There was a blue and white tint to Wednesday’s Ottawa 67’s game as the Kingston Frontenacs visited TD Place for the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) lone game of the night.
But they weren’t the names Toronto Maple Leafs fans are most familiar with.
Stephen Desrocher, a sixth round pick by the Leafs in the 2015 NHL Draft was suiting up for his 15th game with the Frontenacs after an early season trade from the Oshawa Generals where he had spent the previous two seasons.
In net, unsigned and undrafted goaltender Lucas Peressini was playing in his 22nd game of the season. A Leafs training camp invitee, Peressini has been passed up in two draft years despite finishing the 2014-15 season as the OHL’s Goaltender of the Year and a First All-Star Team selection.
Desrocher, a journeyman in his own right, was also passed up once in the NHL draft before a standout performance at last year’s Memorial Cup earned him a 155th overall selection.
Standing 6-4 but less than 200 pounds, Desrocher’s size and heavy shot made him a project worth developing for the Leafs at June’s draft. In the OHL, Desrocher is counted on to be a defensive force.
Wednesday night, he was relied upon to play big minutes against 67’s star forward and Philadelphia Flyers first round pick Travis Konecny.
Used every other shift by head coach Paul McFarland, Desrocher carried a big workload as the team’s most-used defender. This, on a team whose backend is led by Carolina Hurricanes prospect and team captain Roland McKeown.
Paired with OHL rookie Jacob Paquette, Desrocher played key defensive zone draws early on.
On for the first period’s lone goal, which saw Ryan Cranford give Kingston a 1-0 lead off the rush, Desrocher appeared content to play a shutdown role for Peressini, taking few chances offensively – exactly what’s expected of him.
Paquette’s youth caught up with him on the second period’s opening shift, pinching at the defensive zone blueline to give Konecny an odd-man rush on Desrocher and Peressini that led to a goal just under the bar with a perfectly placed shot.
After the game-tying goal, Paquette was moved off of the pairing so that Desrocher could play with McKeown for the remainder of the game.
Yet to score in Kingston after registering five goals in 17 games with Oshawa before the trade, Desrocher looked to want to get more involved offensively with McKeown there to support him.
Early in the third, Desrocher continued to try and push the pace offensively, jumping up off the left point to retrieve a loose puck and make a play cross-ice before taking another quick shift moments later in order to shadow Konecny.
On Desrocher’s next shift off (he was rarely off the ice for more than a quick shift for another pairing), Peressini was forced to come up with a point blank save in the slot off 67’s forward Connor Warnholtz.
After another goal off the rush – this time from Los Angeles Kings prospect Spencer Watson – gave the Frontenacs a 2-1 lead, Desrocher got back in on the action offensively with an offensive zone blueline pinch before Jason Robertson gave Kingston a two-goal cushion.
With Desrocher again off the ice, a late period breakaway for 67’s forward Trent Mallette cut into the Kingston lead.
And after a controversial goal with what looked to be too many men on the ice for the 67’s, the teams traded another two goals in the final two minutes.
Despite the late pressure, Peressini, who carried a .917 save percentage into the game, kept the game close and preserved the 4-3 win with 26 saves.
Moving forward, Peressini remains uncertain about his future despite a positive experience at Leafs training camp.
"It was a good experience, I’ve grown up cheering for them," the 20-year-old goaltender said. "They said they’ll be watching and hopefully they come back at the end of the year."
But unlike Desrocher, the Leafs aren’t Peressini’s only option.
"Playing pro hockey is the only thing I’m concerned about right now," he said. "Obviously an NHL contract would be nice but if something in the American Hockey League or East Coast Hockey League came up it would be a great fallback plan."
The Leafs expressed interest in Peressini at camp, according to the goaltender, but he ultimately came back to the OHL. Still, he’s thankful for his experience and the guidance he received from teammates such as James Reimer, who was paired with him for scrimamges.
McFarland, also new to Kingston, joined the Frontenacs as their head coach after serving as an assistant coach under new Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith for two years in Oshawa with Desrocher as one of his defensemen.
For Desrocher, the familiarity with McFarland has helped ease the transition to a new OHL franchise.
"Having a coach that I’m familiar with has made it much easier," he said. "I know what kind of systems he does and I knew the things he liked and didn’t like coming in so that made the transition a lot easier for me."
Moving forward, Desrocher – who now has a combined 18 points in 32 games between Oshawa and Kingston – is confident he can have a big season with the first-place Frontenacs after a constructive rookie camp and tournament with the Leafs.
The 19-year-old defensemen gave credit to the Leafs organization’s work ethic and expressed thanks for the off-ice help the players received on everything from eating and sleeping habits to media training.
"There isn’t a single thing they didn’t touch on," the towering defender said.
"I’m trying to take everything I learned and continue to develop," he said. "My goal is to be with them eventually so I hopefully I can get there."
Regardless of where the pair was or wasn’t picked, both Leafs hopefuls are playing the long game in a program guided by some former seventh round pick by the name of Doug Gilmour who probably knows a thing or two about earning a contract and succeeding in Toronto.