Saturday, March 31, 2012

Eriksson: Loui, Loui He's on a Roll

By Larry Wigge

Whether it's been Dave Tippett, Marc Crawford or Glen Gulutzan as coach of the Dallas Stars, each one of them came away with a quick reaction of sorts to leading scorer Loui Eriksson.

"He's sneaky," said Gulutzan in his first year of coaching in the NHL. "He's got that sneaky, smart way to fly under the radar because he is so cerebral ... and he does everything real well."

Loui Eriksson and his 26 goals and 44 assists, when he contributed two key assists in a 3-1 victory over the Edmonton Oilers March 28. The totals gave him 70 points, reached the 70-point mark for the third consecutive season -- following years of 73 points and 71.

Truth be told, the instincts the Stars' amateur scouts saw in Eriksson were just part of his natural maturation process. The Goteborg, Sweden, native, was chosen with Dallas' second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

The other day, Tippett, now the head man of the Phoenix Coyotes, remarked a conversation with American Hockey League coach Dave Allison, speaking of  prospects he should watch in the next training camp in 2006-07.

"I remember talking to Dave Allison early in the 2005-06 season and asking him which players caught his eyes," Tippett exclaimed. "He said, 'You're going to have to make room for Loui Eriksson pretty soon. With his skating and passing skills, he's like a big centerman.'

"I was caught offguard a little, because I thought Loui was pretty nondescript at the Stars training camp a few months earlier. But Dave insisted, 'He reminds me of Jere Lehtinen. I don't have a player any more consistent than Eriksson. You can put him on the No. 1 line or the checking line. He's very responsible defensively, but he makes an impact offensively -- finding ways to use his skating and shooting skills while going to the net.' "

Allison was right. Eriksson was a keeper.

"I remember telling him, 'Don't be satisfied with just being a solid player,' " Tippett recalled. "I told him, 'There are times in games where you can step up and be an extraordinary player. So, don't just hover around the perimeter. Go to the net, where you have to pay a price ... but you can elevate your game."

Message heard loud and clear. Suddenly, it was Loui Loui, he's on the go. Loui Loui, he's on a roll.

OK. So, I've taken liberties with the lyrics from the Kingsmen's 1955 hit song. But there's definitely a pretty good beat and harmony to the game Loui Eriksson these days. In fact, it's fair to say that he was the most unexpected 30-goal scorer in the NHL -- unless you talked to Allison.

Ditto for Crawford. As the warm Dallas sun beat down on the back of his neck before the Stars coach stepped into the team's practice facility for a little tour late this summer of 2009-10. But it wasn't the weather in Big D that first caught Crawford's attention.

"There were about a dozen or so players on the ice and one guy was about a mile and a half ahead of the rest," a wide-eyed Crawford said. "I looked at him a little closer and wasn't surprised that it was Loui Eriksson."

This season, Eriksson has made magic with center Mike Ribeiro and newcomer Michael Ryder, who was coming in from the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

"Loui's smart and he never panics on the ice," Ryder recalled. "He always makes the right decisions and is really good at anticipating what is going to happen. He's a very smart player."

Eriksson remembers how close things can get at this time of the year. All the Stars had to do was win their final game to get into the playoffs. They lost to the lowly Minnesota Wild 5-3 on the last day of the regular schedule.

The loss still lingers in Eriksson's mind.

"It's not because of being in Dallas because back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, when they were winning the Stanley Cup here, guys like Joe Nieuwendyk and Brett Hull and Mike Modano were pretty well known," says Eriksson. "That's the kind of success we'd like to have.

"I think we have the team that might make some noise in the playoffs. But first we've got to see if we make them."

Another newcomer, Sheldon Souray, a defenseman, has lived on the edge throughout 13-year NHL career. Big shot, lot's of attention.

Gushed Souray, "How sick is Loui? Seventy-point seasons three years in a row. I'm glad he's on our side." 

The 6-3, 193-pound right winger is one of the genuine strengths Dallas has. He recently signed a four-year contract for $17 million.

You've got to remember, this is Big D, where the legend of the Texas Rangers signing Alex Rodriguez or Brett Hull or Terrell Owens makes the story of the development of a shy and skinny Swedish kid only a work-in-progress article. But, I think you'll agree, there's always room from a feel-good story that has this good-guy-makes-good-in-a-big-way theme.

"My dad always told me you start with small goals and then listen to other people who know more about the game than you do, work as hard as you can at the things that will make you a complete player and then have confidence that your drive will take you to your dreams," the 26-year-old told me. "Yeah, I was real skinny, but I was confident I had the skills to someday play in the NHL."

For me, when I first talk to a young player on the rise, I always want to get inside of him and see what makes him tick. One of the prime questions is: What obstacle did you have to overcome to get to where you are today? For Eriksson, that was the skinny. But the impetus, the drive began when he was 15 and his dad, Bo, a pretty good handyman for years was stricken with a brain tumor. Following the surgery the left side of Bo's body was left limp following the removal of the tumor.

"When you're young, you think you're parents are so strong, that there's nothing they can't do," Loui said, eyes wide open and focused on telling me how much his father fought through this affliction to continue working for Qunnila, a computer company in Goteberg. "Whenever I'm feel a little bruised or achy, a picture of my dad pops into my brain. Nothing stops him. He doesn't complain about what happened to him. He gets up in the morning like always and goes into work and fixes those computers."

Now, you see where that work ethic and drive that Eriksson shows on the ice each game comes from.

Eriksson may not have the bulldozer skills of Peter Forsberg, his favorite player growing up, but the impact Loui provided the Stars last season and is doing it again this season -- he can make all the plays, whether it be make or take a long stretch pass in stride for a break or use his stickhandling skills and creativity to weave through the traffic in front of the net to give the Stars another scoring opportunity.

"Loui is a lot like Jere Lehtinen," said Morrow. "He does a good job of complementing everyone."

And it all goes back to hard work and that smart and intuitive advice Loui got from dear old dad a long time ago.

You bring up Loui Eriksson's name to new GM Joe Nieuwendyk and he gushes, just like the three former Stars coaches did.

"He's such a gifted skater and hard worker. What's most important is knows how good he can be and how good he wants to be," Nieuwendyk added. "You notice first how smart he is. But the most important part is the determination and drive -- the fearless approach he show you -- and how he's not afraid to get to the dirty areas in traffic."

Like Marc Crawford said, he's about a mile and half ahead of a lot of other players in that regard.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Elliott has Long Been Able to Beat the Odds

By Larry Wigge

Brian Elliott has been impregnable not only to opponents ... but even his teammates have been complaining for the last few months.

"He's been lights out in practice recently," said veteran St. Louis right winger Jamie Langenbrunner said following a 3-0 victory over Nashville March 27. "Some days he doesn't even give us a sniff."

"I've got quite a few pucks lodged in his glove hand ... when I was in college at Minnesota State and here," laughed Blues captain David Backes.

It was Elliott's third consecutive shutout --  his ninth this season, a Blues record. The shutout lowered his goals-against average to 1.48 and save percentage to .943. It sent his record was 23-9-3.

Funny thing goaltending. Some times your goalie can't stop a beach ball and other times ... 

The former Newmarket, Ontario, native, was supposed to battle for the backup goaltender's spot with Ben Bishop when he came to training camp -- earning a paltry $600,000. The lowdown on Elliott was that his record at Ottawa last season was 13-19-8 with a 3.19 goals-against average and at Colorado 2-8-1 record with a 3.83 GAG.

Elliott went back of Madison, Wis., where he and his wife Amanda reside. Hockey never really ended for Brian. He wanted to find some answers. He felt like a golfer who couldn't get rid of the shanks. He needed a swing doctor.

At Wisconsin, there are some very spirited hockey games during the summer with the Badgers and former Badgers.

"I had to get back at it ... had to," Elliott said. "I had to find the answers to my problems."

Luckily for Elliott there was Shane Connelly. He was Brian's backup goalie with the Badgers -- and has now gone on the become the goaltending coach at Bowling Green State University.

"Shayne worked with me hard," Elliott said. "He knew everything I did when I was on my game."

With the rest of the alums joining the Badgers summer practices in July or shortly thereafter, it was important to Elliott not to give in to his friends.

Friends like San Jose's Joe Pavelski, Dallas' Adam Burish and Jake Dowell and Nashville's Craig Smith.

"I didn't want them scoring against me," Elliott said, emphatically. "There is a certain level of pride you have to get to the NHL. You don't want to end on that note. It's hard to make it to the NHL and even harder to stay

"I just had to get back to the basics. Not get too down on myself. I knew I was off. But it's a game of inches. It's a matter of following the puck." 

Elliott's career has had its ups and downs. He was the 291st selection by Ottawa in the ninth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft -- that was next to last player picked. 

"But when somebody sees something in you, you want to prove them right," Elliott said. "Being drafted in the ninth round, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. If I didn't get drafted that year, I wouldn't have gone to Wisconsin. That connection wouldn't have been made."

To the positives, Brian won the NCAA hockey championship in 2006 as a junior with the Badgers. 

