Twenty-two teams, including the Kelowna Rockets, passed over Devante Stephens in the 2012 edition of WHL’s bantam draft.
However, later that year, director of player personnel Lorne Frey was intrigued enough to add the young defenceman from Semiamhoo to the Rockets’ player list.
Two-thirds of the way through the 2014-15 season Frey and the Rockets clearly have no regrets, as Stephens has emerged as one of the club’s most promising, young blue liners.
Last week, the 6-foot-1, 165-pound rearguard was ranked 108th among North American skaters by Central Scouting, in advance of this summer’s NHL entry draft.
Clearly, Stephens’ game has come a long way since his less refined days as a bantam in Semiamhoo.
“He was pretty rough around the edges back then, he didn’t skate all that well, but he competed hard and we thought he had a good upside,” said Frey. “But he developed quickly and the biggest improvement has been his skating. Seldom have I seen an individual improve that much, he’s certainly one of the best skaters on our team.
“He’ll get bigger and stronger, his whole game will improve. It’s been a very fortunate situation for us.”
On the way to evolving into a bonafide major junior defenceman, Stephens overcame some adversity when he broke his leg in December 2013.
He missed most of last season with the B.C. Major Midget League’s Valley West Hawks and with it went one of the most crucial developmental years of a player’s career.
Still, Stephens wasn’t about to let one unwelcome turn of events sideline his goal of playing for the Kelowna Rockets.
“I trained really hard in the off-season, on and off the ice, harder than anyone else because I knew I had to,” said Stephens, who turned 18 on Jan. 2. “When I came to camp, I could tell I wasn’t quite at the level I needed to be, but the progression was good, the leg just felt better and better, and now I’m feeling comfortable, and happy to getting lots of ice time.”
Stephens contends he’s always been a decent skater—it’s simply being exposed to the WHL game on a daily basis that’s allowed him to be more efficient and better accustomed to the pace of the game.
Stephens’ uncommon speed on a pair of blades became evident to assistant Kris Mallette very early in the season.
“During a back checking drill Devante got caught up the ice and actually passed Madison Bowey coming back,” said Mallette. “Dan (Lambert) and I just looked at each other…his skating is second to none.
“He’s blocking shots, he’s doing other good things that have forced us to play him a lot,” added Mallette. “He still needs to learn, but he’s coming along very nicely.”
With Madison Bowey and Josh Morrissey away at world juniors, Mitchell Wheaton injured and Jesse Lees traded, Stephens saw his ice time ramped up dramatically in December.
So did youngsters Joe Gatenby and Lucas Johansen, both of whom Mallette also praised for their poise and steady work on the Rockets’ blue line.
Stephens now takes a regular shift with Bowey and often plays 20-plus minutes per game, not bad for a guy who wasn’t really on the radar two years ago.
As for his recent acknowledgement from Central Scouting, Stephens is honoured but is doing his best not to allow the attention be a distraction.
“I was just shocked really, I never expected such a thing, being undrafted, it was an honour to have it happen,” added Stephens. “But I just have to focus and continue playing game by game.
“I’ve put a lot of hard work and effort into getting here,” he said, “but I am grateful the way things have worked out.”
Needless to say, so are the Rockets.
The Rockets’ four-game eastern road trip continues Wednesday night in Edmonton against the Oil Kings. The tour continues Friday in Lethbridge, then wraps up Saturday in Cranbrook against the Kootenay Ice.