The Next Step for Stuart Percy

Unfortunately for general managers and coaches, there is no handbook that come with young defenseman. It’s a guessing game, really. The sure fire way to bring them along, one can never know the exact proper method. Skilled, savvy, blueliners are at a premium in today’s league now more than ever. Is it any wonder when you look around the NHL and see so many teams with the same need for capable puck movers on the back end. Developing your own prospects on the blue line is of massive importance, though what is the absolute best process for the player and organization remains unknown. You have the choice as a team to adhere to a specific philosophy, slow and steady, toss in the fire, in the end each individual case varies. That’s where decisions on progression have to be made.

For some teams like Toronto, it feels as though guidelines are being laid out, or boxes which need checking before a permanent jump to the top hockey league in the world is made. And sometimes plans change, new management comes in and there is a new set of blueprints. Different steps.

In the case of Stuart Percy, defenseman for the Toronto Marlies, he’s walked to the top step and took a glimpse of the view. Breathed the air, felt the thrill, travelled by plane not bus, got the NHL paycheque. Now he’s running on the stairs, preparing or training for the short run from Ricoh to the ACC. When he makes that sprint remains to be seen.

I wrote not too long back on Josh Leivo, who found himself in a similar situation, as neither him nor Percy were not drafted by the current regime. Once considered Toronto’s top prospects at their respective positions, much has changed since then. The “winds of change” as I put it, have came blustering in. The prospect pool has deepened and room has to be made. Five contracts were shipped out in one fowl swoop in the Grabner deal, as the Leafs cut bait with some of the previous management’s selections and acquisitions. Yet here remains Percy, a cog for the Toronto Marlies awaiting that call from Dubas and company. Begging the question, which call will that be, exactly? A call saying you are moving on, up or will the phone be silent a while longer? What’s next for Stuart Percy as a member of the Maple Leafs organization?

Growing up in Oakville, ON. Percy is very familiar with the hockey pressures in Toronto. A former Marlboro in the GTHL, the attention and demands start early on. He excelled in the spotlight, coming up through the minor hockey system, before heading on to the Mississauga/St. Mike’s Majors in the OHL. It was there I got to know Percy’s hockey acumen, and when preparing this piece and talking with Stuart, I likely didn’t make much of a first impression.

As I mentioned, I knew his game before he hit the professional ranks. And in explaining my familiarity and how it came about, I brought up a tough memory for Percy. He has taken on a new leadership role for the Marlies, wearing an “A” on his sweater, but this isn’t the first time he’s helped lead into on ice battle.

Residing near Owen Sound, I had a bird’s eye view of the Ontario Hockey League Finals in 2011, where the Owen Sound Attack defeated the Mississauga/St. Mike’s Majors 3-2 in overtime of the seventh game, in what was one of the best series of hockey I’ve been lucky enough to witness. The Majors were carried to that final in large part by none other than…I’ll give you two guesses but you’ll likely only need one…Stuart Percy.

Knowing he was a Leafs draft choice from the previous year (1st round selection by Toronto, 25th overall), I was obviously going to pay more attention to his game, being one of ours. No search parties necessary, no magnifying glass or scour of the rink, Stu Percy never seemed to come off the ice. Playing half of the game all series long, the rearguard was easy to take a liking to. The word I used to describe him then was the same I’d use now, cerebral.

Named captain of the squad the following season, the Leafs hopeful was their leader in every way. A modest point total, including playoffs Percy amassed 46 of them in 84 games. If you look to a statistic to show off his stellar play, I’d turn to his plus/minus of 61. A group that hosted and went to the finals of the Memorial Cup the same year, Percy for me was the stand out. When I mentioned the series versus Owen Sound to Stuart it was clear the loss still stings. We forget what winning and losing means to these guys, as it’s their competitive traits responsible for why they are where they are. Being that close to a league title and not taking it home, the wound cuts deep. Now he has a chance to help lead another team to a birth in a final, that team being the Toronto Marlies, with hopefully a different result. The goal is the NHL, this we know, but is a Calder Cup win something Percy thinks about?

“Oh for sure, it’d be a lot of fun, no doubt. My first year here we had a pretty good run to the third round and lost to Texas. The Playoffs are always exciting and it’s early in the year but if we keep grinding we’ll be ready for the playoff grind, as well.”

LeafsHub.com’s Corey Connolly covers the Marlies at Ricoh Coliseum and has been able to get a feel for Percy’s play and role during this 2015/16 season. I asked him for his impressions of the team’s assistant captain.

