Saturday, March 30, 2013

Smallish Matt Calvert always stands out

By Larry Wigge

John Houseman doesn't make commercials these days. But if he did, his bit for Smith Barney Investments from 1979 would still earn a gold star.

In it, he said, "Good investments don't walk up and bite you on the bottom and say we're here. Finding them takes good old-fashioned hard work, research. ... Smith Barney: They make money the old-fashioned way. They e-a-r-n it."

Matt Calvert has e-a-r-n-e-d every bit of credit he has gotten for climb from low-on-the-radar to Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Brandon, Manitoba, native, was the fifth-round pick, 127th overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by Columbus. By his own admission, Calvert, all 5-foot-10, 175 pounds of him, didn't fall off a turnip truck or some such thing. 

Matt Calvert began making plays in tight spaces and snapping wrist shots past goaltenders. Calvert used his soft hands for equally honest yet less celebrated tasks -- he flipped burgers for Wendy's, he cleaned swimming pools, he pumped gas at a Mohawk filling station and he took pride in his greasy aprons and oil-stained uniforms.

You could say this story is sort of out of sight out of mind. But that wouldn't apply here, because Calvert was a positive influence the first-round selections of Brayden Schenn (who went fifth to Los Angeles in 2009 and now plays for Philadelphia) and Scott Glennie (who went eighth to Dallas in 2009). Each of the threesome played on the top line of the Brandon Wheat Kings.

"You can call me a third wheel, back seat, off the radar, I don't care," said Calvert. "We had a great line and no one is going to tell me I didn't contribute a lot to it."

One team executive said about Calvert: "We have a couple of scouts near Brandon and they never filed any reports on him. None to my knowledge."

There's always a player or two whose number just keeps catching your attention. Hard worker. Character player who plays with a great degree of passion. No quit. This phenomenon is true, especially when you have a little more than 200 players on hand for this type of prospects bonanza.

Calvert is confident enough in his own abilities to admit he won't let anything anyone says about him deter his attempt to make it to the NHL.

"Hey, I was only 5-1 when I was 16. I've heard all the stories. Like, 'Hey kid, get off the ice so the real players can practice' since I was little," Calvert laughed after he thought about what he had just said. "Maybe I should have worded that differently.

"But it is what it is. I never really thought about the NHL until Columbus drafted me."

Calvert can't recall how many times he was cut from youth teams. The story was always the same, coaches liked his ability and speed, but he was simply too small.

At age 15, he was 5-1 and 110 pounds. Matt's father, Leo, who works for Westman Communications Group in Brandon, an internet/cable company, remembers talking to a junior scout, who ended a conversation with: "Call me if he grows."

Still, there's no inferiority complex there.

"I've been cut from so many teams over the years because of my size I don't worry about that," Matt added. "When I turned 16, I never got a single letter from a Western Hockey League team (invitations to that junior league's training camps). It wasn't until after my third year of midget that (Brandon coach) Kelly McCrimmon called me and offered me a tryout."

Matt says his dad encouraged him to go back for a third year of midgets, in which he had his best season ever.

"Kelly McCrimmon gave me a chance to play at the Junior A level, but I don't think I could have made it this far without the confidence my parents have in me and my dream to play hockey professionally," Calvert said.

The Calvert's, Leo and Alice, Matt's mom, who works for Brandon University. Both are blue-collar people who pushed him.

"While I'm pulling the sweater over my head for each game, I think of their words ... 'Keep on fighting, son. Follow your dream,'" Matt said, wearing all of his emotions on the sleeve of his Columbus practice jersey Tuesday. "They were the ones who were confident I'd grow up from the 5-1 kid when I was 16 ... and they were right."

Scott Glennie has yet to make an impact on the NHL. Meanwhile, Calvert had six goals for the Blue Jackets.

"Don't worry about Matt," Glennie said of his Brandon linemate. "He's got all the confidence in the world in his ability."

There's even more to his growth to this small player.

"Since Traverse City in September of 2009, I learned to be a professional," Calvert said. "My first thing as a pro, I felt I should be here. I got comfortable ... or whatever."

There always seemed to be one or two players ahead of Matt Calvert, so he went down to Springfield of the American Hockey League during the lockout, where he put up 10 goals and 11 assists in 34 games.

"I felt awesome down there earning my stripes," he continued. "I know this is the place I want to be. These are the best players in the world.

"Some players were called up over me."

I've written too many, too small, too slow, too this, too that stories to know that it's a will to win and the size of a player's heart that really counts. At that point, you realize that Matt Calvert has just as good a chance to show everyone that he's no different than a Martin St. Louis, Daniel Briere, Steve Sullivan, Doug Gilmour, Theo Fleury and so many others who have transformed small size into big in the NHL.

Teammate R.J. Umberger says, "He plays like he's 6-foot-3 in the corners. His play in the hard areas is what stands out."

Matt Calvert stands out.

Ducks add Souray -- big goals, big shot, pius more

By Larry Wigge

The clock was ticking.

In an instant, Sheldon Souray wound up, flexed his muscles, and let a slap shot fly from just inside the blue line.

There was just 2:08 left to play. It was just like the Elk Point, Alberta, native, had willed his way into this position. Well, that slap shot beat Chicago Black Hawks goaltender Ray Emery for a 2-1 victory and Anaheim's veteran defenseman had used his big shot once again to score the winning goal.

Whoosh. Instantly. That's how easily Souray can make a game. The 36-year-old, 6-4, 237-pound, defenseman can make a puck act like a stealth weapon.

To Anaheim fans, the only thing they've seen similar to it is a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Velocity equals instant impact. It's an interesting study in quantum reaction -- and it's also the way opposing goaltenders look at how scary those 90-plus mph shots are that might Ducks defenseman Souray delivers with regularity.

"It's just plain lethal," is how former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said of Souray's slap shot. "But don't be confused about Sheldon. He provides more than just a big shot. He's big and strong and nasty to play against. He makes an impact that way, too."

Said Calgary goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, "It's hard. He has such an easy motion. Even when you know it's coming, you have a clear look at him, you think you see the puck and then ... it's by you."

Souray once scored 26 goal for the Montreal Canadiens in 2006-07 -- and had 23 goals another season for Edmonton in 2008-09. But that was then and this is now. He's played in the NHL for 13 seasons, starting with the New Jersey Devils, he has also played for Montreal, Edmonton, Dallas and now Anaheim.

There was a time when he thought his career was over in 2010-11, when his contract in Edmonton outweighed his performance and he cleared waivers and played the entire season with the American Hockey League Hershey Bears.

Then he signed a one-year contract with Dallas as a free agent. Again, his time apparently had run out as he became a free agent again last summer. Lo and behold, Souray signed a three-year, $11 million contract with the Ducks.

This deal feels like home for Souray, because his former wife Angelica Bridges shares custody of his two daughters Valentina (nine) and Scarlett (six). She is a actress living in Hollywood.

"I felt as a father, I had come home again," Souray said. "I could spend time with my daughters. When I'm at home, I could drive them to school.

"Personally, my kids and I had spent the summer with them since 2000. ... You don't know how that feels to be with them so much more."

And the Ducks.

"If the team wasn't a good fit, I would have gone elsewhere," said Souray. "Now, I have three kicks at the can with the Ducks.

"My career has gone full circle, from being a ruff and tumble defender to scoring some goals and then back to defense. Here, I'm a shutdown defenseman, along with Francois Beauchemin we like the responsibility of playing against the top line every night."

Now, the scoring, he has seven goals and 12 assists in 33 games following the March 29 victory over Chicago.

Souray was a third-round pick, 71st overall, in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft by the Devils. He always had a good shot, but he never realized how good it was until 2001-02, when he played in only 34 games with Montreal.

"I remember sitting in the pressbox and hearing some of the scout talking about how much my shot was missed, when I broke my hand," Souray recalled. "I missed a whole year and I had to relearn.

