Sean Day has become the first ‘exceptional’ player to be traded in junior hockey. The Mississauga Steelheads sent the 18-year-old defenseman to the Windsor Spitfires last week, with several draft picks going each way (there were no other players or prospects involved in the deal).
The trade comes as no surprise to those who have followed Day’s major junior career arc. The inconsistent defender has been a “lightning rod for criticism” since he was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League in 2013, according to Mississauga General Manager James Boyd.
That year, he became the first-ever player to be granted Exceptional Status by Hockey Canada and not be selected first overall (John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid and Joseph Veleno have all gone first overall in their respective draft years) as he was drafted fourth by Mississauga.
An integral part of the Steelheads’ rise to prominence and their franchise defenseman for the better part of the past three years, Day’s arrival was highly-anticipated and expectations were perhaps unfairly high. Hockey Canada’s decision to make him draft-eligible into the OHL as a 15-year-old had mostly to do with his physical maturity — he’s 6’3″ and 231 pounds already. In fact, he had never really been a high scorer, so he was most identifiable by his physical attributes.
Day was however expected to break-out offensively at the major junior level, but he never quite made the mark. Last year, he posted just 22 points (6G, 16A) in 57 regular-season games, a huge drop-off from his sophomore campaign. What made matters worse was that Dylan Strome and Travis Konency — each of whom was drafted earlier than him in the 2013 OHL Priority Selection Draft — became the faces of their respective franchises while Day struggled mightily.
Strome and Konency were each first-round picks in the 2015 NHL Draft and both have already appeared in NHL games, and are expected to be top-six forwards. Day, on the other hand, was drafted 81st overall in the third round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers and is several years away from being NHL-ready.
“I think a lot of (the criticism) is unfair,” Boyd told Yahoo! News. “He’s a talented player… I think when he received exceptional status there was an expectation from observers that he would be the first overall pick and an NHL superstar right away and that hasn’t materialized. He’s still a very good player.
“I think time will tell the kind of professional player that Sean Day turns out to be.”
The deal was certainly not one that was easy for the Mississauga GM to make. The Steelheads are expected to be contenders this year, but their off-season acquisition of Vili Saarijarvi effectively spelled the end for Day in the Greater Toronto Area. Now, the Belgian-Canadian is moving closer to his most recent place of residence, Rochester, Michigan, by joining the Spitfires in nearby Windsor.
Spits head coach Rocky Thompson has high praise for Day, who he expects to be a huge upgrade on defense.
“We really feel like there’s a lot of potential, like most people do, that we haven’t seen the best of Sean Day at this level,” said Thompson. “There was a ton of pressure on him being only one of four (OHL) players granted that exceptional status. We just want to work with him and make our own judgments based on that. So that’s kind of where we’re at, we’re excited because we know he has potential.”
With Mikhail Sergachev still on his nine-game audition with the Montreal Canadiens and Logan Stanley providing a strictly defensive presence, Day’s two-way game is much-needed for the Memorial Cup hosts to gain traction in the OHL’s Western Conference. So far, he’s got four goals and two assists in seven games, but the Spitfires hope he can take off as the team’s top-scoring, top-pair defender.