Saint John Sea Dogs left wing Bokondji Imama has gone from scrapper to sniper.
The rugged 20-year-old, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s sixth-round pick in the 2015 National Hockey League Draft, has a reputation as one of the fiercest fighters in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
But these days, Imama is scaring QMJHL goaltenders as much as opposing skaters. He has 27 goals and 10 assists in 40 QMJHL regular season games, up from 7 goals and 19 assists in 47 games during the 2015-16 season.
“I always try to prove to everyone that I’m not just a fighter, I’m also a player” Imama told me recently. “I consider myself as a power forward. This year, I’ve had a chance to prove it with the ice time that the coach gives me.”
Imama is the Sea Dogs’ top goal-scorer this season, one ahead of right wing Mathieu Joseph – a Tampa Bay 2015 fourth-round draft pick who played on Canada’s Silver Medal-winning team at the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship – and center Matthew Highmore.
Imama’s 37 points – the combination of goals and assists – makes him the team’s fourth-leading scorer. Highmore’s 65 points – 26 goals and 39 assists in 42 games- tops the team. Joseph, who signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Lightning before the World Juniors, is second with 26 goals, 24 assists in 31 regular season games.
Imama’s evolution from a bare-knuckled brawler to bar down goal scorer is also reflected by fewer trips to the penalty box. He has 62 penalty minutes so far this season.
He collected 86 penalty minutes last season and probably would have had more except for a 15-game suspension in December 2015 for leaving the bench to defend an under-age 15-year-old rookie teammate against an experienced enforcer and a seven-game suspension in April 2016 for a hit on then-Cape Breton Screaming Eagles defenseman Tobie Pauquette-Bisson.
What’s most striking is that Imama is fighting less this season. The website hockeyfights.com notes that he’s fought only three times in QMJHL games so far this season. He had one scrap for the Lightning in a September 2016 preseason game against the Nashville Predators.
Imama had five fights in 2015-16 and a whopping 15 bouts in the 2014-15 season, according to hockeyfights.com.
The change in Imama’s game is part of a plan to show that the Montreal native, the son of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, is more than just a pair of fists as he completes his final QMJHL season and embarks on a professional hockey career.
“It started from my summer training, pretty much. I hired a skills coach, working on my offensive side, working on my power skating, working on my hands, working on my release,” the French-Canadian Imama told me recently. “The Saint John coach (Danny Flynn) has given me more responsibilities, putting me on the power play, putting me in different places. I’m doing great going to the net, putting puck on net.”
Lightning officials were impressed with what they saw of Imama offensively at the team’s development camp in Florida June 2016. He led a camp 3-on-3 tournament with 8 goals and tied Sea Dogs teammate Joseph for overall points in the tourney with 10.
Still, Tampa Bay cut Imama during September’s training camp and sent him back to Saint John, the largest city in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. But the ‘Bolts organization gave him to-do list for his return to the Q.
“From the first day they released me from camp, it was clear: they don’t want to see me fight, they don’t want to see me get suspended,” Imama said. “They want to see me on the ice, working on my game, scoring goals obviously, making some good plays, being an effective hockey player for my team.”
By following their prescription, Imama says this has been his most rewarding season in the QMJHL.
He hopes that it ends with the Sea Dogs – currently in first place in the Q’s Maritimes Division – winning the President’s Cup league championship and later capturing the Memorial Cup as the top Canadian Hockey League team.
But the 6-foot-1, 217-pound forward has no illusions about what will be expected of him in his pro career, whether it’s with Tampa Bay or its farm teams in the American Hockey League or the ECHL.
“To be realistic, when I’m going to pro level, I’ll have to come back to myself, to be more of a grinder, more of a fighter,” he told me. “Right now, as a 20-year-old, I have the chance to play a more offensive dimension. So I’m pretty grateful and I’m having a lot of fun. But once I start playing pro, I have to get back to the old me, if I can say that.”
To that end, Imama looks to Philadelphia Flyers right wing Wayne Simmonds and Edmonton Oilers left wing Milan Lucic – tough customers who are also elite goal scorers – for inspiration.
“Those kind of players, I love to watch them play,” he said. “They’re big guys, tough players, they bring size and meanness to their team. But also, the coach will put them in different situations.”