Elliott is a save maker as a goalie, not just a shot blocker. That's what his buddy Shane Connelly tried to show him.

"He is a very competitive guy," said Connelly. "He's not rah-rah. He's really calm, but he hates giving up goals. You could just see how much it burned him.

"But he really had to fight for this. And if you put Brian Elliott in a battle, he's going to come out a winner."

It takes a lot -- to accept a demotion -- in order to succeed in the end. That's why he chose the Blues. 

"It's a tough pill to swallow on that day," he said. "But I've had to work for everything I've had, so I just figured that it was another time to work. I was pretty confident that I could do it again."

Elliott's father, Bill, is a television director, who has worked on numerous Canadian television programs -- including The Red Green Show. Brian takes a rather hard look at things. Just like his father.

Reality is something St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock added.

"I don't think what we're seeing is an accident or a fluke or just the puck hitting him," said Hitchcock. "He's a perfect example for perseverance. One of the things that you learn about 'Ells' is he's a really good listener. He's resurrected a career based on being able to look in the mirror and make adjustments."

Elliott understands. The success of goaltending is not just about technique, but also the psychology of the position. He watched Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph and growing up, two supremely active goalies.

"The mental part is huge," he said. "You have to stay loose. If you lose a game you can't get too down on yourself. There is always a next opportunity to get back in there to prove what you can do.

"As a goaltender you sometimes put all the blame on yourself. The media and the fans can also blame you. But as a goaltender you have to realize it's a team game. If your team is playing well in front of you and you're playing well than there is a good chance you're going to win."

Like other goalies, prior to a match he will skip rope, play some hallway soccer with teammates and juggle tennis balls.

"The juggling," he says of his fun time away from the pressure of stopping pucks coming at him at 100 mph, "doesn't give me the chance to think too much about anything other than the tennis balls."

There is everything about Brian Elliott to like. His work ethic. His keen perspective of the goaltender position. And the juggling.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

After Four-Year Absence, Radulov's Back ... For How Long

By Larry Wigge

Every time Nashville Predators GM David Poile heard the phone ring since the 2008 season ... he wondered about Alexander Radulov.

Well that may be a bit of exaggeration, but ...

"Alexander Radulov's name never has left my mind," Poile explained. "The timing is a bit different because his team in the KHL has been eliminated. I've always felt he was going to come back. The hurdles are cleared. He can burn off the year, get himself to free agency.

"From the day he left, I always thought he would come back to the best league in the world."

Radulov, the 25-year-old Russian left winger, left the Predators in the lurch some four years ago. Whether the Nizhny Tagil, native, is here for life or for a year or maybe just a few months is a moot point.

The fact is he's back ... 

Radulov scored 91 goals and 163 assists in 210 games in Salavat Yulaev Ufa, after leaving the Predators for the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008.

"In the KHL, he was twice the MVP of the league," Poile said. "He won the championship and played for Russia in the World Championship, winning the gold medal. He played for Russia in the 2010 Olympics.

"Every time there's been a big time, a big stage, Alex has always come through at a high level."

After losing in St. Louis, 3-0, in Game 4, Radulov -- he had one goal and two assists -- said he is having trouble adjusting to the new NHL.

"I need to be at the top of my game. It's not there yet," Radulov exclaimed. "It's different game. It's not harder, it's different."

More than just the bigger ice surface. It's a speed game. Transition. And those are changes Radulov has to face.

"I have to make adjustments after four ... five games ... six games," Radulov continued. "Different game between Russian game and here. I just need to work harder." 

"Nine games is enough -- hopefully," Predators coach Barry Trotz said of the time remaining in the regular season before the playoffs begin.

Four years is a lot of time to make up for. Before the playoffs, he will have to get used to the smaller ice surface in the North America. And the chemistry with his Nashville teammates will be essential -- Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Martin Erat, David Legwand, Jordin Tootoo and Pekka Rinne (played in one game in 2007-08 season).

Weber had placed several phone to Radulov. So he had not touch with the former 15th overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. He wondered aloud about Alexander's English was going to be. At 21, Radulov scored 26 goals for the Predators in only his second season in the NHL. 

"He has gotten a little bit better at everything," Weber said. "He is bigger and stronger. He's getting to the net -- and he likes to go to the hard areas to scorer goals. He's a special player ... 

"One of the last things I remember his saying when all the negotiations were going on," Weber contined. "He said, 'We're going to win the Stanley Cup.' "

Trotz remembers the 21-year-old kid.

"He's a more polished player," Trotz said. "On and off the ice, he has gone from a young boy to man. And what he has done in the last week has been remarkable considering what he has been able to go through.

"You can see the poise and the patience are at the next level."

The Predators are counting on Radulov to want to be in Nashville. But ...

"I just left and like I said, I got the opportunity to move from Russia this summer, so that's about it and I'll decide then . . . " Radulov said. "I didn't say anything, I didn't promise anything to anybody."

No guarantees.

"I never put a cross on it," Radulov said of returning to Nashville. But ... 

"I have a contract in Russia," Radolov continued. "It's not over yet ... I've got options."

Are those options enough to believe the Predators can make enough room under the cap and in the budget to bring back Suter, Weber and Radulov?

"It's hard to answer a hypothetical question like that now," Poile said. "My wish is to sign everybody on our team. We're in a good position by and large. We're one of the youngest teams in the league. I think all the most important players on our team aren't even in their prime.

"He doesn't have a promise to go back and play there. This is an open-ended situation and I try to anticipate that. It's our goal to have him stay here longer. No pressure right now -- let's just play and we'll talk and we'll see what makes sense going forward for both of us."

The conversation was getting a little playful after about 15 minutes. Radulov wasn't caught in the midst of a something-is-lost-in-the-translation scenario that might have been the case when he arrived in North America to play for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and for at least a couple of months he had trouble understanding conversations his teammates were having, had difficulty ordering food and didn't have a clue about the inside jokes at parties. 

Radulov got his endoctorization to the NHL while he was living in with Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy and his family while playing for Roy's Quebec team. Alexander had a great relationship with Patrick's sons, Jonathan and Fredrick. However, sometimes the competitive nature of their games went over the edge.

"Jonathan was a goalie and we had a good friendship, but Frederick was a forward like me and he thought he was better in a lot of things we did together," Radulov laughed. "Especially when we played PlayStation hockey. I would always win and he'd get really rattled, because I was the Predators or the Soviet national team and it didn't matter which team he chose to be."

We watch and marvel at the skills of Russian stars like Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeny Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk show us every night. You can add Alexander Radulov to that list -- he was, after all, the best player in the NHL over there.

"He's got that passion Ovechkin has," Poile explained. "You see that as soon as he's on the ice, whether it's in warmup or in practice. He wants the puck ... there's guys who play shifts where the puck is never around them, but not Radulov. He's always around it and he loves to score." 

Playful. Passionate. Productive. Yet there have been hard lessons this season for the ultra-positive 6-1, 185-pound forward who sometimes dazzles you with his speed and skills and other times with his power forward mentality. 

"That's how my parents taught me. I'm just excited," Radulov said. "Life is all about being happy and enjoying the time you live. You play hockey. I don't understand when you can be mad or not excited to come to the rink all the time.

"I'm excited about everything with hockey. I've always been like this, since I was a little kid." 

Oh, yes, there was a little learning curve for Alexander Radulov in the getting-himself-in-better-shape department coming to training camp as well. Again. 

"A lot has changed since I came to North America. Some was clear. Some was not," Radulov admitted. "Hockey is pretty much the same, except for the smaller ice surface. I liked that. Smaller was good for me. But you can't feel as comfortable on the ice as you'd like if you are confused, trying to figure out what people are saying to you or about you. It can be hard. 

"The first year I had one Russian on the team in Quebec City and he translated for me. Then he left. I was standing in the corner, staring at the walls, thinking 'Now what?' I went to school for two months. Funny, but I figured out chien chaud or hot dog wasn’t the only solid food I could order at a restaurant or fast food joint." 

Two months of schooling, learning a little English and a little French and that competition Roy's boys made things a lot more comfortable. 

Alexander Radulov was schooled in hockey the right way, playing for his dad, Valery, and against his brother, Igor, back home.

"My dad taught me you can never rest, never stop working," Radulov said.

He said he watched an admired the way Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny played and followed their progress closely after they left Russia for the NHL. 

Alexander Radulov made a presence in his first two year in the NHL. Now, can he regenerate that same super stardom he was beginning to show in nine games ... before the playoff begin. 

Or is there more of this Russian gem to feast on.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Vanek: A 28-year-old Austrian is Still Climbing the Mountains

By Larry Wigge

Once a goal-scorer, always a goal-scorer.

Now there a philosophy work pursuing. Some goal-scorers dip and slump and then fall off the face of the earth. Not Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres.

When he scored his 19th goal of the season back on January 6 against Carolina, there he was on pace for his another 30-goal campaign -- which would have been his fifth in the last six seasons.

Consistency. Poise. He's got the quickest hands I've seen on a kid that age in a long time.

