ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Playing alongside — and sometimes being overshadowed by — big-name players is nothing new for Darren Raddysh.
The 21-year-old developed his craft with the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, a team that has produced 13 National Hockey League draft picks since 2010.
The list of notable Erie alumni includes more than a few standouts: Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, Arizona Coyotes forward Dylan Strome, Tampa Bay Lightning 2016 draft pick Taylor Raddysh (Darren’s younger brother) and Chicago Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat, to name a few.
But while his high-scoring Erie teammates got plenty of NHL attention, Darren went undrafted through his Junior career.
It was not until last season when Raddysh, who was named the OHL’s 2016-17 Defenseman of the Year in June, put up 16g-65a-81pts in 62 games and 8g-14a-22pts in 22 playoff games to help lead his team to an OHL championship and garner the kind of fanfare that his teammates had been enjoying.
“I didn’t expect to have the season I did. I think I proved to myself I can play at an elite level and I can put up points the way I did. I know a lot people probably doubted me and said it was a lot from my brother, from Strome and DeBrincat, but I think if you look at it, a lot of it did come from me,” Raddysh told Scott Powers of The Athletic.
His remarkable season could have given Raddysh unrealistic expectations of his next step, but he kept things in perspective and .
“Near the end of last season, I just wanted to sign a contract and have a chance to play pro this year,” he said.
Raddysh did sign a contract, but not with an NHL club. Now, four months later, he has settled in nicely in the Rockford IceHogs locker room.
And IceHogs Head Coach Jeremy Colliton has been pleased with the young blueliner’s development thus far.
“He’s been good, he’s been taking steps every day. It’s an adjustment; it’s not easy to go from Junior to pro hockey. The minimum level is much higher,” said Colliton, “We’re real happy with his progression and work ethic, and he’s taking the feedback he’s getting and making the most of it, which is all you want out of a young player.”
But Raddysh is not the only one cutting his teeth in pro hockey. His former teammate, Alex DeBrincat, is just a couple hours’ drive down I-90 with the Chicago Blackhawks—a fact that surprised many coming out of training camp.
As with many life transitions, the move from amateur to pro hockey is more easily made with a familiar face on your side.
“It was nice to see (DeBrincat) do as well as he did at the start of the season…when I first signed with Chicago, or even Rockford, it was a lot easier knowing that I have someone there that I trust and I can talk to and lean on if I need something,” said Raddysh.
DeBrincat, on the other hand, is quick to shrug off the suggestion that he influenced Raddysh’s choice.
“I think it was just the best spot for him. I know he got a few offers and maybe me being here in the organization pushed it a bit, but I don’t think that had too much to do with his decision. He made it for himself, and this was his best opportunity,” he said.
Coach Colliton understands the benefits of having players who know one another, having coached both DeBrincat and Raddysh to a championship in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament this past September.
“Their chemistry is more off-ice, obviously they have a comfort level with each other and with a new group, it’s nice to have someone you trust,” he said, “Some pre-existing familiarity helps the group come together too. On the ice too, they have some chemistry, especially on the power play and stuff like that where they can tell what the other guy is thinking.”
The duo was an offensive dynamo during their final season in the OHL, combining for 208 points in the regular season and taking home both individual and team awards.
In addition to Raddysh’s Defenseman of the Year pedigree, DeBrincat was named the OHL’s Most Outstanding Player after leading the league in goals and points.
But while they acknowledge their chemistry, each points to the other’s skills as the main driver for their individual successes.
“His size doesn’t matter. Practicing with him for the last three years, we’ve had a couple of battles and while he’s one of the smaller guys on the ice, he plays like he’s one of the bigger ones. He doesn’t care who he’s going up against, but he shows that he can fight,” said Raddysh of 5-foot-7 DeBrincat.
DeBrincat responded in kind, citing Raddysh’s puck-moving ability and two-way prowess as the defenseman’s strongest asset and crediting him for being a good teacher as well.
“(I learned from) just playing with him. We played three years together; he definitely helped me out through those years on where to be and where defensemen like to move the puck. Stuff like that helped me a lot as a player,” he added.
But while both players lean on each other as they develop into pro hockey players, their dynamic has shifted as they play for different teams for the first time since 2013-14.
“We talk when we can…probably less talking this year than in other years because we’re on different teams,” said DeBrincat.
With Raddysh continuing to work on his game in Rockford, it may not be long before they are teammates again in Chicago. Having gotten a taste of playing for an NHL team together in the pre-season, the pair relishes the opportunity to come together on the same team once more.
“It was really cool (to play for the Blackhawks together in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament). That’s something you don’t really get to do with one of your good friends that often. Playing with him for the past three years and then being able to do that was really cool,” said DeBrincat.
But Raddysh is not getting ahead of himself, accepting that he and DeBrincat are at different stages of their development while noting that their relationship has not changed.
“We roomed together at development camp, and at Traverse City (Prospect Tournament) we were hanging out a lot. To see him make the team is something I’ve wished upon him since he was drafted,” he said.
Raddysh’s journey to the NHL may take longer than DeBrincat’s, but consider his foot planted firmly in the door as he continues to work hard and turn heads with the IceHogs.
“I need to improve my skating. It’s probably been one of my big downfalls for my entire career, but I’ve been working on it every day with (skating & skills development coach) Kevin (Delaney),” he said.
“I’m just trying to do the things to hopefully get a contract up (in Chicago) one day.”
After winning the prospect tournament in Traverse City, Raddysh and DeBrincat, could soon work together towards something more than just a preseason title.