Justin Azevedo: Too Small For The NHL?

EL SEGUNDO, CA — Did you know that the leading scorer in the Ontario Hockey League for the 2007-08 season was not Steven Stamkos, the consensus top prospect and first overall selection in the 2008 National Hockey League Entry Draft?

In fact, Stamkos was a fairly distant fifth in overall scoring in the OHL.

So what happened to the leading scorer, who finished the season with 43 goals and 81 assists for 124 points with 69 penalty minutes in 67 games?

On draft weekend last June, he waited.

And waited.

Finally, late on day two of the 2008 draft, center Justin Azevedo of the 2007-08 OHL champion Kitchener Rangers got the call he was waiting for all his life….he was selected in the sixth round, 153rd overall, by an NHL club…

…The Los Angeles Kings.

Why was Azevedo a late-round selection, not to mention going undrafted since 2006, his first year of eligibility for the NHL draft?

In a word, size.

To be sure, Azevedo has a huge challenge ahead of him if he ever hopes to make it to the NHL simply because he is a small 5-7, 183-pound wisp of a forward.

“I guess it’s the size factor, it’s something I can’t change,” said Azevedo. “The only thing I can take care of what I do on the ice. If I perform then everything will fall into place.”

Indeed, Azevedo’s chances are certainly not in his favor. Nevertheless, he has heard this all before and is not discouraged by any means.

“I don’t think I’m too small,” said Azevedo. “It’s just going to take hard work to get here. I have to train hard and work hard. Hopefully, it’ll happen.”

At 183 pounds, Azevedo is not slim and wiry for his height, but do not expect him to be able to bulk up a lot more without adversely affecting his speed and quickness.

“I don’t know if I want to get much bigger,” he said. “I would like to get stronger, but I’m just going to have to work at that this summer.”

As far as NHL amateur scouts were concerned, Azevedo flew completely under the radar the previous two seasons, which he characterized as poor ones. But he emerged in a big way this past year with a breakout season, finally catching the eyes of the scouts.

“I don’t think I had that great of a season in my draft year, but I think my size did play a factor,” Azevedo explained. “This past year, I really elevated my game. I knew I had to come in and lead the team to a championship and with the help of the guys I had playing with me, they all helped out a lot.”

“It was my fourth year in the league,” Azevedo elaborated. “I knew I was a veteran player on the team. It’s just what a veteran player does—step up and play a major role and be a huge factor on the team.”

Azevedo credited his coach at Kitchener for his improvement.

“My major junior coach, Peter DeBoer, who’s in Florida now, he’s taught me a lot, just with puck protection, using my body and what not,” said Azevedo. “Even minor hockey coaches have pushed me to be the best that I can be. It’s paid off so far.”

This summer, Azevedo worked with the Kings’ coaching staff at their annual Development Camp in July to learn what he needs to do to improve.

“They told me things that I’m good at, to keep going and excel at them, he said. “I do need to work on some things, so when I go back home this summer, that’s what I’m going to do.”

“When I get a puck in the zone, I need to work on my shifty-ness and being able to slow down the play, he added. “I think everything could use some work. I don’t think anything can be good enough.”

Azevedo certainly has a lot of work ahead of him if he wants his dream to come true. After all, with NHL players getting bigger, stronger and faster seemingly every season, Azevedo’s chances of succeeding at the NHL level are extremely slim.

But there certainly are exceptions, as there are some smallish players who have succeeded in the NHL.

“You have Martin St. Louis, you have Brian Gionta,” said Azevedo. “Maybe I can be another one.”

Kings fans can add forward Michael Cammalleri, now with the Calgary Flames, to that list, although he is not nearly as accomplished as either St. Louis or Gionta at this point in his career.

“All the doubters—people who said I couldn’t do it—I just want to prove to everyone that I can play at a higher level and that I can do the same things a six-foot player can do,” Azevedo exclaimed. “I just used my hockey sense and my vision and I think it paid off.”

“I’m just going to come in, work hard, try and prove a point and go from there.”

Photo courtesy Kitchener Rangers.

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12 thoughts on “Justin Azevedo: Too Small For The NHL?

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  1. You can also add names like Theo Fleury and Pat Verbeek to the list of players that were small yet found some measure of success in the NHL. It sounds like he is determined to overcome his lack of size and put in the work to improve his strength and smarts to get to the next level. As it has been pointed out before, I think his success last year at the junior level was due to his being an overager than true skill compared to “peers”. However, he is a late round pick and I think is a good risk for Lombardi to take.

  2. About Azevedo being an “over-ager…” yeah, that was the point I was getting at, but decided to leave it to the reader to figure out. :-)

    As for the risk…what risk? He was a really late-round pick…not much of a gamble at all, if you think about it. The Kings lose nothing by taking a shot with this kid. They can only gain from the pick.

  3. Nice work as always Gann. Can’t wait for the season to start. By the way, the Ian Hlinka tournament is going to be played Aug 12-16. A little candy for the hockey starved minions. It’s always a good first look at the kids who will be 2009 eligible.

  4. Don”t forget Marcel Dionne. He was listed at 5’8” but I used to watch the Kings practice at Culver Ice Rink. I’ll be the was closer to 5’6”

  5. You never know…..justin papineau didn’t work out, and there are more small guys that never get to fit in, but many that do. Cammy is a good example and we just need to look at Jiri Hudler who had incredible numbers prior to the draft but was passed over by many before Detroit went for him. He was an important part of the team in the playoffs playing a ‘mixed’ role.

  6. Guys as small as Azevedo have excelled previously, but they usually were FAST, or at least super-QUICK, and could play their game IN TRAFFIC.

    Cammi isn’t overly fast down the ice, but he is extraordinarily QUICK (i.e. at stops, starts, spins, cuts, fakes, etc). And he’s pretty gutsy in traffic.

    Does Azevedo at least have that “inside”/tight QUICKNESS in a crowd with the puck? Can he make super-quick, no-look passes back between his legs right to the slot (like Cammi?).

    Does he have the “swashbuckling”-type courage to accelerate into a crowd and battle like a fiend for the puck against ANYBODY who might be there?

    Will he take a hit (even get crushed) to make a good play, at least in a significant game?

    Can he get his shot off with a D-Man all over him, at least SOME of the time?

    If the answers to these questions are, “Yes”, Azevedo will make it to the NHL.

    How he does in the AHL will tell us a whole lot about Justin Azevedo.

  7. For those saying that Azevedo was an overager last year you are wrong. If he was to come back to the OHL this coming season he would then be an overager but he was not last season. Trust me I know this as I am a fan of the Kitchener Rangers and have watched him since he first staarted playing with them as an underager at 16.

  8. I think what people were saying, and what I was alluding to in the story, was that Azevedo was a 20-year-old, compared to Stamkos, who is 18. Azevedo may have been the OHL’s leading scorer, but he didn’t reach that level until he was in his last year of junior eligibility, unlike Stamkos.

  9. NHL scouts must have seen something else they didn’t like about Azevedo. At 5’7″ 183 lbs., he’s hardly a “wisp,” fireplug is a better description. That’s about the size of Yvan Cournoyer, who had grit and speed, and great hands.

    He was the leading scorer on the best team in the OHL, so maybe it was a lot easier to score with that team.

    If Azevedo has the heart, he could make LA look very astute in their draft.

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