Pipeline: Decision to jump to the OHL paying dividends for Hunter Brzustewicz
Hunter Brzustewicz has certainly seen his tough decision pay off.
Brzustewicz was slated to attend the University of Michigan this season — a perennial hockey powerhouse in his home state. Michigan has produced some of the top talents in the NHL Entry draft in the last few years, including Owen Power, Luke Hughes, and, incredibly likely, Adam Fantilli this year.
On a Michigan team already loaded with blue line talent, Brzustewicz would also have to compete with fellow incoming freshmen Seamus Casey, Luca Fantilli, and Johnny Druskinis. Bruzstewicz, who originally committed to Michigan as a 13-year-old, instead signed with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League in July. Initially drafted by the Barrie Colts, Brzustewicz’s rights were traded to Kitchener in January of this year.
“When I came up here in April/May, they gave me the opportunity that I couldn’t pass down,” Brzustewicz told Guy Flaming on The Pipeline Show. “Once I saw that and saw what they were giving me, there was no reason to let it up and let that slide. You know, it was very tough saying goodbye to Michigan, but at the same time, I don’t regret it at all.”
Kitchener was offering the opportunity to play night-in and night-out and the chance to quarterback the power play.
It’s a bit of a rarity to see top undrafted prospects playing in the NCAA, though there are some instances like Power and Fantilli. In the NCAA, it’s not unlikely to see 23 or even 24-year-olds on some rosters. As an undeveloped 18-year-old, you sometimes cannot physically match up.
In his all-important draft year, it was important for Brzustewicz to showcase his talents to the best of his ability.
At just under six-feet and 190 pounds, Brzustewicz is an offensive, puck-moving defenseman. His shot isn’t his biggest weapon, but his vision and passing make him so effective.
“(I’m) just an offensive guy that brings offense to the team,” says Brzustewicz of his style of play. “A guy that will help out any way he can – make the game easier for his teammates, make a great first pass, clean zone exits, yeah, just all those things.”
Hunter Brzustewicz @OHLRangers is also fun to watch when he has the puck! @dathockeydoe #2023NHLDraft #HockeyTwitter pic.twitter.com/GkCqvewJdP
— NHLDraftProspects (@NHLDraftPros) December 8, 2022
Often, Americans will opt to play their junior hockey in the USHL. Though he wasn’t a member of a USHL team, Brzustewicz spent two seasons with the US National Team Development Program, playing 25 games against USHL competition in 2021-22, tallying nine points — all of which were assists.
“I would say the OHL is better. I think it’s a little bit different of a league,” Brzustewicz said. “It’s definitely more I would say competitive. I think every team, it’s definitely a business for them, and they’re trying to win obviously every night. Obviously, the USHL is too, but it’s definitely more into it and more structured like that.”
Brzustewicz could be working his way up towards the first round thanks to the immediate impact he is having with Kitchener.
He’s already No. 61 on FCHockey’s Preliminary ranking for the 2023 draft,
“In his first year in the OHL, Brzustewicz has been able to immediately step into a top-pairing role for Kitchener thanks to his elite awareness at both ends and consistently good decision-making at both ends of the ice,” said Ontario-based FCHockey regional scout Joseph Aleong. “Brzustewicz displays great poise while on the puck, skating out of pressure in his own zone and showing the ability to beat opponents in open ice with his vision and agility on his edges.”
In October, NHL Central Scouting gave Brzustewicz a ‘B’ rating, indicating that he is currently a candidate to be selected in the second or third round.
He is likely ranked in the higher echelon of the ‘B’ spectrum and can certainly improve on that grade.
“He hasn’t yet flashed many elite tools or the consistent physicality to excel in a matchup role but has been productive enough to garner late first-round consideration,” Aleong said. “If he can improve his lower-half strength to increase his straight-line speed and be harder to play against in his own zone, Brzustewicz has a chance to become a regular second- or third-pair defender with some value on the power play.”
Brzustewicz, on nearly a point-per-game pace with 21 points (one goal, 20 assists) in 26 games, suggested he doesn’t pay too much attention to the talking heads on TV or what the internet might say regarding his position in the draft.
But has his teammates to remind him what the hockey world is saying.
And what they’re saying re-enforces his move from the NCAA to the OHL.
“I try not to think about it as much as I can, but definitely it crosses my mind maybe every day or every other day – but I don’t look up anything,” Brzustewicz said. “My teammates tell me if they’ve seen anything, which if they tell me, I use that as motivation.
“But other than thatI just try to not think about it and, you know, let my play do the talking.”