Thanking our essential workers
Get the latest summer forecast and weather knowledge from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
Visit SaltWire.com for more of the stories you want.
SaltWire Selects: Stories worth sharing today
What you need to know about COVID-19: September 17, 2020
Defenceman had a strong start with ECHL Growlers, strong finish with AHL Marlies
Joe Duszak fits the Toronto Maple Leafs’ style.
After a productive first season of professional hockey, one which began with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers, the 22-year-old defenceman knows it’s on his shoulders to make the notion of one day pulling on a Leafs sweater a reality.
“Really, it’s in my hands,” Duszak said. “You have to be able to play, perform every night, and I think my offensive side from the red line in is there to play in the NHL.
“It’s the redline back to our goal that I should really focus on. If I’m able to do that and tighten my gaps and play a defensive style where I’m not hurting the team every time I’m on the ice, then I feel like I would be able to play in the NHL.”
Signed by the Leafs to a two-year future entry-level contract in March of 2019 — following his third and final season at Mercyhurst College, when he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award — Duszak developed into a sound performer first for the Growlers, then for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. By the time the coronavirus pandemic halted play in March, he had recored 16 points in his last 15 games with the Marlies
“One of his best attributes is he has ice in his veins. He doesn’t feel like the moments of the game are too big for him." — Toronto Marlies head coach Greg Moore
He had 35 points in 34 games with Newfoundland prior to making the full-time move to the Marlies. His performance with the Growlers was such that he was chosen it represent the team in the ECHL’s all-star game in Wichita.
Duszak didn’t require much of a runway to make a transition to the pace of play in the American Hockey League, finishing with 18 points (three goals and 15 assists) in 23 games for the Marlies. Among defencemen on the AHL club, only Timothy Liljegren, with 30 points in 40 games, had more than Duszak.
The Leafs, and by extension the Marlies, want possession and a energetic offence to push play, and defencemen who can ably be part of that system and make proper decisions are valued.
That’s how Duszak has played the game for several years, and for Marlies coach Greg Moore, a certain National Hockey League rookie would come to mind whenever Duszak’s instincts kicked in.
“I had the privilege of coaching (Vancouver Canucks star rookie defenceman) Quinn Hughes when he was at the (U.S.) national program and Joe reminds me a lot of him in terms of style of play and how he approaches the game,” Moore said. “He has that rover mentality. We want our D up on the rush, we want our D active in the offensive zone.
“Joe was filling some big shoes with (Rasmus) Sandin and Liljegren being up (with the Leafs). Just how dynamic he plays, he brought a lot of those elements to us.”
Duszak grew up on Long Island and a five-minute drive from Nassau Coliseum, the New York Islanders’ home for decades, and for many of his formative hockey years was coached by Mike Bracco, the father of Marlies teammate Jeremy Bracco. Among childhood teammates with Duszak and Bracco were defencemen Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins and Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, and playing as part of a talented group put a strut in Duszak’s step that never wavered.
Confidence? Not an issue.
“A bunch of guys from Long Island have that same swagger,” Duszak said. “Jeremy’s dad taught us to be confident with the puck, make the right plays. I just grew up with that.”
Moore never had to nudge Duszak to get him more involved in the play. And Duszak quickly became a solid piece on the power play, picking up eight points while Toronto had a man advantage.
“One of his best attributes is he has ice in his veins,” Moore said. “He doesn’t feel like the moments of the game are too big for him. He is confident in who he is and what he is able to do.
“And he is also willing to learn, and get better and push himself on the things we were working on with him defensively and details and habits. As he gets more consistent, he will become a better pro.
“He didn’t feel as though (the AHL) was above him. He knew he belonged.”
THE FILE ON DUSZAK
AGE: 22 (July 22, 1997))
HOMETOWN: Franklin Square, N.Y.
HEIGHT: 5-foot-10, WEIGHT: 185 pounds
POSITION: Defence, SHOOTS: Right
THE SKINNY: Had a season-high four assists in a Toronto Marlies win against Belleville on Feb. 15 … Played in two regular-season AHL games in 2018-19 and four playoff games that spring after signing with Toronto, but began his first full season with the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers … In final season at Mercyhurst College, had 47 points in 37 games and was named Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year and Atlantic Hockey best defenceman … Selected to represent the Growlers in the 2020 ECHL all-star game …
Duszak certainly hasn’t been idle during the pause. He has skated a half-dozen times or so but for the most part has been in the gym, concentrating on increasing his upper-body and core strength.
“Being able to fend off those bigger guys and guys who weigh more than me, because I am kind of a small guy, is what I’ve been working on,” Duszak said. “Being able to box guys out in front, pin them to walls and being able to separate plays quicker (has been the focus).”
All of it is being done with eye to using a strong initial season in professional hockey as a foundation once the AHL resumes.
“It was a good stepping stone in the right direction,” Duszak said of his 2019-20 year. “I thought I played pretty well, going down (to Newfoundland) and coming up and being able to stay up.
“There’s something to build off, but I would not say I was satisfied.”