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Chicago Blackhawks defenseman prospect Ethan Del Mastro is in his first professional season with the Rockford IceHogs, but you wouldn't know it based on his play.
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Going into Tuesday, Del Mastro ranks fifth among AHL rookie defensemen with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 38 games. He also leads team blue liners in all three scoring categories and was recently named to the 2024 AHL All-Star Game.
"I wasn’t expecting too much coming into my first year," Del Mastro told NBC Sports Chicago. "It was kind of just feeling it out. But obviously it's super exciting and a great accomplishment."
The IceHogs haven’t exactly eased him in, either.
Isaak Phillips was expected to take on the “Alex Vlasic” role from last season as the defenseman to play in all situations for Rockford this season. But because the Blackhawks have been dealing with a flurry of injuries, Del Mastro has been thrust into that position and is handling the top minutes on the power play, penalty kill, and at even strength.
"When I started, I think everyone kind of thought of me as a defensive, shutdown defenseman, which is not a bad thing," Del Mastro said. "I still want to be known as a player that’s hard to play against. But it is nice being able to round out my game and be more offensive and be able to handle the puck and have some trust in that end and just being a two-way force."
When the Blackhawks selected him in the fourth round (No. 105 overall) of the 2021 NHL Draft, Del Mastro was viewed at by pundits as more of a stay-at-home defenseman. After all, he had only seven points (all assists) in 57 games during the 2019-20 season with the Mississauga Steelheads, and there was no 2020-21 season to go off of because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Del Mastro always knew he had more offensive potential in his game.
"Growing up, I was always more of a two-way defenseman," Del Mastro said. "My first year in the OHL, I was a little bit more of a shutdown guy trying to get adjusted to the league. And then COVID hit and we didn’t play for a while, so they haven’t seen me and I think they just thought of me more as that defensive player.
“I think it’s always been in my game, but after getting drafted and coming back to the OHL, we had a young team that year, they wanted me to play more of an offensive role, so that allowed me to fill out my offensive side of things and get some confidence there."
Del Mastro had a breakout season offensively that next season after recording 48 points (seven goals, 41 assists) in 68 games for Mississauga, where he served as the team captain. He followed that up with an even better campaign by racking up 59 points (seven goals, 52 assists) in only 52 games with Mississauga and Sarnia.
Fast forward to now and he still takes pride in chipping in offensively while remaining responsible defensively. But his first pro season hasn’t come without hiccups.
“I think his first couple months were really good,” Rockford IceHogs head coach Anders Sorensen said. “He hit a little speed bump here lately. I think maybe some of it is fatigue. Part of it is because he's played a lot of minutes, both power play and penalty kill, but I'm confident that he's going to get back and regain his legs here.
“I've been really impressed with his ability to play in traffic. He's really composed under distress, which is nice for a big guy like that. And he's actually a lot better skater than we give him credit for."
Sorensen said he sees similarities between Del Mastro and Vegas Golden Knights 6-foot-6 defenseman Nicolas Hague, who put up strong offensive numbers in the OHL but is considered to be more of a defensive defenseman in the NHL.
“In juniors he put up some numbers, but a little bit surprised how well he's translated his offensive game to this level,” Sorensen said. “Ethan actually reminds me a lot of Nic Hague in terms of that, a bigger guy that can skate OK, has some toughness to him.
“I remember Hague was on the power play with the Chicago Wolves and you're like, 'Oh, he's on the power play,’ But it seemed like it obviously worked out for him. And maybe Ethan won't be a power play guy in the NHL but if he can progress and translate his game to something similar to Hague, I think we're all happy, right?”
Del Mastro is listed at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds. Naturally, you think of him as more of a shutdown kind of guy, but he's grown into a player that's more than that.
“He came here right away and is playing over 20 minutes a night, leading the power play, rewarded with an All-Star invite, so good for him,” Blackhawks assistant GM/director of player personnel Mark Eaton said. “But I can’t really say it is a surprise. I’ve gotten to know him the last couple years and what he was able to do in the OHL and his skating ability at his size.
“And development wise — not comparing the two — but kind of how we approached Alex Vlasic and having him here and playing in more offensive roles that might not be the case in the NHL but it just helps with their overall development, the confidence with the puck and making plays, I think it’s been a similar path for Ethan, and he’s done well with it.
"There’s always a lot of growing pains as a rookie, learning the pro game, it’s kind of the dog days now, the mental and physical fatigue can set in, but it’s how you learn to deal with that and that’s what’s going to make you better in the future.”
Del Mastro has mostly played on the top pairing this season with Nolan Allan, who was a first-round pick by the Blackhawks in 2021. The two of them are roommates, and Sorensen joked that “everywhere I turn, they seem like they're always together.”
That off-ice relationship has helped with their on-ice chemistry.
"I really like playing with Ethan," Allan said. "We read each other pretty well, we know each other pretty well, so it’s easy to read off him. He’s always talking. He’s a great guy out there, he’s great at moving the puck and he’s also good defensively too, so I think we complement each other well.
"Knowing each other off the ice, he’s not scared to rip me and I’m really not scared to give it to him, so I guess we help each other out in that regard just giving each other feedback and pushing each other to get better."
Del Mastro turned 21 on Jan. 15, so he's still super young. Even though he's been one of the top defensemen for Rockford, there's still a lot of room for growth and he probably needs a couple more years of seasoning before the NHL becomes a realistic possibility for him, at least as a full-time player.
Del Mastro understands that and doesn't seem to be thinking too far down the line.
"I think it’s kind of just focusing on where you’re at now," Del Mastro said. "I’m in Rockford right now and I’ve got to focus on that and look to get better down here. And if it ever does happen, just be ready for that moment. Other than that, I think it’s just focusing on where you’re at in the moment."
Having said that, Del Mastro does allow himself to dream about what it would be like to reunite with Connor Bedard, Colton Dach and Kevin Korchinski in the NHL after the four of them won a gold medal together with Team Canada at the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"For sure," Del Mastro said. "It’s one step at a time right now, it’s maybe in the future, but yeah it’s super exciting being able to play together and World Juniors and then all come to the same organization to try to work toward a goal, I think it’s pretty special."