By Tom Williams
Before he was a Denver Pioneer, Scott Mayfield was a pioneer when top-tier junior hockey came to Youngstown. Mayfield was the original face of the Youngstown Phantoms during the franchise’s first two seasons. His potential as a future NHL player was promoted heavily.
His dream has come true. Mayfield, 24, is having a strong season with the Islanders who will play the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at PPG Paints Arena.
It’s a big weekend for Mayfield’s Islanders, who also will be home on Saturday night against the Boston Bruins. The Islanders trail the Bruins by two points for the final playoff berth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
“It’s awesome,” said Mayfield of the playoff chase and being a regular in the lineup. “It’s my first year where I’ve been here for the majority of the [season].
“Still haven’t been in the lineup every night, but I’m getting closer,” said Mayfield, who was a Phantom from 2009-11. “I think I’ve shown that I can play at this level.”
His head coach, Doug Weight, agrees.
“Oh, man, what a year for him,” said Weight after the Islanders’ optional skate on Thursday. “For the last two-and-a-half, three years, every time he’s got in, he’s played a little better.
“This year, he’s [made] a huge jump,” said Weight, who became the Islanders’ head coach on Jan. 17 when Jack Capuano was fired. “He’s always been hard to play against, he’s got the long reach, and he’s a tough kid.”
Mayfield stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 225 pounds.
“He worked hard in the offseason and took his game to a new level,” Weight said, “He’s been playing on his toes, playing up with the rush, creating offense. He’s been a real solid player for us.”
When the Phantoms debuted in the 2009-10 season, Mayfield was the player the organization promoted for being a future NHL first-round draft pick. He just missed as he was selected with the fourth pick in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft.
That summer, Mayfield moved on to the University of Denver where he played two seasons.
He turned pro in April 2013. His NHL debut in the 2013-14 season came in a 4-0 loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus.
Most of his pro career has been with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ AHL affiliate. He played 71 games in the Tigers’ 2013-14 season, 69 games in 2014-15 and 54 games in 2015-16.
This season, he’s played 19 games with the Islanders and has one goal, six assists and 33 penalty minutes.
“We have eight or nine in our organization that we feel are NHL [defensemen],” Weight said. “It’s tough at times to get him in in a regular basis.
“But he’s making it hard not having him in the lineup.”
Mayfield is one of five former Youngstown Phantoms to play in the NHL. The others are defenseman Andrej Sustr (Lighting), Jiri Sekac (Ducks, Canadiens and Blackhawks), Kyle Connor (Jets) and Matt O’Connor (Senators). Two others with ties to the Mahoning Valley — the Blue Jackets’ Brandon Saad (Mahoning Valley Phantoms in 2008-09) and the Rangers’ J.T. Miller (raised in East Palestine) — have been NHL players since 2013.
Mayfield has fond memories of his Youngstown start. He joined the Phantoms at age 16 and attended Ursuline High School for one year. He lived with the Jim and Gayle Ridge family in Poland. Sustr was his roommate in the first season, Stu Higgins the second.
“[Their home] was our little hang-out spot,” he said. “Fun times.”
Two springs ago, Mayfield stopped in Youngstown when he was driving home to Denver. He spent an afternoon with then-Phantoms head coach Anthony Noreen and co-owners Troy and Aafke Loney. The Loneys’ son Ty and Mayfield played together with the Phantoms and then with the University of Denver. Loney is now playing with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.
“Ty Loney is a really good buddy of mine, we live by each other in Denver,” Mayfield said.
Mayfield said he’s looking forward to seeing the Ridges tonight. An added bonus is that his father, Andy, will be at the game because he’s enjoying the Islanders’ Dads Trip.
“My Dad hasn’t seen them for a little bit, so it will be nice,” Mayfield said.
The Mayfield family lived in St. Louis when Mayfield arrived in Youngstown. They now live near Denver.
Andy Mayfield said watching his son blossom in the USHL “was surprising, at first. We played hockey for fun, we never expected [getting] anything out of it. Things clicked for him and it was fun watching.
“[This] was never expected.”
Mayfield is impressed with how Sustr has become a top-four defenseman with the Lightning after not being drafted.
“He’s really impressive, he’s done some really good things,” Mayfield said.
The Lightning were Stanley Cup finalists two seasons ago and lost to the Penguins in seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference finals.
Mayfield said he introduced his agent to Sustr when his Nebraska-Omaha career ended and he was an undrafted free agent.
“I always joke with my agent that he owes me something,” Mayfield said. “That was a pretty good find.”
Mayfield said the Phantoms being an expansion team that first season was a golden opportunity.
“I was lucky enough to get in [the lineup] right away,” said Mayfield, who recalled that he and Sustr played in every game. “For both of us, it was big [we were on] an expansion team.
“My billet family, the coaching staff, the ownership — everyone took really good care of me.”
Mayfield said former Phantoms head coach Curtis Carr, Noreen and current Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson were big influences.
“I grew up off the ice, too, because I was pretty young,” Mayfield said of his second season in Youngstown. “And they helped me with my game.”