Small, fast, and skilled. Sound familiar?
Yes, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas made a very Dubas-like signing on Wednesday, inking 5-foot-10 college free-agent defenceman Joseph Duszak to a two-year, entry-level contract. According to College Hockey News, several NHL teams, including the Boston Bruins, were interested in Duszak.
The signing continues a Maple Leafs pattern to favour guys who play with pace and are skilled over those with size and toughness. By adding a 21-year-old defenceman who finished third in scoring among all NCAA skaters this season, Dubas made a smart, low-risk move. The goal is to try to bolster the right side of the defence for the future. If it doesn’t work out, however, the Maple Leafs didn’t give up any assets and sacrificed almost no cap room.
Here’s what you need to know about Duszak.
Duszak’s Junior Season With Mercyhurst
Duszak’s point totals from his third season in the NCAA jump off the page with 47 points in 37 games. It’s more than Colorado Avalanche prospect Cale Makar. It’s more than Vancouver Canucks prospect Quinn Hughes. It’s more than Carolina Hurricanes prospect Adam Fox.
I am not saying Duszak is better than any of those highly touted blueliners (more on that below) but 47 points are the most by a defenseman since Justin Schultz had 47 for the University of Wisconsin Badgers in 2010-11. In the last 13 years, only three NCAA defensemen have recorded 47 or more points in a single season: Duszak, Schultz and Brendan Smith, who had a whopping 52 points in 2009-10, also for the Badgers.
No defenceman has finished top-three in NCAA scoring among all skaters in the last 20 years. None have even finished in the top five.
— Mercyhurst Men’s Hockey (@HurstMensHockey) February 4, 2019
In January, the Franklin Square, New York native potted nine goals and 17 points in eight games while extending his point streak to 12 games. He was understandably named Atlantic Hockey’s player of the month.
Those 17 points were almost as many as he tallied in his entire freshman season. Over the course of his three seasons with the Lakers, Duszak improved from 21 points in 29 games, to 31 points in 35 games, to the aforementioned 47 points in 37 games in 2018-19. Those points-per-game increases — from 0.72 to 0.89, and then from 0.89 to 1.27 — are extremely impressive.
In total, Duszak has registered 99 points (30 goals, 69 assists) and 98 penalty minutes in 101 career games. He was also named to the Atlantic Hockey Association’s all-conference second team in 2017-18 when he helped his team capture the Atlantic Hockey Association’s regular season championship.
Below is a glimpse of his skill level with the puck. He starts the rush, drives wide, dangles between his legs and then feeds a pass out front for a goal.
— Mercyhurst Men’s Hockey (@HurstMensHockey) March 2, 2019
Stretch passes (which the Leafs love) and his ability to finish are two of his other strengths.
While the stats are impeccable and the highlights are great, there’s one important thing to note that should lower expectations: the Mercyhurst Lakers play in the weakest NCAA conference.
Mercyhurst Plays in the Atlantic Hockey Conference
The list of college players that have succeeded at the NHL level — names like Brock Boeser, Johnny Gaudreau, and Kyle Connor —generally have two things in common: they impressed in their freshman and/or sophomore seasons (usually U-20 players) and they played in either the Big-Ten Conference, the Hockey East Conference, or the National Collegiate Conference (NCHC). That’s where the best programs, like the University of North Dakota, Boston College, Michigan, Denver, etc. play.
The freshman/sophomore point is less important because Duszak is still not a senior (just 21), but who he primarily played against — lower tier programs like Air Force, Bentley, Sacred Heart, Robert Morris, and Holy Cross — definitely factors in to his high production totals.
Only three of 11 teams in the Atlantic Hockey Conference this season had a record above .500 when you factored in inter-conference play. In fact, the top five teams in the Atlantic Hockey Conference had a combined record of 5-21-3 against teams not in their own conference. This season, the Mercyhurst Lakers played eight games against teams outside their conference for a 2-5-1 record, getting outscored 32-22. In those eight games, however, Duszak recorded 11 points (1 goal, 10 assists), which is fairly impressive.
Duszak Headed to Marlies
The Maple Leafs’ press release said Duszak is “expected to join the Toronto Marlies later this week on an AHL try-out basis,” which is not surprising. In fact, the two-year contract won’t even kick in until next year because of that. Even though the Leafs are without Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott, Duszak cannot be expected to step into the NHL right away, especially not at this point in the season when home ice against the Bruins is on the line. Without knowing the team’s system, it would be a tall task for any player let alone an undersized 21-year-old.
With the Marlies in fifth place in the Eastern Conference in the AHL with 14 games left, Duszak will have some time to get accustomed to head coach Sheldon Keefe’s system before the playoffs. If all goes well, we will likely see Duszak in a bottom pairing roll either next season or in 2020-21 for the Maple Leafs.
Regardless of when he debuts for the blue and white, this is a smart, low-risk move by the Leafs. Ideally, Duszak can turn into a reliable fifth or sixth defenceman who can move the puck and provide positive possession numbers. The worst case scenario is he does the same for the Marlies.
Nathan Kanter covers the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs for The Hockey Writers. He received his master’s in journalism from Western University in May of 2015 before serving as the first ever Digital Managing Editor at Western’s university newspaper, The Western Gazette, in 2015-16. From 2016-18, he served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Battlefords North Stars in the SJHL. His work has been published in The Hockey News, at Sportsnet.ca and at Dobber Prospects.