Everywhere he looks, Dawson Pasternak sees talent. Oodles of it.
The level of skill is so deep on the Chicago Steel that Adam Fantilli, a Toronto kid touted as a possible No. 1 overall NHL draft selection in 2023, plays on the club's third line.
Lately, Pasternak has been making his own case for recognition in this galaxy of stars.
Four members of the Steel — Sean Farrell, Matt Coronato, Erik Middendorf and Josh Doan — occupy the top four spots in the USHL scoring race but the 17-year-old right-winger from Winnipeg has been doing his part.
During a recent 10-game point-scoring streak, Pasternak had three goals and 12 points to improve his season totals to six goals and 16 points in 33 games. During the surge, Fantilli has been Pasternak's regular left-winger with University of Minnesota recruit Joe Miller in the middle.
Last weekend, Makie Samoskevich was the line's centre.
"Everybody's super skilled and talented and especially both those guys — Samoskevich will probably be a first-round pick in the NHL this year and Fantilli has good chance of going first overall a couple of years from now," says Pasternak. "So playing with those guys, it's really cool and for me personally, I get to challenge myself to play up to their games and elevate myself."
The trigger for the uptick in offence may have been Pasternak's two-goal outburst during a Jan. 9 game against the U.S. National Team Development Program, which also coincided with extra ice time when Samoskevich, a Michigan commit, and another forward, Adam Robbins, went down with injuries.
Then again, it could have just been a matter of time for Pasternak, who's in his first full USHL season.
"I don't think there was a specific moment where I just thought I could change things around," says Pasternak. "I've always bought into the team systems and I've worked really hard every single day so when it finally started to happen I think it was just the team playing really good hockey and me being bought into the team and working on those extra little things that I needed to do to help me start producing."
Pasternak comes by those little things honestly.
At 5-8, 160 pounds, he's one of the smallest guys on the Chicago roster though you'd never know it by his disposition. He is an irritating presence in the very best sense.
On the ice, he stirs the pot and the temperature of the game seems to rise naturally.
DAWSON PASTERNAK FILEClick to Expand
Height: 5-8; weight: 160 pounds
Current team: Chicago Steel, USHL
WHL Draft: Portland, fourth round in 2018
"When he's playing at his best, he's a Brad Marchand-type player," says Brock Sheehan, the Steel's Canadian-born coach. "He's highly skilled, he's physical, he plays on the edge. Sometimes he plays over the edge which gets him into a little bit of trouble but we're really skilled hockey team and having somebody that plays with that hard skill that he has, it's a major asset to our lineup."
Pasternak is fine with the Marchand comparisons and he insists he's not a slash-and-run kind of player.
"I don't like to go on the ice and play scared or anything like that like," says Pasternak. "I try to take on the big guys sometimes or do little things that might get them going. I think comparing myself to Brad Marchand and in the agitator (role), I'd say that's kinda accurate.
"I've always played with a lot of heart and passion for the game and so when I get frustrated out there I don't usually just slash. I'll get in people's faces and and do those little things that might make people a little bit mad. I'd say that's always kind of been a part of my game."
Those qualities were obvious to Steel assistant GM Noëlle Needham, who coached Pasternak for 1 1/2 seasons with the Sioux Falls (S.D.) 16U AAA Power.
"He's annoying to play against but with that said, I think he's only got (34) penalty minutes on the year and he draws a lot of penalties," says Needham, a former NHL scout who also founded the Legend Hockey academy program in Sioux Falls.
Needham first recruited Pasternak out of the Winnipeg Hawks AAA program when the 15-year-old was fresh from being selected by Portland in the fourth round of the 2018 WHL Draft. At the time, Pasternak was intent on following the major-junior route in the WHL.
He even attended Winterhawks' training camp in the fall of 2019, signed a WHL player contract and played in five pre-season games but was sent home as one of the final cuts.
He returned to Sioux Falls, played half a season before Needham suggested a mid-season tryout with the Steel.
"I wasn't thinking college route all," says Pasternak. "I was very excited to be drafted by the Portland Winterhawks and growing up as a Canadian boy, you don't really hear much about college anyways. So my dream was to play in the Western League and when I got drafted by a team like that, that's what I really wanted."
In Chicago, Pasternak played 35 USHL regular-season games prior to the pandemic shutdown, scoring five goals and 14 points. By then, his career path had taken a sharp turn.
The Steel currently has 23 players with Division 1 college commitments and he began to focus on securing an NCAA scholarship.
"I loved it and I didn't want to go play anywhere else after this," says Pasternak of his time in Chicago. "I think the turning point really was just me playing for the Steel and seeing the other side of the hockey world. I really wanted to stay here and then pursue the college route now."
Signing a WHL contract is a complication to be sure, but Sheahan and Needham believe Pasternak can successfully appeal to the NCAA to regain his college eligibility.
Needham says Pasternak will be capable of playing for a top five NCAA program when he is done in the USHL. Sheahan insists his size shouldn't be an issue, whether he has a late growth spurt or not.
"I think probably closer to being done growing but he is so strong, he's unbelievable in the weight room," says Sheehan. "He might get to 5-9, 5-10, but with how strong he is on his skates, how explosive he is, I don't think that's going to hold him back."
Devoting himself to off-ice training resulted in raves from Bobby Lucas, the Steel's director of performance and sport science.
"I think he's much more mature now," said Needham. "One of the things he had to learn in coming down was just consistency in bringing focus and work ethic to practice every single day and that was an adjustment for him. It was something that he has continued to adjust to at every level."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.