So where has he been in the last two months. What has happened to the flying Austrian?

A shoulder injury ... a neck injury ... who knows else has been bothering Vanek, who makes a living on the edge of the goal crease -- where the goal-scorers hang out.

With just over two weeks left in the regular season, the Sabres were looking for goals ... anywhere, from anyone.

The 6-2, 205-pound former fifth overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft finally found the mark again to raise his stats to 24 goals and 31 assists in Buffalo's 3-1 victory the Minnesota Wild. See there, a 28-year-old vet does still have it.

"I'm happy for him because it's a grind out there and teams focus on him. They try to rough him up," said goaltender Ryan Miller. "He's got many things going on right now that you just have to grit it out and play through it. They're not quite bad enough to keep you out of the lineup but they're not fun to have.

"I think Thomas always does a great job of playing with a lot of discomfort ... going to the net."

"You always watch players around the league and you know he's one of the best players in the world," newcomer Cody Hodgson said. "Everyone knows he can score goals ... but he's also a really good person off the ice, just a great guy to be a teammate of."

Barring a huge finish, this will be the first time since his 2005-06 rookie season that Vanek won't lead the Sabres in goals. But he'll keep answering the call every night.

"He's battling," coach Lindy Ruff said, but ...

Spending a few moments with Thomas Vanek, you become convinced there's no way you can come up with a doubting Thomas story.

You remember the story of 2007, the summer in which Vanek signed a seven-year, $50 million free-agent offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers that was matched by his Buffalo Sabres. The Graz, Austria, native, insisted he has never felt like he had 50 million reasons as a burden of expectations hanging over his head.

"It's never been about the money, from the time I left Austria when I was 14 to come to North America to see if I could make a career for myself in hockey -- leaving family and friends thousands of miles away to my days at the University of Minnesota and winning the NCAA championship as a freshman to being picked fifth overall in the 2002 draft by the Sabres to scoring 25 goals in my first year and then getting 43 the next, which led to the offer sheet," he told me in after his third season. "I can honestly look you straight in the eyes and say that I'm the same player ... whether I'm making $600,000 or $10 million."

Now that's a lot to digest, isn't it?

While Vanek slumped to 36 goals last season, he started this season with six goals in his first four games, including two while the Sabres were shorthanded to show that he ready to once again challenge the 50-goal plateau and, minus Sabres veteran standouts like Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Brian Campbell in the last two years, and be a young leader in the Buffalo lineup this season.

"Pressure?" he explained, "isn't a burden unless you let it be one. I look at pressure like adrenaline as being a heartbeat that pushes you to play better."

If you get the feeling that this kid is too good to be true after hearing a couple of comments from him, well, I think he is. And so must the Oilers, who submitted the big-time offer sheet for a restricted free agent who had yet to put together a series of unforgettable seasons, plus the Sabres, who matched that offer in a heartbeat in spite of losing the likes of Drury and Briere to free agency and being only a couple of years out of bankruptcy court.

"He's a goal-scorer. More than that, he scores big goals," Sabres G.M. Darcy Regier told me. "So many of his goals have come in crucial situations -- and that's something every team needs."

Vanek is not only a goal scorer with 43 snipes as his contract that paid him $962,000 ran out after the 2006-07 season. He had 84 points in that season, the second year of his entry level contract in his second season in the league. The goals enabled him to finish tied for fifth in the NHL -- and it was the most by a Sabres player since Alexander Mogilny scored 76 and Pat LaFontaine 53 in 1992-93.

Hearing good things from another team is clearly the sincerest form of flattery -- and that's precisely the case with Kevin Lowe, who was the Oilers GM at the time of the contract and has since been before he was elevated in Edmonton's hierarchy this year. Lowe wouldn't say it, but he obviously believed a cash-strapped organization which couldn't keep Briere and Drury might not be willing to put up that kind of money to keep a 23-year-old.

"With a player like that you can win a championship. You can get very excited," Lowe recalled. "This wasn't a publicity stunt by any stretch. It was a strong, good shot to get a player. We thought it might work based on the size of the offer."

Vanek has been a growing star almost since his plane from Graz hit the ground first in the farmland of Alberta in Calgary and Red Deer in the summer of 1999 not being able to speak a word of English. He went on to play three seasons at Sioux Falls, Iowa, of the United States Hockey League, where he had 15, 19 and 46 goals, which led him to the campus of the University of Minnesota, where he had 31 goals and 31 assists in 45 games as a freshman in 2002-03 and 26 goals and 25 assists in 38 games the following season. In April 2003, during the Frozen Four at Buffalo's HSBC Arena, Vanek led the University of Minnesota to the NCAA title as a freshman, scoring the game-winning goals in both the semifinal and championship games. He was named the NCAA tournament MVP. In the process, he became the first freshman to lead the Gophers in scoring since 1970 and was named the WCHA Rookie of the Year.

Vanek is obviously a grounded individual who thrives on pressure. On the ice, Thomas shows you bursts of speed, but mostly plays under control almost like he disappears for a moment and then -- boom -- there he is in the right place at the right time for a great goal-scoring opportunity.

"He's got the quickest hands I've seen on a kid that age in a long time," defenseman Jay McKee told me a few years later. "He's electric when he gets the puck in a scoring position."

All you get is a shrug when you tell Vanek what someone else thinks about him.

"You want surprise," he laughed. "How about traveling from Graz to Calgary and then on to Red Deer, Alberta, thousands of miles away from family and friends not being able to speak a word of English. That's surprise."

I always like to ask players what obstacle they might have had to overcome to achieve the success they have in the world of sports. For Thomas, it was not being doubted because he was too small, too slow, too this or too that.

"All I remember is here I was in a foreign place to me. I was homesick. I had second thoughts about my move. I remember thinking, 'Boy do I wish I could go home and talk to my buddies.' But I had the hopes of everyone in Austria on me," he observed. "I might not have been able to communicate too well off the ice, but I knew the right words and moves to compete on the ice.

"I have always put high expectations on myself, no matter how many dollars I was getting to produce."

No, Thomas Vanek wasn't too small or too slow. Some may have criticized him as being lazy because of the way he plays under control ... until there's a scoring opportunity. But ...

"My dad (Zdenek) is a hockey coach back home, so he had me on skates and with a stick in my hands when I was about this high," he said, pointing downward about three feet off the ground in the Sabres locker room. "He taught me everything I know. He gave me the genes to be an athlete. My mom (Jarmila) is a hotel manager. I saw how hard she worked, too. That makes an impression on you, if you know what I mean? It makes you want to fulfill your life's dream."

His dad's advice comes back every time he hits the skids.

Ruff paused for a second, smiled and then continued his thought, saying, "I guess what I'm saying is that I need Thomas to play like he’s a $900,000 player, because it seemed to be pretty good a couple of years ago."

Thomas Vanek chuckles to himself ...

"That's funny ... because it's almost the same as my dad told me ..."

No doubting Thomas Vanek, is there? He is indeed once a goal-scorer, always a goal-scorer.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Little Big Guy, Hudler Continues to Make Big Plays

By Larry Wigge

The grass isn't always greener on the other side of the fence.

In a truer than life example, Jiri Hudler won a Stanley Cup championship with the Detroit Red Wings in 2008 ... then a year later he opted Dymamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia for lots of rubles. 

One year later, when financial troubles hit his team in the KHL he was on the phone with Red Wings GM Ken Holland. His return didn't follow the greener pastures on the other side of the fence ... or the other side of the ocean.

After leaving the Wings as an annual 20-goal scorer, he returned with 10 goals.

Last season's start crushed Hudler confidence. This season he brought a renewed attitude and ...

"I got into real good shape," the 28-year-old winger from Olomouc, Czech Republic, explained. "I was disappointed with my play last year. I had to be ready to earn my living.

"It's easier to play when you have more energy and you're strong on the puck ... "

"When you can play with guys who can create space like they do," Hudler continued, "it makes it a lot easier."

Hudler has gone to great lengths to show the season in Russia didn't have any negative effect on him. But ...

Said teammate Tomas Holmstrom, "It's really good he got scoring early because that builds confidence. You have to have confidence in everything you do and with confidence you are a better player."

It worked to the tune of 21 goals and 22 assists in 73 games.

Holland didn't want to lose the diminutive ball-of-dynamite.

"He's a very gifted player," Holland said. "We're happy to have him back. We're in a real competitive business. You want to find every opportunity you can to make your team better.

"The exciting part for me is we know what we're getting. He's really coming into the prime of his career. I think we're getting a very motivated player. He's a popular guy in the locker room."

"He's a game-breaker for sure," forward Johan Franzen said. "He's got really good hands and good hockey sense. He showed in the playoffs he can come up with really huge plays when we need it."

Explosive. Quick off his mark. Talented in the open. Gutsy ... with a get-even attitude. That's Hudler, who is often at his best in the playoffs. Like the five goals in the Cup win in 2008.

