This year, Stephen Halliday became the first player in Central Illinois Flying Aces, or Bloomington Thunder, history to make the team straight out of their draft year. The team took Halliday with the first overall pick in the 2018 USHL Draft after the 16-year-old had a very impressive year with his Triple-A team. The giant power-forward is eligible for the 2020 NHL Draft and his name will almost certainly be called during it. This is because, despite being one of the youngest in the league, Halliday is already making a splash.
Looking at Stephen Halliday’s Style of Play
Halliday is the youngest player on the Aces roster, by almost a full year. Only one player comes close, born 11 months before Halliday. Overall, only two players in the entire league are younger than he is, excluding any players on the U.S. National Team Development Program. His youth is nowhere near apparent in his play, though.
His size also makes him fairly unique. At 6’3″ and 220 pounds, he is the third tallest forward on the team and the heaviest of them all. On a roster that features 15 forwards, nine of them are under six foot. This makes Halliday look ginormous on the ice. This was amplified in Friday’s game against the Green Bay Gamblers, a team that only features one player over 6’1″.
Halliday clearly embraces his size. While he could afford to be more aggressive, he still flaunts a very strong style of play in the offensive zone. His biggest strength is completely independent of that, though. His biggest upside is instead his poise. Nothing seemed to phase Halliday on Friday night. When the puck was on his stick, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get off. As a result, he was very calm and collected, even when being pressured by multiple defenders in the offensive zone.
He was the sole assist on the opening goal of the night, four-and-a-half minutes into the game. The goal was scored by the team’s oldest player, Tate Singelton after he and Halliday combined for a very pretty cycle in the offensive zone.
Halliday’s passing also doesn’t lack. It pairs beautifully with the poise he shows on offense. Halliday was limited to the sole assist but did a great job setting up his teammates throughout the entire game. During the former half of the second period, Halliday handles the puck in the corner, periodically moving in-and-out from behind the net, looking for an open pass. He found one after dodging a few Gamblers, dishing the puck to Singelton again in front of the net. The shot was saved, in part because there were three Gamblers crowding the front of the net. Still, the play was yet another strong offensive play by Halliday.
In fact, the only thing that kept Halliday from having at least three assists on Friday was his teammates. His passing was beautiful throughout the game and he gave his teammates perfect opportunities, but the team wasn’t able to finish.
Halliday agrees that his passing is a huge part of his game. After the game, he mentioned that he thinks his passing and eye for the ice is his biggest strength. This is definitely a justified opinion. The trait isn’t very common in players his size, but Halliday is already demonstrating an elite ability to read the ice and move the puck through traffic.
Another big strength for Halliday is, well, his strength. When he had the puck, it was almost impossible for a single opponent to take it away from him. On a shift late in the second period, the Aces had a clear game plan for the rookie. After a face-off in the offensive zone, they shifted the puck to Halliday who worked behind the net. One Gambler defenseman chased Halliday behind the net, but his stick checks were completely ineffective.
Instead, Halliday powered past him and was only knocked off the puck when another player checked him. But still, he didn’t fall down. He barely even stumbled. Instead, he was fought past the check and used a very strong stick to get the loose puck back. The Gamblers had to repeat the same play to knock him off the puck again, ultimately breaking it out of their zone this time.
Halliday’s weaknesses are blatantly apparent in his game. While it doesn’t make him a bad player, he would be one of the best on the roster if he worked out a few kinks. The biggest issue he has is his skating. He showed off a strong stride but was pretty limited outside of that. The biggest fault was his acceleration. Halliday looked a bit awkward when he was trying to accelerate and was ultimately one of the slowest players on the team.
This is to be expected from a player that is as big and as young as Halliday is. If he wants to get to the next level, it is definitely something he’ll have to work on. But, if he is able to optimize his skating, there isn’t a lot that could stop him. His strength on the puck and confidence make him a very big offensive threat already. If he added faster skating to that repertoire, he’d be one of the best big men in the USHL. Luckily, he has plenty of time and is on a team that embraces their skating. Some of the best skaters in the league are in Central Illinois.
Halliday was also far too passive during Friday’s game. His play in the neutral and defensive zone was less than desirable, as he would often sit back and wait for the puck to come to him instead of pressuring the puck-carrier. This style may have been acceptable in his Triple-A league, but cannot keep happening in the top tier of American hockey. With how big Halliday is, it’s safe to assume he’d be a very physical player. He’s not. He didn’t even attempt a single hit all game, despite towering over anyone who challenged the puck and being clearly aggravated all night.
A lot of this can be attributed to being so young. The USHL is a huge milestone for players, but also extremely daunting. Halliday has only played five games in the league, and three in second-tier juniors in Canada last year. He’s not acclimated to the pace of the game and has clear nerves. When these go away, he’ll likely be a much better player.
