Playing in the Western Hockey League is no easy task for any 17-year-old hockey player.
Even just carving out a roster spot as a fourth line player in what is one of the world’s best junior leagues can be a challenging feat.
Imagine, then, what it would be like to be a team’s top center at 17, being counted on as a go-to guy and playing a lot of minutes, often head-to-head against the best competition the opposition has to offer.
That’s precisely the situation that Chase Wouters of the Saskatoon Blades currently find himself in.
Wouters had already been steadily taking on a bigger and bigger role with the Blades as the season had gone on, but when his team shipped away their top forward — 21-year-old pivot Cameron Hebig — before the WHL trade deadline, that process was kicked into another gear.
“Because of where we are with our process, he’s been forced into those situations,” Blades head coach Dean Brockman said. “We’ve traded away Cam, so that thrusts him into that role. It’s a lot to ask of him, but his maturity and the way he’s approached it have been excellent.”
The results since then, however, have been very impressive.
Wouters, 99th in Future Considerations’ Winter ranking for the 2018 NHL Draft, is holding his own as Saskatoon’s first-line center. He has 10 points in the nine games since Hebig was traded.
He’s found strong chemistry with wingers Braylon Shmyr and Josh Paterson, forming a potent top line that is helping to keep a young Blades squad in the hunt for a playoff spot.
“He’s a heart-and-soul, character type of guy,” Brockman said. “He has a strong work ethic and brings a lot of leadership skills.
“He cares passionately about the team. He’s improved because he’s gotten a little bit stronger, he’s gotten a lot smarter, because he’s played a year in the league.”
For his part, Wouters says that he is thankful for the trust his coaches have placed in him, but prefers to not think about the bigger picture of the situation too much.
Instead, he’s focusing instead on letting his play on the ice do the talking.
“It’s a great opportunity. I thank my coaches for everything,” he said. “I just try to take it step by step and do the best I can. I try to not think about that (playing such an important role). Once you think about that, you start to not play your game.”
Wouters has been on an offensive tear over the past month, scoring 21 points in his previous 14 games, which have helped bring his totals on the season to 39 points in 51 games.
The Lloydminster native, though, still considers himself more of a defensive forward.
Not satisfied with his recent scoring pace, he believes his offensive abilities can still reach another level.
“I’m a two-way forward who leans a little bit on the defensive side of things,” Wouters said. “I like to take care of my own zone, and then if the offense comes, it comes.
“The little things matter.
“I feel like I have some room to grow in the offensive zone, learning how to get more patient with the puck and the little things. I feel like I’m better in my ‘D’ zone than the ‘O’ zone, so I try to work on that.”
The Blades are currently engaged in a fierce, next-and-neck race with the provincial rival Prince Albert Raiders for the last wild card playoff spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
If the Blades make it, the rapidly improving Wouters will likely have played a crucial part.