It's clear that the 5-9, 178 pounder is a difference maker, even if teams kept passing on him until the Wings picked him in the second round, 58th overall, in the 2002 Entry Draft.

"Huds never shies away from getting in the heavy traffic ... and he's got great hand-eye coordination," captain Nick Lidstrom explained.

"He's a little guy, but he's competitive. He's strong. He holds onto pucks. He's as good as anybody on our team in finding the space to make a dynamic play," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock gushed about Hudler. "What I like about Huds most is that he had continued to challenge himself to get better. That's why he's playing the important minutes he's getting now compared to last year."

Fearlessness. On-ice vision. Deceptive quickness. An instinct that allows him to worm his way to the right place at the right time. A hockey sense behind his age. All Jiri really needed was a chance. And the more playing time he gets, the more impressive he's becoming.

"Hockey is not about size," Hudler said. "If you play smart, if you play with good players, you can play in any league."

Hudler had career-highs with 23 goals and 34 assists in the 2008-09 season ... not bad for a guy who usually plays on Detroit's third line.

He wasn't always looked upon as a difference maker, even in Detroit, where he had just 48 goals in his first 92 games with the Red Wings. That coming after he had 36 goals and 61 assists for an eye-popping 97 points in 76 games for Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League in 2005-06 -- long before Jiri had more than brief trial in the NHL.

Too small, too this, too that. We’ve heard it before, yes, even when scouts were talking about Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. I think it's safe to say that if Hudler was two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier, he would have been in the Top 10 of the 2002 draft, instead of slipping to 58.

Hudler was born in the industrial city in east central Czech Republic, an ancient town that was once the leading city of Moravia and today is known for its candy, chocolate and many fountains. He moved to Vsetin when he was 12-years-old, living with his father, also named Jiri, after his parents divorced. A defenseman in his playing days, Hudler's father coached his son before the boy graduated to the Czech Elite League at 16.

"I always played with older players, sometimes three years older, even when I was really small," Hudler said. "So I knew I could compete against better players. I just had to prove it ... to a lot of people.

"Now, I get pumped knowing I"m going to play. It feels great. I feel more confident right now. It's the real season now. I love the atmosphere, the competition."

Remember Luc Robitaille and Igor Larionov in 2002? They were big-time fourth-line contributors for the Red Wings in the team's Stanley Cup win. Hudler won't complain about the slow nurturing process, knowing full well that every kid from Saskatoon to Olomouc wants to play a lot ... and play right now.

"Playing in the NHL is a dream of every hockey player," Hudler observed. "I was lucky I got an opportunity to see the speed and skill of the NHL in one of my first years in North America. I was lucky it was Detroit that drafted me and not someone else. I got to learn on the job, learn the right way to do things.

"I just had to have patience. At first, I admit, you look around and see all the talent and wonder if you're good enough to get a shot at the big leagues. But the Red Wings put young guys in a position to gain confidence. And, when you're ready, you're going to play."

And Jiri Hudler continues to produce big plays for the Red Wings.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dupuis is Definitely not a Throw-In at Pittsburgh

By Larry Wigge

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a star-studded case. You have Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby and you have James Neal and Kris Letang and you have Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis. Which one does not belong?

If you are playing this game on paper Dupuis, the 32-year-old (his birthday is April 7) forward from Laval, Quebec, would be the odd man out. But the game the Pittsburgh Penguins play is not on paper, it's got real live parts. Passion. Character. All the intangibles involved.

That's why the undrafted, unheralded Dupuis belongs. The practical joker. The conscience. The glue of the 2010 Stanley Cup championship team certain fits in.

"Whomever they want me to play with in the lineup, I think I can adjust. It"s a matter of believing in the guy next to you, in the system and in your teammates. And this, for me, is a perfect fit," Dupuis explained. "My family fits as well. Why wouldn't I want to be here."

Dupuis has thrived in Pittsburgh since his arrival at the end of February in a trade with Marian Hossa four years ago. Hossa was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle for the Penguins when they traded Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

But Dupuis is the part the fit.

Pascal would have to take a number and sit in a long line before he's ever play on the power play in Pittsburgh. Still, he's got 22 goals -- a career high. That includes seven goals in eight games and a career-high eight-game point streak. Think about it, the Pens are 19-1-1 in games in which Dupuis scores a goal and 33-4-1 in games that he scores a point. He ranks tops among Pittsburgh's forwards in block shots with 42.

In the end, who else would fit better than Pascal Dupuis? You wouldn't want to say he was the ultimate throw-in in the trade for Hossa.

All the trades he's gone from Minnesota, to the New York Rangers to Atlanta and now with Pittsburgh since late in the 2006-07 season, even make Dupuis shake his head for a minute and then says sarcastically, "All the trades ... you're making me feel like a suitcase."

"At first I joked with reporters that I was coming along to carry Hoss' bags," said Pascal. "But I got the dream-of-a-lifetime job of playing on a line with Sid and Hoss."

Dupuis still gets his ice time as a checker on a ling with Crosby, Malkin or Staal. But he's there for consistency ... he does everything well.

GM Ray Shero wasn't about to make a trade without getting someone else in return -- that someone was Dupuis.

"Internally, we had mentioned Pascal a week before the deal was done," Shero told me. "Going into the deadline, our goal was to add character, speed and some help in penalty-killing -- and he met all three of those needs.

"When I was in Nashville (as assistant G.M.), we played Minnesota a lot and we always talked about the speed and discipline all of the role players under (Coach) Jacques Lemaire brought to the mix. In this case, we knew all about Dupuis' speed. But you never really know about how his character fits into the mix in the locker room. The answer is that character-wise he fits in perfectly."

And no one would ever question Dupuis work ethic. At the time of the trade from Atlanta Pascal's wife was pregnant.

"That's always the tough part about trades," Dupuis said. "I'm happy to be going to a team like the Penguins. I'm thrilled to be in Pittsburgh, but Carole-Lyne, my wife, is stuck in Atlanta with the kids (Maeva and Kody) and she's eight-months pregnant.

"Then, one night I get this call from her at 2 a.m. She's got her mom with here in Atlanta to help, but I don't want to miss this occasion. The Penguins were first class about letting me miss two games. They let me go immediately. I arrived at the hospital at 10:15 a.m. just after they had given her the epidural and Zoe came along at 11."

The story of this in-the-instant role-playing winger takes on many more layers, when you dig into it.

Pascal Dupuis was born into a hockey family. Dad, Claude, was a left winger for the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association. Mom, Lyse, was in sales. Pascal gladly put on his skates and went through the drill, mom driving him to the rink and dad catching a few games and providing some good advice.

"I'll never forget, he'd watch me play and always say, 'Remember, kid, it's all about the effort.' "

This quick-skating, quick-on-his-feet winger went into his draft year highly regarded while playing for Rouyn-Noranda of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. But it ended in a disaster for the kid when he broke his leg around Christmas after just 44 games.

That, according to Dupuis, was the obstacle that he had to overcome if he wanted to pursue hockey as a career.

It turns out, Calgary Flames scout Tom Thompson admired Dupuis' competitiveness and hockey sense and got him an invitation to the Flames 1997 training camp. But ...

"I was out of shape after the injury and I was not close to being strong enough to making it to the NHL at that time," he said. "But after seeing what I was facing in terms of talent in that camp, I said to myself, 'You can do this Pascal.' I proved to myself I could do it if I was healthy."

When Thompson joined the Minnesota Wild a couple of years later, he offered Dupuis a tryout with the Wild. This time, Pascal was coming off a 50-goal, 55-assist effort in 61 games for Shawinigan and he earned himself a contract. But there was one more problem.

While spending most of the 2000-01 season with Cleveland in the American Hockey League, the biggest obstacle was that this French-Canadien knew little English.

"It was tough. But I got a lot of help from Todd McLellan (who just happens to be the head coach of the San Jose Sharks now). He was really good to me," Dupuis said. Then he added with a laugh, "The rest of the time it was 'yes,' 'no' and 'same thing.' "

Same thing?

"Yeah, you know we'd go out to eat and because I didn't know how to read the menu or say what I wanted to eat, I'd point to what someone else was having and say, 'Same thing.' " Dupuis deadpanned. "Well, one day we went out and the guys. I pointed and said, 'Same thing.' It turns out, the guys got together all they all ordered sushi. I ate one spoonful and that was it. All the guys just sat there laughing at what they'd done to me." 

Now, it's Pascal Dupuis who keeps the room alive.

Team guy? You bet. Character player? None better. Throw-in. Not on your life.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Nabokov Finds Life with the Isles Worth Another Try

By Larry Wigge

When good goaltending has been a concern to your franchise for a long, long time and a solid netminder becomes available you pounce on him.

Such has been the case with the New York Islanders. The Rich DiPietro experiment has been a disaster. You would have to go back as far as the Stanley Cup years when Billy Smith and Chico Resch were around to find a No. 1 and No. 2 combination of note.

Oh, sure they had Kelly Hrudey, Rollie Melanson and a young Roberto Luongo (who would look good there now), but ...

