Cloutier adds scoring touch to his growing game
by Peter Ruicci (Independent Media) | Photo by Bob Davies
He’s only five-foot-eight.
But his Soo Greyhounds teammates certainly look up to him.
And that would be the case even if he wasn’t scoring goals.
Justin Cloutier is just that kind of player.
“You never question his work ethic or how much he cares about his teammates,” said Hounds general manager Kyle Raftis, whose team is set to take a 12-7-0-0 mark into Wednesday’s 7:07 p.m. home start against Sudbury (10-6-1-0). “But what’s so impressive about him is that he’s found the confidence that he can be a difference-maker offensively.”
Ten goals in the right-winger’s first 19 games this season speak to that.
Production at that level only makes Cloutier, who’s a strong skater while excelling on the forecheck and defensively, even more valuable. The 18-year-old (2005 birth year) Ottawa native is energetic and dogged on pucks, providing his team with a high level of reliability on the penalty kill.
And while he spoke of there always being room for improvement, Cloutier agrees he’s playing the best hockey of his three-year, OHL career.
“I would say, so far, it is the best hockey I’ve played,” said Cloutier, who also has seven assists for 17 points, tied with Owen Allard (7-10-17) and Bryce McConnell-Barker (5-12-17) for third in team scoring.
Jack Beck (6-15-21) and Arttu Karki (14-5-19) are 1-2.
“I’m also older,” Cloutier said of the offensive uptick in his game. “I’ve held myself to a higher standard this season than ever before.”
Raftis spoke of how Cloutier has always taken pride in his ability to defend and bring physicality, despite his size.
After adding 10 pounds of muscle during the summer, he now packs 183 pounds on his frame.
“He plays as hard as he can. He doesn’t back down from anybody,” said Raftis, who chose Cloutier in the first round (18th overall) of the 2021 OHL draft. “He’s always been a ball of energy and he can really push defenders back with his speed carrying the puck. He’s tough to play against and when the puck drops, he’s always ready to go.”
But at this time a year ago, Cloutier was in the midst of a brutal slump.
It carried into January and, through 43 games, he had just five goals and 10 assists.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I wasn’t thrilled about it,” Cloutier admitted.
The turnaround began Jan. 27 against Sarnia. After suffering through a stretch of 19 games without a goal, Cloutier scored against the Sting.
It began a streak of 10 goals in a 17-game span. He finished the season with 16 goals and 12 assists in 68 games.
“I started to figure it out and I realized I could score in this league,” Cloutier said. “I thought that if I could do that, I don’t see why I couldn’t keep up a similar pace this season.”
Known as a hard worker, Cloutier said he trained by firing a lot of pucks over the summer. Once the 2023-24 campaign began, he started shooting pucks at a higher rate than he had previously.
A key has been “getting into scoring areas between the dots,” Cloutier said. “I’m not just taking what’s given, but I’m demanding room. I’m getting between the dots, trying to get inside to where most of the goals are scored.”
In other words, play on the perimeter isn’t acceptable.
Along with winger Connor Clattenburg and centre Christopher Brown, the three have formed an effective line.
Cloutier, who has scored twice shorthanded this season, enjoys his work on the penalty kill. Often paired with Allard, he talked about how well the two work together.
He’s also a member of the Soo’s No. 2 power-play unit
“Justin’s a favourite in our room and the coaching staff really trusts him in a lot of situations,” said Raftis, who lauded Cloutier for his team-first approach and leadership skills. “And it’s awesome now to see him getting rewarded offensively.”
Considered a player who loves hockey, Cloutier said winning games with his teammates gives him the biggest rush.
“I love the camaraderie,” he began. “I love the dressing room, the bus rides, the time I spend together with my teammates. We have a really-strong brotherhood.”
Following Wednesday’s clash with the Wolves, the Hounds are scheduled to entertain North Bay on Friday at 7:07 p.m.
Head coach John Dean and rookie centre Brady Martin are back with the team after competing in the recent World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.