"But hearing those scouts talk about my shot taught me a lesson. I always had a shot ... I just had to use it."

The shutdown Souray now had recorded a +10 rating in his last 11 contests following the March 29 game against Chicago -- and ranked tied for third in the NHL in overall plus/minus (+24) and in plus/minus on the road (+12).

"When you play with some of the best offensive players in the world guys like Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, Cory Perry, Saku Koivu and Bobby Ryan, they don't need me," he said, shaking his head. "Only every now and then."

Said Ducks GM Bob Murray, "We attempted to get bigger and stronger on the back end -- and I think we accomplished that. We've added some character across the team."

Size and character plus: A big shot. Big impact on defense.

That's what Sheldon Souray to the Anaheim Ducks this season.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A more confident David Clarkson has arrived

By Larry Wigge

If he hadn't score 30 goals last season, David Clarkson wouldn't have even considered going to Austria during the lockout. Unless, it was on a ski vacation weekend.

Until last season, the Toronto, Ontario, native, wasn't didn't accomplish anything -- unless it was as as a competitor, a battler. Clarkson agonizes over each potential goal-scoring chance that he failed to score on.

But reject the fact that he had career-high of 17 goals, which was obliterated. There certainly is no quit in him. He's a character player nobody would doubt. And he proved his outlook was well beyond the 30 goals he had.

Clarkson played the entire 2012 playoffs with a fractured foot. It did not require surgery in the offseason and did not keep him on the injury list, which would have allowed him to be paid during the lockout.

So with that behind him -- and with his future ahead -- you could expect him to want to go somewhere to get his feeling back and his touch. You don't go score three goals in 24 playoffs games -- all three were game-winning goals in leading the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cups finals before losing out to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.

David converted the game-winning goal in Game 2 and 5 against Philadelphia in the second round and in Game 2 against the New York Rangers in the Conference Finals. And, to fulfill his touch and key playmaking ability, in Game 4 of the Cup finals, Clarkson picked up a turnover at center ice, he quickly turned into transition mode. He skated into the offensive zone and quickly sent a cross-ice pass to Henrique, who corralled the puck and flipped a wrist shot past Jonathan Quick's glove side.

"I was feeling better and was able to train. It had healed. I was kind of back on the ice," Clarkson said of the injury, but during the lockout, "To be honest, that never crossed my mind."

The confident right winger went over to Austria to play games, with a purpose.

"It was a totally different style," he said. "More ice. Puck possession. Over there, there was more ice and more opportunities to do different things with the puck -- that I wasn't used to."

Thus, the change in David's game. No longer playing in the shadow of Zack Parise, who bolted via free agency to the Minnesota Wild, this was the new Clarkson.

He bolted from the start of the season with 11 goals in the first 13 games.

Clarkson gave his team a 2-0 lead midway into the second on a great individual effort in following up a rebound for the 12th goal. Zajac took the initial shot from the right circle that hit Clemmensen high on the chest and dropped in front of him. Clarkson jammed the loose puck into the cage for a 2-1 victory over Florida earlier this week.

"It was a shot on net and the rebound sat on part of the goalie's pad that bends and I was just digging," Clarkson said. "It was a little grinder's goal. I saw it, and reached, and saw it there and kept whacking."

Is he motivated?

"One-hundred percent," Clarkson said forcefully. "Do I think people doubted me scoring 30 goals? Yes, I do." 

"For Clarkie to score 30 was no fluke," said goaltender Marty Brodeur. "I see him in practice every day. He's around the puck. It could be behind the net, a chaotic position in front of the net, he can get a quick shot off. He wants to score, he wants to go to the net with the puck.

"It's tough for a goalie when you have a guy hanging around your goal all the time."

Vintage David Clarkson, the undrafted free agent, who played for Devils coach Peter DeBoer in Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey Association. 

DeBoer is proud of Clarkson and his accomplishments as an NHLer. Clarkson and DeBoer won together in junior, including a Memorial Cup championship with the 2002-03 Kitchener Rangers.

But, there is more to it. When he was 18, Clarkson, in fact, credits DeBoer with talking him out of quitting hockey.

Clarkson did quit ... in fact.

Devastated by the loss of two grandparents within three months, Clarkson lost his passion for the game and was set to walk away from his junior career with Kitchener. It was his coach at the time, DeBoer, who convinced him to return.

"I lost two of my grandparents in one year. I lost them both within three months. I was a young kid, 17- 18-years-old, and it was tough to swallow," Clarkson recalled. "He convinced me to come back. I ... wasn't sure I wanted to play after that."

Both of his parents worked when he was growing up. Thus, his grandparents were like second parents to him. Neither of them was ill ... it was ...

His grandmother woke up one morning with a cough and died of cancer a month later of complications from the cough. His grandfather had a seizure in a washroom and wasn't found until three days later.

Those were both devastating ... especially to a young kid. He wanted to quit living.

Said DeBoer, "I'm sure he'll tell you he's been good for me and saved my career and I'll probably tell you I saved his."

But DeBoer naturally sees a different player other than the 28-year-old Clarkson from his junior days?

"He's more mature," the Devils coach said. "He's found his identity and role as a player. In Kitchener, he did a lot more fighting, a lot like he did early in his NHL career.

"He's established to everybody in the league what he is now and he's a valuable guy on the ice. There's only a handful of guys in the league -- Milan Lucic, James Neal, Scott Hartnell, David Backes, Ryan Malone, Clarkson, those type of players that can score the type of goals they score and are willing to do the dirty work, too."

That to DeBoer is the difference in David Clarkson.

Said DeBoer, "He's a big game ... big goal scorer."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Taylor Hall's development -- No. 1 with a bullett

By Larry Wigge

Taylor Hall thinks his blinding speed and competitive attitude with the puck on the wing is his calling card. Others will argue that winning is his ultimate DNA.

"It's still hockey, it's about winning battles in the offensive zone," said the Calgary, Alberta, native. 

There never was a night like this for Hall -- the first overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

Three times in the first two periods the Edmonton Oilers dashed into the St. Louis zone on breaks or semi-breakaways and each time it was the line of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins neatly tossing the puck deep in the Blues zone.

All three resulted in goals, two by Eberle and one by Hall in the Oilers 3-0 victory over St. Louis March 26.

Hall, who had one goal and two assists, was now a point-per-game-plus player with 30 points in 29 games. He has produced two points or more in each of the last eight games.

No wonder the Oilers took Hall with the first pick overall in 2010. It was no secret why Hall was taken over Tyler Seguin in the competitive draft.

"He's such an imposing young man," Oilers GM Steve Tambellini said. "I don't think I've ever met a more focused, competitive athlete. He was the best player on a good team for a long time."

It's key to note that Hall became No. 1 overall because of his being on the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League. Windsor won back-to-back Memorial Cups and Taylor was MVP of both tournaments.

At 24, Hall's play is a robust game.
The 6-1, 194-pound left wing comes up big in big games. He's hungry. He wants it. He has true grit in his game. And plays it with flash and dash.

"We felt like with Taylor, if you look at his resume of playing with the best team and being the best player, back-to-back Memorial Cup MVP's, prominent in the World Junior tournament, prominent on his own team for his entire junior career," Tambellini said. "I haven't met a more competitive player than this young man."

Said Hall, "I'd like to think I'm an exciting, fast offensive player. I'm pretty good in my own end. I love to play offense and create opportunities for my teammates."

After an overtime win, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said: "Hall always gets to the net. That's as good as I've seen Taylor Hall since I've seen him in the league."

That's a positive sign for this third-year pro. There was a move in the Hall household in 2005.

Steve Hall and Kim Strba, however, were great contributors to Taylor's development. Steve -- former receiver in the Canadian Football League (1983-86, Winnipeg and Ottawa) and former member of the Canadian bobsled team (1987-96). His mother signed her boy up in organized hockey when he was five.

