In the summer of 2015, Matteo Gennaro experienced the dream of a country worth of young hockey players when he was selected by the Winnipeg Jets at the NHL Draft. Granted, he was the 203rd player taken (only eight players were drafted after he was) but it’s generally better to be drafted than to not be.
Flash forward a year and a half later and Gennaro is a 19-year-old in the Western Hockey League pushing for a pro contract. So far he’s making a solid case for himself.
Last season, split between the Prince Albert Raiders and Calgary Hitmen, Gennaro had 43 points in 70 games. He surpassed that total in his 39th game of this season in dramatic fashion: with his first career WHL hat trick, playing on a line with Washington prospect Beck Malenstyn and Vancouver pick Jakub Stukel. His third goal was the overtime game winner, earning the Hitmen a crucial pair of points in their playoff chase. (The game after I interviewed him, Gennaro had another hat trick.)
“I think it’s a lot of different things,” said Gennaro of this season’s offensive explosion. “I’m leaned on a lot more as a 19-year-old guy. I’m getting a ton of opportunity here, but I’m a veteran guy and each year you learn more and more about yourself and the game and what type things you gotta do to be successful and where you got to go on the ice. You’re just seeing me play confident right now and try to help the team out.”
As a 2015 draftee, Gennaro has to sign a contract with the Jets by June 1, 2017 or he’ll be returned to the drafting pool for the 2017 NHL Draft. For his part, Gennaro remains focused on earning a contract before that deadline hits.
“That’s my goal,” said Gennaro. “I want to play in the NHL as bad as anyone. I’m trying to make a statement here, help my team win games, and you know, if I’m playing that way, helping with the team, you’re going to see statistic numbers turn out to be good. My focus has been to continue to work hard and battle hard and help my team win.”
Gennaro attended Jets camp in each of the past two autumns and was returned to the Hitmen by the organization on October 1. When he was re-assigned, he was given some feedback from the Jets on what he needed to do to earn a deal.
“A lot of it was about owning the puck,” said Gennaro. “Now I’m a 19-year-old guy going back to junior, I’ve just got to be very dominant, win my puck battles. The compete level of the game has to be there every single night on a consistent basis. They know I have skill. They know I’m a smart player that can play at both ends of the ice. It’s about that consistency, because at the pro level you’re expected to play that way every night.”
Once part of a broad cast of 19-year-old scorers in Calgary, Gennaro now sits as the undisputed top gun for the Hitmen since a pair of trade deadline deals that sent Jordy Stallard and Carsen Twarynski out of town. Gennaro’s no stranger to the business side of hockey; he was traded at last year’s deadline from Prince Albert to the Hitmen. His retention by the club is likely an indication that they feel he’s one of the players that can get them into the playoffs.
“I know the team believes in me,” said Gennaro. “I’m really happy to stay in Calgary; i love the organization, I love the city, I love my billets. I think it does show the belief they have it me. It also shows the expectaiton they have of me. I have high expectations of myself. You can’t control anything that happens at the deadline… It’s part of hockey.”
This awareness of the the business side of hockey probably explains Gennaro’s degree of focus on the task at hand. Worrying about not being signed yet won’t solve anything. He remains focused on helping his team succeed down the stretch.
“They’re going to be watching me a lot down the stretch,” said Gennaro of the Jets. “They’ve mentioned that to me. It’s an exciting time for me. I’m excited.”