In today’s NHL, the ability to skate well is at a premium.
For the Kitchener Rangers’ blueliner Giovanni Vallati, it’s a component of his game that he’s hoping will propel him up the draft charts.
“I’ve been working on [my skating] ever since I was young. It’s something that I’ve always focused on,” explained Vallati, who is eligible for the 2018 NHL Draft.
“It’s definitely a strength to my game and something that I’ll continue to work on throughout my whole career, every day at practice and in the summer.”
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound defenseman from Ottawa attributes his speed and agility to a lot of quick-feet drills and edge work.
He added that focusing on this part of his game has been a conscious decision that he undertook years ago.
“You have to be fast in today’s game and be able to skate well, to keep up with the speed at the next level,” he said. “It’s a big thing that everyone needs to work on.”
Rangers coach Jay McKee said the team has worked diligently to put Vallati in a position to succeed. Last year, the team monitored his matches, playing him against third and fourth-liners.
“Let him build his confidence first,” McKee explained. “And then let his game take over.”
The team is reaping the benefits of sowing that confidence.
This year, Vallati already has three goals and 16 assists — two points shy of his full-season totals last year in just 41 games.
He’s also been bumped up to the team’s top defensive pairing.
“He has unreal mobility, real high-end vision, a great shot. He’s a guy that when he’s been given a more important role, he’s thrived on it,” McKee said. “He definitely has all the tools: high mobility, high agility, great vision so he has that ability to be a really good puck mover, a guy who can jump into the rush, and a guy that can play on your power play.
“I think [his success] is because of how well he moves on the ice. He’s really fluid in his skating, he’s a guy who can make pass, he can look guys off, he can make a pass while he’s in motion. He just has that vision and agility that you need to have at the next level.”
McKee said consistency was a factor early in the season, but over the past six weeks the young blueliner has improved that element of his game as well.
“I’m a little bit more comfortable in my defensive zone, being able to pick up guys and stuff, not letting them get by you,” Vallati said. “I’m just all-around more comfortable in the league. Consistency] is more of a mindset thing.
“Being ready to go each and every game and not ever taking a shift off, because every game counts and every shift matters.”
Vallati, who said he models his game after NHLers like Duncan Keith and Kris Letang, credits Winnipeg Jets’ first round pick Logan Stanley for helping him navigate his draft-eligible year.
Stanley was obtained by the Rangers in the offseason from the Windsor Spitfires.
“He’s been a big part for me this season, helping me through my draft season and telling me what I should do,” Vallati added. “He’s told me what it’s like to be at the next level and given me tips that he’s taken away from NHL camps.
“One thing that he told me last practice was to make sure that every pass is hard and on the tape. He said at the next level, everyone snaps their passes super-hard and that’s a big part of the game at the next level.”
Vallati also has some role models behind the bench with McKee and another former NHLer.
“We like to think that with myself being a former defensive defenseman and with Dennis Wideman being an offensive defenseman we can give him the best of both worlds,” McKee said. “The style of player I was, I wasn’t the fastest, I didn’t have the vision, I didn’t have the shot — I was more of a smart, competitive positional player, so I can help him out with the defensive side of the game.
“And it’s great having Dennis on board because he’s got that offensive thought process — though sometimes we clash in the way we things should be.”
With some trade deadline acquisitions, Kitchener’s in it to make a run at an OHL championship. Vallati’s primed to play a key role in that and he’s aware of the additional pressure he’s going to face as a draft-eligible prospect.
“It’s exciting. We were good before the trade deadline and we’re even better now,” he said. “Definitely you’re aware of [the added attention]. You can’t really think about it. You just have to go out, play your game, and let the play on the ice do your talking for you.
“Young guys in their draft years — it can be a lot of pressure on you. But you’ve just got to deal with it. Everyone else is going through the same thing as you are.”