Thursday, March 31, 2016

Jeff Skinner is no baby faced winger for Canes

By Larry Wigge

He's got that quick-twitch feel of a goal scorer.

That feel enabled Jeff Skinner to be so fast at getting the puck off his stick that he scored twice with ONE second left to send the game into overtime. And then, all he did was lead the Carolina Hurricane winner in a 4-3 victory over Ottawa February 18.

He's the second player in Hartford/Carolina franchise history to score a tying goal with one second remaining to play in the third period, joining Dave Keon, who did so for the Whalers against the Islanders on October 19, 1980.

Some can get the puck away ... others can't.

Eric Staal, longtime captain of the Carolina Hurricanes, spoke up after he was traded to the New York Rangers, about Skinner.

"His natural ability, his instincts are there," Staal remarked. "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."

The Markham, Ontario, native, scored his 26th goals in a 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders March 26. In his first five seasons with the Canes, Skinner has topped the 30-goal mark twice -- scoring 33 goals in 2013-14 and 31 goals as a rookie in 2010-11.

He came into the NHL as a seventh pick overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

And though he bounced back and scored 33 goals in 2013-14, last season was marred after he suffered his third concussion in four years.

"Skinny's a dangerous guy from the tops of the circles down, he really loves to score," coach Bill Peters said. "He's tenacious on the puck, he's playing hard, he's going to the blue paint. He's playing well defensively ... and that leads to part of his offense.

"Earlier in the year we kept talking about how close he was. Now instead of hitting the posts and going out they're going in. He's got to ride that wave while he can."

Kirk Muller, who was the head coach in Carolina, now is an assistant in St. Louis, says. "I do see a maturity level. Responding the way he did was an easy assessment of how he handled the criticism. 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."

"It's sort of maturing, if you can call it that," Skinner said. "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."

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."

How did figure skating help with hockey? Skinner talked about balance, about finding the absolute edge of that eighth of an inch of steel on that rock-hard ice. But first, he mentioned something else.

Despite his reputation, many felt Skinner was too small at 5-11, 200 pounds, and, ironically, not a good enough skater, to make the Canes roster this year.

Skinner responded by spending the summer with renowned NHL fitness guru Gary Roberts. He not only made the Canes' roster, but he scored a shootout goal in his second game.

You would think Skinner has been preparing for these moments all his short life, but his dad Andrew says he wasn't a kid who was groomed from birth to do this.

His dad said, "He wasn’t one of these kids who actively dreamt about being in the NHL and I think part of it was he was so busy with other sports."

One of those other sports was figure skating. Skinner was good enough to win a bronze medal at the 2004 Skate Canada Junior Nationals. But he decided to focus on hockey shortly after that, and at age 16 had a decision to make -- play in Canada's top junior league or go a route that would take him to college.

"I mean I was the same when I came in as an 18-year old I sat right there, I've just moved over one, I've been sitting there my whole career, I sat right beside Rod Brind'Amour and Ron Francis, so now I'm the old guy," reasoned Skinner. "I guess, I moved over one and the new guy got to sit beside me. It's fun to have his energy. I try to give him little tips as he goes, but he seems to be doing all right by himself."

It's eight hours before the Hurricanes play the Toronto Maple Leafs ... Jeff Skinner's favorite team as a kid. He's racing around the rink during the morning skate, a mischievous smile on his face most of the time. Skinner and Paul Maurice, his coach, laugh often in between drills.

"He's just brought up exceptionally well," said Maurice, who now coaches the Winnipeg Jets. "I think he just loves playing. He spends most of the time doing everything with a smile on his face, this is a big thrill for him to be in the NHL, but he's also got a pretty mean competitive streak in him, he wants to score. He barks at himself when he's not going, he'll protect himself a little but on the ice.

"So, we're really excited about the whole package, not just the fact he puts the puck in the net or that he creates some offense for his linemates, this guy seems like the right kind of guy you hang onto for a long time."

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?

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.

There were some anxious moments leading up to the Hurricanes seventh pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. The Canes had tabbed 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, now with Pittsburgh. "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."

Gary Roberts, a former net-charging winger, knew it. He said that Jeff Skinner reminded him of Sidney Crosby.

In the right context ...

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Power forward Gabriel Landeskog leadling the way for Avs

By Larry Wigge

He was pushing and pulling. Gabriel Landeskog was getting closer to the goal crease.

