Graham Lillibridge was there to produce the primary assist on the overtime game-winner when the Chicago Steel claimed the United States Hockey League championship in the fifth game of last season’s Clark Cup finals.
Lillibridge is there for the Steel again as they try to work through their USHL title defense with a largely revamped roster.
The 18-year-old from Geneva, Illinois, is an alternate captain for the defending champions. He is the latest USHL Defenseman of the Week and leads the league’s blueliners in scoring with 12 points in what has been an impressive first 10 games for Chicago.
“He’s just really talented and he’s playing the game the right way,” Steel coach Mark Abalan said.
That extends beyond his success on the offensive end.
“He’s a defenseman and he’s letting the game present itself,” Abalan said. “Whatever the game is, he’s taking it.
“He’s able to make plays in all zones. He’s able to make plays in our end; he’s able to make plays in the neutral zone and he’s very talented in the offensive end. Our power play has been very good and that’s a product of him and the unit he’s playing with.”
Lillibridge leads the league in power-play assists with six and is tied for fourth in points.
The Steel is 14-for-39 for a league-best 35.9 percent conversion rate on the power play.
Chicago has already put together a six-game winning streak this season to lead the Eastern Conference at 7-2-0-1.
Of the 26 players who have appeared for the team during the fast start, only four were regulars on last season’s team and only two others played more than two regular-season games for the Steel.
Lillibridge, the 2016-17 USHL Co-Scholar Athlete of the Year, has committed to Yale University. Harvard University recruit Baker Shore and Penn State University recruit Tyler Gratton are back at forward while Western Michigan University recruit Derek Daschke is the other veteran defenseman with Lillibridge.
Jordan Seyfert and Blake McLaughlin played with the team part-time last season. Xan Gurney played only one regular-season game, but was with the Steel through the Clark Cup playoffs.
“It’s a very youthful and inexperienced team,” Abalan said. “It’s been a good start, for sure.
“It’s a very competitive group and a really talented group. Those are two components you need to have a chance.”
The newcomers have blended in quickly.
Jack Dugan, a 19-year-old from Rochester, New York, who is committed to play at Providence College, leads the USHL with 16 points. He is two in front of teammate McLaughlin, a 17-year-old University of Minnesota commit from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who played for Team USA in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup this summer.
“Dugan is big, strong; he’s got great vision and great puck skills,” Abalan said. “He has great instincts for offense.
“ … The game is relatively easy for him. I think it’s going to be scary when he really figures out the game. As good as he is today, I think his best hockey is ahead of him.”
Together with Lillibridge, Dugan is helping show that the Steel’s best hockey is not necessarily behind them.
“There’s other good players around them and they’re not trying to do it all themselves,” Abalan said. “For Jack and for Graham, that’s been part of it.
“For me as a coach, they’ve been fun guys to work with and to help develop.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc. Photo courtesy of Hickling Images