It doesn’t matter whether you asked for it or want it, like it or tolerate it – all the spotlight does is shine.
And when the lights shine brightest and eyes are on top-tier prospects like Stockton’s Jakob Pelletier, the rest is up to them.
The surface-level stats are gaudy for the Quebec native, a team-best 17 points, fourth place in scoring among all AHL rookies and tops among newcomers in the Western Conference, and a league-leading four game-winning goals.
Dig deeper, and the eyes open even more to the impact Pelletier has had as the Heat have amassed an 11-2-2 record through 15 games. With one shootout win, the Heat have had 10 game-winning goals. Between scoring them himself and adding primary assists, the winger has factored directly into seven, most recently the overtime winner – his second of the year – in Friday’s win against Colorado, the front end of a two-game split between the divisional foes.
“I don’t know,” said Pelletier when pressed how one player always seems to find his way into the heart of the biggest plays. “Our line steps up in these types of situations.”
Sure, there’s stepping up. But why is it him pushing the puck over the line, or sending it to the right spot to get the Heat the win?
“I’m a guy who likes the pressure,” he said. “I like playing when it’s most important. It’s a boost for me.”
That trait is one that head coach Mitch Love has noticed since the two first crossed paths in the leadup to the 2018-19 Hlinka Gretzky Cup win for Canada. Pelletier’s impact on the Canadian team was cut short due to an injury, but he was still able to make an impact.
“It was a big loss for our team because he was playing really well,” said Love. “You could see his personality around the guys. Even though he was hurt, he brought the best out with the group even though he wasn’t in the lineup with his personality and energy. Then last year he was great for us at the World Juniors.
“It seems like the more pressure there is on Jakob, the better he performs. That’s all between the ears. That’s nothing physical. That’s all mental. That’s how he approaches his everyday business, wanting to get better and putting himself in those scenarios.”
The transition from junior hockey to professional is seldom as smooth as what Pelletier is showing, clicking at north of a point-per-game as the Heat rapidly approach the quarter-way point of the 68-game season. He credits his linemates Adam Ruzicka, now with the Flames, and Matthew Phillips – a pair who clicked last season with Connor Zary in the early running.
“It’s been going good,” said Pelletier. “Since camp, I’ve stepped up a couple of levels. I’m stronger than I was at camp. I’ve done some work with (strength coach Gord Farnell). Getting to play with (Phillips) and (Ruzicka) for the past 14 games, it was good for me. They help me a lot, show me how the AHL works, what works in this league. They’ve taken me under their wing and helped me a lot in practice and games.”
It won’t always come this easy for Pelletier, or any player, over the course of a full season. Opponents adjust, cold streaks happen, and eventually adversity will hit. As Love has pointed out time and time again to this Heat club along its blistering start, what the best teams and best players do isn’t avoid those completely, but rather respond in kind.
“It’s not easy (to make the leap to the pro game),” said Love. “He’s a young player who will go through ups and downs. We’ll see that. That’s ok, that’s bound to happen and it’s natural. But I go back to his attitude. He comes to the rink with the right mindset every day when he walks through the doors, that he wants to get something accomplished.
“Whether that’s in practice, whether that’s in the gym focusing on his strength or competing against his opponents, he’s got something to prove each and every day, and he does it with the right attitude. That can be contagious. He’s brought that to our group. His willingness to play the game at a high level of speed, a high level of hockey IQ, all of that allows him to be a really good player for us.”
Early days, still, but early returns have been on the up-and-up. It all comes in response to what Pelletier described as a tough preseason training camp for him, a trip to the Saddledome that ended in a sour taste knowing he did not bring his best hockey to his first pro camp. Love chalked it up to nerves, acclimating to the weight of expectations as a first-round selection. Pelletier didn’t make a diagnosis, but all signs indicate he’s mended what was broken.
Like Love said, the downs will come. In his first chance to show what he’s made of and bounce back from his preseason performance, Pelletier has answered the call.
“It was tough,” he said. “I’m here in Stockton now. I’m here to win. I’m here to get better each day, become a more complete player. I didn’t like my camp I had with the Flames.
“I told myself when I came here to prove to them I was the right choice. I wanted to show Calgary I can get better each day, get stronger, get more physical, faster. It’s a process, but I’m here to get better and to win.”