Often times when a player takes a significant step in their development a physical tool becomes noticeably better. Other times, a boost of confidence is just what they need. Usually, it’s a combination of both that causes a player to progress. The progression of Darren Dietz this year falls into the first category, but perhaps just a little more confidence could take him to the next level.
At the start of the 2011-2012 season, Dietz was just months removed from being selected in the fifth round by the Montreal Canadiens. Dietz was the definition of a long-term project: A hard-working player with a powerful shot and a heavy shoulder, but lacked in the skating, decision-making, and confidence departments.
As the season wore on, Dietz’s status as a prospect raised substantially. His production improved dramatically, but he remained highly inconsistent at both ends of the rink. Occasional offensive outbursts broke up lengthy stretches of unimpressive play.
2012-2013 was the biggest year of Darren Dietz’s career. Saskatoon won the bid for the Memorial Cup and Dietz was looking to earn a contract with the Montreal Canadiens. Although Saskatoon imploded during the season, Dietz was one of the team’s sole bright spots. He improved his game-to-game consistency dramatically and confidence with the puck reached new levels. Despite not being fleet of foot, he rushed the puck with ease, made tremendous passes, and utilized his heavy shot to score a CHL defender-leading 24 goals.
While Saskatoon’s late-season resurgence would fall flat in the playoffs and Memorial Cup, Dietz’s incredible year went rewarded with an entry-level deal. Entering the 2013-2014 campaign, Dietz was highly-regarded, at a similar level to Morgan Ellis.
The similarities between Dietz and Ellis don’t end there. Development-wise they’ve followed an eerily similar path: Offensive explosion in their fourth year of junior eligibility after previous years of inconsistency. Just like Ellis, Dietz too struggled in his first professional year. Although he battled with injuries in his first campaign, it took until the following year for Dietz to score his first AHL goal. Tools-wise, Dietz is a heavy shooter, with a physical edge, whose heavy feet hindered him mightily–Just like Ellis.
However, there are major differences between the two as well. Dietz is a more aggressive player, both with the body and in terms of jumping into the play. Ellis displays a higher level of composure and hockey sense, but Dietz is certainly no slouch in either category, either. Where Ellis tends to fall into the role of a triggerman, Dietz shows better creativity and puckhandling ability. But the most striking different has been how Dietz has deviated away from Ellis’s development path this year, or at the very least accelerated it.
Ellis was in the ECHL for the majority of his third professional year. This year–Dietz’s third professional year–he has emerged as one of the best defenders for the IceCaps. While Ellis’s return from the ECHL to the AHL saw him impress, he certainly wasn’t as good as Dietz has been this year.
This turnaround for Dietz has been striking. Since the first game of the season, Dietz has been one of the IceCaps most impressive two-way defenders. While the offensive component of his game has yet to consistently emerge, the defensive component has. The clumsy acceleration that plagued him previously is still not pretty but has improved, allowing Dietz to jump into the rush, correct mistakes, and initiate superior gap control. The player who once constantly chased after the puck has become more position-focused. Dietz was once an uninspired pokechecker who allowed lanes to the net too easily; now he has an active stick and rarely fails at angling players to the outside. That nasty side is still there, shown with lots of stick work, quality body work, and the occasional thunderous body check, but no longer does he take a gamely trip to the penalty box.
Yet one component is still missing: Offence.
There are flashes of offensive brilliance:
The tools are in place for an offensive breakout: A cannon for a shot, quality vision, above-average stickhandling, ability to lead the rush, and creativity. He has the ability to lead a rush, and thanks to his improved acceleration, can jump into the rush more effectively. Dietz’s combination of shooting ability and creativity to open up lanes from the point has only improved, as noted by his 1.7 shots on goal/game, a dramatic increase from 0.9 last year. However, it just hasn’t all clicked yet. Despite possessing tools ranging from above-average to excellent, he doesn’t consistently utilize them.
Just like in the 2011-2012 season, Dietz’s offence only comes in occasional spurts. But what makes this encouraging is that no longer are these outbursts breaking up lengthy periods of unimpressive play–They are occasional stretches of exceptional play breaking up lengthy periods of solid play.
Perhaps–just like Morgan Ellis–all Dietz needs is confidence and the points will come.