With a big body comes big expectations, especially when you’re an NHL-drafted defenceman.
Red Deer Rebels sophomore rearguard Justin Weller struggled somewhat to match those expectations earlier in the Western Hockey League season, but he’s starting to live up to the promise the Phoenix Coyotes saw in the Daysland native when they selected him in the fourth round of last year’s NHL entry draft.
“‘Wellsy’ has taken strides of late, his play has improved because he’s playing more physical,” said Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin, in reference to the six-foot-three, 203-pound blueliner, the club’s second-round pick — 24th overall — in the 2006 bantam draft.
“‘Wellsy’ is a guy who really needs to have a physical edge to his game to have success. At times he brought that early in the season and I thought that fell off a bit. But he’s really picked up that aspect of his game in the last three weeks to a month.”
As a result, Weller is performing with a healthy measure of self-confidence, with all of his on-ice abilities showing through.
“When he’s playing with an edge, not only is he more effective but he gets more space and just feels better about himself,” said Wallin. “His game improves in a lot of ways because he handles the puck better, he shoots the picks better. Not unlike a lot of young defencemen, when you get more involved in a game you gain confidence from that, and he’s taken strides that way.”
Weller, who has notched two goals this season to go with six assists and 76 minutes in penalties in 55 games, is the first to admit he’s now performing at a level much closer to his own expectations.
“I think things are really starting to come around for me. I kind of struggled a bit at the start of the year, but I’ve really got my feet under me now and things are going real well for me,” he said.
The big rearguard admitted that with the absence of Alex Petrovic and then fellow defenceman Nick Bell due to injuries earlier in the season, his workload might have been too heavy.
“At the start of the year we had ‘Petro’ out and then a few other guys were missing. I might have been playing a few too many minutes and got tired out there,” said Weller. “When you get tired things start to go wrong for you.
“Playing physical is a big part of my game and I feel I’ve been playing like that a lot more as of late. Maybe I’m in a bit better shape now and not as tired out there. The physical part of the game takes a toll on you and just having more guys in the lineup helps that way.”
Considering he appeared in only 32 games last winter due to leg and wrist injuries, Weller confessed that he was mildly astonished when he was plucked by the Coyotes in the 2009 NHL draft.
“It’s definitely something you dream about when you’re a kid. But I was kind of surprised that I was drafted with all the time I missed last season,” he said. “But it was a pleasant surprise.”
Weller attended a Coyotes rookie camp in July and again in early September, when he was kept around to participate in the team’s main camp for a brief period.
“I got a lot of positive feedback, so that was encouraging,” he said.
“I know if was definitely a big eye-opener. The NHL guys are a lot bigger and faster than the players at this level and you really get a sense of how big of a step it is from this league to the next one.”