Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Emerging Troy Brouwer Still Coming into his Own

By Larry Wigge

There are no promises. No guarantees with any of these late draft picks in the NHL Entry Draft.

Only hard work made them into NHL prospects.

Take Troy Brouwer for example. Never. I mean never would scouts watching the power forward with the Moose Jaw Warriors have considered him an NHL gem. He might have even doubted himself.

But ...

There was Brouwer sprinting behind the Florida Panthers defense, adeptly snaring a seeing-eye pass from Nicklas Backstrom and going in alone on goaltender Scott Clemmensen for a 6-5 triumph for the Washington Capitals on February 12. Clemmensen stopped Troy's first shot, but he couldn't recover in time to stop Brouwer's quick-reflex rebound attempt 32 seconds into into overtime.

A solo dash. A breakaway. Unheard of.

When Troy Brouwer was drafted with the 214th selection in the 2004 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks ... it was an afterthought. But, hey, someone on the Blackhawks had a vision ...

"I didn't know I had a chance to play in the NHL, even after I was drafted. It was just a dream that seemed so far away," Brouwer recalled. "They talk about obstacles you have to overcome. Mine was always skating."

In the years after the draft, Brouwer had lots of help.

"One year the Blackhawks sent me to Fargo, N.D., to a power skating camp. The next two years I worked with Dan Jansen (the former U.S. Olympic speed skater). The last couple of years I worked with a guy at home in Vancouver -- Derek Popke," he analyzed. "My work at skating is never finished."

It wasn't until 2006-07 that Brouwer turned pro and scored 41 goals at Rockford of the American Hockey League that suddenly a light went on for both player and team.

Said Brouwer, "It was like I was suddenly not under the radar. The Hawks started expecting offense from me."

No, he wasn't Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, but the Vancouver native could hold his own in the NHL. 

Brouwer's career-high in goals came in 2009-10, when he scored 22 times in the regular season and another four goals in the playoffs as the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup title since 1960-61.

This season, in his second campaign with the Washington Capitals, the 6-3, 213-pound right winger had opened with six goals in 13 games -- including the game-winning goals in two consecutive games, both against the Panthers.

"Two points is two points," Brouwer said. "We've had a few games we've given away two points, now it's our turn to battle back and get those two very important points. The way we did it is very encouraging, too, because we rely on our skill a lot of the time ... and that's how you get back in the games, guys working hard.

"Nick made a beautiful pass. It went in on the second chance, but it doesn't matter -- it went in."

As a youth, Troy Brouwer played on the same Pacific Vipers team with current Chicago teammates Brent Seabrook, Andrew Ladd and Colin Fraser. Coached by former Vancouver Canucks John Grisdale and Harold SnepSnepststs, the team was dominant. During one stretch they won 25 consecutive tournaments.

There was at least a pedigree of talent there by Brouwer at a young age. But ... 

Brouwer told the tale of a lesson his father, Don, a retired electrician in the North Delta area in Vancouver, taught him while he was in the Atom ranks as a nine-year-old. Seems young Troy had a lot to say to the refs. Although this was junior hockey, Troy racked up several 10-minute misconduct penalties.

"My dad used to pack my equipment bag for me," said Brouwer. "I could always count on him for that. One day, after another game when I got a 10-minute misconduct, I get to the rink for my team's next game and something's missing. Actually, a lot of things were missing."

That the penalty that a father gives to a too-smart-for-his-own-britches son.

Don Brouwer has always been on the mind of Troy -- in good times and bad.

Troy skipped the final four games of the regular season to be with his father, who underwent emergency surgery after a brain aneurysm that required emergency surgery the effects of the blood clot. 

After the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, Brouwer remembers getting a rah-rah text message from his sister Nicki with tips from their father.

During the Western Conference Final, the mandate from dad was, "You gotta take the puck to the net." 

"Oh, he finds a way to get word to me," Troy said with a wry smile. "He'll call my sister with his notes ... and she'll text me."

He'll never forget the message from father after scoring two goals in a 6-5 come-from-behind victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. 

Nicki sat with Don at the rehab center and her text message to Troy was: They both had tears in their eyes.

