by Justin Cait | AHL On The Beat
“We played them once, they beat us, and it was during their crazy 42-game win streak with that Penticton team,” Toews said as he tried to piece together what now seems like an ancient memory. “I knew he was highly regarded all around the league, but we just crossed paths once.”
While his memory served him correct about the Eagles’ loss, the fact of the matter was that Toews and St. Denis each scored a goal for their respective teams in a 6-3 game, late in October of 2011.
It was the last time the two faced each other in a regular season or playoff game, but nowhere near the last time they would see each other again.
Since then, the two have been nearly inseparable. They spent their collegiate careers as standout skaters at Quinnipiac University before turning pro in the same 2016-17 season with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“Devon and I were roommates in our first year, and we had some fun away from the rink too,” St. Denis said. “That kind of helps things get into gear in your first year pro, because you don’t really know what to expect.”
Although the two British Columbia natives have shared many commonalities over the last six seasons, their separate paths to professional hockey aren’t as similar as they may appear on paper.
As a smooth-skating, 2014 fourth-round draft pick of the New York Islanders, there was always a certain expectation that Toews would rise to the occasion and positively progress with a bit of seasoning.
In college, Toews was a dominant two-way blueliner. His defensive reliability was just the tip of the iceberg, as he could singlehandedly break out of the zone and create a high-danger offensive scoring chance at will. So much so, that he finished with 67 points and a plus-37 rating in 108 collegiate games with the Bobcats.
After all, he left Quinnipiac a year early –- following a run to the national championship game in his junior year -– to sign an entry-level deal with the Islanders.
“I think everybody who saw Toews play the first couple of years said, ‘Hey, this guy is going to be pretty special,’” Quinnipiac alumnus and Sound Tigers forward Connor Jones said.
When he brought that defensive dependability and offensive touch into his first two-and-a-half seasons in the AHL with Bridgeport, Toews earned his first National Hockey League call-up on Dec. 19, and made his debut four days later against the Dallas Stars.
Despite being right by his side every step of the way, St. Denis’s passage is one of much contrast.
Listed at 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, a skilled and scrappy St. Denis has met the task of proving people wrong while maintaining a clear-cut incline at each level of competition.
In his first BCHL season with his hometown Trail Smoke Eaters, St. Denis finished with 37 points. In his last, he was a top-five scorer in the league with 88 points in just 54 games for the Vees.
As a freshman at Quinnipiac -– a school known for recruiting and developing undersized skaters like the Iowa Wild’s Sam Anas and the Montreal Canadiens’ Matthew Peca, to name a few -– St. Denis recorded 15 points, as opposed to his senior year, in which he posted 49 points in 43 games and earned NCAA All-Tournament Team honors.
“All of us probably got overlooked at some point of our lives in the hockey world just because of our sizes,” St. Denis said. “It was kind of up to us in what we do with it and how we respond, but I think the game is getting a lot quicker now, so it definitely benefits us.”
Unlike Toews, St. Denis did not sign an NHL deal out of college; rather, he inked consecutive one-year AHL contracts with the Sound Tigers before he led the team in goals (23) and points (44) in his second professional campaign. That earned him a two-way deal with the Islanders last May.
While the self-made, breakthrough season may have caught some off guard, Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson’s faith in the well-rounded forward remains evident.
“Am I surprised? No. The expectations are that he can score,” Thompson said. “In his college career, he got better every year offensively, [and in Bridgeport] he competes.”
At the midway point of the season, both Toews and St. Denis are making impactful strides in their respective lanes. While Toews has looked sharp through his first three NHL games, St. Denis has sustained success as the third-highest point-getter among all active Bridgeport forwards.
From breaking into the AHL together on the ice to establishing pedigree in their third seasons of professional hockey, this is just the beginning for the duo from Western Canada.
“Watching those guys from their freshman years until now is just insane if you think about it,” Jones added. “The incline keeps going up for each of them and they’re both just guys who you want on your team.”