On January 20, the Detroit Red Wings signed Evgeni Nabokov -- who had to clear waivers as a part of return from St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League. Two days later, GM Garth Snow claimed Nabokov, after his 22-game excursion in the KHL.

Snow, a former goalie as was Detroit GM Ken Holland, was trying to fill a longstanding need -- and doing it under the rules. He was hoping for some of the Nabokov magic immediately. Some of the same thing he saw in the veteran during his 10-year reign with the San Jose Sharks.

At first, Nabby saw the claim as his chance to play with the contending Red Wings. But he wasn't going to circumvent the waiver wire procedures, so he was suspended by the Islanders.

"I understand the rules," said Nabokov, who signed a one-year, $570,000 deal with the Wings. "We're not stupid, we knew what was going on before we made the decision. But I made this decision because the goal was to play with Detroit."

Nabokov changed his mind. It was his choice, if he wanted to play in the NHL. He learned to live with the Isles -- and succeeded. 

"We had a great meeting in the spring," said Snow, "ironed out all the differences."

A year later, the 36-year-old netminder from Ust-Kamenogorsk, Russia, had a 2.56 goals-against average in 40 games for a .912 save percentage.

And Nabokov signed a new contract with the Islanders for $2.75 million for 2012-13 season.

"Nabby's been terrific. He's taken the ball and run with it," Snow explained. "He's back to his old form. He can still play at an elite level in the NHL. He been one of the plusses on our team, a veteran working with our young players."

"I'm thrilled to commit to this team for next season," Nabokov said. "We have a great group in the locker room of young, talented players and we're heading in the right direction."

Nabokov saw his situation as tolerable. In turn, it turned out better -- for himself and the Islanders.

There's no masking the obvious. You could say this quiet, proud goaltender had seen his life turned upside down, in fact.

After seeing Nabokov record 46, 41 and 44 victories for San Jose, you could sense some slight by the Sharks from dropping him in favor of Antti Niemi, who had won the Stanley Cup for the Chicago Blackhawks. Evgeni had not had the same success in the playoffs.

Make not mistake about it, Nabokov was exceptional in the 2007-08 season, when he played in 77 games and had a 46-21-8 record, with six shutouts and 2.14 goals-against average.

I asked star center Joe Thornton what's been the difference with Nabokov. His response: "I don't ask why. All I know is that Nabby is giving us a chance to win every night."

No one will doubt that goaltending, more precisely goaltenders, are the mysteries of the universe. The tendency is to immediately dismiss the difficulty of the job and say that goaltenders in hockey are different, weird, crazy, because they live in a bigger fishbowl than most athletes. They live in a giant-sized shooting gallery – often facing shots in excess of 100 mph, or wrestling with and fighting off 200-pound power forwards who insist on screening and deflecting shots at the net to make life even more miserable for the men behind the mask.

Make not mistake about it, Nabokov was (and is) crazy ... crazy good.

If you spend 10 minutes or so with him, you learn that he's a quiet, yet funny, family man. He loves Russian hip-hop music, likes the modern classic movies like The Godfather, Wedding Crashers and Analyze This. But there's nothing more important to him than spending time with his wife, Tabitha, and kids, Emily and Andrei.

"I always have time for my family," he said. "I learned that from my parents. My dad (Viktor) was a pretty good goaltender and my mom (Tatyana) worked as an engineer at a factory. But they always had time for me."

Nabby learned his trade at a very early age from his dad, Viktor.

"He played for 18 seasons in Russia and Kazakhstan," Nabokov said. "We all watched and idolized Vladislav Tretiak, but I admired my dad for what he taught me about life. There was little TV in Russia back then, but I'll never forget seeing my dad play in his final game, a win, back in 1987. He had to retire early because of so many knee injuries, but I remember seeing him play in that game with so much pride and passion.

"I was lucky to have two goalie coaches in my lifetime -- first my dad and then Warren Strelow. They taught me a lot ... about everything."

Strelow died at 73 in April of 2007.

"Most of the job is mental," Nabokov explained. "It's staying sharp and alert and having the mindset that the most important save is always the next one ... and then being prepared be ready to make that next stop, whether it's a rebound or the next shift."

Those crazy goalies. Nabokov says he still hears Strelow ...

"He's still in my head," Nabokov said, with a whimsical look on his face. "I still hear him and replay visions of things we talked about and did together in the past. I'll make a save or miss one and something that Warren once told me kinds of rewinds in my head.

"It's funny, but when I started to work with him I only spoke Russian and he only spoke English. But he was able to communicate what he wanted me to do with no trouble."

Nabokov still has Strelow's three-step plan taped to his locker back home on Long Island. It reads: 1. Stay Focused. 2. Remember Your Fundamentals. 3. Have Fun.

But there's one more ... 

"He achieved a lot of success in his life, but the one goal he had that he never won was a Stanley Cup," Nabokov said. "I'd like nothing better than to win one for Warren."

Crazy? Not Evgeni Nabokov. Even if he is now playing for the New York Islanders.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Waiting for Turris to Show he's a Top Dog

By Larry Wigge

We have begun to take a pretty good snapshot of the 2007 draft -- and it was very, very good.

Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk, Karl Alzner, Sam Gagner, Jakub Vorachek, Logan Couture, Brandon Sutter, Ryan McDonough, Lars Eller, Kevin Shattenkirk, Max Pacioretty and David Perron from the first round into starting roles in the NHL.

But one might wonder is Kyle Turris.

This story goes from a great feel-good draft story on Kyle Turris in Phoenix to a not-so-nice-and-fuzzy result as it hit a snag. Turris, the third pick overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, was all set to go to the University of Wisconsin. After one there, the New Westminster, B.C., native, was told he was not ready. 

And it didn't look any better this season, under coach Dave Tippett -- who give youngsters very few chances to play.

So Kyle Turris and his agent made a trade demand.

To make it right, this top young prospect was traded December 17 by the Coyotes to the Ottawa Senators for defenseman David Rundblad and a second-round pick in the the 2013 draft.

"To get a top-six forward, you definitely have to pay for it, there's no doubt about that," said Senators GM Bryan Murray. "I don't think it's a gamble at all. I think he's an NHL player. I think he's a good NHL player. His ability with the puck, his shot, he'll come in here and I don't think there's any question he'll be good player on this hockey team."

In 46 games this season, Turris has totaled eight goals and 12 assists. But he has given Ottawa that No. 2 center they didn't have. More importantly, the Senators took off -- posting an 11-2-2 with Turris in the lineup.

That's the here and now for Turris. But what about this 22-year-old kid ...

The feel-good story came on Draft Day. It was the story of man's best friend and the best friend and winger a shy, young center could ever dream of having. 

The friend's name was Brandy and this golden retriever was teammate, linemate and defender all rolled into one for Kyle.  

This was one of those too-good-to-be-true stories when Turris was between 5-8 and when he looked nothing like an athlete who would have NHL scouts drooling over him.

"It was amazing how I learned to pass in lacrosse first and then in hockey with the help of that beautiful dog," Turris admitted. "I'd lift the ball or puck ahead and Brandy was always there to make me look good. She even made me a better stickhandler and handler of the puck. 

"It was something how I would go left and she'd be right there to cause me to stop -- and if I mishandled the ball or puck just a little, she'd take it away from me." 

Vikky Turris, Kyle's mom, recalls Brandy well. 

"I firmly believe Kyle learned how to pass playing with that dog," she said. "Those hours of playing with Brandy made him a natural centerman."  

That plus those athletic genes that Vikky, who was a high school sprinter, and Bruce, Kyle's father, who is a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, passed on down to their son. 

"Lacrosse helped the hand-eye co-ordination, his foot speed and ability to roll off hits and keep his upper-body balance," said Bruce. "And there's the whole ability to see the play unfold, which happens as much in lacrosse as it does in hockey." 

Bruce's profession is that of an economist. Vikky was working two jobs, one at the SuperValu, the other at CIBC. She quit both jobs to be front and center for the hockey promise her son showed these proud parents at an early age. 

Turris' pro career was not without a 2009-10 season at San Antonio (American Hockey League) where he totaled 24 goals and 39 assists in 76 games.

But it wasn't the NHL.

Darren Pang, a TV analyst for the St. Louis Blues and then for the Coyotes, is aware what makes Turris tick. He billeted with the Pangs for four months. He believes the Senators have got themselves a player who badly wants to succeed and emerge as a top center.

"If people look at this kid and assume something, they're wrong," said Pang. "He's a terrific person and all he's ever wanted to be is a top NHL player."

Turris was prematurely taken out of Wisconsin and that hurt his development, said Pang.

"It was fine when Wayne Gretzky was the coach because he put aside wins and losses for the development of his young players," Pang continued. "He's a dynamic forward that sees the ice really well.

"The big thing for him is that he can really shoot the puck. That's important for a center. For a guy you don't think is that big or strong, he snaps the puck very hard."

Turris has speed, skill and a heavy shot.

Early on, no one could deny Kyle's talent on the ice, but at 14, he was a short boy playing in a sport where height rules. Then, suddenly, the proverbial 5-9 weakling shoot up to the 6-1 player he is today.  

