James Stefan is making the most of his time in Nebraska with the Lincoln Stars.
Last month, when there was still uncertainty about the start of the 2020-21 WHL Regular Season amid the coronavirus pandemic, Portland announced plans for four of its U.S.-born players to continue their development in the United States Hockey League. Winterhawks Cross Hanas, Clay Hanus, Jack O’Brien and Stefan were granted an opportunity to play in 40-plus games before returning to Portland.
“It’s been really nice to get guaranteed games in and really had no issues since I’ve been here with COVID so that’s been nice,” Stefan said. “The transition was pretty smooth and there were a lot of faces I already knew in the locker room so that helped.”
Thirteen games into his Lincoln experience, Stefan has six goals and four assists, ranking him fourth on the Stars in points. What makes his hot start more impressive is knowing the Laguna Beach, California native was absent from Lincoln’s roster until its 14th game of the season.
“Putting up five goals last year was a little disappointing for me because I like to define myself as a goal scorer so having an early start (in Lincoln) with six goals already feels pretty good,” Stefan said.
Stefan grew immensely during his rookie season in the WHL, even if he didn’t see the same production in the box score. The year before arriving in Portland, Stefan ranked second among all 15U scorers in the country with 49 goals and 95 points in 71 games with Little Caesars AAA program.
During his 16-year-old season, Stefan netted five goals and four assists in 49 games with a Winterhawks team that was primed for a championship run. Though Stefan said he was disappointed in his rookie year production, there can be a bit of a learning curve making the jump to the WHL going up against more veteran players. In 2017, Winterhawks’ alternate captain Reece Newkirk scored eight goals during his first WHL season and then broke out with a 23-goal campaign during his second season, which led him to get selected by the New York Islanders in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
The 5-foot-11, 160-pound winger was determined to see a similar result and he put in some work this offseason.
“My summer was really good,” Stefan said. “I was in Michigan training afar with a couple of my buddies and a lot of NHL guys. I definitely got bigger and faster so that was good and skating in the offseason was good, too.”
While training at the BARWIS Performance Center in the outskirts of Detroit, Stefan was surrounded by a handful of hockey stars like former 2nd overall NHL draft pick Andrei Svechnikov, 100-plus goal scorer Kyle Connor and numerous athletes from the Detroit Red Wings organization.
Even when local COVID-19 restrictions limited his ice time, Stefan stayed focus and added a new element to his game.
“The one thing I really wanted to focus on was my three-step acceleration. That was a big thing for me coming out of last year. So whether I was in the gym or on the ice, working on that acceleration was a big part of my summer and I felt like I definitely improved in that area,” Stefan said.
Stefan’s newly found explosiveness is helping him make a statement on the stat sheet again, averaging just under three shots on goal per game and riding a five-game point streak into the weekend. The second-year junior player is also a key contributor on the power play and he has earned the trust of Lincoln’s Head Coach Chris Michael.
Stefan has consistently played a top six role for the Stars while they look for the right line combos to help them stay in the playoff race.
“The compete level is obviously the same (here as it is in Portland). All the guys are pushing each other and the structure has been similar. The biggest thing for us right now is to string some games together. You can’t just win one game and be satisfied with that.” Stefan said.
“I’ve been building chemistry with Jack (O’Brien) for a long time and then Cross last year when I got to play with him a little bit and obviously Clay, too, so it’s been great playing with them knowing we all have that chemistry together.”
When the four Winterhawks first arrived in Lincoln, they played together on the top power play line. Stefan and the other three Hawks are playing with one of the youngest teams in the league, but this year presents a big opportunity for growth.
One thing we can count on, Stefan will stay hungry.
“I want to see progression every year. Coming off last year, I want to build off that and have a breakout year and hopefully get drafted.”