"I just saw the registration in the paper," Kim said. "I remember when his dad came home, I said, 'I signed Taylor up for hockey today.' "

Steve Hall remembers another episode in Calgary, where father and son went to see the movie 'Miracle.' They got home at 10 p.m. "By 10:30, Taylor was out playing hockey."

Great going mom and dad.

There wasn't a free moment when Taylor Hall was working out on his backyard rink -- built by Steve. Hall and his friends practiced on relentlessly. He never forgot how rabid and passionate the fans were in Edmonton where the Oilers won five Stanley Cups.

"I remember my dad and I drove up from Calgary and went to the Heritage Classic in November 2003," Hall recalled. "It was such a unique experience. I remember sitting in the seats that day, trying to figure out how people were still out there drinking beer. It was so cold. Me, I was drinking hot chocolate."

Injuries have ended his season each of the first two years -- he busted an ankle in the first season and suffered a concussion and had shoulder surgery last year.

Still, he had 22 and 27 goals in sixty-some games.

The reckless style had causes some of those injuries. He dismisses those notions, but admits he needs to protect himself a little better out there.

"I've run into some bad luck," he said. "Two years in a row you start to think about things. But I just need to get a full year under my belt and that will all go away. Once I do that, the whispers will go away."

You can's teach a competitor like Hall to lose some physical battles.

"Taylor's not afraid to take the puck to the net," said Ryan Smyth, whose made a living out of crashing the crease. "He isn't afraid of charging the blue paint. That's really an asset you can't teach a player.

"He got a taste of it last year ... how hard it was, what the level of compete is in the NHL ...

Smyth took a time to pause and then went on to say. "He can be an elite player."

It's been fun to watch and see Taylor Hall develop.

And there's much more to come.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hodgson is smart, clever , playmaking center

By Larry Wigge

You are going into the draft and are looking for a quality playmaking center.

You look for speed. But Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis and Adam Oates weren't the fastest and they were in the top four playmakers of all-time. Only Mark Messier had the speed and power to work his way into the top five. 

The key to scouting playmakers is puck skills and energy and a quarterbacking mentality on the half-boards and deep into the offensive zone. Like a wide receiver, you must have the escapability to pull past a defenseman to make a play. Instinctive. Innate ability.

To see a play happening is like a mindset of a quarterback to seeing a wide receiver working his way to get open. There's more under the center helmet to making a playmaker.

Cody Hodgson is on the ice, his opponents look like pawns on the chessboard. He a creative center who possesses terrific puck skills and a high hockey IQ.

A chessboard? Yes, that picture I get.

"There are a lot of similarities between chess and hockey," said the Toronto, Ontario, native. "You're always planning your attack beforehand and when you're moving up the board you should always attack with more than one piece."

Now, Hodgson is a unique talent.

"When I was younger I would compete in tournaments," smiled Hodgson, who met Pope John Paul II, also a chess master of sorts.

Sometimes you slot one of these playmakers into a role. The Vancouver Canucks drafted the 6-foot, 185-pound center with the 10th pick overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. But, they had Henrik Sedin and a Ryan Kesler playing ahead of Hodgson. So, in the final minutes of trade deadline day they dealt Cody off to Buffalo for some size, great size, in Zack Kassian -- the Sabres had picked the right wing 13th overall in the 2009 draft.

The Sabres won out in this deal because they got the smarter and more clever playmaker.

Hodgson's favorite player when he was growing up Steve Yzerman. In fact, he wear Yzerman's No. 19 today. But, he patterned himself after ...

"Chris Drury is obviously an incredible hockey player," said Hodgson. "From the Little League World Series to a Stanley Cup in Colorado in 2001."

Drury just happened to play behind Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg with the Avalanche. Or another three-center system that worked in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal who won a Cup in 2009.

Hodgson is a complete player. He plays good away from the puck. He scores big goals and he's a good leader on and off the ice. He's the whole package.

Pat Quinn, longtime NHL coach who directed Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup finals in 1980 and Vancouver in 1994, only to lose out in the finals, had seen a lot. In the Under-18 World Championships in April of 2008, Quinn coach Canada's best junior players to the gold -- and had Hodgson as his team MVP, while tying an all-time Canadian scoring record by Pierre-Marc Bouchard with two goals and 10 assists in seven games.

"You always wonder where your leadership will come from in a tournament like this," Quinn said. "Cody had the characteristics of a leader, especially for a guy his age. 

"He's a special young man and he had a lot to do with our success. I've had a lot of guys a lot older than him who don't conduct themselves like he does. We played him against the other teams' top lines and he didn't leave us short in any area."

Hodgson was centering the Buffalo Sabres top line of Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. In 32 games, he had 12 goals and 16 assists, including 25 points (nine goals and 16 assists) over his last 26 games.

To say that Hodgson's instincts take over on the ice is like saying Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis and Adam Oates weren't smart.

Brains run in the Hodgson family. His father, Chris, president of the Ontario Mining Association and a former Ontario provincial Progressive Conservative cabinet minister. His mother, Marie, is executive director of a nursery school and his older brother, Clayton, is a business student at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario.

"What makes a smart player is the ability to read the game, to know where the puck is going to be before it gets there," said Hodgson. "That's what they always said about Gretzky, he's always two steps ahead of everyone else. He can get in and out of the corner before anyone else even knows the puck was in the corner. He stays out of a lot of the physical battles."

Not that Hodgson shies away from physical play. He's just smart enough to know when to avoid it.

He has the big, strong hands of a bricklayer and thick, muscular legs.

"He's a strong skater, strong on his skates and has a thicker body," said Sabres former coach Lindy Ruff. "He's fairly solid. The core area is really what makes a lot of good players go. It's an area where he's really strong."

Teammates talk about Hodgson in international terms.

"He was probably one of the best guys in the tournament and a huge reason why we won the gold medal," Tyler Ennis said. "He was just all-around skill, a really good passer, but he was good all over the place; D-zone, killed penalties and stuff. I just remember him dominating that tournament."

Knowing how to find a good playmaking center is essential.

Cody Hodgson is a clever puckhandler. Just watch him.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Alex Burrows ... from nowhere, to somewhere

By Larry Wigge

You have a kid who has nothing to lose. Daring and fearless. Never been to the show. He's down a journey in the lower minor leagues, but with hopes to play in the NHL.

Alex Burrows has come a long way from a kid hoping for a hockey career while riding long bus rides, punctuated by stops at places like McDonald's and Subway to help the players stretch their paltry per-diems of $450 per week. And he remembers that all anyone seemed to care about in those places was college football and basketball. A hockey puck was a foreign object.

It was a tough environment in which to chase your NHL dream, especially for a player like Burrows who had been passed up in the NHL draft.

"It was always a dream to play in the NHL and it was really a big dream sometimes with those long bus rides," Burrows said, pointing to stops in the East Coast Hockey League, where he spent one year with the Greenville Grrowl, another year with the Baton Rouge Kingfish and a third with the Columbia Inferno before playing parts of two seasons with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. "You are going to games where there are no scouts and no one really cares about hockey. It's all about college football, college basketball, that's all people really care about. It's tough to get out of there."

It was like a scene from the movie 'Slapshot,' to the Pincourt, Quebec, native.

There was an alternative. Burrows, could have played soccer or competed in national and international tournaments of ball hockey. In 2005, he was named the International Ball Hockey Player of the Year. He has also been inducted into the Canadian and International Ball Hockey Halls of Fame.

But ...

Undrafted out of junior, Burrows had bounced between three ECHL teams and, at 23, faced making a life-altering decision when Manitoba Moose general manager Craig Heisinger came calling in the late fall of 2004.

"My third year in the ECHL I remember telling my parents, 'If I'm still with the Columbia Inferno at Christmas, I'm going to have to pull the plug and go back to school, find something else for a career,'" Burrows said.

The rest, as they say, is well-documented history.

Alex Burrows had enough going for him to make the grade to Vancouver. To his teammates, too, he had always suspected there was goal-scoring talent dying to burst out alongside his grit, defensive play and super-pest mouth.