"It was a special moment, as you could imagine," said Brouwer. "Just because Dad couldn't be here, it doesn't change anything. He's one of the people I play for. He's always going to be my Dad."

Brouwer was not without supporters. His mother Kathy, a nurse at B.C. Women's Hospital, is in town along with the parents of Brouwer's wife, Carmen.

When Brouwer left the United Center on Sunday, he planned to phone his dad. That's something he tries to avoid on game days, even though his father is on his mind.

"I usually leave that alone because I want to focus on hockey," Brouwer said. "It's always difficult when I do talk to my dad because I'm not able to be with him."

It was at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft were Brouwer was acquired by Washington from Chicago for a first-round pick.

The 25-year-old might not have been the glitziest move that occurred over the past few days while the hockey world assembled in Minnesota. But it’s one that GM George McPhee believes will help Washington on and off the ice.

"We thought it was a really good move for our club at the right time," McPhee said. "I talked to and he was really excited and sounds like a great kid. It's amazing to feel that after a three-minute conversation, but he seems like the kind of leader that we're looking for."

Brouwer had never been traded before but is excited that he was dealt to a team searching for a championship, much like his Chicago Blackhawks squad that won the Stanley Cup in 2010.

"I think having those guys that have won is soothing for a team," said Brouwer. "In Chicago we had two guys, John Madden and Andrew Ladd, that had won the Stanley Cup. You get into a tight game and they just bring the insight into what it takes to get through it, they let you know that you can."

From long-range draft prospect to the NHL has given Troy Brouwer many insights. From power skating at Fargo, N.D., to working out with former U.S Dan Jansen and Derek Popke.

The transformation from also-ran prospect in the the NHL pro we see today didn't happen overnight. Brouwer, for one, has been a picture of perseverance. He's listened and learned along the way.

Troy Brouwer isn't one of those people who realizes what others have done for him. And he'll never forget that playing in the NHL is still a dream come true.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Canes couldn't wait to get Skinner

By Larry Wigge

It's true the NHL Entry Draft is an inexact science. Some even call it a crapshoot. But what it does represent is its the best avenue of success for every team and stands for the lifeblood of hockey.

You might not wind up picking Shaquille O'Neal in the NBA draft lottery. Or even a Ken Griffey Jr. as in baseball. So, how difficult is it to pick the right player in the NHL entry draft?

New Jersey Devils director of player development David Conte told me a long time ago, "It's almost as difficult as walking into a room of high school students and being asked to choose which kids might be the next doctors in this world. If you asked me how many players could play in the NHL right away, I'd say four or five.

"The kids are so young, you just can't know everything you need to to predict what their future really holds for them. They are far from grown -- both physically and mentally."

These talent-seekers-extraordinaire have to look beyond what they see from a player on the ice at 17 and project him to what he will be like at 22 and 25 ... and 30. They have to often look beyond skating, shooting and stickhandling.

And yet we still go through drafts and talk about the gems uncovered late like Detroit Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who were taken with the 171st pick in 1998 and 210th picks in the 1998 draft and '99 drafts. But there were others: Mark Streit by Montreal with the 262nd pick in 2004, Sammy Salo was selected 239th by Ottawa in 1996 and Matt Moulson, who was chosen No. 263 by Pittsburgh in 2003. St. Louis goaltending combination of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott were both afterthoughts -- Montreal selecting Halak 271st and Ottawa picked Elliott 291st.

And Hall of Famers Ed Belfour, Joe Mullen, Peter Stastny and Dino Ciccarelli were not picked in the draft. Other undrafted stars include Martin St. Louis, Dan Girardi, Andy McDonald, Jonas Hiller, Alexander Burrows, Dustin Penner, Niklas Backstrom, Chris Kunitz and David Clarkson.

Some teams do better than others -- like those who continuously draft players picking late in the first round like New Jersey and Detroit and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

There were some anxious moments leading up to the Carolina Hurricanes seventh pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The Canes had tabbed Jeff Skinner as their guy, even though he had been rated lower by Central Scouting Bureau. 