Until ...

The puck somehow or another hit him while he was pushing and pulling Nashville stud defenseman Shea Weber with all he had. The goal put the Colorado Avalanche ahead 10:10 of the second period in. Landeskog didn't even know he had put it in in a 4-3 victory.

Carl Soderberg had centered it ... but, indeed, it was Landeskog's goal.

"I was so busy with Shea Weber," he explained. "That's quite a big body to move around in front of the net."

It was Landeskog's 19th goal to go along with his 30 assists. The Stockholm, Sweden, native, has scored 22, 26 and 23 goals in his first three season after being picked second overall in and 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Always looking for tips, the 6-1, 210-pound winger ...

"I have to get better with little things. Stickhandling in traffic, tips and get quicker and stronger," Landeskog 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."

"It's everything," said former Avs center Peter Statsny, who now plays for in St. Louis. "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."

Said St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, "He reminds me so much of Peter Forsberg in his ability to maneuver in small spaces. His strength and quickness in small spaces -- I'm very impressed."

"He's got all the tools," said Carolina winger Jeff Skinner, who like Landeskog play junior hockey at Kitchener. "He's strong. He's fast. He can shoot. Beyond that, I think he has the intangibles that are hard to come by. He thinks the game well, and I think guys like to play on his team."

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 playing for Hammerby from 1977 through 1985, 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.

He's grown up from those days.

Landeskog has always been a 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 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.

A strong, powerful, and swift skater, Landeskog is a dynamic playmaking power forward who also has the ability to create scoring chances with his sheer tenacity and grit, and lists Colorado's Jarome Iginla and Washingtn's Mike Richards as his role models for their leadership and on-ice game.

"You just see it," said former backup goalie J.S. Giguere, who has seen a lot in his 14 NHL seasons. "You see it on a guy. You see it the way he carries himself, the way he talks, the way he's not afraid to talk to guys and speak his mind between periods, the way he practices and the way it's in his eyes.

"You see it. You see that he's hungry for the net. You see that he's going to be ..."


"He reminds me a lot of a guy like Peter Forsberg."

When Patrick Roy took over as coach, he had a simple message for Landeskog: Don't stress it, man. Play free. To help the captain, Roy expected leadership from all comers.

"This is a young group. The older guys don't need a C on their jersey," Roy said. "I didn't ever have a C or an A on my jersey. It didn't matter. I knew I could bring some leadership."

Leader. Gabriel Landeskog's strength and quickness in small spaces. Pushing and pulling in those small spaces with a key defender like Shea Weber.

He getting better as we speak.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Ryan Getzlaf ... a once in a lifetime player for Anaheim

By Larry Wigge

There's something about making a blind drop pass near the center ice that gets under the skin of Ryan Getzlaf.

He know he shouldn't do it and the next time around ... you know he won't do it again.

"He sure redeemed himself," explained coach Bruce Boudreau. "It was nice to see when you get there and redeem yourself like that."

After being sat for eight minutes in the third period following the turnover, Getzlaf finished the game of the Ducks fourth line.

"I was more upset with myself," Getzlaf said. "We're all accountable for what we do. I did my best to stay up on the bench and made sure the guys are ready and be sure I was ready when my turn came again."

Getzlaf said that he learned from the best ...

"Steve Yzerman learned in many ways over the years as captain of the Detroit Red Wings," he said. "There's something about making a blind pass there ..."

He laughed at himself and continued, "It's in the DNA. It's in the compete level."

You can imagine his surprise not only at the team's decision to draft him, but the fact that he dropped all the way to the No. 19 pick in the 2003 NHL Draft. Getzlaf had been ranked by Central Scouting as the No. 5 overall pick in the star-studded 2003 draft. Yet, as each pick went by, he remained nervously in his seat.

With hindsight being 20/20, how much do you want to bet those 18 other general managers ahead of the Anaheim want a do-over?

So he can smile at Boudreau's message.

"I mean Bruce is an easy coach to be with," he said. "Me and Bruce talk on a daily basis and that makes me feel a little bit more comfortable."

The Regina, Alberta, native, shivers when you bring up the Game 7 loss to the Blackhawks or a terrible start this season.

Getzlaf had only one assist in the first eight games -- through October -- and the Ducks were just 1-5-2.

"I don't know ... there's something about losing a Game 7 feeling," Getzlaf said ... as an excuse for the slow start.

