I’m of the belief that it doesn’t matter where your hockey players are from; Belarus or Belleville, Scarborough or Siberia, at the end of the day, you want to assemble a roster of the best twenty guys you possibly can – their sticks will speak louder than their passports. But sometimes, you get lucky and find a good player who also has the loveable local connection. Stuart Percy was born to wear blue and white; born in Oakville, he wore it as a fan, in minor hockey, in junior, in the AHL, and for the first time last year, he wore the real deal in a regular season game.
But what does the twenty-two-year-old have to do to stick around full-time?
Drafted 25th overall by the Leafs in 2011, Percy is your prototypical two-way defenceman. At 6’1, 186lbs, he’s not big enough to truly intimidate you, but he’s also not small enough to get pushed around. Not that he needs to be physical, though – what makes Percy so effective is his mental game. Rather than having to rely on knocking over his attackers and rushing his attacks, his calm demeanor allows for him to put himself in position to minimize the opposition’s options in his own zone, and maximize his own outlets while moving up.
The Leafs recognized this in Percy during his second OHL season with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, in which he finished third amongst team defencemen in points (first among all 1993-94 born players) with 33 in 64 games. Rather than rush him, Toronto left him to play another two years of junior hockey, which he did as the Majors’ (and after a re-branding, the Steelheads’) captain. He’s spent the last two seasons playing with the Toronto Marlies, putting up 40 points in 119 AHL games to date.
One of the great things about Percy’s games is that he doesn’t have any particular weak points; he’s at least decent at using every defensive tool in the box, though improving his skating and using his shot more effectively would do wonders for him.
A strong late-season run with the Marlies in 2013/14 afforded Percy an opportunity to show himself off in Leafs training camp, and he grabbed the bull by the horns and ran with it. Not only did he look good in practices and scrimmages, he drew a lot of positive attention to himself in pre-season games as well. For his efforts, he was rewarded with appearances in seven of Toronto’s first eight regular season games – the first three of which saw him pick up assists and play over twenty minutes a night.
It wasn’t meant to be, though. His production tapered off, the team as a whole started playing poorly, and the Leafs began to doubt the choices they had made with him.
“I don’t think our process with Stu was good enough,” said [Kyle] Dubas, who also serves as Marlies GM. “I thought we rushed him up and he played real well and as soon as he started to struggle, we didn’t really protect him up here with his usage, so on and so forth for a 21-year-old. Then we struggled and put him right down. [Via Kyle Cicerella]
From there, it was up to Percy to regain his spot as a key member of the Marlies’ blue line. But, chalk it up to a lack of confidence or a lack of chemistry, things didn’t happen for him off the bat. He struggled to produce points as efficiently as prior years, and the special teams units he was involved in weren’t as effective as the year before. Really, the only way things could go worse is if he suffered a major injury.
Yeah, about that. In a December game against the Milwaukee Admirals, Percy came out from behind the Marlies net with the puck, looking to perform the same breakout that Randy Carlyle and the Leafs were executing and encouraging a league above. Lacking options at the wing or space to cross the red line himself, Percy curled back. Milwaukee’s Michael Liambas checked him, and an unfortunate loss of balance sent Percy head first into the boards, leading to a concussion that took him out of the lineup for six games. From there, he played in spurts, but was never quite the same and finished the season with just 11 points in 43 games.
The Road Ahead
Percy has had a few months to recover from his injuries and clear his mind. Last year proved that, when healthy, he’s not far off from being an NHL talent, but it’s a matter of using him properly and delegating him the right opportunities for success.
I’d expect the Leafs to give him a near-opposite opportunity curve this year. Percy will undoubtedly be playing first pairing minutes with the Marlies, along with opportunities on the powerplay and the penalty kill. From there, it comes down to continuing to round out his came and staying consistent – if he does that, he’ll undoubtedly get a good, yet sheltered look with the Leafs if they decide to sell at the deadline.