Halliday again agreed with this idea. When asked about his performance Friday night he hesitantly said, “I think I did okay. I could’ve been a little better in the D-zone blocking shots and stuff. We just need to find a way to score.”
Halliday was fairly limited on Friday night in particular. At the start of the game, he was getting plenty of ice time. It was clear that the coaching staff trusted him and knew the best way for him to improve was to be on the ice. This all changed in the second period, though. Between the last nine minutes of the first period and the entirety of the second, there were eight different penalties. Five of these came in the second, four against the Aces.
This heavily affected Halliday’s ice time. He only saw one shift on the power play and didn’t help kill off any penalties. As a result, he spent almost all of the second period on the bench. By the time it was over, the Gamblers had taken a considerable grasp on the game, with a 5-2 score in their favor. In an attempt to claw back into the game, head coach Mike Watt began resorting to his veteran players as opposed to giving Halliday more ice. The third period was a bit better for Halliday in terms of minutes but still wasn’t ideal. It’s safe to assume that in a closer game, he’d be on the ice much, much more.
Transition to U.S. Hockey
Halliday is also getting a short-end of the straw to start the season. He’s making two very hard transitions at once. On one hand, he is moving from Triple-A to top-tier juniors. This is notably difficult and can take whole seasons to adjust. But for Halliday, he also has to transition from Canadian hockey to U.S. hockey of a much higher tier. “The speed is definitely a lot faster than [Triple-A]. They’re obviously a lot stronger and smarter, but the speed is definitely the biggest difference.”
He had a taste of junior-level hockey last year, playing four games with the Markham Royals of the OJHL. He implied that, while the league was competitive, he’s going to have to switch it into another gear to compete in the USHL. “The OJHL is kind of in between [Triple-A and the USHL]. The skill obviously isn’t as great as the USHL. I got away with just using my skill there.”
His teammates have done a great job of making Halliday feel welcome, despite being much younger. “Everyone’s been great. Our team is a lot of new guys so we’re all trying to mesh together. We have really good chemistry off-ice. I have guys like [Trevor] Janicke and [Ryan] Siedem. It’s not really hard to fit in with those two guys around.”
Halliday seemed fairly excited about his college commitment to the University of North Dakota. He forewent going to the OHL, where he was picked in the third round of the 2018 Draft, to come to the USHL and go to a U.S. school. “I feel like in the long run, it’s best for me to go to the USHL.”
His outlook on the future was bright, too. His ideal path was pretty simple. He wanted to spend two years with the Flying Aces, then move on to North Dakota as a true freshman, “knock on wood”. The ultimate goal was still the same as every young player. “I’ll hopefully play in the NHL one day.”
The NHL might not be too far off. Halliday draws a lot of similarities to Buffalo Sabres forward Tage Thompson. The two differ slightly, Thompson being a better shooter whereas Halliday is a better passer, but their playstyles and corresponding issues are close to identical.
Thompson went to the University of Connecticut before he was drafted in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft. While at UConn, he faced a lot of the same issues that Halliday has but still was a very dangerous offensive player.
Halliday has the jump on Thompson, though, simply because of his age. When going into the 2016 NHL Draft, it wasn’t entirely guaranteed that Thompson would be a first-round pick. His skating was still nowhere near ideal and it was clear he was going to have to spend time in the AHL refining it.
Halliday might be able to flush out these issues before Draft Day comes. He has a very clear mindset and has shown he’s a hard worker. Thompson was a late-first round pick, which could be reassuring for Halliday who isn’t too far off of Thompson’s level in 2016. If he’s able to work on his aggression and skating, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Halliday follow a very similar path.
Halliday compared himself to Dylan Strome instead of Thompson. “He’s kind of from where I was in Toronto so I watched him play a lot in the OHL, like when he got sent back from Arizona.” He went on to mention that Strome had the same issues as he does, struggling with skating as a result of his size. “He had to get a lot faster to play in the NHL, which he’s obviously done, but that’s why he’s a little farther back than his draft class: guys like Barzal, McDavid, Eichel.” Looking at Strome’s work improving his skating seemed to inspire Halliday. He says that he has to just continue working hard with coaches at practice, “going up and down the ice as fast as I can, find the pace a bit more.”
Halliday also mentioned that his favorite player was Clayton Keller. “I try to play like him, but I don’t. He’s a smaller guy. But I still try to make [offensive] plays like him, while also playing a lot like Strome.”
That comparison is also pretty accurate for Halliday. He clearly flaunts an offensively-gifted game, with a keen eye for passing the puck and an elite ability to stay calm. Not much of his game is lacking, he’s simply going through the same issues that every player 6’3″ and up faces. If he’s able to work them out, and it sure seems like he will, there is no doubt that Halliday is a first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.
The Central Illinois Flying Aces logo. Courtesy: USHL