But ... you don't just take a premier player off the board.

Finally, after a 4-3 victory over Philadelphia on December 27 you become the player you were. Following a shootout victory over St. Louis on January he took off, the Ducks went 14-1-1 in January.

For the season, Getzlaf has scored 12 goals and 47 assists. But, of late, nine goals and 25 assists have come since that victory over the Blues. Only Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and San Jose's Joe Thornton have more points.

That's a rare combination. A combination rarely seen so soon -- having been a big part of Anaheim's drive to the 2007 Stanley Cup over Ottawa, when he led the Ducks in scoring with 10 goals and 17 assists as a 21-year-old.

He's had 173 points during the past two regular seasons and was an All-Star each year. He ranked third in the league with 66 assists this season, setting a franchise record, and sixth with 91 points. He's only the third Duck in team history to surpass the 90-point plateau.

The Ducks made quantum leap from team on the rise to potential Stanley Cup champion, beating the Senators in the finals in 2007. And it started with the production Anaheim got from the rookie combination of Getzlaf and center Corey Perry. That line became a force when Dustin Penner, another rookie, joined them just before the playoffs.

Getzlaf has also won two gold medals with the Canadian Olympic team in 2010 and 2014.

Big and strong. Prototypical power forward, with fury and snarl packed into a 6-3, 213-pound frame. But Ryan Getzlaf isn't your ordinary in-your-face forward, he's also got the touch and patience of a diamond cutter.

That's a rare combination -- even for a 30-year-old player.

"All of the young guns —- Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin —- have great hands, but Getz has the best hands I've ever seen," said longtime Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne. "I haven't seen a more dominant player than Getzlaf in the league.

"He's unbelievable. I don't know if he knows himself how good he can be. "I don't see any reason why he can't be the best player in this league. He has all the tools. I think it's only a matter of time before he realizes it."

Captain Scott Niedermayer added, "Getzy's our go-to guy. He's just a horse. A thoroughbred. He's especially dangerous when we need him the most."

And together with linemates Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, Niedermayer said, "They're hard to handle for anyone anytime because they all have size, strength and a great drive."

Actually, the evolution of this prospect to premier player began several years ago, when Ryan Getzlaf was name captain of the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League.

"I saw it the first time my team in Red Deer played against him," Canada’s World Junior Coach Brent Sutter told me a few years ago, before Getzlaf helped Canada to a second straight gold medal in the World games. "He's strong, young, hungry and driven. When you play against him, you know you're in for a challenge -- a good kind of challenge that's going to make your team better, because he's such a great leader."

The true character in Ryan Getzlaf came shortly thereafter, when Ryan's parents were divorced. Chris and Ryan learned to grow up a little quicker than most kids might be asked. But it's clear they are both well-adjusted and driven youngsters.

Make dinner? Yes, that was just one of those chores Ryan got because his parents, Steve and Susan both worked -- Steve for Ipso Steel and Susan for the Saskatchewan Phone Co.

Their father, Steve, had regulation hockey nets constructed out of steel at the plant where he worked, and the posts stood up to years of beating. With their dad, the boys added a protective wood frame around the hockey nets so they could fire pucks in the garage through the winters, but some shots managed to find the drywall. Puck-sized holes still mark the walls in the garage.

The gene pool was obvious for Ryan Getzlaf, who was coached by his dad for his first six or seven years in hockey. And Chris Getzlaf, well, he went on to be a slotback at the University of Regina.

A natural talent and supremely confident player and athlete, Ryan won a national peewee baseball championship for Saskatchewan in 1998, plays a mean game of volleyball, shoots in the mid-80s in golf and was a pretty fair slotback in football. But his affinity was always for hockey.

Joe Sakic was his favorite player.

"I like him a lot. I've had the chance to hang out with him at All-Star Games and that's big for me. The numbers he's put up, and the leadership he has provided, it's incredible. Another guy I look up to is Teemu Selanne."

Sakic and Selanne would point to Ryan Getzlaf as one of a kind -- power, teamwork, playmaking.

Getzlaf -- a once in a lifetime player.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Slump? Pekka Rinne is a world class goaltender

By Larry Wigge

What's wrong with Pekka Rinne?

The answer is nothing ... nothing at all.

Never has there been a career that has been filled with obstacles such as being picked the eighth round, 258th pick, in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

Nashville's top European scout, Janne Kekalainen, during the 2003-04, had requested that then-assistant GM Ray Shero, now the New Jersey Devils boss. The only problem was that Rinne was the backup for Niklas Backstrom. So ... he didn't play often.

