GLENS FALLS -- Nick Cousins thought it would be easy. Hockey had always been relatively easy for him, after all.
But after coasting through juniors, the professional game was different.
“In juniors, everything was pretty straightforward, you have four good years, you get drafted, everything’s good,” Cousins said. “You come here and you think it’s going to be easy, but it’s not. It’s not easy at all.”
His rookie year has been a year of firsts for Cousins. There was the first goal, but there was also his first time on secondary lines since age 16, first career healthy scratch, first 25-game stint without a goal.
Cousins came into the season as a highly touted prospect. He was the Flyers’ third-round draft pick in 2011 and had 103 points in the Ontario Hockey League last year.
Phantoms head coach Terry Murray isn’t just looking for a good AHL performance, though. Cousins’ potential is higher than that. Murray is “pushing the bar to an almost NHL attitude. When he has a good game in the American Hockey League, there’s a lot of things I’m not happy with. You gotta raise the bar.”
It sets the bar high for someone who is still adjusting to the AHL.
According to www.behindthenet.ca, the average OHL player scores 45 percent of his point per game total after transitioning to the AHL. Cousins is at 20 percent.
The center averaged 1.6 points per game with Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL last season and has .32 points per game with the Phantoms this season.
“Nick was a guy that a lot of things did come easy to him and he played on some underachieving teams,” Sault Ste. Marie coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He didn’t always push himself as hard as he should have. I think he put some limitations on himself where he could be a better player.”
Keefe said many of the conversations he had with Cousins centered on trying to get him ready for the professional game. It was an “every-day battle to get Nick to push, to not put limitations on himself.”
When Cousins got to the AHL, he wasn’t ready for the difference. At the beginning of the season, he gave himself until January to adjust. In January, he said he just wasn’t there yet.
Cousins was very aware of what was expected of him. He reads everything and likes the pressure it puts on him.
But that pressure can bite back. Once Cousins started slipping into his slump of one goal in 39 games, it was that pressure and even more the pressure he put on himself that made it worse.
He used the old cliche of gripping the stick too hard. That translates to thinking too much and trying to do too much. An excess of thinking combined with a lack of confidence was Cousins’ problem.
“It all has to do with confidence, to be honest,” Cousins said. “I was getting too hard on myself, too down on myself, so I wasn’t really thinking right.”
Cousins said he stayed positive, didn’t mope and tried to find other ways to help the team — backchecking, making a hit. He called it a learning experience, using the term five times in about 90 seconds.
Then, after 24 games with three points and no goals, Cousins was a healthy scratch for the first time in his life. That was the wake-up call.
“There’s no question he took it to heart,” Murray said. “To become a pro player and have the game taken away from you, when your whole life has been being the No. 1 guy wherever you’ve been, it really has a big impact on your game.”
Since that healthy scratch, things have changed.
On the ice, Cousins is moving his feet more, a step for someone who needs to work on his skating. Murray said that jumps out at him most. He has seven points in the last 14 games.
But off the ice, Murray said Cousins is asking more questions, particularly about nutrition and rehydration. He is showing up earlier, spending more time in the weight room. These are all the things that add up to make a good professional, all the things that were missing for a player who skated through on natural ability.