Last week, signed Portland Winterhawks prospects, James Stefan and Jack O’Brien, were in Portland practicing with the team. Head coach Mike Johnston likes bringing prospects into practice throughout the year with the goal of getting the players acclimated to the team and speed of the WHL.
After being listed by Portland, and attending the Neely Cup in September, the two long-time friends signed with the Winterhawks in November.
Both O’Brien and Stefan play with the Little Caesars U15 team in Michigan. Jack plays center while James flanks him on the wing.
If the last name Stefan sounds familiar, it is because James’ father, Patrick, is a former first overall selection in the 1999 NHL entry draft by the Atlanta Thrashers.
In 43 games so far this season, James Stefan leads the team with 55 points scoring 31 goals and contributing 24 assists. O’Brien, who described himself more as the “distributor”, has 41 points in 34 games. Jack’s 26 assists, to go along with 15 goals, is second on the team in assists despite playing eight less games.
Winterhawks’ assistant captain, and WHL leading scorer, Joachim Blichfeld talked about having the 15-year-olds in practice this week, “They both have a lot of skill and came in and make plays. They aren’t afraid to make plays at this level; two really good players who will be great for us in the future.”
“It has been great” Stefan said on Friday when asked to describe the week. “Such a precise organization. To practice here with these guys is amazing; they have been really supportive. There is a lot to learn from, and the coaching staff is amazing. Coach Don Hay and Mike Johnston know so much about the game.”
O’Brien said he “had a great time here so far. It is so fun to be around the guys all the time. This is such a professional organization. The coaches are awesome, players are special, and the team this year is really cool. I’m learning a lot from the coaches and from the players also. It has been great leadership from them.”
Both players were listed on Portland’s Protected List rather than being drafted through the WHL draft. The experience of being listed and then signing is one neither will forget.
“I was not eligible to get drafted because we didn’t get the paperwork in time” Stefan said. “Coach Mike really wanted Jack and me. He scouted us for a while, came to our games, and picked us both up. Mike came to a lot of our games and spoke to both of us afterwards. He really liked how we played. We also came to the camp in the summer (Neely Cup). To be picked up by the same organization is amazing. We have been lifelong friends forever.”
The concept of playing in Portland was new for O’Brien, “I’m originally from Colorado, so before I even knew anything about Portland, I was trying out for the national camp (USA National Team Development Program). We met Josh [Dye] (Portland’s Director USA/Player Development) at nationals last year. We got in touch with Mike, and it took off from there.”
O’Brien mentioned he wasn’t “exactly sure sure what [getting listed] meant, except that we couldn’t get drafted.” However, “We learned a little bit more, and it is huge honor though” Jack said.
The decision for him to sign was not easy. “Probably the hardest decision of my life, thinking I may go to the national program instead of here.” However, for Jack, “Everything checked off here, and I was so excited to sign. Such an unreal process for sure.”
Part of what assisted Jack make the decision was “I knew Mike and the entire coaching staff. I didn’t know as much about the national program staff. I wanted to be able to play center.”
Center is O’Brien’s natural position, so having the opportunity to play center in Portland weighed heavily in his decision. Portland was interested in Jack as a centerman which helped him make his choice of the Winterhawks over the USA National Team Development Program.
O’Brien articulated what he brings to the ice, “I would say I’m a two-way center, offensively and defensively skilled. I have good skills with the puck and good hockey IQ. I need to work on my strength, but I think I’m a good passer who can also get the puck in the net. I would say my skating and IQ are the biggest parts of my game.”
When asked who passes the puck and who shoots, O’Brien smiled from ear-to-ear, “I’m definitely the passer, distributor. We have always played on the same line. I’m sort of the setup guy, and he is the finisher.”
Stefan agreed, “I would describe myself more of a shooter [than a passer]. I don’t think I’m the fastest guy on the ice, but my IQ is very high. I like to make great plays and have a really good scoring ability. On the power play is where I get a lot of my goals. I usually play on the half-wall on the power play on the right side. I get the puck from the defensemen and come in trying to take shots.”
Second half of their season
The two headed back for Michigan on Sunday as they prepare for major tournaments.
“We actually just got into the OHL cup, which is a high-competition tournament. Then, the NHL Youth Cup, state tournament, and hopefully nationals. We have a bit ahead of us in our season” Stefan said.
O’Brien, Stefan, and the rest of their teammates “will actually be playing against 16-year-old teams there (NHL Youth Cup) with our 15-year-old team. It will be a good challenge” Jack said.
Per a Winterhawks press release in November 2018, their Little Caesars team has been ranked nationally, including being the second ranked team in the country.
Jack’s confidence about playing against the 16-year-old teams is higher “after coming here and playing with these big boys here.”
The NHL Youth Cup is being played in Marlboro, Massachusetts this weekend. The tournament starts February 1st and ends on February 3rd while the OHL Cup runs March 12th through the 18th.
The next several months will be busy for two of the Winterhawks top prospects, but both are excited for what is to come.
“I definitely want to win the OHL cup, that is a huge tournament” Stefan said when asked about his goals for the rest of the season. “There are a lot of scouts there. I’m still part of the WHL obviously. There may only be OHL scouts there, but the word gets out.”
James continued, “I also really want to win state, and think we have a really good shot this year after not winning last year. I think we have a way better shot this year. Definitely also want to win nationals as well.”
O’Brien’s goals for the remainder of the year include, “I want to be a leading scorer and being a good teammate. I also want to get stronger and faster being ready for next year here.”
Over the summer Stefan said, “We are going to be working with some trainers trying to get my strength and speed up” as he continues to work on his development.
The duo are not only close on the ice, but as well as away from the rink. “I also like to go to the movies with my buddies from Little Caesars” Stefan said. “We all live in Birmingham, there is like seven of us, so we like to go to the movies together. There is a lake near my house and go fishing with one of my other buddies.”
The movies is something Jack enjoys as well, “We have a really cool town where I live; we go to the movies a lot. With winter now, we play a lot of pond hockey, maybe occasionally some video games with the guys. just enjoy hanging out with the boys chilling.”
The future Winterhawks keep up with this year’s team as they “try to listen to every game” O’Brien said with a smile. “Also, Johnston gives us workouts that we are working on every day.”
Portland fans can expect a more formal introduction to the Jack O’Brien and James Stefan duo next season.
Correction: In my practice report posted on Saturday, January 26th, I mentioned Jack O’Brien and James Stefan would return to Portland as Black Aces. However, per a team source with Little Caesars, they will not return to Portland during the playoffs.