"Comments that I heard from parents of my friends and coaches as well that I was too small and would never amount to anything stuck with me," Turris said with confidence. "You remember that." 

In his final junior season, Turris scored 66 goals and 121 points in 53 games for the Burnaby Express in the Tier 2 British Columbia Hockey League. 

"Anytime a guy gets as many points as he got, it opens your eyes," said Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon, who as the GM of the Chicago Blackhawks owns the first pick in the draft. "He's a really smart, gifted player who competes. He has an excellent shot, is a good passer who can score and plays hard when the game's on the line. He makes other players around him better. 

"I don't worry about the league he played in. Look at Dany Heatley. To me, you're a good player, no matter what. His numbers show that he dominated in that league and he was pretty good in the world under 18 in the spring. The overall ability stands out -- and it shows he can play with good players, too."

"Kyle is highly competitive, probably a better two-way player than Patrick Kane," observed Philadelphia Flyers G.M. Paul Holmgren, who holds the second pick overall. 

Turris wears No. 19 because his father, Bruce, wore it as a lacrosse star with the Vancouver Burrards and Coquitlam Adanacs and also because this young playmaker’s favorite player when he was growing up just happened to be former Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman. 

"He's solidified the depth of our team," coach Paul MacLean said. "He's given us a legitimate second-line center that can play against anybody in the League. He's generated points in that position as well. For me, he makes us a deeper team and a harder team to defend."

"I didn't know what to expect," captain Daniel Alfredsson said. "I hadn't seen him play at all. What I heard was good skater and good shot, and that's sure true. He's fit in really nicely with the team here. He's a good guy and we're really happy to have him."

Pressure. Kyle Turris will take it.  In Ottawa, things were good.

"It's a lot different pressure, but I'm ready for it," he said. "I'm just going to try to help the team win and contribute."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Landeskog: Nothing Was Lost in Translation to Stardom

By Larry Wigge

Nothing was lost in the translation. Nothing.

Most Euro-trained players have a language barrier to overcome. There's a culture shock with playing in North America, from the size of the rink to every other little thing possible. It's more than just how you like your steak cooked.

But Gabriel Landekog made the globetrotting trek of his lifetime -- 3,983 miles from his home in Stockholm, Sweden, to Kitchener, Ontario -- with a stereotype-smashing dream in mind. He made that trip to be more NHL ready, if possible. He wasn't going to let anything get in the way of his dream to play in the NHL.

And, to think, he was only 16 when he got started. It took two seasons of hard work at Kitchener.

It didn't take long for him to gain all the intangibles to be the most ready to play player in the 2011 NHL Entry draft. The perfect pick.

Ladeskog was big, rugged, but has skill too. Everything you'd want in a power forward. And he had all the intangibles, too, character, skill, smart and makes good decisions with the puck -- and especially strong. One added benefit, he became the captain at Kitchener -- not bad for a Euro-player.

"He's got great character, first and foremost. He exudes it," said Rick Pracey, chief scout for the Colorado Avalanche, used the second pick overall too select Landeskog. "This is a skilled hockey player, a competitive hockey player and strong." 

Landeskog and the Avalanche was the perfect fit -- with Gabriel's love of another Colorado favorite Peter Forsberg.

"I remember having Peter Forsberg posters up on my wall when I was a little kid," the 6-1, 207-pound power forward recalling the 2001 Stanley Cup winning team. "He too was a power forward and played with skills and character.

"That's my goal to be in that picture one day ... and to be there with the Colorado Avalanche. I'm very excited."

From posters on his wall to getting a chance at playing in the NHL.

It all began in 2009, when Landeskog moved to Kitchener.

"Moving over to Canada when I was 16 ... no family to fall back on ... got to learn to face challenges by myself ... grow up on my own ... forcing myself to grow up," Landeskog exclaimed. 

But ... 

"I started paying attention in English class pretty early back home," continued Landeskog. 

Landeskog didn't fall into the mix of a Euro-trained player who didn't understand the language, from following orders -- NHL teams want to know whether he can take advice and follow the coach's instructions to a 'T'.

Everyone in his family -- from his father, Tony Landeskog, who works in the insurance business, is a former defenseman in the Swedish Elite League and was accustomed to the life of an athlete, to his mother, Cecelia is a chef and cooking instructor -- they all had a hand in his decision. And his brother, Adam, who sent his him countless hours of 'Friends,' to study and learn the North American culture.

"My brother downloaded all 10 seasons for me," Landeskog says.

To his roommate with Kitchener, Jeff Skinner, who one year earlier was the seventh pick in the 2010 draft by the Carolina Hurricanes, taught him a lot about how to handle himself like a professional off the ice.

"It's all about priorities. I treat my body like a racing car, I can't fuel my race car with alcohol. If I treat it well, everything will work out for me," said Landeskog. "Like a Porsche or a Ferrari."

Does a Porsche or a Ferrari come into the NHL and score 21 goals and 26 assists in 74 games and put up a plus-20 rating as a rookie like Landeskog.

Even today, in the midst of a wonderful rookie season, Landeskog

"I have to get better with little things. Stickhandling in traffic, tips and get quicker and stronger," Gabriel said. "It's a big difference, especially playing against men. You really have to battle for your ice. I know there's always room to have to work in the summer getting quicker and stronger."

The plaudits have already begun.
"It's not just one thing that sticks out that makes him better than everybody else," said Avalanche center Paul Stastny. "It's everything. He seems a complete player, whether it's in the d-zone or the offensive zone, moving the puck, shooting the puck, blocking the puck, being physical... He does it all."

"He's a better skater than Peter was," teammate Milan Hejduk said with a grin. "He's a different type of player but could have the same impact on the game Peter (Forsberg) did. I don't have a crystal ball, but he's really talented and has lots of years ahead of him."

Coach Joe Sacco said "We use him in so many situations -- even strength, power play and on the penalty kill. He plays on what is arguably our top line. He plays late in games when we are up a goal or when we are down a goal. He does everything well."

Ken Hitchcock, now coaching St. Louis, had see Landeskog twice earlier in the season as a consultant to the Blue Jacks, "He reminds me so much of Forsberg in his ability to maneuver in small spaces. His strength and quickness in small spaces -- I'm very impressed."

And you know Gabriel Landeskog is going to get stronger and stronger. It's in his genes.

"The sky is the limit," said Skinner. "He definitely has the mentality to do whatever he wants."

Sunday, March 18, 2012

It Hiller Time ... and the Odds Aren't Against Him

By Larry Wigge

It's Hiller Time. Again.

Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller is rediscovering himself as one of the stingiest netminders in the NHL. In a league where the goalie is so important, the 30-year-old puckstopper is once again becoming the X-factor for the Ducks.

The 6-2, 194-pounder from Feiben Wellhausen, Switzerland, undrafted free agent, is the man in goal.

After stumbling through the first half of this season, Hiller has posted 18-8-5 red hot record with three shutouts since January 6 -- posting a 4-0 victory at Detroit March 14. He registered a 8-1-2 record in February. Only twice in that stretch had he given up as many as four goals.

Jonas played in a club record 30 consecutive games -- 30 straight games ... and counting.  Almost as if had never had the serious vertigo symptoms that affected him in the second half of last season and into the summer.

"All last summer, I didn't know what to expect," Hiller exclaimed. "Compared to the last time I skated at the end of last year before I left for back home, it's almost like night and day. After a couple of minutes then, I felt off. I couldn't see the puck properly. I felt it all over the place."

Sort of like the concussion problems going around the league today, but this was a goaltender who has to face shots coming at him at 100 mph. Picture this: The sight of a puck is sort of cloudy looking or fuzzy looking ...


"It wasn't until July that I started to feel symptom free," Hiller continued. "I'm feeling pretty sharp out there. I feel I can see the puck."

Still, Hiller soldiered on last season -- playing under less than ideal conditions.

No one knew what it was or how to treat it.

"You could see it in his eyes," Ducks winger Bobby Ryan said. "He was battling a little bit. I think I noticed it the most in the playoffs, having some suspension time and getting to skate with him a little more then and work with him one on one."

Instead of fighting through the symptoms, Hiller was told to stop skating and take time off. It wasn't until the middle of July when he returned to the ice at home in Switzerland at former Ducks goalie coach Francois Allaire's camp.

The workout sessions with Swiss club HC Bern proved promising. The improvement ever since led Hiller to declare in August that he was symptom-free, and he has been steadfast in stating that he's felt no recurrence in training camp.

"Compared to the last time I skated at the end of last year before I left for back home, it's almost like night and day," Hiller said. "After a couple of minutes then, I felt off. I couldn't see the puck properly. I felt it all over the place.

"If I have to turn my head too quickly, the vertigo comes back. Then it seems like panic mode in my head and I feel all over the place. It feels like I'm always like a second late. It takes me a second to realize what's going on, especially on plays from behind the net -- and that's not good in my profession."

Very bad indeed. He didn't expect the Ducks training camp to be anything different, with the inactivity and ...

