SAGINAW, MI – Fortunately, D.J. Busdeker has two strong shoulders.
They can handle two chips.
But with each goal and each assist, the Ontario Hockey League chip becomes smaller for the Dexter, Michigan native, who has become one of the most valuable players on a Saginaw Spirit team that is in first place in the Ontario Hockey League’s West Division.
Busdeker has taken an unusual path to OHL prominence. He was not taken in the OHL Draft, despite dominating his leagues for the Compuware U15 and Compuware U16 teams. He led the High Performance Hockey League with 42 points in 22 games for the Compuware U16 team.
“There was probably a little chip on my shoulder at the time,” Busdeker said. “For myself, it’s made me work that much harder to be an impact player in this league or, hopefully, at some point AHL, East Coast or NHL for that matter.
“It’s not really a chip on my shoulder anymore, because I’ve played in the league. I’ve proven that I belong here.”
Busdeker may not have an OHL chip on his shoulder, but another one was placed on his shoulder when he was passed over in his NHL Draft-eligible year of 2018.
But the NHL opportunity may still come. Busdeker is 20 years old and an overager in the OHL, making this his final season in the league. He will move on after the season, with his hockey destination a bit of a mystery.
Spirit coach Chris Lazary believes there is a potential future in the NHL for Busdeker.
“There’s a lot of teams that have reached out and asked about him,” Lazary said. “A lot of teams have come and watched him play and phoned us, and we have good discussions about him. I know he’s generating interest, and that’s huge.”[embedded content]
The 5-foot-10, 175-pound Busdeker has scored 14 goals with 23 assists in 49 games. Among OHL defensemen, he is third at plus-28 and leads all OHL defensemen with six short-handed goals.
But he’s not really a defensemen. But he’s not necessarily a forward. He provides the Spirit with the best of both worlds.
“For us, it’s a luxury to have a swing guy like that,” Lazary said. “He’s a guy that is arguably probably one of the best players in the league. The plays that he makes, the offense he creates, how he tracks and gets into bodies … he’s phenomenal.
“He skates so well, he’s highly competitive, he’s unbelievably smart and he can play both positions.”
Busdeker never played defense until the 2018-19 season, when the Spirit were short on defense and needed a body. He took to the position, giving the Spirit a player who can excel at both forward and defense.”
“I had a lot of help from the other defensemen, guys like (Reilly) Webb and Mason (Millman), and that made the transition easier,” Busdeker said. “But really, when we’re out there, we’re a five-man unit, so you’re always moving between offense and defense anyway. I like playing defense. It all depends where they need me. I just want to win.”
After the OHL passed him by, Busdeker went to play in the North American Hockey League for the Topeka Roadrunners. In his first 12 games of the 2016-17 season, Busdeker scored 13 points on four goals and nine assists. But he stretched the ligament in his knee and was home in Dexter when the Spirit gave him a call.
“I was at home because of the knee when Drinks (Saginaw Spirit general manager Dave Drinkill) gave me the offer,” Busdeker said. “I was blessed. My knee was good and ready to go when he called. It was a great opportunity.”
In the 2016-17 season, Busdeker scored 14 points in 39 games, then scored 27 in 68 games in the 2017-18 season. Last season, he scored 15 goals with 33 assists for 48 points.
Busdeker attended Dexter High School as a freshman and sophomore, competing on the Dexter golf team. His brother, Brendan, is a senior on the Dexter hockey team, and his sister, Anika, is on the softball team at Dexter.
“It turned out about as good as it could have, getting a chance to play in Saginaw and close to home,” Busdeker said. “Growing up, I watched the Plymouth Whalers quite a bit, so I was familiar with the OHL … and I saw some Saginaw games at Plymouth.
“I don’t know what will happen or where I’ll play next year. I have talked to NHL teams. At this point, I’ll drive the Zamboni if that’s what it takes to play in the NHL.”
Lazary believes and hopes an NHL team will take a chance on Busdeker and sign him after the season.
“For a kid to come into this league undrafted, play four years, play as many games as he has, score some of the biggest goals we’ve had in this franchise … if you’re building an organization and you want to win games and want the right people, those are the types of guys you win with.”