Produced by the Western Hockey League in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
What hockey player doesn’t dream of being drafted in the NHL? The chance to play with the greats, the chance to become one of those greats – it’s a pretty obvious goal to reach towards as a major junior hockey player. Add in the chance of being drafted in your hometown and NHL Draft day sounds pretty sweet.
That’s Sasha Mutala’s circumstance come June 21st or June 22nd in Vancouver, B.C. at Rogers Arena.
But, the Tri-City American’s forward knows that dreams don’t work unless you do.
He was honest.
“My season was up and down,” said Mutala. “I had some really good highs and some rough days as well.”
Those “highs” included 10 point (3G-7A) streaks in seven games, as well as droughts in just as many. But it’s not always as simple as just going out to play a game of hockey, sometimes, other things get in the way of your game.
“Right before the season started, both of my parents were diagnosed with severe heath issues,” said Mutala. “Obviously that affects you mentally and physically. I didn’t realize how much it would affect how you feel; your habits and how you think.
“I tried to be as mentally strong as I could this year, and I think I did a good job of translating that into fighting mentally in my games. Playing as hard as I could for them in spite of the unfortunate events gave me fuel when I was playing.”
“He’s a tough kid,” commented Tri-City Americans Head Coach Kelly Buchberger. “When players have extenuating circumstances like Sasha did, we try to support them as much as possible.”
It became a balancing act for Mutala to not only keep his emotions in check, but also to perform well under the expectations of the looming NHL Draft. In the face of these challenges, Mutala rose to the occasion. He finished the 2018-19 Regular Season with 41 points (20G-21A) in 65 games, earned a trip to the 2019 Sherwin Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects event in Red Deer, Alta., and a final ranking on the NHL Central Scouting list among North American Skaters at 79th overall.
But he didn’t go at it alone.
“We had a great leadership group on our team,” said Mutala. “We had a really tight team this year, I think everybody was really good friends with each other and we all had each other’s backs which helped me out a lot.”
“We have strong leadership on our team from the ownership down,” said Buchberger. “With Sasha, our team was so tight they comforted him when he needed it and were always there for him.”
As for the Top Prospects game, it was an important marker for Mutala in terms of his efforts this year.
“It was a super special experience to go to the Top Prospects game,” said Mutala. “It’s another milestone in my career that was really exciting. Going there and playing against all of the best players in my year gave me a good opportunity to compete against the best and showcase my talent. It’s what I love to do.”
Although the post-season was cut short for Mutala and the Americans by the Everett Silvertips in the first round of 2019 WHL Playoffs, it didn’t stop him from getting back to work, preparing for the NHL Draft and the upcoming season.
“I’ve been back home training and skating just about every single day,” said Mutala. “I’ve been working with Fortius for my gym training – it’s an amazing facility, and on ice with my coach Leland Mack. “We’ve been working together for about five years and he knows what to expect of my abilities and how to challenge me.”
The 6-foot-1, 194-pound winger has put in the work both in the regular season and in the off-season. Now with the NHL Draft just days away, we will see if his ambitions come to fruition.
“Getting drafted is a huge honour,” said Buchberger. “Obviously we don’t know where Sasha will land, but it will be somewhere, and we can’t wait to see him come take a bigger role with us next year as well to continue his development to get to the next level.”
“I’m really excited,” said Mutala. “No matter what happens on the day or where I go it will be amazing.
“I think it’s a really good checkpoint in my career, but it’s not the end of the road. There’s still a ton of work to do no matter what happens and it’s just the beginning.”