Don’t look now, but the kid selected near the end of the last round at the 2009 NHL Draft is coming on strong and looks to be making a push for a future NHL roster spot. Nic Dowd, taken 198th out of 211 players that year, is sitting on pretty solid ground as he wraps up his first professional season.
“Coming into this year, I started off great. I was [recording] almost a point-per-game and I was playing a lot. I was starting to feel successful,” said the 24-year-old center. “Then all of a sudden, right in the middle of the season, I hit a big slump and wasn’t really playing good hockey. The points weren’t coming, and that was a result of not playing good hockey.”
Not to worry, it happens to nearly every first-year pro as they make the major adjustment to life in the AHL. Regardless of if they come in from Europe, junior hockey, or even the collegiate ranks, life at the next level takes some time getting used to.
“I think the biggest thing that struck me was that I felt I put myself in a good spot during the summer to come in and have a good start, but it really is a grind,” admitted Dowd, who had his first taste with the Monarchs around this time last year; he was assigned to Manchester following his college team, St. Cloud State, being eliminated from the 2014 NCAA playoffs.
“The American League really beats you down,” he continued. “You have a lot of long bus trips and you’re playing the day after two or three hard bus rides. You’re playing three [games in three nights], which is incredibly difficult on the body and mentally, too. You come from college where you just play Friday night and Saturday night and you have your Sundays off. Your road trips are very easy then and you have a very simple season compared to here in the American League, where you’re playing double the games.
“I think the hardest thing I found was just the ability to stay consistent. A lot of people like grading games, where you might have an A+ game or an A game; well, I was having a hard time keeping my game up there. I would have an A game one night and the next night I’d have a C or D game. In the middle of this year, I think I had trouble with trying to have that steady climb, as opposed to peaks and valleys. It’s definitely challenging. You’re playing men. In college, you’re definitely playing guys that aren’t as developed, aren’t as big, aren’t as strong. So I’d say the biggest difference is just the amount of games you play and the short time you play them. [Fortunately], I’ve slowly started to climb back and play good hockey. ”
Indeed. After just five points in 21 games played over January and February, Dowd rebounded with nine points in 13 games last month. Perhaps more importantly, he was also a plus-8 and took 28 shots on goal, both serving as personal high water marks for the season.
“I expect a lot out of myself,” he continued. “I think I’m going to be the first guy telling myself I’m doing something wrong. With our coaching staff, and [even my] teammates, and the development staff, it’s not as much that they’re telling you you’re doing something wrong, it’s just that they expect a lot out of you, as well. When you don’t put forth that effort that you expect, they try to figure out the problem and correct the problem, so that you’re moving in the right direction. Obviously, I think I’m my biggest critic, but it helps to have people around for that kind of criticism.”
Somewhat surprisingly, one thing Dowd doesn’t seem to be too concerned with his frame. At 6-foot-2 and less than 200 pounds, his lanky frame doesn’t exactly fit into “stocky” definition usually associated with L.A. Kings hockey.
“I don’t think that I need to be necessarily that much bigger. There are plenty of guys in the NHL that are playing either at the weight or under the weight, and they are still being successful,” he rationalized. “I think it’s just the fact that this is my first season. It’s my first season dealing with the grind of the American League and pro hockey. It’s a long season. In college, you play 40 games and you can kind of sell it out in the 40 games. By the end of it, there may be nothing left, but you only played 40 games. Here, as a pro, you play almost 80 games in the American League. As of right now, a lot of guys are getting a lot of minutes, because we’ve had some injuries. Playing those minutes is definitely challenging, [but] I wouldn’t say it’s a lack of strength. I’d just say you break down throughout the season and you have to find a way as a pro hockey player to kind of combat that. It’s a learning experience.”
Dowd was also quick to credit his teammates for helping with the transition.
“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of veterans on this team,” he stated. “You’re around players like that that have pretty much been through exactly what I’m going through and what I’ll continue to go through to get to exactly where they are. Just being around those guys, I think, helps everyone have a little bit more confidence. Plus, after college, there are a lot more responsibilities that come with pro hockey. I think for a lot of guys, you have to grow up fast. You’re not a kid anymore, you’re not in college. You have to take care of yourself. Only you can hold yourself responsible and if you don’t do that type of stuff, then there’s going to be someone who will pass you that will do that type of stuff.”
Which perhaps brings things full circle; in the not-too-distant future, Dowd will be joined in Manchester by forward Jonny Brodzinski, who has opted to forgo his senior season and agreed to a two-year contract with the Kings earlier this week. Not only were they teammates in St. Cloud, they were also road roommates the past few seasons.
“He was a great road wife,” Dowd quipped. “When I was a junior and Jonny was a freshman, I was pretty fortunate when the coach assigned me Jonny. He was a good roommate. He loved to be on his computer. Most of the time I would take naps and Jonny would sit up in the dark, with his headphones on, watching his TV shows, or his movies, or playing games. He’s a bit of a nerd when it comes to that type of stuff. He also never snored, which is great. Pretty much, he just kind of lagged on my coattails for a bit until he figured everything out. I just liked to bring him along… He was pretty laid back, just a great kid and a great roommate. He’s one of my favorite guys to hang out with because he is usually up for anything – to go to the movies, play some basketball, whatever it may be. Most of the time, we just went to the rink, hung out there. He loves ping pong, too; loves his ping pong!”
One small thing that helped ease Dowd’s own move to Manchester this season was his other college roommate, defenseman Kevin Gravel (drafter by the Kings in 2010), also joined the Monarchs.
“We’re roommates here in Manchester too,” he said with a big smile. “I’d consider him one of my best friends. Spending so much time in college and growing both as hockey players and just as people outside of the rink, we’ve done a lot of that in the last couple of years. I think a lot of people make a bigger deal of our friendship than it is. I wouldn’t say we go everywhere together. We’re not the exact same person; we’re not attached at the hip all the time. He has his stuff and I have my stuff that I like to do. I’m sure we get in each other’s hair more than we have in the last four years. I think it’s obviously a sign of a good friendship that we’re still together and we’re still good pals. Especially being roommates in college, that can kind of break some people apart.”
With their other buddy back in St. Cloud this year, the duo tried to give Brodzinski some room to breathe and carve his own path.
“I understand college kids – I’ve been through it – you don’t want any outside distractions,” Dowd said, adding that he preferred to keep tabs on Brodzinski’s performance by just reading up online. “Every game means so much and there’s so much importance. I talked to him a little bit; we communicated every now and again. Gravs and I didn’t talk to him at all about his decision, though. We let him do his thing and then we both texted him and congratulated him.”
Any concerns that three might be a crowd in Manchester?
“No, there are never enough St. Cloud guys. Bring them all there, that’s what we should do!” he remarked. “We’re all just pretty excited to get the playoffs rolling right now. I think if we had it our way, we’d start tomorrow. The boys are ready. It’s getting warm out, and that usually means playoff time.”
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