Burrows was an absolute sh--  disturber on the ice.

Said Alain Vigneault, "When I had him at Manitoba Moose he was in everyone's face. But, he's got great hockey sense and he's got a lot more skill than people give him credit for. Combine those two and you've usually got a pretty good player."

Vigneault followed Burrows to Vancouver. Then, the coach had a decision to make ... a major move to make which could have been make or break for Alain's career.

When the coach first put Ryan Kesler with Mats Sundin and Pavol Demitra, Burrows found himself playing out of position at center between Steve Bernier and Mason Raymond. Then in the third period on February 10, 2009 at St. Louis, Vigneault put Burrows on the Henrik and Daniel Sedin wing and the twins found what they'd been looking for since Anson Carter left town.

From ball hockey to NHL playoff hero, via Greenville, Baton Rouge and Winnipeg, yes, Burrows pauses occasionally to marvel at the wonder of it all.

"I thought about it in my hotel room, that St. Louis was where I played my first game, my first game with the twins -- and obviously knew it was going to be a big game," Burrows recalled. "I still think about the journey sometimes. I think it's crazy a little bit. But at the same time, I've worked hard for it.

"Right now, we're in a good position and I'm just trying to focus on what I can contribute to this team so we can succeed."

Since then, Burrows had been a big-time contributor posting 28, 35, 26 and 28 goal seasons. His game-winning goal, a 3-2 victory over Colorado, March 24 gave his eight goals this season.

"Alex has really been a clutch player for us," Vigneault said afterward. "He has IT. He's focused, hard-working and he has a knack for being right in the middle of things. Now it isn't checking players in the middle of a scrum as much as before. It's getting us scoring chances."

Of course, there were a series of obstacles Burrows had to overcome.

"The obstacles," admitted Burrows. "At a younger age, I think my size was a big reason why I was never drafted in major junior. I think I was 5-6 when I was 17, and didn't grow into my height until I was 18 so that was a really big set back. It didn't really bother me that much, I just wanted to keep going and take the time to achieve my dream."

He grew out of the size obstacle -- Burrows is now 6-1 and 188 pounds. Burrows had enough talent to overcome everything else. 

Why hockey?

"I don't really know," Burrows hesitated and then shot back. "Back then -- I was born in 1981 -- and the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1986 so that factored in for sure.

"My dad never really knew anything about hockey because he's from England and I think when I was five, hockey was a big topic in Montreal and a lot of kids got into hockey and that's probably how I got into it. Almost all my friends that I still talk to or hang out with all used to play hockey growing up."

Rodney and Carole are his parents. His mother, a Quebec native, is an elementary school principal.

He's come a long way from before a fourth-line player with Ryan Kesler to a first-line talent playing alongside the Sedin twins.

"What started off as grinding it out on the fourth line, being an agitator with Kes if you want to call it that and now playing with two of the smartest and best players in the world, it's like a dream," Burrows emphasized. "Especially now that we're a Stanley Cup contender."

Steve Tambellini, the Edmonton Oilers GM now and former high-ranking official of the Canucks, said, "He's one of those players who fall through the cracks, but because of their perseverance are willing to do whatever it takes. Not just to make it, but just to get a chance in pros.

"He earned a right to play at every level. It doesn't happen too often -- where guys come out of nowhere. Maybe at the time he was draft eligible, he didn't warrant a selection, but he's now he's not a bad player."

To be accepted by his teammates, his linemate Henrik and Daniel Sedins, was a mere formality.

"We always saw, from the day he came, he had skills and he worked hard, and he was smart," Daniel Sedin said. "He made good plays all the time."

Long journey. Dangerous adventure. 

It made everything alright according to Alex Burrows. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Conacher has overcome many obstacles to get the NHL

By Larry Wigge

Cory Conacher's all-time wish list included: a plea for someone to believe in him as a hockey player.

That's not so much. But ...

Everywhere Conacher played people kept telling him he was too small at 5-8, to play hockey. But, in each case, Cory had Marty St. Louis in the back of his mind to make things feel right.

St. Louis succeeded in the NHL as a 5-foot-8 player ... it took time, however. When Marty, who played at the University of Vermont, he too went undrafted. He was cut by the Calgary Flames, but then he went on to star with the Tampa Bay Lightning beginning in 2000, winning a Stanley Cup and being named the Art Ross winner as NHL Player of the Year in 2004.

To every too small hockey player, St. Louis has become a bigger than life hero. 

The Burlington, Ontario, native, has another thing working against him -- he had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 8 years old.

Too often a disability like that can be maintained, but Conacher has to be fastidious in taking care of the diabetes.

The Lightning were gathering for training camp in this lockout-shortened season, Conacher has finally gotten his chance to meet St. Louis. He had finally gotten a chance to play in the NHL.

This was more than just an introduction for Conacher, who owns 12 records at Canisius. Last year while playing for the Norwalk Admirals of the American Hockey League -- he scored 39 goals and 41 assists to win the Dudley 'Red' Garrett Trophy as the Rookie of the Years and also captured Les Cunningham Plaque as the Player of the Year.

Once St. Louis had felt Conacher's feelings, he knew then to be genuine.

"My whole life, he's a guy who has kept me motivated," Conacher said. "He's a guy that I look up to so much. Coming here, he was the first guy I wanted to talk to, just to get an idea of what I had to do."

Said St. Louis, "I love his game. I love his energy. It's not because he is small. People compare him to me and it's not like I try to talk to him more because of that. Every guy that comes in here, if I see something, I want to help."

For St. Louis, it's all about doing what a veteran is supposed to do.

"When I was a young player in this league," St. Louis said, "I had players to help make me see things. When you get older, you should pay it forward."

Finally, Conacher had gotten his plea ... for someone to believe in him.

"You can't really expect the start that I've had," Conacher said. "It's been kind of a dream start. ... Maybe in the summer, I'll pinch myself and say, 'Did that just happen?' But not now."

St. Louis wouldn't mind seeing Conacher puff out his chest a bit.

"There is nothing wrong with having a swagger and believing in yourself," St. Louis said. "Eventually, people will believe in you because they see that you believe in yourself."

Call it little brother and even littler brother, although both will tell you that size has nothing to do with this working relationship. So what is it? Why have these two become so close? Mostly, it's a veteran wanting to pass along all that he knows and a kid thirsty for whatever scraps of knowledge he can pick up. Here's what the two mean to each other and the Lightning.

Conacher had one goal and one assist in his first NHL game in a 6-3 victory against Washington January 19. He had two game-winning goals against Carolina January 22 and against Winnipeg on February 1. The diminutive one had eight goals and 14 assists in 31 games in late March -- and he ranked first among rookies with 22 points.

Always following St. Louis advice.

"Move my feet, go into the dirty areas, do the things that coaches like," Conacher said. "That's what I've focused on."

"It's a little easier to fight off a check than it is to fight off diabetes, so that's how that's how I take it," Conacher continued. "When I'm in the corner I want to come out with the puck, do the little things that will help my team. A lot of people in my past said I was too small to make it, and that's just another motivator that kept me driving the net, kept me doing the little things to fight off those big defensemen and big forwards."

His father Dave is an accountant, who just happens to own a couple of ice skating rinks -- one is Twins Rinks is Burlington. If he couldn't be a hockey player, Cory once told a counselor at Canisius he wanted to be an accountant.

"He overlooks the fear," Dave Conacher said. "That's what sets him apart from others his size. He's got that determination, he's got grit and he's not afraid to go into that dirty area. That's what the coaches saw."

Cory is a distant relative of Hockey Hall of Famers Charlie Conacher, Roy Conacher and Lionel Conacher, which shows the genes run through his blood.

Dave admits he wasn't quite sure what coaches meant when they said his son Cory was fearless -- until he saw it first-hand on a late November night in Mississauga, when he was 16 playing for the Burlington Cougars.

