TORONTO– Leafs prospect Jerry D’Amigo knows his first year of professional hockey didn’t go as well as he and the organization would have wanted.
“It’s really tough. A lot of nerve’s going into the games and being a first year guy not knowing what to expect, it was tough for a young guy like me,” said D’Amigo when discussing last season’s hardship. “I was 19 at the time and living on your own and being professional is hard to do. But I’ve learned and got some experience now and I can just gain from that and go on from there.”
Stand-out play at the 2010 World Junior Championships with Team USA and a great rookie camp with the Leafs earned the Binghamton New York native a spot on the left-wing with the Toronto Marlies to start last season.
With his playing days at RPI behind him and his focus on playing for Toronto, D’Amigo didn’t transition well, taking nine games to score his first professional goal.
The hope that D’Amigo’s play could be labelled a slow start faded away with each game and through 29 games he had earned just nine points.
A break from the Marlies to again represent Team USA at the World Juniors came in late December.
Winning gold, finishing fourth in tournament scoring the previous year and being one of the few “pros” on America’s roster, expectations on the Marlies rookie were perhaps at its highest point since being drafted in the 6th round by GM Brian Burke in 2009.
Unfortunately for D’Amigo, his efforts at this past championship turned up just two points in six games; far from the 12 points in seven games he garnered the tournament before. Furthermore, Team USA earned a bronze medal instead of their goal of gold.
Upon returning to the Marlies roster, D’Amigo would struggle through 12 more games and finally in early February was sent down to the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers.
“They basically told me don’t look at it as a negative look at it as a positive,” stated D’Amigo when reflecting on the conversation he had with Leafs management prior to the demotion. “They weren’t doing it as a bad thing; they have a lot invested in me. They want me to play good and they said prove to them you’re not supposed to be down there. I gained my confidence and it was a good experience for me.”
Director of player development for the Leafs, Jim Hughes, took the lead on this year’s prospects camp and watched D’Amigo on his second time around. Knowing what’s involved with becoming a professional hockey player, Hughes did believe Kitchener was more good than bad for D’Amigo’s future.
“I think it allowed him to go down and enhance skill sets, get power-play looks on the goal line, sidewall and front of the net. (He) played 20 plus minutes a game and sort of had a longer leash; not be afraid to make a mistake. I think it allowed him to get back on the edge a little bit. He did produce down there and I always think there’s value in the play-off round he played and we tracked it very closely.”
In 21 regular season games with Kitchener, D’Amigo found his offensive stride and scored 12 goals and 28 points. The Rangers bowed out of the play-offs in the first round to the Plymouth Whalers but in seven games he added another six goals and nine points.
“It was tough at first, took me a couple days but once I got into it once I started playing the fans were great there and welcomed me with open arms,” he said about his time in Kitchener. “The coaching staff was great there and Toronto was behind me the whole way. To see Brian Burke at my second game when I played there, that was pretty good.”
With all that now in the past, D’Amigo skated at this year’s prospects camp and feels his first season struggles did in fact benefit his game for this year. Understanding of what is at stake for this season, his goals are clear.
“I came in last year not knowing I was going to sign and this year it’s a whole different story. I got to prove to the management and coaches that I can make it and maybe play in the NHL. I just want to prove to them I can play. I want to be a definite spot on the Marlies team and be a call up to the NHL. They told me to work hard and you never know what to expect when training camp comes around.”
With foot speed always coming up in conversation’s regarding D’Amigo, slimming down was never a concern for him but heading into this year’s camp, his six foot frame does look different.
“I’m actually smaller,” said D’Amigo when asked if he had bulked up over the summer. “I was 210lbs kind of trimmed down to 200lbs. Its’ what I did this summer and it’s working well for me. I feel in a lot better shape now. Right now I feel good.”
Believing that the goal of prospects camp is to be honest to the players with regards to where they stand, Hughes addressed D’Amigo; what he needs to fix isn’t as much physical as it is mental.
“He’s made some jumps forward and then he’s taken some steps backward and then a few more jumps forward. It’s going to be a process for him,” said Hughes. “It’s a mental mindset that he has to continue to work on and develop. He’s got skill sets and he’s got to keep working on the mental side of the game; which he is. He needs continued experience.”
With D’Amigo knowing what it is holding him back, this season offers him another opportunity to develop on the left side in a Marlies uniform. Not as much focus will be spent on him this year, with the other prospects and draft picks obtained by Burke, so now is as good a time as ever for him to take his game to a higher level. As for the dream of making it to the NHL, Hughes made it clear,
“He has to work and play and work and play. If he continues to do that he will have a chance.”
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