Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Tall Tale for Myers to be an NHL Defenseman

By Larry Wigge

Tyler Myers. He's big -- oh yes he is -- at 6-foot-7 and 227 pounds. And as a first-year player, the defenseman won the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year. His future is ahead of him.

There are at times when Myers looks like he could stretch from left wing circle to the right wing circle. That is a quality thought of in terms of Chris Pronger and Zdeno Chara, both of whom also have a wingspan Tyler's. It's bigger than life.

Think about it, covering from the left wing faceoff circle and the right one. But that just a part of Myers, the 12th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He multi-facited. And he 22 years old.

"His stride, he just came out of his own end and skated right by guys," explained Chicago executive Scotty Bowman. "I couldn't believe how fast he was. I haven't seen many guys in my time that big who was such a fluid skater. He gets up and down the ice so fast."

The Katy, Texas, native, tallied 11 goals and 37 assists and was a plus 13 player for the Sabres in 2009-10. After signing a seven-year, $38.5 million extension in the offseason, the Sabres made it clear that they viewed him as one of the cornerstones of this franchise for the foreseeable future.

But with the expectations this fanbase places on his shoulders, he slumped to 37 points as a sophomore and was even worse this year -- six goals and 11 assists.

"Part of our attack is the absence of Tyler Myers," said Coach Lindy Ruff of the oft-injured Myers. "He's one guy that gets up the ice and makes things happen for us offensively."

Again he is 6-foot-7 and 227 pound of promise. Give the kid a break.

It's a long way from Katy, Texas, to Calgary and an even longer distance to the NHL. But, when 6-7 defenseman Tyler Myers looked out on the ice during the Stanley Cup finals and saw 6-7 Hal Gill playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, playing that shutdown defensive job, it was only that he wondered if maybe he wasn't getting closer to his dream of playing an important role in the NHL.

With the Red Wings displaying the skills of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and the Penguins showing off the talent of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the job of shutdown defenseman has become paramount in the NHL these days -- and Myers just happens to be one of the top prospects available in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft along with fellow defensemen Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Luke Schenn and Alex Pietrangelo.

So it's safe to say the emphasis at the top of this draft is going to be on find the next defensemen who can potentially help to neutralize stars like those on the Wings and Penguins for Buffalo.

Tyler Myers becomes an even more intriguing story for two reasons -- he was born in the not-so-hockey hotbed of Katy, Texas, about 20 minutes from Houston, after his dad, Paul, moved the family there from Bethlehem, Pa., to work in the oil industry.

Not exactly the normal route nor dimensions of your typical hockey talent. But it fits. Tyler has grown into his beautiful skating stride and in only his third year of playing defense he excites more scouts with the upside he presents.

"I had never really seen hockey until my dad took me to an (International Hockey League) game with the Houston Aeros when I was six years old," Myers said. "By the second period, I was bugging my dad to let me play. The next day, we went to buy hockey equipment at the local pro shop."

Tyler's hockey career struggled in the non-hockey Houston area. But when the family relocated again -- this time to Calgary -- hockey and Myers took off.

"Talk about a culture shock," Myers said, with a hint of sarcasm about the move to Canada as a 10-year-old. "When I was playing hockey in Houston, there were three teams in my age bracket in a city of about three million people. When I got to Alberta, there were 13 teams I could play on in my community alone."

Talk about obstacles, the looks that folks gave him because of his size -- he grew three inches in grade 10 alone -- plus the Texas background made some hockey coaches look askance at him. But not for long.

"I guess, because I was from Texas, they started me out skating in Division 7 -- thinking it would be too tough for me," he laughed, in retrospect. "But there I was still on the ice four or five hours later. Only this time, it was with the Division I players.

"It was a long day ... but it was one of the most rewarding days of my hockey-playing career."

Oh, yeah, there's one more twist to this story. He grew up a big fan and admirer of the play of Dallas Stars center Mike Modano and Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman. And that was different, of course, since this highly-rated defenseman played up front until his second year of bantam -- or about 14-years-old.

"It's funny, but when I turned from forward to defense, I started to appreciate more of the defensemen in the NHL," he admitted. "I've heard a lot of comparisons with Zdeno Chara and Chris Pronger, probably because of our height similarity. Honestly, I've always liked the way Nicklas Lidstrom plays. The way he plays at both ends of the ice, he's so poised, that it’s fun to watch.

"When you watch a guy like that, you realize just how far you have to go to make it in the NHL. I just focus on using my skating ability and using my stick and long reach as a big advantage."

Paul Myers played hockey up to the university level and was all for Tyler to take on work in athletics ... as long as his schoolwork didn't suffer. Spoken like a typical geologist, eh?

"What I'm most proud of Tyler for is that he's a pretty smart kid," the elder Myers told me. "He's a math student and he's very analytical in his way of thinking. He asks a lot of questions and really works hard at doing the things he likes.

"I knew he was going to be a good athlete when I saw him play soccer at a young age. And then the way he pushed himself to be a better athlete -- hockey player -- when he was about 14, when he switched from forward to defense. It was at that point when he really became competitive. It was like he didn't want to let anyone score on him."

Actually, I think it’s helped me, my starting out as a forward. I have a bit of a mind for what it's like on the other side and I'm able to use that. At the start, when I first switched, I was trying too much to jump into plays. I had to learn to play defense first and let the offense come. 
Analytically speaking, of course.

Myers has had a typical learning curve for a player of his physical stature, going through growing spurts. When he is on his game, he can be a dominant player, especially in the defensive zone. He credits a great improvement in his positioning on defense to former NHL defenseman Jeff Finley, who is currently an assistant coach at Kelowna.

"For a younger guy, especially a younger guy at a new position, he's got a lot of composure with the puck," Finley said. "I think that's one of the reasons a lot of NHL scouts are high on him."

"He really plays one-on-ones well," added Kelowna defenseman Luke Schenn, who said of his junior teammate Myers. "He's one of the toughest guys to beat in the league with that reach of his. He's a great skater and when he gets a chance to finish a hit or a chance to get a shot on goal, he's quick to react and makes opponents pay for coming into his area." 

When you see those long arms and legs bearing down on an opposing forward, you don't think about him being too thin. Not with that Texas-sized athletic ability.

Tall. Athletic. Smart. Analytical. Inquisitive. Confident and yes, hungry.

Tyler Myers is a big defenseman growing into the NHL game. Look how long it took Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara and Hal Gill to be sucessful NHL defensemen.

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