"I feel I can see the puck," Hiller said confidently. "It's definitely a huge step forward. I took a big step forward and I'm not just walking in the same spot.

"Still, stopping the puck will take time."

That's why it took Hiller the first half of the season to round into the X-factor. Small steps, you see.

One can say Hiller is playing the same spectacular hockey that made him an All-Star last season right before his apparent case of vertigo struck, going 17-8-5 with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage during the streak. Those statistics would put Hiller among the NHL's top handful of goalies if he hadn't struggled along with his teammates during the first half of the season.

"He's a star in this league, for sure," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "He gives us a chance to win every night and he gives us a chance to win some nights we shouldn't. And that's what you need your starting goalie to do."

With an untested person in goal, the Ducks changed coaches along the way. New coach Bruce Boudreau has become quite the fan of Hiller.

"He's been all we had some nights out there," Boudreau said. "He's been a professional about the amount we're playing him -- and it's working out well for us. I don't have to worry about whether he's ready to go. He's always been ready, every time."

Jonas Hiller reverted to the same undrafted, untested rookie he was when he tried out for the Ducks and St. Louis at 24.

He caught their attention while playing with Joe Thornton and Rick Nash in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. This tall and talented Swiss puckstopper -- who some might say came from nowhere.

He made it to the NHL -- no matter what age.

"I won championships back home in Switzerland, but this is the most fun I've had in hockey," Hiller said. "I can't wait to get up in the morning."

"Everyone looks at him as a rookie, but he's not a raw rookie at all," said former Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. "He's 27 years old, he's won two Swiss Elite League championships (actually three in Davos in 2002, 2005 and 2007, and Spengler Cup titles against Canada in 2004 and 2007. "He's big. He doesn't give shooters much to look at. And he really works hard to be square to every shot. Most of all, he's back there battling for his team every night."

Hiller has a quiet demeanor off the ice, but he's every bit the fierce competitor in that 4 by 6 foot goal crease.

"He battles for every puck," said Chicago's Marian Hossa. "We need to get rebounds against him, plain and simple."

"There's a reason why he's put up such good numbers," said Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom. "He's good low ... and when he's on his knees he covers a lot of the top of the net as well.

"We need traffic in front of him. We think there will be rebounds."

Francois Allaire did a lot of arm twisting to get Anaheim's management to give Hiller a try.

"An NHL goalie is not something you find on every corner of the street," said Allaire, who has trained more than 40 NHL goaltenders over the years, most notably Patrick Roy, Roberto Luongo, Giguere and Marc-Andre Fleury. "It's rare, rare, rare kind of people. You have, what, thousands and thousands of doctors in this country? Only 60 goaltenders."

There was a smile on Allaire's face like a proud father when he speaks of Hiller, whom he first began to work with 10 years ago at one of Francois' goaltending camps in Verbier, Switzerland, where he's worked with NHL goalies Martin Gerber and David Aebischer in the past.

"I remember thinking, 'He's big and athletic, the kind of goalies I like to work with,' " Allaire explained. "Most of all, he wanted to stop pucks ... and like all Swiss players he was quiet, he'd listen and he has a great work habit.

"I started telling our people in Anaheim about him several years ago when I knew there was something exceptional about him."

Former Ducks general manager Brian Burke took some heat after he outbid a dozen other clubs for Hiller on May 25, 2007 during Anaheim's Stanley Cup run while he still had Giguere and promising Ilya Bryzgalov under contract at a time when the team was having salary cap problems. But Burke thought so highly of Hiller that he waived Bryzgalov, losing him to the Phoenix Coyotes.

"Frankie (Allaire) wanted to sign him three years before anyone else really took notice of him," Burke explained.

But Hiller, who said it came down to three teams -- Anaheim, St. Louis and Edmonton  -- wasn't sure he was ready to make such a big jump from Davos of the Swiss Elite League to the NHL.

"I was patient. I didn't want to rush it," Hiller explained. "I wanted to be sure back home what I'm capable of. I made the step at the right point."

He paused to think about where he was and where he is now and then continued, "I never really dreamed it could happen because it was just too far away. I was never in the junior national team. I was never drafted. When I was younger, people told me I'd always be a backup. Even my parents wondered if I shouldn't do something else. But I told them, 'It might not look like it, but I feel like I'm getting closer and closer.' "

"He kind of came out of nowhere over there, to be honest with you," Thornton said in the first round of the playoffs when Hiller beat Thornton's San Jose Sharks. "He just blossomed into a great goalie, actually, my first year there."

From undrafted puckstopper to a developing prospect to a sought-after free agent to starting goaltender in the NHL playoffs in just a few years.

"I'll never forget my first game in the NHL ... in London ... I wasn’t expecting to play that soon. It was kind of funny," Hiller said, with a halting excitement in his voice. "At that moment I didn't realize it. To play in this league, which I was probably dreaming about before childhood and wasn't even close to being here three years before that. This whole process, it's been a dream come true."

Dream? Gerhard and Esther Hiller brought basketball to Jonas' attention early -- Gerhard was a basketball coach when he wasn't working at a printing company in Felben Wellhausen and Esther was a member of the Swiss national basketball team and is a sport teacher.

"People were always telling me that I should play basketball, but hockey was my sport -- even if my parents didn't always understand," Hiller said, saying that he started out as a forward, then played both forward and in goal until I was 12 and began playing goalie full-time.

Now, Hiller chooses to relax in the summer by playing tennis and water sports. But what he loves most is lifting the hood of a car and tinkering at home with some of his buddies he grew up with.

Except last summer ... when everything was fuzzy and cloudy for him.

But Jonas Hiller knew he could make it back to the NHL. After all, he had done it before ... with the odds against him more.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's in the Bloodlines with Mikko Koivu

By Larry Wigge

It was a question that kind of caught San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan off guard ... but one he smiled and gladly answered.

In fact, McLellan through a curveball at me as he used a baseball term as an analogy.

"In baseball, they call players like Mikko five-tool players," said McLellan of those famous five-tool players who can hit for an average, hit with power, run, field and throw. "He's got all the tools. He can play the game any way on a particular night.

"One night, he can be a finesse player. The next night, he can be rugged in the corners. He can skate, he can shoot and he handles the puck well. He understands the game."

McLellan was in his final season as head coach at Houston of the American Hockey League in 2004-05, before he want on to join Mike Babcock's staff at the Detroit Red Wings when he coached Koivu. It was Mikko's only season that he spent in the minor leagues.

Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher said others are beginning to learn what he found out quickly from their 29-year-old center: "It will be great when the rest of the world knows what we know.

"You could argue quite persuasively that he's the best player to ever play for the Minnesota Wild -- truly our franchise player," Fletcher continued. "He has always been our best defensive player and he has been our top offensive player, our best faceoff man, our best penalty killer. Mikko's the whole package.

"You look at him at he's plus 10 and we're not a high scoring team, he logs top minutes for us, but the best thing is that he is going to be an integral part of building this team back into a contender."

Fletcher watched his team climb fast and then stumble, but most of it corresponded with injuries that kept him out of the All-Star Game and for the last 13 games.

This season, despite the injuries, Mikko has compiled 10 goals and 27 assists in 45 games. He also lead the Wild with the plus 10.

"He's irreplaceable," teammate Devon Setoguchi. 

Bloodlines always seem to be a key at the NHL Entry Draft. Former GM Doug Risebrough said it was Mikko's bloodline that caused the Wild to draft him sixth overall in 2001.

Koivu's parents Jukka, who was a defenseman and later coached at the Finnish Elite League level for TPS Turku and clearly had a firm hand in the well-rounded play of both of his sons, and mother, Tuire, who was a nurse, were supportive but stern.

Though he is four inches taller and better than 25 pounds heavier at 6-2 and 219 pounds, Mikko has almost always found himself in his brother's shadow -- not surprising considering that Saku Koivu ranks right up there with Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne as the greatest players in the history of Finland.

"All I wanted to do was play hockey, and if it wasn't for my mom and dad, I wouldn't go to school at all probably," Koivu said, laughing. "They forced me to do that, and I appreciate that now. My parents supported my hockey, but school was first -- trust me.

"Things were kind of tough as a kid -- and my friends and family were always there."

Things were especially tough because the Turku, Finland, native, always was in the shadow of his supremely talented brother, Saku, a legend in Finland and the Canadiens' captain from 1999-2000 to 2008-09 when he signed with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent.

"We're really close, but he's 8 1/2 years older and because he's the most popular athlete in your whole country as a kid, it's tough, I won't lie," Mikko said. "Kids at school, they kind of knew who you were and everybody wants you to be your brother. I didn't really care what people thought, and we talked inside the family and I learned to live with it.

"It took a few years. It's kind of my time to play the game. It's going to be different. In a few years, he's going to stop playing hockey and maybe I won't just be considered Saku's little brother. A lot of the older Finnish guys will be leaving, and it'll be up to us younger guys to continue what they've done."

