'Too small' Azevedo now stands tall

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

Justin Azevedo was like any other five-foot-eight forward playing junior B last season.

OHL scouts all said "great little player -- too small."

Kitchener Rangers head scout Mike Sadler was no different. "If I said anything else, I'd be lying to you. And I think any other scout that saw him who is honest will say that was your initial concern," Sadler said last night as the Rangers and London Knights opened the Western Conference final.

But Azevedo, from West Lorne, grew on Sadler -- so much so that the Rangers drafted him in the first round, 14th overall.

Azevedo, who turned 17 April 1, stood tall in his first season and this week was named to the OHL's all-rookie first team. Brampton Battalion goalie Darren Machesney of Lambeth was also named to the all-rookie first team, while Soo Greyhounds goalie Kyle Gajewski of London was named to the second team.

"Being named to the all-rookie team is another great confidence booster," said Azevedo, who had 18 goals (eighth on his team) and 21 assists in 58 games.

He scored 20 goals for the Chatham Maroons as a 15-year-old.

Azevedo has played a regular shift in the playoffs and coach Peter DeBoer has so much confidence in him, he is used on the power play and to kill penalties.

He had three goals and one assist heading into last night.

"I've only had a handful of kids that I've used this much at this point in the year," DeBoer said.

"The guys that come to mind are Evan McGrath, his rookie year; Mike Richards, his rookie year, and Stephen Weiss, when I was in Plymouth.

"When you're deciding ice time, obviously experience is a factor. But Justin makes that a non-factor with the way he plays."

Sadler said the scouts began to have a change of mind as the Western junior B season progressed. "(But) am I surprised that he's brought his game to this league this quickly? Maybe. But that's just a testament to the character of the kid."

The first time DeBoer saw Azevedo was at a junior B playoff game in Stratford.

"As coach and GM, I don't get out as much as I'd like to but I like to see everyone we have rated in the top couple of rounds," DeBoer said.

"I saw Justin against a real tough Stratford team in a tough, tough rink, and he was the best player on the ice for both teams. It was on the road, and in the playoffs those are all gut-check character-type evaluation games for me, and he answered all our questions that night.

"When you draft a guy in the first round, that's five-foot-eight, you take a deep breath and a deep gulp. Typically, big and skilled is where everyone goes early in the draft. But he had those intangibles that made us comfortable that despite his size, he was going to be a premier player."


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