In fact ...

"I saw his team play twice, but Niklas Backstrom played both games," Shero said. "I don't even remember if I filed a report on how he stopped the puck in the pre-game warmups."

"The way I remember it, Ray was our backup plan," said Nashville GM David Poile said with a straight face. "I remember Janne Kekalainen told us he was a late-bloomer with great size.

"We were looking for goaltending depth at the time and Janne identified him as a guy we would want to look at in the draft ... and he's turned out to be a great development story."

Two things Shero remembers from that trip to Finland.

First, it was cold. Second, it was really cold. So cold, in fact, that Shero had to buy a hat when he got there.

He watched Rinne in the warmups.

"I don't remember if he saved 10 or let in 10 in warmup, just that he was huge," Shero said. "I told Janne it was his call."

At the draft, the Predators selected the 6-5, 204-pound Rinne.

"Everybody has highs and lows through the course of a season," explained coach Peter Laviolette. "I think Rinne's been working hard. He's a world-class goalie."

Niklas Backstrom, who for years was with the Minnesota Wild and now is in Calgary, said, "When you think you have him beat ... you probably don't."

Think of this rather uncomplicated way of saying Rinne is just that good.

"He's got a great glove. I tried him there a couple of times. Then I thought I could beat him low with a couple of quick shots at his feet," Blues center David Backes said playing against him divisionally. "He's definitely not just a big guy taking up space in front of the net. He's very quick at the bottom and top part of the net."

So there.

For the season, Rinne has played in 60 games, with a 31-19-10 record, with four shutouts and a 2.41 goals-against average and .910 save percentage following a 2-1 shootout victory over Vancouver March 24.

Since February 15, he has posted an 11-1 (losing two shootout game) record, a 1.78 goals against average and one shutout in 14 starts. That includes 10 times out of 14 games in which he allowed two or fewer goals.

"(Backstrom) was pretty decent," Rinne said with a pause and a wry smile. "No, he was so good. Even though I didn't play, that helped me so much. Not only that we won two championships (in 2004 and 2005), but I got to see him play, practice every day. We had a really good goalie coach in Ari Hilli who I still talk with pretty regularly. That was a key thing for me. I had a lot of time to work and watch Nik play.

"Obviously there were times that I wanted to play and I thought that I could play, but after that second year, I had a chance to come over and I'm still on the same trip."

Rinne has gone on to win 30 games, including this season. He has twice won 40 -- with a high of 43 in 2011-12.

This is pretty heady stuff for Pekka Rinne, the son of Jukka (a construction supervisor) and Helena (who works in the production of cellphone parts) when a young Pekka put on his cousin Jari's old goaltending pads when he was just seven and thought he had grown out of a job went he had a four-inch growth spurt with he was 16-17.

There's more obstacles other than a growth spurt.

"I have had a good background," Rinne said. "I've always had good instincts. Played the angles well. We always had a good goaltending coach, he stressed whenever possible to rely on my glove.

"Always use my glove."

He is one of the best goaltenders in the world if not the best, said former goaltending coach Mitch Korn. "And yet he's a better person," he said. "And with that comes great karma and great respect."

Korn picked out Rinne at a tryout camp. He was up against more heralded goaltenders like first-round pick Brian Finley and Mirolslav Hanujak (203 overall in the 2003 draft) and Kyle Moir (139th in 2004).

"Nine years ago, Barry Trotz and I had just finished working out Pekka and three other draft choices -- all picked ahead of him," said Korn. "I walked off the ice and said to Barry, 'I want That One.' "

He was pointing at Rinne.

"He wants the puck so bad, that one of the big things he had to learn was patience," said Korn. "He was such a great athlete. Waiting for the puck, knowing that he has so much more time. Too busy when he came over here from Finland.

"He got a good start in North American hockey at Milwauke (American Hockey League). He was never rushed."

Patience. That could be the bottom line to Pekka's story.

"It's one of those things where you try to just trust the work you're doing and try to focus on things you can control," Rinne said of his early season struggles. "It's been frustrating. I can't lie. But I obviously expect a lot from myself and it is tough when you feel like there's room for you to improve and play better and help your team.

"It's been at times pretty frustrating, but the best part is that there's plenty of games ahead of us."

