Drive and determination pay off
Jet prospect DiVincentiis named OHL goaltender of the year
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A year ago, Domenic DiVincentiis had no idea where his career was headed. He was coming off a promising rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League, looking forward to the NHL draft and hoping a team might be willing to take a shot at bringing him into the fold.
Now? The seventh-round selection of the Winnipeg Jets is the most intriguing goalie prospect for the organization since Connor Hellebuyck was picked in the fifth round way back in 2012.
“The whole year, from the draft until today, has been a roller-coaster,” DiVincentiis, 19, told the Free Press on Wednesday in a telephone interview from his hometown of Bolton, Ont. “It’s been pretty eye-opening. A very cool year, overall. Something that I have obviously enjoyed and am taking a moment to recap and think about what a year it has been.”
He’s coming off the only low from that ride, a season-ending loss to the Peterborough Petes this past Monday in Game 7 of their OHL semi-final series. His North Bay Battalion ultimately ended up five wins short of getting to the Memorial Cup. The highs, however, were plentiful, including 68 games played (48 in the regular-season, 20 in the playoffs) and a combined 47-15-5 record. His goals-against-average (2.33 in the season, 2.41 in the playoffs) and save percentage (.919 in the season, .926 in the playoffs) were stellar.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted, to be the starting goaltender of a team. It’s a privilege so you take and you try to keep pushing yourself every single day to get better and not let anyone take that job,” DiVincentiis said of becoming a workhorse.
“It’s meant constantly focusing on my mental game. My physical aspect of the game, hand-eye co-ordination is key. Even the after hours, when nobody’s really watching, no one’s there. Doing the extra little bit just to make sure you’re prepared for the next game, the next practice. Because at any point there’s always someone trying to take a job.”
That drive and determination paid off. DiVincentiis was recently awarded the Jim Rutherford Trophy as the OHL goaltender of the year. He joins a list of past winners which includes numerous current and former NHL netminders such as Mackenzie Blackwood, Alex Nedeljkovic, Jordan Binnington, Steve Mason, Ray Emery, Craig Anderson, Andrew Raycroft, Manny Legace and Rick Tabaracci.
“It’s truly an honour. Very, very honouring and humbling,” he said.
“It’s a very hard league. One of the best, if not the best, junior league in the world. To be able to put up these numbers surpassed my goals that I set for myself. It definitely adds to the confidence and proves to myself that I can do anything I put my mind to. It allows me to know what I can achieve and what my future could look like. But it’s hard work each and every day and it doesn’t stop.”
There’s no question Hellebuyck is the goalie of the present for the Jets. Cast your eyes towards the future and the crease situation becomes more cloudy.
Hellebuyck, who turns 30 next week, has one year remaining on his contract. If the Michigan product isn’t willing to sign a long-term extension this summer, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will have no choice but to swing a blockbuster trade rather than lose a prized asset for nothing in unrestricted free agency.
It would create a massive void on the roster, especially with no obvious heir apparent currently knocking at the door to be a No. 1.
DiVincentiis is the seventh goaltender drafted by the Jets since Hellebuyck. Jamie Phillips (seventh round, 2012) is out of pro hockey. Eric Comrie (second round, 2013) is now with the Buffalo Sabres. Mikhail Berdin (sixth round, 2016) has gone back to play in Russia. Arvid Holm (sixth round, 2017) spent the past season with the Manitoba Moose. Jared Moe (sixth round, 2018) just finished his senior season at the University of Wisconsin. Logan Neaton (fifth round, 2019) just finished his fourth season at Miami University.
“We had full communication, with weekly calls, weekly messages,” DiVincentiis said of the Jets this past year. He would speak regularly with Jimmy Roy and Mike Keane from player development, and Moose goalie coach Drew MacIntyre.
“I’m really grateful to have those guys on my side and trying to help me succeed in my career,” he said.
The Jets obviously would love to lock Hellebuyck up, but would have to make a major pivot if they can’t. Filling the immediate hole via trade or free agency would be the most likely option. David Rittich, the backup this past year who only started 18 of 82 games, is a UFA who likely won’t be re-signed. And the jury is still out on the two masked men who held down the fort for the Manitoba Moose — Holm and undrafted free-agent signing Oskari Salminen.
DiVincentiis said he watched as many Jets and Moose games as he could this year, with an eye on the goaltenders, of course.
“Hellebuyck’s a fantastic goalie. He’s a one-of-a-kind goalie. To even meet him at camp (last year) and see some of the things he does was very cool,” said DiVincentiis. “All of the things he does away from the ice really shows in the way he plays. “
Goaltenders typically require a lot more seasoning than forwards and defencemen when it comes to development, and it would be unfair to expect DiVincentiis to make an impact at the NHL level in the next year or two. The long-term future certainly looks bright if he continues down this path.
DiVincentiis will attend the Jets development camp this summer (slated for July 4-7), and both rookie and main training camp in the fall. He’s expected to return to North Bay for a third season and will surely be on the radar for Team Canada at the World Juniors.
For now, he’s taking a few weeks to savour everything that’s occurred over the past 12 months, while also looking ahead to what should be another exciting chapter in his career,
“Enjoy the time with the family and see some friends. Some golf, have some fun and then get back to work. Make sure we’re prepared for camps. And for next season,” said DiVincentiis, who cites his strong support network with helping him stay grounded and focused.
“My parents, my grandparents, my family. All my immediate family friends. My coaches. All the staff I work with. Everyone that has helped me get to this point in my life and career, I can’t thank them enough. You know, it’s a lot of time and money that they invested in me since I was young. To be able to try and give back one day is my goal. To show them why they did what they did and how much I appreciate them is one of my goals.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.