"The leadership just flows out of them. They're good people, and there's a competitive fire there that's truly special. It's all about the team," former winger Mark Recchi said. "In terms of scoring, playmaking and how good he is defensively, Mikko's got everything. He's evolved into one of the top two-way players in the league."

His philosophy --or rather his father's philosophy -- was to be in good position defensively and then that would put him good position offensively.

"The best forwards in the league are very good two-way players," Mikko said. "I don't think you can get away with being just offensive or just defensive in today's game, at least if you're going to get a lot of ice time.

"It's tough to play against those guys when you know they're very good offensively, but then defensively, they're in your face all the time."

It's that in your face mentality that Mikko Koivu has that makes you take notice -- that five-tool player that matters most.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jackman: Always Tough to Play Against

By Larry Wigge

First impressions are key.

For Barret Jackman that would start on Draft Day 1999 in Vancouver, when he was the St. Louis Blues first selection, 17th overall. Wonderful day for Jacks, but even more meaningful for Edmonton Oilers executive Kevin Lowe.


Just one look. That's all it took for defenseman Kevin Lowe, the sixth-time Stanley Cup champion with Edmonton and New York Rangers, who watched as the Blues selected Jackman from the Regina Pats and made his way onto the draft floor. Seeing that glare on his face for Lowe, currently an executive for the Oilers, was a mirror image of Mark Messier's stare.

"You could see the fire in his eyes right there on the draft floor," Lowe explained, wondering why his scouts were all over a player like Jackman. "You knew the Blues had just drafted themselves a player who would soon become a presence on their defense."
The next step was getting the youngster in shape and in camp. The Fruitvale, British Columbia, native, was just 6-feet tall and weighed in at 205. At the Blues camp in 1999, struck up a friendship that Hall of Famer Al MacInnis.

In the summer of 2000, it was MacInnis continued his friendship with the youngster, calling Jackman to suggest a workout routine that would make him better.

Or what it MacInnis -- or a friend playing a practical joke?

"The voice on the phone said he was Al. I thought it was a good friend of mine, messing around," a young Jackson said sheepishly. "But few seconds into the call I recognized Al voice. My ears kind of perked up.

"He told me about a physical trainer in Phoenix, Charles Poliaquin. Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight and Dallas Drake had gone to him. So, instead of working out on my own, I called him."

The invitation made Jackman feel a part of the Blues -- even though he wouldn't make his debut there until the last game of the 2001-02 season.

Oh, memories.

MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Weight, Pavol Demitra, Scott Young and Scott Mellanby some pretty fierce competitors -- all teammates came to mind when Jackman recalled his career with the Blues. All but Pronger is retired.

"It's been a quick 10 years," Jackman said. "You look back and I was the youngest guy on the team by four or five years. You kind of laugh. I just turned 31 ... and you remember being 22 of 23 and sitting in here with Al and Prongs and Dougie and Pav and Younger and Mel, it definitely feels like a long time, yeah. Great guys. Great in the community. And great chemistry within the locker room."

Poise. Confidence. Tough to play against. That Make-My-Day-Dirty-Harry-stare that Jackman has made famous.

"I've always kept it simple. I'm not a flashy guy. I'm not somebody who's going to be on the scoresheet every night," Jackman added. "Block shots and make simple plays and make the opposition by shutting down the opponent's top players."

Jackman is closing in on 600 NHL games. Like he said, you won't find his name on the scoresheet -- in 69 games this season, he has only one goal -- ending a 150-game scoreless streak -- 11 assists. But he been an amazing plus-22.

Mr. Fix-it, if you will on defense, with young guys such as Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk becoming stars for the Blues. You can see the handiwork of Jackman in their games.

You cannot tell a story about Jackman without going back the roots -- asphalt surfaces of Fruitvale, a tiny town of about 4,000 people not far from Vancouver. Mary Jane, his Mom, raised Barret and his two sisters, Danielle and Michelle.

"My parents split up when I was 12 and it wasn't easy for my Mom to take care of my two sisters and my hockey aspirations. But she was my hero. She always made time for me," Jackman told me. "She was a practical nurse and it was not unusual for her to work back-to-back 12-hour shifts, come home, grab a cup of coffee and go right back out the door and take me to a practice, game or tournament."

In other words, Jackman HAD TO grow up in a hurry and become the man of the household -- which he obviously did. But don't underestimate the kind of resolve and maturity Barret showed under such conditions.

Still ... he was a kid.

"I drove my Mom nuts the year she bought me my first pair of blades, flying around the house dreaming I'd someday make be skating in the NHL," Jackman remembered. "I was out playing street hockey. I can't lie, I'd be thing, 'It's Al MacInnis taking a slap shot from the point!' "

He is most proud of buying his Mary Jane an SUV and helping his sisters -- Danielle through veterinary college and Michelle with the trip to Australia.

The trip to Australia came as part of Jackman Rookie of the Year bonus.

Jackman remember often-times taking a seven-hour trip from Fruitvale and Calgary to watch his favorite player, MacInnis. Being drafted by the Blues brought his up-close-and-personal with MacInnis.

"I was a little in awe coming into my first camp," Jackman admitted. "I remember him shaken my hand and saying, 'I'm Al MacInnis.' I said, "Yeah, I know who you are. You don't have to introduce yourself.'

"Playing with a Hall of Famer your first year and getting quality minutes. Wow! He'd was always discussing play a play -- rather than telling me what to do."

Tough to play against. Those are not the usual adjectives that come up when you are talking about a rookie, particularly a defenseman -- a position that everyone agrees takes years to master. 

"I played alongside Scott Stevens when the two of us were playing junior hockey at Kitchener," MacInnis recalled. "I had to do a doubletake the first time I played alongside Barret in training camp after his draft year. He was just like Scott, tough to play against and with a motor that runs about 200 mph.

"He might have been able to play in the NHL back in 1999, but the Blues brought him along slowly. He's very strong and mentally he's very tough. What I really like about him is he doesn't let little things bother him or worry him. He’s a quiet kid who listens and learns -- every day." 

Continued MacInnis, "Barret is a throwback in a lot of ways. He respects the game, respects the older players. He's tough, rugged, good with the puck. The only difference at this stage of his career, he's a lot more composed than maybe a young Scott Stevens. It's hard to get under Barret's skin.''

In his rookie season, Jackman found himself head-up against the Vancouver Canuck and Todd Bertuzzi in the playoffs.

"How do I want people to think of me?" he said to a question after Game 1 when the in-fighting began with Bertuzzi. "Like I'm a jerk to play against."

A perfect opponent, huh! A perfect teammate.

"It's funny when we (Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart) came here, certain guys have that kind of control over the locker room," Shattenkirk said. "When Jacks stands up to talk to the guys and wants to convey his message to the team, everyone stops what they're doing and listens. Not too many guys have that. I think that kind of shows what a true leader is. Most importantly, it comes down to everyone respects him. On and off the ice, he's a great teammate. He does a ton for the community and for someone like me, that's someone who I aspire to be.

"He's a breeze to play with. It's pretty easy to go out there, especially playing with him knowing that you have such a reliable guy back there. He's hard on the puck. As far as 1-on-1 battles go, his tenacity is tremendous. He's fearless. He blocks shots and makes great plays out there that many people might look past."

In 2005-06, the NHL put in some new rules prohibiting hooking and holding. It was a zero tolerance. Many defenseman had to change their game. Barret Jackman was one of them.
"You beat yourself up over the way you play, when things don't go your way," Jackman said. "You let the little things get you down. You don't play with the same confidence that got you here -- and, for me, that's being a physical, in-your-face type of player, one that is hard to play against.

"The frustrating part of this season is that a lot of defenseman who like to play on the edge and be physical have been whistled for countless penalties. And it seems to be a different set of rules sometimes from game to game that don't allow us to do a lot of things defensively that we were taught to do and that got us to the NHL. Things that are just instinctual to all defensemen. The referees, for the most part, have been good in explaining what they are calling and why. I can't complain about that. But I guess what I'm saying is that the uncertainty has caused a hesitancy in the way I’ve played. And that's got to stop."

If we've learned one thing about Jackman in his career, it's that he's a make-my-day, do-unto-others impact player. A leader. Not a sit-back-and-wait-type of individual. That's why his Blues' teammates voted him an ‘A’ at just 24. He knows that defense partner Al MacInnis is no longer there as a safety net. But MacInnis is still there as a valuable friend and future Hall of Fame defenseman for advice ... or a little kick in the butt. 

"Al and I sat down a short time ago and he told me to quit worrying. He said, 'Go out there and play my game. Don't worry about the officials,' " Jackman said.

Short by today's standards for a high draft choice on defense at 6 foot, Barret Jackman makes up for it with the heavyweight intangibles like heart and soul and a determination and passion to be one of the hardest players in the NHL to play against.

"I think if you ask players I've played against, they would say I hit like I’m about 6-4, 230," Jackman remembers telling me on draft day. "I like to make an impact in a game -- and whether I'm 5-5 or 6-5, I'm going to do it."

Still the same today ... Barret Jackman.