This time, with coach Barry Trotz and Korn in Washington, Rinne decided to trust his new goaltending coach, Ben Vanderklok.

"He's been very helpful," Rinne said. "He sees the game the same way as Mitch does, if you will, and really has followed Mitch’s footsteps in that sense. That’s a really great thing for myself. I haven’t had to change anything. We have just been trying to evolve and improve where I left off with Mitch."

Said Pekka Rinne, "When that fire is gone, I think it's pretty dangerous and it's time to do something else. But I'm not worried about that. I always set my goals extremely high and always expect myself to be at the top of my game. There's no excuses, never."

Remember that: He sets his goals high.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Evgeny Kuznetsov and skill to match for the Caps

By Larry Wigge

Every now and then, you're looking for one play that stands out as a game-breaking play.

On Friday night March 18, Evgeny Kuznetsov made three such mind-boggling plays in the Washington Capitals 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators.

Just as time was expiring on a Washington power play in the second period and while the Predators were trying to make a line change, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby fired a surprse pass up the right wing boards to Evgeny Kuznetsov just outside the blue line.

Kuznetsov entered the zone, wound up as if to launch a slapshot, then fired a perfect pass to Daniel Winnik, who just hopped over the boards. Winnik buried it from just above the goal line to even the game at 1-1 at the 7:52 mark of the second.

But that wasn't it ...

Four and a half minutes later, Kuznetsov made his trademark no-look drop pass from behind the net, feeding linemate T.J. Oshie for an easy goal.

And just 38 seconds into the third period, Andre Burkakovsky converted another Kuznetsov feed for goal.

One pass prettier than the next. But the no-look drop pass from behind net drew praise from both sides.

"Playing with Kuzy, those are the things you have to expect. He sees things that maybe only a handful of players in the league can see," Oshie said. "Even when it does come, you kind of think to yourself, 'How did he just do that?' "

Nashville goalie Carter Hutton was left shaking his head after the game.

"It was just a hell of a play by him," says Hutton. "I thought he was going to attack the net on the far side, so I dropped to cover."

Kuznetsov three primary assists was the 13th multiple-assist game this season -- just one fewer than Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlssson.

"It's hard to say. It just happens sometimes," Kuznetsov said, smiling like he'd just pulled the wool over another team's eyes again.

The 6-foot, 172-pounder from Chelyabinsk, Russia, continues to turn heads as an elite playmaker, as he's now up to a whopping 20 goals and 53 assists this season.

Now, that represents a resounding improvement over Kuznetsov's performance from one year ago, when he put up 11 goals and 26 assists.

What's even more impressive, however, is the fact that he leads the entire NHL with 40 primary helpers, which is five more than Patrick Kane and nine more than Karlsson.

In only his third season with the Caps, Kuznetsov is more than fulfilling Washington's hope for him when he was drafted 26 overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

"We had him rated high and in every mock draft we did," said George McPhee, who is now special adviser to New York Islanders GM Garth Snow. "Especially the day before the draft, we kept going over it and over it and over it."

Every time the same thing said McPhee.

"It was unanimous. 'We have to take this guy. He's just too talented not to take.' "

Nicklas Backstrom, the current Caps playmaker, on Kuznetsov, future playmaker, said, "He's gonna develop. He's already a top player, I think. He's a really talented guy. He's just gonna get better and better."

Get better he did.

Kuznetsov did not play his first NHL game until late in the 2013-14 season, partly because he would have to adapt to playing in North America and to learn the language -- something that has been aided by his sunny disposition and sense of humor.

His father, Evgeny, could not think of his son way over here. There phone conversations weren't very good. Until ...

Evgeny was part of the father's trip with the team the last two years and he went back home with word that his son was being treated extra special by the Capitals.

Back to the on-ice portion of this story as told to us by Capitals coach Barry Trotz.

"I always thought it was his stick that made him so good," Trotz maintained. "But I used his stick in practice and nothing magical happened.

"I gave it back and -- VOILA! -- he did it again."

Which lead Trotz to conclude, "Which leads me to believe that in his hands it is some kind of magic wand."

If the Chelyabinsk native ends the year on top, he would be the first Capitals player not named Alex Ovechkin or Backstrom to lead the team in scoring since 2003-04 when Robert Lang put up 70 points.

Kuznetsov seemed confused by the way players in the NHL, even Ovi, would dump the puck in instead of holding onto it looking for the perfect play or two or three.

