Joseph Duszak signs with the Toronto Maple Leafs: Q&A with Mercyhurst College HC Rick Gotkin

Joseph Duszak of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo Credit: Ric Kruszynski

The Toronto Maple Leafs made official today the signing of 21-year-old defenseman Joseph Duszak out of Mercyhurst College to a two-year entry-level contract.

A convert to defense at age 15, Duszak has been a highly productive offensive defenseman since he broke into the Atlantic Hockey Association in NCAA Men’s Division 1 — perceived as a relatively weak league — with Mercyhurst College as a freshman, piling up 21 points in 29 games before adding 31 in 35 as a sophomore and finishing his junior year with 16 goals and 47 points in 37 games.

A right-handed shot with pro upside, the NHL interest as the season went on was considerable and the Leafs have picked up a free wallet here at a position of need in their system. Duszak will immediately report to the Marlies after signing his contract today, and while he may not play right away, the Leafs will get him acclimated to the city, the staff, and the development program for the rest of the season.

Exclusive Interview: Mercyhurst College Head Coach Rick Gotkin

On how Duszak’s role evolved over three years at Mercyhurst

Gotkin: When he first joined the program, he was like a bull in a china shop. He had such great raw ability. He just had to learn how to manage the puck and how to manage the game. He has learned to do that beautifully. It has taken a long time. His freshman year, he would pick up the puck and nobody could get it from him — it didn’t matter who we played. But then he would do something high-risk, low-reward. We needed to get Joe to watch video and understand there is a minute left in the period and you don’t need to do this up by a goal or tied, or whatever. He really has worked on his 200-foot game. He plays a well-rounded game. When he first came in, he was very raw, but he has become a great all-around player.

On whether he thinks he has NHL potential

Gotkin: I really do. I think you just have to be a little bit patient and the Leafs will be. I know they have a great development program in Toronto. Kyle Dubas and his staff have done a tremendous job with that franchise. You look at the young prospects they have all over the world and how they develop their players — I really think that, knowing Joe, he is driven to play and I think if anybody could do it, he could.

On Duszak’s defensive game

Gotkin: There is no question that Joe’s offensive skills are probably the first thing that people would notice. Obviously, in today’s NHL, those offensive defenseman are certainly a commodity an Joe fits that bill. I can also tell you that Joe is really good defensively. He has really worked on his game to improve defensively. He’ll block shots. The three years that he’s been here, we’ve matched him up against the other team’s top lines. I think what makes him defensively is the same thing that makes him good offensively. He skates very well, he sees the ice very well, and every shift, he works really, really hard and competes. Really, he is a pretty well-rounded hockey player. I really think the Toronto Maple Leafs have a really special player in Joe Duszak.

On Duszak’s strengths defensively

Gotkin: He has great anticipation. He is one of those guys who knows where the puck is and can almost transition to where the puck is going to be before the puck gets there. I think his instincts and his anticipation and, again, his skating ability make him a really, really good defenseman. I don’t want to speak for the Maple Leafs, but what I think people like most about Joe is how he plays with the puck, how he sees the ice, how he moves the puck, how he shoots the puck, and the plays he makes. But he is also a very, very defenseman and you need to be able to defend if you are going to continue to grow and get a chance to play in the NHL.

On Duszak’s transition play

Gotkin: He is a guy who always had the green light here. He was always up on the play. There were times where he would be playing, at the very least, at the face-off dots in the offensive zone. There were also times he would be behind the other team’s net in the offensive zone. Because of his skating ability, he was able to recover, get back, and not put us in a situation where we would give up odd-man rushes. The one area Joe’s game really has evolved is that he takes care of the puck really well. I think when he first got here as a freshman three years ago, he tried to force a couple of things to try to make some plays that weren’t there. He has learned that puck management and taking care of the puck is very, very important. Again, when Joe has the puck, it’s very, very hard to get the puck away from him, and that’s good D. He has the puck a lot, he takes care of the puck, he protects the puck, he’s strong with the puck, and it’s very, very hard to get the puck away from him.

On Duszak’s character

Gotkin: He is an absolute great kid. He comes from a middle-class hard-working family. His parents are great people. He is an absolute product of his home. He is an absolute great, great kid. He always has a smile on his face. He is always upbeat. He loves to play hockey. I mean, he’s a rink rat. I come in here and all hours of the day he is out here shooting pucks and working on his game, watching video. He really, really, really works at his game. It’s funny because people go, “Hey, you did a nice job developing him,” but the truth is, good players develop themselves. They really, really do. We were smart enough as a coaching staff to put him on the ice a lot, but really, Joe came in and he worked with the staff and he did video a couple of times a week. He didn’t just watch video — he studied video and the way he was playing and the way other guys were playing.

He would get on the ice before practice, day after practice and he would work on his shot. He would work on puck-handling. He is an absolute great, great kid, a super high character kid. The Leafs are going to love him on the ice and off the ice. I hope people have a chance to get to know Joe a little bit because he is a great kid.

On Duszak’s size

Gotkin: I think his size actually enhances [his game]. He is low to the ice and he is hard to knock over. He is hard to get a piece of. He moves around and skates so well and sees the ice so well with his great anticipation and work ethic. I think he is the prototypical NHL defenseman. He has work to do and he knows that. The Leafs know that. But he is only 21 years old. He has got a great, great future.

On whether Duzak is the best player to ever come out of Mercyhurst

Gotkin: That might be in fact true. He is also our seventh player that has signed an NHL contract and we are a small little school here in Erie Pennsylvania. I think if the University of Wisconsin or Minnesota or Boston College produced something like this, it is probably no big deal, but for us, this is a very big deal. We are very proud of Joe and being the seventh player to sign an NHL contract is great. There have been some really good players, but there is no question Joe Duszak is a very, very special player and I think he has sky high potential.

Joseph Duszak Statistics

 SeasonTeamLeagueGPGATPPIM    PlayoffsGPGATPPIM 
 2011-2012Portledge SchoolUSHS-Prep21123-|     
 2012-2013Portledge SchoolUSHS-Prep1831013-|     
 Suffolk PAL JuniorsEmJHL341181920|Playoffs3022
 2013-2014P.A.L. Junior Islanders 18UUSPHL 18U130141424|     
 P.A.L. Junior IslandersUSPHL Premier341161722|Playoffs3112
 Portledge SchoolUSHS-Prep4358-|     
 2014-2015P.A.L. Junior IslandersUSPHL Premier5018395774|Playoffs2112
 Portledge SchoolUSHS-Prep15282654-|     
 2015-2016P.A.L. Junior IslandersUSPHL Premier42144660107|Playoffs222414 
 Chicago SteelUSHL20110|     
 2016-2017Mercyhurst Univ.NCAA295162134|     
 2017-2018Mercyhurst Univ.NCAA359223122|     
 2018-2019Mercyhurst Univ.NCAA3716314742|