There are two kinds of speed that propel professional hockey players.
The speed of the brain and the speed of the feet.
The Marlies’ Spencer Abbott has the first. He is working on the second.
The second-year forward has registered at least a point in all nine games he has played. Abbott has a goal and 11 assists and sits second in team scoring behind defenceman T.J. Brennan who is in the middle of the season of a lifetime that includes 10 of the Marlies’ 30 goals.
The five-foot-nine Abbott is playing right wing with Josh Leivo and Greg McKegg and his steady offence is far from unexpected. Abbott posted 40 and 62 points in his last two years at the University of Maine and 33 points including 13 goals in 55 games in his first season with the Marlies.
Abbott, 25, grew up a Leafs fan in Hamilton and idolized Doug Gilmour.
“He was pretty small but I admire him because he played so well in an era when size was even more important than it is today, “he said.
Abbott’s is the story of the late bloomer. Since he was not selected in either in the OHL or NHL draft, Abbott was free to sign with any team as a free agent.
“It was always a dream to play in the NHL but it didn’t really seem a possibility when I was younger,” Abbott said. “My first year at the University of Maine wasn’t that great (16 points in 38 games) but by the third season I had improved and signing with an NHL team seemed more of a realistic possibility.”
Undrafted players coming out of college represent a wild cards for NHL talent-seekers. These are the players who were too small, too slow or too injured to gain notice in the hockey development machine. Sometimes, in the case of Leafs first-line centre Tyler Bozak, NHL clubs unearth a gem. Bozak had an inauspicious beginning to his junior career but stood out in his second two years of Junior A and in two seasons at the University of Denver.
“The decision to come to Toronto was fairly strategic,” Abbott said. “My agent and I sat down and looked at every team’s depth chart but growing up a Leafs fan had an impact as well.”
Abbott’s biggest hurdle is his size and the fact that his skating is unexceptional. He compensates with an innate understanding of the game.
“AHL players think the game a lot better than college players and that’s what you have to do if you want to do well,” he said. “Plus, if you don’t use your head as a small player, you’re going to get hurt.”
Abbott feels bigger isn’t necessarily better.
“When you’re a smaller player you have to be in and out, be shifty, roll off checks and use your size to advantage,” he said. “It’s hard for a big player to defend a smaller player who has a low centre of gravity and who maybe is a bit more mobile.”
Marlies’ coach Steve Spott said the key to Abbott’s future will be his ability to manufacture and maintain speed in all three areas of the ice.
“He’s a very competitive kid and he’s got offensive abilities most players don’t have but every day it has to be about pace for Spencer,” Spott said. “He’s got NHL hands and NHL vision but he has to raise the speed in which he plays the game.”
Abbott says he is striving to improve his skating.
“It’s something I am continuing to work on. Right now, I think my skating is deceptive. I’m not the fastest guy but sometimes I can surprise a player with my skating.”