At Canisius, coach Dave Smith had no doubt Conacher could handle the rough going.

"His passion is through the roof," said Smith. "And when you love the game as much as he does, you look forward to getting up and playing every day."

Through the junior hockey and into the pros, Conacher has also elevated his game when necessary. 

Conacher said. "I'm still just the little guy and trying to make a name for myself, and I do that by working hard.

"My size is a disadvantage, but I just try to come back with speed, intensity and what the coach likes is relentlessness ... and I think that is what is going to open the eyes of the coaches."

Guy Boucher, the former Lightning coach, fell in love with Conacher, "He's got the speed, the drive -- he's relentless. Those guys, they manufacture things. It's the guys that have skill that play on the outside usually their adaptation period in the NHL is longer.

"He's at the right place, doing the right things -- and he keeps going at it. He's a relentless guy that gets knocked down and nobody knows he's knocked down because a fraction of a second after he's right back up going at it. He just keeps coming, keeps coming, keeps coming. That's why he's had success wherever he's been."

Yes, Cory Conacher has often gotten knocked down, but he keeps on getting up.

"It's been a dream ever since I skated at Twin Rinks," Conacher said of his father's rink in Ontario "Playing with guys I idolized my whole hockey career. Especially a guy like Marty St. Louis."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

At 22, Kadri is already Nazeem the Dream

By Larry Wigge

There are rare individuals who never can succeed at the minor league level ... but who can thrive on the man stage in the major leagues.

Nazem Kadri is the enigma were are talking about -- a guy who couldn't do the things at a minor league level, but boy can he for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

A center by trade is of Lebanese heritage -- he is the first Muslim drafted by the Maple Leafs. That he grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan only adds to the mix for multi-cultural Toronto. 

On draft day in June of 2009, I remember a story about Kadri.

Bryan Murray of the Ottawa Senators, as I remember it, was picking ninth, but he was attempting to trade up so he could get Jared Cowen, a highly touted defenseman who suffered a shoulder tear, which cost most of the season. The Sens, thinking they would miss out on Cowen tried to trade up to Toronto's spot.

Brian Burke was adamant that he had his was not going to trade and his man was Kadri.

"Our scouts think he's creative and explosive," said Burke. "He's intense. They like his physical play even though he's not a big guy."

The Maple Leafs were content to wait as long as it took for Kadri, who became a lightning rod, was called in the media by coach Dallas Eakins -- some actually considered him a bust.

Sometimes when I look at Kadri, you would see character issues -- everyone developing on their own time and sometimes you have to make mistakes and do some things wrong and get criticized to make you the player and the person you become later.

"It was tough on me for a little bit," Kadri admitted. "I really don't think a lot of other people could have been under the scrutiny and under the pressure and have that mental toughness to prevail."

Even this year, during the lockout, Kadri could never get on the same page with Marlies Eakins on the fundamentals, often benching Nazem. While with the Marlies, Nazem put up good numbers: 18 goal, 22 assist in 48 games. BUT nothing like the stats he would put up with the Maple Leafs: 13 goals, 21 assists in 31 games.

Kadri was tied for 10th in NHL scoring, ranking behind such centers as Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Erik Staal and Ryan Getzlaf. He had two goals and six assists in his last three games leading up to March 21.

"Naz works to get the puck back and he out-competes guys to get it," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said. "He is scoring goals from in tight in tough areas and he is working through checks to score.

"The reason Naz has been so consistent is that he is playing extremely well in the D-zone and he is tough to play against in the little areas. He wins so many one-on-one battles."
Two weeks earlier, following his first career hat trick against the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer, who coach Kadri in Kitcher of the Ontario Hockey League, remarked: "I'm surprised it took as long as it did. But I'm not surprised it took time. He's not a big guy."

Kadri says one of the reasons he's been able to handle the scrutiny and the criticism is because of Pete DeBoer. 

This 6-foot, 188-pound dynamo from London, Ontario, got a quick start to this season, training under fitness guru Gary Roberts, the former NHL star who spends a great deal of his time these days enlightening young athletes about the benefits of proper diet and training. Roberts only works with the most dedicated athletes so that in itself is a good indication of Kadri's determination to take his game to the next level. For Kadri, his mission was to get leaner, turning fat into muscle, and to become more explosive.

"Honest to God, I think in terms of what I am supposed to do on the ice, it's all taken care of," Kadri said. "I know my role and what I am supposed to do when I am on the ice. It’s the off-ice routine that I am really focusing on. I am dedicating myself in terms of having a strict meal plan and working on explosive legs lifts so that my first couple of strides can separate me from everyone else. I'm already a pretty quick and elusive hockey player."

Nazem Kadri has already been nicknamed "Nazeem the Dream" by captian Phaneuf for his flashy play.

"Everyone in our business should take note of this," said St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong. "We're all guilty of wanting more and asking too much of our young players. We're all guilty of impatience. And when a player doesn't meet our expectations, we turn to someone else.

"Time was we used to draft Europeans and not even bring them over until they were 22, 23, 24. And they played right away. But we draft these kids at 18 and we're not willing to wait on them. And you see something like this and you realize how wrong you can be."

Kadri started skating when he was two, began playing organized hockey when he was four, and was suiting up for elite level teams when he was six. Kadri's parents are Sam and Sue moved to Canada when he was four from the small town of Kferdenis in Lebanon. Sam opened a successful auto repair shop and Sue watched her 7-year-old son wrecking her hardwood floors by rollerblading in the living room while practising his shot.

"I had Nazem skating at 3," said Sam Kadri, who built a backyard rink. "A lot of it was I was envious of my friends in high school. Hockey is a fabulous game, and I wished I could play it, so that's why I got him started. He played house league at 4 -- you're not supposed to play until you're 5, but I fibbed and started him early."

Fibbed? Yes ... only a little white lie for the good of his son.

Dave Nonis, now the current GM in Toronto is ready to tab Nazem Kadri as The Dream.

"I love the way Naz has played. Everybody does," Nonis said. "I'd love to put the brakes on, 'Here comes 100 points.'

"Naz has done a very good job. He came into the season, I don't think, as prepared as he'd have liked. To his credit, he put a lot of work in with the Marlies early on ... His skill has always been there. He didn't get good overnight. He's been good for a long time. But his professionalism and the way he's handled the pro game in the last month and a half has taken a big step forward."

Kadri is ready to accept he's got a long way to go. But, this year's flight, has been worth watching.

"I think regardless of what league you're playing in, you've got to have that swagger and walk around like you can be the best player," Kadri said. "If you don't, really what's the point?

"I mean you've got to have the confidence in your teammates and yourself to make the plays you want to because, in this league, if you hesitate when you make a play, chances are it's not going to work. You've got to be sure in what you're doing."

And Nazem Kadri is always confident.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fisher has been a hit in Music City

By Larry Wigge

When you make a trade for a player line February, there can be only one thought in mind.

How will he help us for the playoff push?

On February 10, 2011, the Nashville Predators gave up a first-round pick that year, plus a third-rounder in 2012 for longtime center Mike Fisher -- a veteran of 65 playoff game with the Ottawa Senators, including 20 playoff games in 2007, when the Sens went to the Stanley Cup finals against the Anaheim Ducks.

Originally a second-round pick, 44th overall by the Senators in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft, Fisher had 167 goals and 181 assists in 675 career games with Ottawa.

The Peterborough, Ontario, native, wouldn't be considered a goal-scorer by trade ... but he would be considered a top six player. Four times, Fisher topped the 20-goal mark in his 10 season in the NHL.

But it's the other things you get from the 6-1, 209-pound center. 

"I know my job and what I have to do, and I have to focus on that," Fisher said proudly. "If your mind is focused on zero points ... it's like golf, when you think about not hitting the ball in the water, you hit it in the water. I'm thinking about what I have to do. Points aren't all there is to my game. It's about contributing in all parts.

"I'm no different player than I ever was. I'm going to be better. It might take a bit of time, but I don't feel my game is that much different than it was."

