CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Goaltender Alex D'Orio's final year of junior hockey in the QMJHL was a valuable learning experience.
D'Orio, 20, began the season with the Saint John Sea Dogs, a very young team in a rebuilding stage. At the time, D'Orio was the only player on the roster who was a prospect of an NHL team. He was facing the most shots of any goaltender in the league, seeing an average of 38.8 shots per game. Those were quality shots, too, as he led the league in high-danger shots faced.
Despite the high shot volume, D'Orio performed well under the pressure. The stat line (5-20 record, 4.48 goals-against average, .883 save percentage) won't reflect that, though. D'Orio had to be strong mentally and find the positives in his situation.
"It was a little bit hard because you knew that every game you'd have 45 to 50 shots," he told me. "But as the season was going on, the more I was used to it. So it was just, let's have fun, and if I'm doing a couple of great saves, that'll be good. Then at the end, if we're having the win, that would be awesome."
D'Orio had to separate his record of wins and losses from his own performance. There were some nights, like a November game against the Sherbrooke Phoenix, where he could have an outstanding 54-save performance and still take a loss. D'Orio credited his goaltending coach in Saint John, as well as Penguins goaltending development coach Andy Chiodo in helping him with the mental side of the game. Chiodo spoke on the phone with D'Orio every other week, and made the trip to Saint John to work with him one-on-one for a full week.
For Chiodo, it was encouraging to see how D'Orio handled the adversity.
"When I was able to spend time with (D'Orio) and we were able to communicate, he realized that even though he was getting all of those shots and all of the chances and wasn't winning all of the time, that his focus didn't have to change," Chiodo said. "I think when he simplified his focus and just took care of himself and focused on his job, let go of wins and losses, he settled down and his game improved, and actually started winning more hockey games.
"It is challenging," Chiodo continued. "You're playing every night, you're facing that shot volume, you're seeing these chances, you start to think you have to do more in order to win and you start to get frustrated. You get absorbed in the result and you lose sight of the process. He did a good job of coming back to that."
In January, the Sea Dogs traded D'Orio to a contender, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar. It was a move made out of respect for D'Orio, to give him the chance to succeed in his final season of junior hockey.
On the Drakkar, D'Orio's situation changed drastically. He no longer had to carry an entire team on his back, and he was facing an average of only 20.8 shots per night.
"It was another game, it was weird for me," D'Orio said of the adjustment. "For a year and a half I was facing a lot of shots on a young team. So for me to have 20 to 25 shots was weird a bit, and I got used to it. At the end I thought I grew up a lot with both teams."
D'Orio posted a 2.55 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in 23 games with the Drakkar. They were eliminated in seven games in a first-round matchup with the Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL playoffs, and D’Orio played in all seven games, recording a 2.47 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.
D'Orio joined Wilkes-Barre/Scranton as a Black Ace on an amateur deal for the remainder of the season. He only played in one game, but his small taste of AHL hockey showed him what really separates junior players from the professionals.
"The big difference between the pros and juniors is their work ethic, how pro they are," he said. "Everything with the food, sleep, workouts, everything is more professional than junior."
D'Orio will play his first full professional season next year. He's most looking forward to actually learning how to be a pro and making that adjustment next season.
"It's going to be a big year for me to learn how to be a pro," he said. "I'm going to be alone in the apartments, changing countries, it'll be a lot of things. It's going to be a big learning year for me."
Chiodo and the Penguins are high on D'Orio from what they've seen from him so far. The next step is to work on fine-tuning the details of his game.
"Alex has the tools," Chiodo said. "He's a big kid (6-2, 209). He's powerful. He's got good sense. He can read the game well. He's got growing to do too, though. When you talk about these guys, there's always little pieces to the puzzle that guys are missing. We all did, as players. I was missing pieces that would have helped me take another step. So, my role is to try to identify those pieces with him, and if we can plug those in, these guys will have a chance."
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