-on-five against top lines, and he’s been a pleasant surprise.”
Dodge’s versatility does not end with his special teams play. The Oakville, Ont., native has centered just about every line combination that Daniels could dream of and he has seemed to fit perfectly in each of them.
“One of his assets is that his game doesn’t change weather he’s up on the top scoring line or on our checking line or on an energy line,” said Daniels. “That’s nice to have because I know that I can put him with whoever and there’s not going to be a drop off.”
Dodge does not mind being juggled between wingers. His focus on playing steady, two-way hockey makes the youngster a fine complement to any forward line.
“I just play my game, which is a pretty simple game,” said Dodge. “I think that’s why I can play with a variety of guys – because I’m not trying to do anything too complicated. When I was playing with skill guys like Petro (Jakub Petruzalek) and (Michael) Ryan I just tried to make simple plays to get them the puck because those guys are playmakers and they’ll score the goals. I just have to make sure I’m in my position, supporting them defensively.”
Whether he is feeding goal-scorers on Albany’s top line or banging bodies along side the energy guys, the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder has become one of the most relied upon players on the River Rats. In doing so he has firmly established himself as a National Hockey League prospect.
“I think he’ll be a steady third or fourth line guy that can kill penalties and can take those big faceoffs,” said Daniels, “and there’s not going to be a drop off offensively – he can contribute. I don’t think he’s going to be a goal scorer, but he has the skill that he can score some goals for you.”
Lauded for his steady play, regardless of work load, roll or line pairing, the first-year pro is 14 games away from completing the AHL’s grueling 80-game season.
So what does the ever-steady Dodge see as the next step in his development as an NHL hopeful?
“I think the big thing for me is to be more consistent. To be a good pro player you have to go out every game, every shift and play the same game.”
If consistency is the name of the game, then Dodge is already well on his way.