Fisher registered his eighth and ninth goals in 31 games -- giving him five goals in five games -- in leading the Predators to a 5-3 victory over Calgary March 21. 

Regardless of the numbers, Fisher flies into corners with an almost reckless abandon. If he were a baseball player, he'd be a wall-crasher or a base-stealer with a dirty uniform.

Coach Barry Trotz has learned in just over 100 games with Fisher in the lineup that he'll give every bit of energy.

"His character on and off the ice," said Trotz. "He's hard-nosed. He's sort of like David Backes.

"He can give you some offense. He doesn't cheat. He plays hard. Every night he empties his tank." 

"We were seeking a top-six forward and Mike Fisher was the player we set our sights on," Predators GM David Poile said in a statement. "He plays playoff-style hockey all season long. He plays on the power play, kills penalties, is strong on draws and can match up against any opposing line."

Most general managers just most players by using the eye test. Poile and Trotz both agreed that Fisher was a perfect fit.

"Our players knew him," said Trotz. "He skated in the summer. He's married to Cary Underwood." 

Married to the Grammy-award winning singer, it was either Nashville or Los Angeles, two places Underwood calls home.

Said Trotz, "He's fit in great. It was really a classy move by Ottawa to allow him to come to Nashville. They knew he was a pretty vital part of the Sens." 

Mike Fisher had met Cary Underwood at one of her concerts in 2008. After a year of dating, Fisher, popped the question last December 20, 2009, with a 12-carat ring worth about $800,000.

"We're both obviously excited and very happy," Fisher said.

On July 10, 2010, Fisher married Underwood at The Ritz-Carlton Lodge, Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Georgia, with more than 250 people in attendance. Underwood surprised Fisher by having one of their favorite artists, Brandon Heath, sing his song "Love Never Fails" for their first dance.

Who was the biggest influence in Fisher's life? He'll tell you ...

His parents, Karen and Jim. They led by example.

"They never pushed hockey on me," Mike said. "They let me make my own decisions. They've always been very supportive." 

What's was your most extravagant toy?  

"I'd say my Four-wheeler or snowmobile," he said. "They're my kind of toys. Especially the Four-wheeler. I like to drive it around the property, plow the driveway, stuff like that." 

Which player do you most like to be compared to?   

"I like the way Mike Peca plays. Same with Joe Thornton," he said. "But I'm obviously not going to be Thornton." 

What was your favorite team growing up?

"The Leafs," Mike said. "That was back when they had Doug Gilmour." 

There's a little bit of Doug Gilmour in Fisher, though he mightn't be a small as Gilmour.

Yes, indeed. It was putting the ultimate competitor in the lineup filled with Junkyard Dogs, according the Poile.

"The coach can play him in all the situations," he said. "He plays the most important minutes against the opponents best players. He kills penalties plays the power play." 

But most of all ...

"To us, he was a Predators type of player," continued Poile. "He was not a star -- a player who was going to score 50 goals. He's competitive every night. He's hard to play against.

"He's one of those type of guys who you would say is a team player. It's always been his MO whererever he's played. If you've got to go to war, he would certainly be on my team. 

"We wanted to make this deal. It made sense. It's his hard work. His compete level was off the charts. You can win with Mike Fisher."

Said Mike Fisher, "Nashville plays a system that is perfect for my game. It's intensity, hard work, good solid team game. ... It's all about the team and I think I'm going to fit that mold very well. It's a more aggressive style than we played in Ottawa."

A perfect fit. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Evander Kane -- Always Competitive and Fiery

By Larry Wigge

When you look at Evander Kane, there's a neat little competitive nature and fiery attitude that comes out at you.

It comes from his Perry, his dad, who played collegiate hockey before taking a stab at amateur boxing and serving as a person trainer in Vancouver.

The Elder Kane always had a way to get into the kid's mind -- with the best for Evander in the long run.

"We would always have a race of about 100 yards before each season," Evander reported.  

Perry would always win. 

"I think I beat my dad before my second year of junior," the 6-2, 195-pound said with a cocky confidence. "I said, If I could beat him before he turned 50 it would mean I was ready for the NHL."

Oh, there was one handicap Perry had put on this competition. Another stipulation put on by the elder Kane to keep his streak alive.

Said Evander, "He was racing me with no hockey equipment ... while I did."

Later that year, Evander Kane was drafted fourth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. He became the highest drafted black player.

Not just a black player, but one who could those unique guys who can play in any situation, whether you need a goal or a hit or a defensive play, it's in his repertoire. He not only goes to the net and competes very hard, but he doesn't play with fear -- and has an edge to his game.

"In my reports, I don't often write 'total package,' " said New York Islanders director of scouting Ken Morrow. "I'd write it about Kane."

Last season, with the Winnipeg Jets, the power forward broke through with 30 goals -- making him the NHL's youngest player to reach the 30-goal milepost. In this compressed season, he poked home his 12th goal at 7:19 to play in the Jets 3-1 win over Boston March 19

There is more to this special family. Evander's, mom Sheri, was a professional volleyball player. Leonard Kane, his uncle, is a member of the Candian Ball Hockey Hall of Fame. His cousin, Dwayne Provo, played in the Canadian Football League for seven years and spent one season with the New England Patriots of the National Football League. Another cousin, Kirk Johnson, boxed for Canada at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and later fought John Ruiz for the 2002 World Boxing Association Heavyweight title.

"You know what?" said Perry Kane. "Coming from a small black community and watching my grandparents struggle to raise 18 children and then seeing my father raise his five children -- just to see that evolve to this point.

"I don't think anyone in our family thought that we would ever be here with hockey. Especially hockey. Hockey of all sports. I can't describe the feeling of how thankful we are to go out and have this opportunity to prove to the world."

"My dad always worked on my skating stride," said Evander. "He said as long as you can skate and shoot -- there will be a team looking for you."

Said Perry, "From the time I started working with him and showing him how to do things, he never got tired. He'd skate in circles and never complained about practices or drills. And he kept getting better. He's always been a hard worker -- and he's always tried to be the best he can be." 

So, you might not be confused. Kane's name comes from the Atlanta-based boxer Evander Kane.

But, it was his mother, Sherri, who picked out the name. Not hisfather, Perry, was an amateur boxer. Evander's father and grandfather were big Holyfield fans.

Joe Sakic was Kane's favorite player growing up. He liked the Colorado Avalanche and also was fond of Peter Forsberg.

"Now, I really like Jarome Iginla," Kane said, he also has had to challenge himself to being black. "He's a great goal-scorer and definitely one of my favorite players overall."

The Jets have no one else like Kane, a big, powerful player with a cannon for a shot and a nose for the net. He's a 40- or 50-goal scorer waiting to happen. He's also a superstar in the making with the potential to have all of Winnipeg at his feet.

Evander's in line to be the next in the line of beloved Winnipeg hockey players, following behind Bobby Hull and Dale Hawerchuck and Teemu Selanne.

"He's physical, you notice him and he shoots the puck a ton," says coach Claude Noel. "He finds ways to find the back of the net."

Rick Dudley spotted Kane with the Vancouver Giants. Dudley, the former Atlanta GM, says Evander still jumps out at you.

"Scores in a variety of different ways," he said. "Great speed. He's a much stronger kid than when we drafted him."

John Anderson, who was an assistant coach in Atlanta, swears by Kane. 

"He's going to be an all-star in this league," he says. "He still makes some young mistakes, but he's sound defensively and he can fly. He will be a big part of our organization for years to come."

Take it from his current coach, Claude Noel.

"The more he gets into the game the more he skates the more he seems to be dangerous," he said. "It might be the best I've seen him play. I mean, he's shooting the puck so well. You've got to shoot when you've got bullets like he has."

And Evander Kane certainly has the bullets.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Nash clearly has the It factor Rangers need

By Larry Wigge

You get a pretty clear picture of what's going through Rick Nash's mind when you see the tattoo of the shark on his left shoulder.