“Stuart Percy has played a considerable role for the Marlies this season and my best way to describe him would be “under the radar.” With so many of the young Marlies are getting attention, even on defense, it would appear that Percy is a forgotten man when it comes to media attention.  While Stuart brings a well timed first pass, and an above average smooth skating style, there does seem to be something missing in his game and there is probably work left for him to do, though that isn’t necessarily factual. At only 22-years of age, the Oakville, ON. native potentially could turn into a solid piece with the Maple Leafs but with the additions to the depth chart, it’s going to make the jump that much tougher. If the Leafs need a smooth skating, first pass player while continuing to develop a Rinat Valiev, I believe that Percy can fit that bill. In fact, Percy might just be a player that is better at the NHL level than he is playing in the AHL, based on his hockey sense and ability to see the ice.“

It was that heady style of his which had pundits and Leafs fans like myself maybe jumping the gun with Percy, playing the comparison game. He was so impressive early last season and specifically his first three games were brilliant. With the ability to look off defenders, find the best outlet pass, combined with his ridiculous patience, I had to go and say “This guy reminds me of Nick Lidstrom.” Who Mike Babcock reminded us all recently there is only one of.

Remember, this wasn’t my first viewing of Percy. The previous showings were extremely positive, so I had no trouble setting the cart before the horse. Now, I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but I’m no scout. What I am is a Leafs fan with a laptop who lives on hope, dreams, and occasional exaggerations. But in fairness, I wasn’t expecting a Hall of Fame defender. What I should have said, was simply I liked what I saw. Very, very much. Nobody needs a comparison as hefty as that one starting out, nor was I the only person to make it. And after a great start that had Leafs Nation penciling Percy in on the top pair for the next decade and a half, things sort of came to a halt.

After nine games in Toronto, Percy was returned to the AHL’s Toronto Marlies. You can imagine this would be difficult for a young man attempting to live out his NHL dream. It had to be hard going back down. Some people respond differently to that scenario. I asked Stuart what the experience was like for him?

“I’m sure, like every player being sent back, you get a bit down on yourself and wonder what you have to do to get back up there.” Percy explains. “You just have to understand that your process. I’m still a young guy, just a couple years pro now and you’ve just gotta trust it and stick to it every day.”

In hindsight, would the Maple Leafs have done things any differently? Kyle Dubas told Kyle Cirella in a recent story, perhaps he would have.

“I don’t think our process with Stu was good enough. I thought we rushed him up and he played real well and as soon as he started to struggle, we didn’t really protect him up here with his usage, so on and so forth for a 21-year-old. Then we struggled and put him right down. I don’t have anybody to blame but myself. I take the brunt of that. I don’t believe that we put Stu in the best position last year to have success. He had a great camp, made the Leafs, the minutes he played with the Leafs were very tough, then he went down to the Marlies and he was injured and bounced.”  Kyle Dubas

Dubas stepped up and accepted the blame for Percy’s perceived regression, if you will. Though injuries played as much a part of any managerial misstep, including a concussion and the issues that often follow. But Percy is back healthy and readying himself to once again stand on that top step. So what must the still youthful and promising defender do to ensure he takes it?

“I just try and play my game, I think,” Percy says with assertion. “I’ve always played the same way, just be solid, move the puck up the ice. Let the game come to me and adapt to that. So, I just have to stay patient, it’s gotten me this far. I’m hoping even farther.”

Going about his business both quietly and effectively with the Marlies, not tearing it up – just “playing his game,” there are a host of opinions out there on what comes next for Stuart Percy. I have had conversations with those who might know a thing or two stating the defenseman may be one of those guys who needs a long tenure in the AHL, not unlike Matt Hunwick, before he is comfortable and can evolve into a solid NHL’er. Craig Button said recently on an episode of the Blue & White Tonight podcast that he sees Percy as an NHL pro, but perhaps with another organization. Only time will tell and I’ll offer an opinion of my own.

Will Stuart Percy be Nick Lidstrom? Well no, I think we’ve settled that. Now with that out of the way, after watching Stuart as a junior, an AHL’er, an NHL’er, and now an AHL’er again, I’m confident I know this time around what the young man is. And what that would be is a damn good hockey player. A damn good player who also happens to be a leader with age, attitude, and intelligence on his side. He can keep on track continuing to grow into who he will become. While he may be not be “on the radar” as Connolly described, attention-wise, I’ll guarantee you the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t forgotten about him in any way, shape, or form. Whenever it happens next year, two years, next month, or next week, when Stu Percy takes that stride to the top step again, he’s never coming back down.

“That’s the hope, once I get there then it’s to stay. I think that’s what their plan is now and they don’t want to rush any guys and when you’re ready you are going to play for good. That’s what they told us at the end of camp. Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later, and if you get an opportunity just take advantage of it.”

I have a funny feeling that opportunity is just a footstep away.

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