No Shaquille or Griffey Jr., but for months prognosticators who would be the first pick in the draft Taylor or Tyler -- Edmonton took Taylor Hall and Boston selected Tyler Seguin. After that names seemed to go by at a snail's pace. Some curious people, in fact.
Erik Gudbranson went to the Florida Panthers, Ryan Johanson went to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Nino Niederreiter went the the New York Islanders and Brett Connelly to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Hurricanes held their breath. The seventh pick had arrived. Skinner was still there. Why were Carolina scouts so high on this kid?

"He's a special personality, with special character," GM Jim Rutherford said. "He has scored at every level.

"It's pretty impressive when a 17-year-old scores 50 goals in a season. It's even more impressive when he scores 20 goals in 20 games in the playoffs. He's not only a goal scorer. He's a competitor."

Twenty goals in 20 playoff games for Kitchener. He scored at crucial times in key games. Competitor ...

"Work ethic," Rutherford confessed. "When players get drafted and they come out of college and junior, especially the guys that are high, they don’t totally understand how big a jump it is. They dominate at the levels they're at, and so they come to camp not understanding that the task ahead is tougher than they think it is.

"When he was tested at the combine, his testing was really good. He was well above average as far as strength. But after he got drafted, the biggest thing he did to put himself in position to do what he's doing in the NHL now is, he went with (former NHL player turned trainer) Gary Roberts, worked for the summer, built himself up even stronger.

"And the fact of the matter is, at this point in time, he's just as strong certainly as the average NHL player is who's much older than him."

Said Roberts, "I knew I had an athlete that already got it."

"Honestly, I compare him a lot to Sidney Crosby, just his lower body and his strength and his commitment, just the way he carries himself," Roberts said. "Most guys don't figure out how to be a solid pro until you go through some life lessons ... and he's been able to do that."

The Markham, Ontario, native, scored 31 goals as a rookie. He followed that up with 20 goals in 2011-12, despite missing 16 games with a concussion. 

Skinner signed a six-year contract extension worth more than $34.5 million ($4.35 million in 2013-14 and $6 million per year for the next five years).

"I'm very grateful for them to select me in the draft ... and obviously today, showing me the confidence to have me around long term," Skinner said. "It's definitely a nice message ... and hopefully, I can prove them right."

Some players will take the money and run. Not Skinner, who scored five goals in five games to start the 2012-13 season.

Coach Kirk Muller respects Skinner's skill and flair and doesn't want to harness him. What he does want is a wiser, more complete player.

"I do see a maturity level. Responding the way he did was an easy assessment of how he handled the criticism," Muller said. "But now I'm like, 'OK, that was a good game, now you've got to bring it back with another good game.' That's the way it is. We want consistency."

Said Skinner, "It's sort of maturing, if you can call it that. Hey, you're not going to score every shift. Sometimes you just have to play good defensively and get off, then try it again next shift."

"His natural ability, his instincts are there," captain Eric Staal said of Skinner. "The biggest thing with any elite player in this league is competitiveness ... and he competes every shift and every practice. He's improved as he's gone on.
"There are going to be times when it’s not as easy, especially as an 18-year-old ... and it gets tiring, but he's found a way to get it done."

Elisabeth and Andy Skinner are lawyers and athletes of the year in law school. Jeff has five siblings, all blessed athletically and academically which created a competitive edge needed to thrive in a household that was involved in swimming, figure skating, power skating, gymnastics, piano lessons, dance, phonics, mini-chef sessions, as well as acting.

Acting? Jeff recalls his role in the movie "Death to Smoochy," starring Danny DeVito, Robin Williams and Edward Norton as "pretty cool." 

Skinner's balance, his ability to move around, to change directions, to get out of difficult places and his edge control. He does unusual things with his skates. Some might say it's the way he's been since he with eight.

It was at this time when one of Skinner's older sisters won a figure skating trophy. Jeff told his mother he wanted to win one of those, too, so she signed him up. For the record, Skinner won a bronze medal at the Canadian junior national figure skating championships before giving up the sport.

"Figure skating has given me a unique side advantage," he believes, recalling changing skates in the car going from figure skating to hockey. "Being on my skates that much has made me very comfortable on the ice."

Jeff Skinner ... the competitor. Wanted to be win a figure skating medal. Wants to compete at the highest level of hockey. 

I think he's succeeded at both.