"I like the persona of a shark -- dangerous, scary and deadly," Nash laughed.

And that just what the 6-4, 219-pound right wing was all of that and more for nine years. Dangerous. Scary. Deadly. He was clearly the face of the Columbus Blue Jackets franchise, after being the first overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

Nash posted 289 goals and 547 points in 674 regular-season games with Columbus -- including 30 or more goals seven of his nine season with the Blue Jackets.

The Brampton, Ontario, native, became the captain of the Blue Jackets at 24. But Nash was far more valuable to the club in play in All-Star Games and in the Olympics. For whatever reason, Columbus couldn't find the right mix to put around him. 

No center to get him the puck, yet he still topped 40 goals twice.

So, we take you to the 2011-12 season -- another 30-goal season. But, Nash, getting tired of the team's lackluster play. He demanded a commitment. But ...

Instead, he got no help. So he demanded a trade-me scenario to Columbus midway through the season.

Rick had a no-trade clause in his contract -- so he offered six clubs the Blue Jackets could deal with. No trade could be made prior the trade deadline on February 27. Columbus looked at this as a get-rich quick scheme. But, over the next six months, they found out otherwise.

While the Jackets were targeting defenseman Ryan McDonagh, center Derek Stepan and rookie sensation Chris Kreider from the Rangers -- all three players were considered non-starters in trade discussions.

Finally, on July 23 Columbus settled for forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Ansimov, minor league defenseman Tim Erixon and a first-round pick in 2013 for Nash, along with minor league prospect Steven Delisle.

The get-rich quick scheme ended in a six-month game of chicken, with GM Scott Howson flinching -- and eventually losing his job in Columbus.

"It took a long time, I'll tell you that much," Sather said, "was a deal we couldn't turn down.

"By adding Nash, it doesn't break up the core of our hockey club. This quality of hockey player doesn't come around very often. You don't have the chance to make this kind of a deal ... this is a very important deal for our hockey club."

Said coach John Tortorella, "I think he's at a point in his career where this is the next step in his game. He comes to a bigger market, more pressure on him, trying to find his way to produce in the playoffs. He handled himself very well at Columbus. This is a different stage for him. I think this is perfect timing for Nash and the Ranger organization to have him here."

Nash stepped up to the challenge of playing with an Original Six team.

"This is great," Nash emphasize in his opening statement after the trade. "This is what I grew up with in Toronto, where hockey is a big deal. This is what I dreamed of when I dreamed of playing in the NHL. And the only time I got that was when I went back to Canada six times to play those teams, or play in the Olympics.

"I've had expectations on me my whole career, since being a high draft pick and going to a club that had never made the playoffs. I think professional athletes like the pressure, they embrace it. And it's no different here for me."

Nash led the Rangers in scoring in mid-March with 10 goals and 14 assists in 25 games. He beat the Carolina Hurricanes 2-1 on a shootout goal March 18 and came right back with a third-period wrist shot against the New Jersey Devils one night later, beating them 3-2.

Nash was catching the attention of others around the NHL in his first nine seasons.

"We were sitting on the bench, just laughing at how good he is," Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan said, recalling a moment at Team Canada's 2006 Olympic training camp. "It's fun watching him play, watching him develop. Everyone is seeing how he is so dominating."

Consistency is often a young player's bugaboo. But Nash has always been mentally tough.

"It was sort of defined by two parts -- since Ken Hitchcock took over as coach and since the All-Star Game," Nash said of the 2007-08 season. "You don't get the tempo you want by playing just 14 minutes a game. You look around the league and see the prominent forwards playing at least 20 minutes a game and in all of the important parts of each game. When Ken Hitchcock came, he kind of challenged me to be at the level that the great forwards are who play the power play and kill penalties in addition to playing on the team's top line.

"But the confidence really came to a head for me when I went to the All-Star Game -- even though my numbers might not have been where I wanted them. It was funny, but I looked around the locker room and at all of the stars at the skills competition and during the game and I felt like I belonged there. It was kind of like a boost in confidence for me."

That was positive reinforcement for this man-child.

"You don't get to the level that I achieved and then just pat yourself on the back and stop," Nash said. "You want that kind of good pressure. There are a lot of young players who learned from their early experience at this level that they can’t just do it in spurts. You see them do it every shift, every game. That’s the kind of consistency I want for myself ... and my team.

"The best advice I ever got was from Dale Hunter when I played my junior hockey for him at London (in the Ontario Hockey League). He always reminded his players that hard work beats talent and harder work from talented players is really hard to stop."

The Rangers are clearly a better team with Nash in the lineup. 

"He's very talented. You can see each day the level of skill comes out more and more," Henrik Lundqvist said. "It's fun for a goalie against a guy who loves to score. So far, it's been a good test. A team can go a long way working really hard, but you need some skill. That could be the difference a lot of nights."

That's when former Columbus GM Doug MacLean remembered what former Quebec and Washington captain Dale Hunter, a heart-and-soul player in the NHL for 19 seasons, told him about Rick Nash before MacLean picked Nash No. 1 overall in 2002.

"Dale told me that this kid had all the courage and passion to lead a team to the Stanley Cup." Maclean recalled. "And if Dale Hunter says that, the I believe it."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Trade Setoguchi? Not while he's on the rise

By Larry Wigge

Sometimes the mere mention of your name in a trade rumor can serve as a wake-up call. Heck, it can scare the daylights out of you.

The thought picking up your belongings and moving to another team, scared the life out of Minnesota Wild right wing Devin Setoguchi, when he woke up February 4 and read the small item in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he was trade bait.

"Not again," said the 26-year-old Taber, Alberta, native, shaking his head.


Setoguchi had been blindsided by the trade that sent him to Minnesota on draft day 2011 (June 24), being traded along with with forward Charlie Coyle (the Sharks first-round pick in 2010, 28th overall), San Jose's 2011 first-round pick for defenseman Brent Burns and a second-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.

"I was disappointed," Setoguchi remembered, looking back on the 31-goal season in 2008-09 -- his second of his four seasons with the Sharks. "It was like someone had just stuck a knife in my stomach."

You will get to know Setoguchi as a caring, selfless young man. 

There was only one way to stop the rumors of his second trade in 20 months -- simply end his streak of no goals in 10 games, which he did by scoring nine and seven assists in the next 18 games.

Included, in his turnaround was two game-winning goals -- February 9 against Nashville and February 21 against Edmonton. To top it off, Setoguchi's two goals and one assist in a 6-4 decision over the Colorado Avalanche March 16 and two nights later he set up a goal in a 3-1 win over Vancouver that put the Wild in first place in the Northwest Division.

That, to me, is the comeback of a player with character and passion. Someone who wants to play hockey -- and is good at it.

Not a potato farmer -- like his father Dale, who owns a 700-acre ranch in Taber.

Whatever the crop, "I'm not a farmer," Setoguchi said. "I can't tell you how many acres we have or what kind of tractors we drive."

Only once did he ever get up at 5:30 a.m. to work the fields -- and that ended when Setoguchi begged off the farming go play golf.

When he was 10, Devin suffered a farm accident -- the tip of his left index finger was caught in a conveyer.

Setoguchi likes to show the scar from the accident, while telling the story.

That accident help steer him toward a promising future in hockey.

"That's when I figured it was waaaaaay easier to score goals," Setoguchi said, laughing. 

Hockey also is something of a family business. Setoguchi's father was named the Alberta Junior Hockey League's MVP in 1979 and later played a year in Japan.

Dale coached his son when he was younger, emphasizing the importance of two most basic skills.

"He always stressed to me skating and shooting," Setoguchi said. "He said if you could shoot the puck and skate, you're going to be a good hockey player."

But there is even more to Devin Setoguchi, the eighth player chosen in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

"I don't know if he's flat-out fast, but he's quick," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "He's in and out. He darts."

