Canucks Prospect Film Room: Inside Hunter Brzustewicz’s seamless transition game

Photo credit:MATT TIDCOMBE / CHL
Dave Hall
6 months ago
It’s a rare occurrence to come across something that appreciates in value the moment you step out the door.
Yet, the Vancouver Canucks may be living proof that it can happen, as Hunter Brzustewicz is punching well above his third-round price tag.
Last year, the Michigan native had an impressive draft-eligible campaign, notching six goals and 57 points as a rookie OHL defender, ranking third among U19 rearguards league-wide.
However, although he showed strong offensive ability and two-way prowess, some scouts felt he lacked that elusive “it” factor that would eventually translate into an elite NHL talent.
As a result, despite being ranked much higher, he slipped on draft day and the Canucks jumped at the chance to grab the highly skilled right-shot defender 75th overall.
While it’s way too early to be making such heavy claims, signs are pointing toward him being one of the top value picks among the entire crop.
If you haven’t been paying attention, Brzustewicz hasn’t just met expectations this season; he has far exceeded them. Currently, he shares second place in OHL scoring, trailing his teammate, Carson Rehkopf, by just one point.
He’s already seen a 14-game point streak come and go and has contributed points in 17 of his 19 games, accumulating an impressive 32 points.
Last season, it took him 34 games to reach that 30-point mark. So, assuming things continue to roll as they have, he’s on pace to shatter that career high (57 points).
So, what has contributed to his high-calibre post-draft season?
Well, there are several factors, and the straightforward answer is that the Kitchener Rangers are currently making a mockery of the OHL. They hold all three of the league’s top scorers and sport an absurd goal differential of plus-40.
They are scoring at will, and spreading the love around the scoresheet — so that helps.
Not only is Brzustewicz among those league leaders, but he is the team’s heart and soul from the backend and drives the majority of Kitchener’s offensive opportunities.
Quite literally, each game is primarily filtered through his stick.
He’s logging significant minutes in all situations and quarterbacking one of the league’s most potent power plays.
But don’t get it twisted. Despite his role in leading one of the top special teams units, Brzustewicz has only recorded 10 of his points on the man advantage.
Instead, the primary avenue of production has come from his exceptional transitional game, where he leverages his elite vision and processing skills at even strength.
As a formidable two-way defender, he brings a diverse set of tools and a calm and confident approach to his game. But he is considered a transitional wizard, and this aspect of the game lays a promising foundation for his future growth as he gets set to climb the ladder.
Today, we shift our focus toward said transition and vision and provide a few examples of what makes him such an intriguing prospect.
This week, we took clips primarily from Brzustewicz’s game on Friday, November 10th, with one or two from his previous game earlier in the week.
His ability to process the play, often a step ahead of the action, allows him to execute quick and effortless plays with the puck.
Whether it’s a simple or pressured outlet pass, a quick one-touch in the neutral zone, or a backdoor feed from the blue line, he’s constantly scanning the ice for his next move.
Playing with your head up and scanning the ice should be a skill that all defencemen aspiring to move up the ranks possess. However, not all players are equal in this regard, and Brzustewicz excels.
Take this play, for example, which occurred in the first shift and the opening seconds of the game. His head is up, scanning for his next play before the puck even hits his stick. As a result, he finds a quick lane and reacts with a prompt cross-ice feed for a prime scoring opportunity.
Or here, where he sees a quick opening to hit the down-low option on the man advantage (the game prior).
Plays like these make him an extremely effective quarterback, both on special teams and even strength. His game exudes a certain swagger, and he doesn’t appear phased by pressure or tight situations — at least not at the Junior level.
He reacts quickly, and more times than not, it’s the right play to switch the rush in the opposite direction.
The key here is quick.
Being able to process the play beforehand allows him to jumpstart plays in quick succession and deliver seamless outlets to turn things over, often leading to odd-man rushes.
Here are a few instances of him initiating plays with outlets from his own end. While we won’t show every single pass to avoid repetition, it’s worth noting that there were very few mistakes in judgment during this game.
With just a few clips, you get a sense of his calm, never-stressed presence on the ice. Whether he has all the time in the world or is being hounded by a forward, the result is usually the same.
Here, we shift to more pressured situations. It’s these instances that will separate effective defenders from those who struggle, as it is key to not only making quick decisions, but accurate.
He doesn’t waste any time, has his head up scanning the play and makes calculated and quick plays to move the puck up the ice in any way necessary.
Defensively, Brzustewicz demonstrates a highly active stick, effectively closing gaps and disrupting offensive plays. While his speed may present a challenge at times, particularly when caught flatfooted, he does a good job of keeping opponents to the outside when he holds the advantage.
The significance of his active stick becomes evident in his transitional game, enabling him to break up offensive rushes and swiftly redirect the puck in the opposite direction. This skill plays a crucial role in his overall defensive prowess.
In addition to spectacular vision, Brzustewicz exhibits a knack for joining the offensive rush.
While he’s defensively sound, he’s known to be what I like to refer to as a “rover” defender. By this, I mean a defender who refuses to remain stagnant and is constantly navigating the ice. He is not afraid to jump into the play, even if that means dropping behind the goal line in the offensive zone. He is everywhere, and always.
This, of course, comes with its share of pros and cons.
While it certainly promotes creativity and offensive pressure, it does lead to various odd-man rushes, mainly due to his lack of ability to recover from his pinches. His edge work is excellent, his overall skating speed stands out as the one major aspect of his game that will benefit from some fine-tuning.
Transitioning to the pro ranks always comes with its share of learning curves, especially for offensive-minded defenders who are used to a “run and gun” style, and Brzustewicz will likely face those same roadblocks. While he will continue to use his reliable outlet passes and strong transitional game, his skating may provide hurdles in comfortably executing the typical rush offence he has become accustomed to at the junior level.
Don’t worry, though, what he lacks in top speed, he makes up in edges. He possesses terrific footwork and can skate himself out of a phone booth to escape pressured situations.
At the of the day, Brzustewicz offers a very intriguing skill set and carries quite a few tools that should translate to the pro circuit with ease.
You can always teach and work on skating and shooting ability, but you can’t instill high-level hockey IQ, and he’s got that in spades.
As the World Junior Championships loom just over a month away, the 18-year-old’s early-season performance has undoubtedly put his name on the list of defenders who may earn a flight to Sweden. However, with names like Seamus Casey, Ryan Chesley, and Sam Rinzel – all right-shot options – in the mix, there is absolutely no guarantee that this hot offensive boom will earn him a spot.
Regardless, he has been a great story and has certainly taken this prospect pool by storm.

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