The majority of players in major junior hockey who go on the play NHL hockey are drafted at age 18 or 19 and are either in the NHL or playing in their rookie AHL season when they turn 20.
Although they maintain junior hockey eligibility until their 21st birthday, 20-year-old players in the OHL, WHL and QMJHL are often referred to as “overagers” because of their concurrent eligibility for the professional minor leagues.
It is not uncommon for junior overage players to post gaudy offensive statistics in their final season. That is because the older players are often more developed physically than many of their opponents. They are also more experienced, with some overagers playing in their fourth – or even fifth – season in the league.
As such, even the most impressive overage seasons need to be taken with a grain of salt. That is not to say that many undrafted junior overagers and undrafted older collegiate players signed by NHL teams as free agents do not subsequently go on to enjoy solid professional careers that take them to multi-year careers.
But for every Matt Read (Bemidji State University, WCHA), Jim Vandermeer (Red Deer Rebels, WHL) or Andy Delmore (Sarnia Sting, OHL) that goes on to become an NHL regular after being signed in his 20s as a rookie free agent, there are many more overage standouts who cannot parlay their late-blooming success at lower levels into a sustained professional career.
The Flyers believe that defenseman Matt Konan will become one of the overage signees who eventually makes it to the top level. Signed as a free agent this spring, the Tustin, California, native played five seasons in the Western Hockey League for the Medicine Hat Tigers. He will turn 21 on Sept. 3.
Konan is one of three rookie free agent position players slated to play for the Adirondack Phantoms next season. The others are 21-year-old forward Andrew Johnston (Humbolt Broncos, SJHL), 23-year-old forward Matt Mangene (who split time between forward and defense at the University of Maine). The team will also feature 24-year-old goaltender Niko Hovinen (Lahti Pelicans, SM-liiga) and 23-year-old goaltender Cal Heeter (Ohio State University), who also came to the Flyers via the free agent route.
Unselected in the 2009 to 2011 NHL Drafts, Konan nevertheless was regarded as a solid and reliable defenseman during his time with the Tigers. A plus-rated player in each of his five seasons, he topped the plus-20 mark twice and was a mainstay on the penalty kill. He possesses a 6-foot-2 frame that has filled out a bit beyond his listed 182 pounds. Konan is also not afraid to use his size in the hitting department, but not at the expense of playing a sound positional game.
“I try to play physical when I can and be a two-way player,” said Konan, who posted 117 penalty minutes in 2009-10 and 73 last season.
Konan’s offensive game emerged during his overage season. Following the WHL graduations of Mark Isherwood, Jace Coyle and Thomas Carr, the Tigers asked Konan to take on added offensive responsibilities last year. He responded with a 54-point season (9 goals, 45 assists) that shattered his previous top offensive season by 34 points, and then added 5 points (2 goals, 3 assists) in 8 playoff games.
The Flyers believe that Konan had the capability all along to post some points, because he is an adept passer who makes good breakout passes and intelligent pinches. Although the AHL rookie is not expected to see much power play time right away for the Phantoms, he has the potential to eventually play a point on a secondary power play unit at the minor league level. However, it is his all-around situational game that will be what makes or breaks his professional career.
“I think I can play well in different situations; even strength, PK or power play,” said Konan on the first day of the Flyers Summer Development Camp. “At the same time, I know that I’m going to have to work hard and earn my chances.”
At the Development Camp, Konan has had the opportunity to work with Development Coach Derian Hatcher; a former NHL All-Star who logged 1,045 games of experience in the NHL. When he joins the Phantoms, he will have the chance to work with assistant coach Kjell Samuelsson, who played 813 regular season games in the NHL. Meanwhile, new Phantoms head coach Terry Murray, himself a former NHL defenseman, is known as the one of the best “teaching” coaches in the business.
Konan recognizes that there is much he can learn from their tutelage.
“Those are guys who have played and coached for a long time, and I’m definitely looking forward to working with them,” he said.
Like all players, Konan’s long-term goal is to reach the NHL. But in the more immediate future, he hopes to gain the trust of Murray and Samuelsson to become a regular starter next season for the Phantoms. With the departure of Oskars Bartulis and Dan Jancevski still an unsigned unrestricted free agent, there is likely to be playing time available for the taking. But nothing will just be handed to Konan. Now that his junior career is over and he has a pro contract in hand, he’ll have to prove himself all over again.