Setoguchi takes pride in being one of the few players of Japanese descent to reach the NHL. Ken and Nancy Setoguchi, the parents of Devin's father Dale, were second-generation Japanese Canadians. They were born and raised in British Columbia, where they met, fell in love and started a home. But his grandparents were rounded up and sent to internment camps in World War II.

The theory behind was that anybody who was Japanese, even if they were American or Canadian, would be loyal to Japan and be spies. So, Setoguchi's grandparents spent four years imprisoned behind barbed wire.

"I'm very proud of them," Setoguchi recalled. "My grandparents paved the way for me and gave us the rich life I've been blessed to have with my family.

"They had no time. They were told to go into their homes and grab whatever they could take in their hands. They didn't have a choice. I don't think any of us can imagine what that must have been like. There lives were turned upside down.

"It's a touchy subject with my grandma. They wound up near Taber ... and started farming."

But somehow, Setoguchi's grandparents not only persevered through the year-long ordeal, they joined several Japanese families in creating a thriving neighborhood in Taber, a town of 7,000 filled with farms and oil patches an hour north of the Montana border. More than 60 years later, the potato farm that Ken and Nancy started is still the family business.

His grandma is still Devin's biggest fan. 

"She's got a 12-foot-sized poster shrine of me on the inside of their garage," says Setoguchi. "She has a wall with probably 150 pictures of me."

Setoguchi was placed on a line with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in San Jose -- one of the most powerful lines in recent history.

"When I'm skating, I create a lot of chances and opportunities for myself and bring energy to my club," the winger said.

Sounds like a simple game plan, but that was the advice from his veteran teammates.

"Skate, shoot and hit. Just be intense," said Setoguchi. "It's a different time of the year, different season, and we have to be ready to play."

"Just watching one or two practices, you realize how talented he is and the skill he has," Marleau said, recalling when he saw Setoguchi during the rookie's first training camp. "And what a great shot and release he has. He's playing hard, putting the work in and getting results."

Devin Setoguchi is still trying to find his niche with the Wild.

With Zack Parise and Mikko Koivu on the team's first line, Setoguchi finds himself often paired up Matt Cullen. 

They provide the Wild with a fine second line ... when they're on.

Since, that early February trade report, they been ON more often than not.

"I think the biggest adjustment with Seto is for him to open the door and say 'Here I am'," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. "What I would like to see from Devin is to assert himself."

In San Jose, we saw the confidence of Devin Setoguchi. Right now, we're starting to see the same character player for the Wild.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The transformation of Burns from defense back to Wing

By Larry Wigge

It was midway through the 2003 season -- Brent Burns rookie season with the Minnesota Wild that coach Jacques Lemaire switched the Ajax, Ontario, native, from right way to defense.

Now, midway through the 2013 season, San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan has decided to switch Burns back to right wing. To make things more interesting, it was McLellan, who coached Burns on the right side, at Houston (American Hockey League). 

"When he was sent to us in Houston, there was some debate -- Is Brent a d-man or is he a forward?" McLellan said. "We had him for the full season. We used him in different roles. There were times when I felt frustration for him because he was, 'What am I?'"

Playing forward is a much faster game. It's hard on your lungs and your legs. But ...

Ask linemates Joe Thornton and Logan Couture whether they would prefer to have Burns on defense or at forward. Thornton and Couture have watched the 6-5, 225-pound monster moved back to forward and aid the Sharks with two goals and three assists in three games, including two goals by Couture in a 4-3 triumph over the Los Angeles Kings March 14.

"He's a pretty good defenseman, but I think he's going to be an even better forward," Thornton said. "I love him. He's big, he's strong. He skates real well. He seems like a perfect fit for me and Logan."

Couture said: "He's an animal. I said it about 10 times after each shift. I was telling him, I was hoping to play next to him with Jumbo (Thornton) for the next 10 years."

Actually, Burns may have been a surprise to some with the 20th pick in the 2003 NHL draft, but he clearly was born to be a hockey player, literally and physically. Gaby, his mom, went into labor with him while she was at a rink watching her husband, Rob, play in a recreational league game back in March of 1985. 

Rob Burns was a metal factory worker by trade. But after the couple had three kids (Brent has a younger brother named Brad and a sister named Kori) a need to supplement the family income ensued. It's one of those delicious little tidbits we learned about in a couple of conversations with Burns this season. The extra job turned out to be a paper route that Brent and his dad had delivering copies of the Toronto Star ... and they did it early each morning on roller blades.

Clearly, Burns' background shows he's full of surprises. 

Brent was was a lot of late development in his last year in juniors. The Wild knew that he'd played a little bit of defense, but we had no intentions of drafting him to play defense. The team saw the size and speed and shot and figured he could be a power forward once he developed. But Burns just wanted to play. He didn't care where.

More surprises. We learned about the diverse life of Brent Burns that night. Like ...

Burns has five tattoos in all. He owns three guitars, two expensive racing bikes to quench his love for cycling and interest in the life of Lance Armstrong. Plus, he's got his own little Noah's Ark -- two huskies, two cats, two large fast-talking birds and a large and unique sampling of fish that includes a shark.

We also learned that reading is Brent's greatest passion outside of hockey.

"I've loved to read since I was a kid," Brent said, looking for a look of astonishment from me when he gave me that answer. "Seriously, I remember when I was growing up, we had a loft in the garage that had a fort up there. But I always seemed to be attracted to several huge boxes my dad had up there filled with books -- most of them war books. I'd sit there all day and read them."

Burns actually got interested in war stories by listening to Patrick Burns, his grandfather, who was an artilleryman in World War II. Like with everything else in Brent's life, the list of books in his library cover an assortment of subjects. The military tomes start back in the Roman Empire and include topics on the Civil War, World War I and II. He even has a book about the Viet Cong. Plus, he told me he has the complete Harry Potter series, nearly every word that has been written by or about Lance Armstrong and most of John Grisham's mystery thrillers.

Clearly, variety is the spice of life for this interesting forward-turned-defenseman-back-to-forward. The best part of the plot of Brent Burns the hockey player came in his draft year when he grew a remarkable five inches and gained 15 pounds. It was at that point that he moved up front, started piling up points and rocketed up the scouting charts.

Burns had only one goal as a rookie in the NHL in 2003-04 and managed just four goals in 2005-06. Thus, the move from right wing to defense.

But making a change back to defense wasn't always without tests for Lemaire. I'll never forget the coach throwing his arms in the air in confusion over a bad turnover Brent made in a game in St. Louis a little more than a year ago. Reporters wondered when the experiment might end. To which Lemaire replied, "Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day."

After getting a few laughs at Burns' expense, I remember asking Jacques about the trial and error of such an experiment. He smiled and said, "All they asked racehorses to do is run, right? Well, not quite. Brent Burns is at a part of the development stage for a young defenseman. What I like most about Burnzie is that he just has fun playing hockey. And I really love his attitude to learn on the job."

Makes you want to know a little more about Brent Burns, right? Well, here's a sampling:

Favorite player growing up? "Mark Messier," Burns said quickly. "Great leader. Big. Strong. Great skater. What a blast it was for me in my first preseason game with the Wild. First shift. I'm lining up across from Messier. I was so nervous I couldn't move, you know?"

Any superstitions? "When I get to the rink before each game, I try to focus on the players I'm going against. Their strengths and weaknesses. And ... I usually listen to the same CD's. Something to get my blood flowing like Good Charlotte or Guns & Roses."

If you weren't a hockey player, what would you be? "If hockey didn't work out, I'd probably be a lifer in the military. Infantry ... like my grandfather."

Lots of beliefs. So many interests. What is the one thing people would be most surprised about you? "Maybe that I believe in reincarnation ..."

Whoa! Even I had to pause for that one, before he continued, saying, "I don't know what I was in a past life. But I'd like to believe I was a lion or a tiger. Some sort of big predator, you know what I mean?"

Well ... no. 

Just another day in the life to Brent Burns.