Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Down to just 10 healthy forwards due to injuries earlier this month, MacEwan Griffins men's hockey interim head coach Sean Ringrose had to convert a defenceman into one the past couple of weekends.
Enter Payton McIsaac.
Although the Fort Saskatchewan product was exclusively a defenceman in junior and earlier in his rookie season with the Griffins, he dabbled as a forward in his youth and got the call.
The results have exceeded expectations, to say the least. McIsaac has four goals and seven points in his last three games – including a four-point performance in MacEwan's 8-0 win over Portage College last Saturday.
"I played forward a little bit a few years ago with Team Alberta," he said. "Before that I hadn't played forward much since peewee. It's definitely a lot different. It took some adjusting.
"I think the first game against SAIT was changing my play style and getting used to playing forward again. That second game, my line had some really good chances, we just weren't able to score. Then this weekend, it just came in bunches."
With Brayden Hyland and Spencer McLean on the shelf, over the past four games the Griffins have been rolling with 11 forwards – pairing McIsaac with centre Zach Webb, while double shifting a variety of wingers from other lines to fill out the trio. Alongside McIsaac, Webb also had a six-point weekend against Portage as the former Grande Prairie Storm teammates found some instant chemistry.
"We've had some injuries lately and, as a result, we've had to have guys we don't normally play forward up and fill those roles," said Ringrose. "Payton's done a great job with that. He's really taken advantage of it. He's showing great understanding for how to play forward and had adapted extremely quickly. He's managed to do a great job of contributing offensively as well.
"He's stepped right in and scored a few goals, made some big plays and has been solid all around. On the defensive side of things, his defensive game is quite sound as a forward because he's used to playing defence."
McIsaac will lead MacEwan into a weekend series against cross-town rival NAIT in the first matches between the teams since the Griffins swept the Ooks in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Championship final last March. They'll meet on Friday at NAIT Arena (7 p.m., ACAC TV) and Saturday at the Downtown Community Arena (6 p.m., ACAC TV) in the final action for both teams before the semester break.
McIsaac has shown an ability to adjust quickly to the ACAC level, which isn't a surprise given the high-level hockey players he's played with and against in his career to date. For most of his youth growing up in the Fort Saskatchewan minor hockey system he was a teammate of Chicago Blackhawks rookie Kirby Dach.
"It's good to see him doing so well," said McIsaac, who keeps in contact regularly with the third overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
Then there's his Western Hockey League experience, albeit limited to 16 games over four seasons with Saskatoon and Seattle (with a brief stop in Kootenay Ice training camp last year), that allowed him to learn and grow alongside elite players. He last played in the WHL a year ago before making a mutual decision with the Seattle Thunderbirds that going back to the Alberta Junior Hockey League was the best route for his development and he finished the 2018-19 season with the Storm.
"It's helped for sure," he said of his junior experiences. "I've always been playing with older players the last little while. I was young at 16, 17, 18 in the AJHL and the WHL. It's helped for sure, getting used to playing against bigger guys.
"The big adjustment, I think, in this league is playing against some of the older guys. They're just stronger and there are guys who have been playing a lot more years in the league and know everything what it's about. So that's been challenging, but the older guys on our team are very helpful and always making sure we know what's going on."
They've also got the rookies up to speed on the significance of the MacEwan-NAIT rivalry – two teams who've met in the finals for three-straight years. They're currently in a tooth-and-nail battle for ACAC supremacy again. NAIT (11-1-0-0) enters the weekend in first place, a point ahead of Red Deer College (10-1-1-0) and four up on MacEwan (9-3-0-0).
"Looking at the NAIT weekend, we want to focus on this year," said Ringrose. "We've got a new group of guys here. I think everyone knows we have a long rivalry with NAIT and they're hard-fought battles, whether it's playoff games or regular season games.
"Looking at the standings where we're at, these games are hugely important. We're four points back of NAIT going into the weekend, so we need points to stay in the hunt here. Each game's basically a four-point game. We can either close the gap or they can start to create some separation from us. The importance of this (weekend) isn't lost on anyone whether it be from our side or their side. They're always spirited games and I'm sure that will continue this weekend."