Out with an injury for a six-game stretch in January, Eli Zummack was relegated to watching Spokane Chiefs games from the stands of the Arena or from his laptop at home.
For Zummack, it was not ideal, nor was the Chiefs’ performance without him. They went 1-4-0-1, combining for just seven goals in five of those games.
But while he watched, Zummack was determined to make the best of it.
“It just makes you want to be out there even more,” Zummack said. “I think it’s actually good. You get a better visual from a different standpoint. You visualize yourself being out there in different situations.”
That’s typical, said teammate Ty Smith, who lived two years with Zummack and still FaceTimes with him regularly after practices and games.
“He’s always thinking about hockey, always talking about hockey,” Smith said after the Chiefs’ 3-1 victory Wednesday that gave them a 3-0 lead over top-seeded Everett, a series they’ll look to close out Friday night at the Arena. “Lately, since the playoffs have started he’s really dialed it in.”
Through eight playoff games – including a 4-1 opening-series victory over the Portland Winterhawks – Zummack has six assists and three goals, good for the second-most points on the team.
That comes after the 18-year-old’s best regular season in the WHL, a 53-assist, 15-goal performance that included a team-high six winners and 25 points on the Chiefs’ league-leading power play.
A lot of that production came away from his natural position.
“Eli usually is a centerman, and he’s been asked to play the wing a little bit here lately. He’s done a great job adapting to that role, and he has really bought into that,” Chiefs coach Dan Lambert said. “Their line has been very effective. In these playoffs he’s scored some key goals for us, and made some great plays. He’s certainly raised his game in the playoffs.”
Lined up with Jaret Anderson-Dolan – an NHL second-round draft pick last year – and Luke Toporowski, expected to be an NHL draft selection in June, Zummack said his statistics are a product of his fortunate position on a line with two great players.
But Smith doesn’t buy that explanation.
“That’s definitely the kind of guy he is. He’s the kind of guy that gives his teammates credit even though it’s not all us at all,” said Smith, who was the New Jersey Devils’ first-round pick last year. “He’d be a great player anywhere.”
No NHL teams selected Zummack during his draft year last June, although shortly after he accepted an invitation to the Toronto Maple Leafs camp.
“That was an amazing experience,” Zummack said.
Some projections have Zummack, an 18-year-old, as a late-rounder this June. Spokane forwards Adam Beckman and Toporowski are projected as midround picks.
Zummack’s particular skill set, teammates and coaches said, is his ice vision and ability to create opportunities for others.
“I think most players struggle seeing the pass rather than making it,” said Smith, who led all WHL defensemen with 62 assists this season despite playing 57 of 68 possible games. “The majority of the guys struggle with finding the pass.”
But Zummack seems to have an eye for passing lanes.
“I’d probably say it’s harder for me to see the pass because everything’s happening so fast, and sometimes you miss it. Sometimes you’re a little puck focused,” Zummack said. “But once you’re able to see the pass and see it’s there, it’s obviously hard to get it there, but it’s definitely easier than it is to find it initially.”
Zummack is not a particularly big player at 5-foot-9, 179 pounds. But he is intent on getting better by mimicking pros, Smith said.
Zummack has a handful of teammates who have spent time with NHL clubs, but he also watches NHL games on TV with the same critical eye he brought to the ones he watched from the Arena stands.
“He’s been watching NHL players shift by shift, just to try to improve his game and see the little things they do,” Smith said. “Not so much with the puck, but away from the puck – their work ethic, little things like that, how they back check, finish checks, their position on the ice.
“When (Zummack) has the puck, he’s a really gifted player, tons of talent, great vision, can shoot it, great playmaker, but he’s working on those other areas, too, and it’s great to see.”
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