When Trotz was in Detroit in early November, the coach was asked by Pavel Datsyuk how Kuznetsov was doing. "I told him, 'I need him to play more like Datsyuk.' Stay engaged, don't switch off under any circumstances, even when you lose the puck."

A dinner was set up with Datsyuk, his father and Kuznetsov. The perfect translation had been made.

"Kuzy is a very smart player and a person as well," Trotz added. "He understood what Pavel told him, and now he plays exactly how I wanted him to play then. The new aspects of his game allow him to utilize his terrific skating even better.

"Kuznetsov has an extremely high hockey IQ. He loves to study film. He sees what others don't."

All the great playmakers have a way to slow down the players ...

"His skating ability looks so effortless -- like Sergei Fedorov. And his head is never down looking at the puck," argued Brooks Orpik, who was played alongside Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "It's like a basketball player with a great 'handle' on his dribble. So he sees everything in front of him on the ice."

New to the Capitals, but an NHL veteran with great aptitude is Justin Williams. He won a Stanley Cup in Carolina in 2006 and won in Los Angeles in 2012 and '14.

"He finds me even when I don't think I'm open," said Williams. "Option A is always getting him the puck because usually something good is going to happen. I work my butt off just so I can keep playing with him.

"You know, I don't want to take anything away from anyone else I've played with before, but he's one of the best I've played with, creatively. You have to expect the unexpected when you're with him. And he makes plays that you don't think that he sees, but he does. His imagination is going to catch teams off guard, catch players off guard, catch goalies off guard, but he works hard at it too, and that's the difference between skill guys who have success and skill guys who work hard who have success."

For Kuznetsov hockey is more ...

"Emotion. Happiness. You can't control it," he says. "Hockey is a religion in my country. Where I grew up, it was the only sport.

"No basketball, baseball. All day, every day, skate, skate, skate. Skill, skill, skill."

Another former King, Mike Richards says, "Speaking of seeing the ice, he's probably one of the best I've ever seen. Just pushing the pucks to open areas and skating to them ... and the position that he has on the ice to make some of the plays he does is impressive."

Barry Trotz has a way of making hockey much easier for everyone.

He says of Evgeni Kuznetsov, "He has a creative brain that makes it real fun to watch and a skill level that is off the charts."

Friday, March 18, 2016

Anze Kopitar looking for more titles in L.A.

By Larry Wigge

His fist-pump on the goal that tied the game was maybe even more joyous than when Anze Kopitar won the game in overtime.

The Los Angeles Kings playmaker extraordinaire got a stick on each of the aforementioned goals against the New York Rangers to show those that simply consider him a passing fancy may have misjudged him.

Kopitar has two Stanley Cup rings in 2012 and in 2014 to show that he can do it all, but I just can't get that fist-pump out of my head to tie the Rangers 3-3 en route to a 4-3 victory March 17.

"To come back like we did in the third," explained Kopitar, "it shows the character, again, that we have in this room."

The two goals gave Kopitar 24 goals and 40 assists in 69 games this season. The 40 assists represented the eighth time he had exceeded 40 assists in a season. He's been one of the hottest players in the NHL since November 20, Anze has put up 19 goals and 38 assists -- second in the NHL in scoring.

Kopitar's four overtime goals this season are the most in a single season in franchise history. Los Angeles' 11-3 in record decided in 3-on-3 overtime. And it was the second straight game-winning goals to go along with the win against Dallas two nights earlier.

The victory gave the Kings recent wins over the Rangers, Stars, Chicago and Washington -- four of the top teams in the NHL this season.

Most of that success can be traced back to Kopitar.

"He's been a key cog of our team for 10 years," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "You take him off the club and we're a dramatically different team."

Says defensemen Drew Doughty, "He's been great. He's been good up front ... and has been all year. Not only is he great offensively and puts up a lot of points, he's out there in the 'D' zone on the 5-on-3 against, he's blocking shots and using the body. Without him, we wouldn't be where we are right now."

Speaking from a newcomer, Vincent Lecavalier, obtained from Philadelphia, speaks in glowing terms about Kopitar.

"I knew he was always a good player, but you really get to know somebody when you play with him ... and he's even better when you see him," Lecavalier said. "I mean, how good he is defensively and offensively, he's even better than what I thought.

"He's overall, like, what I call a perfect hockey player. He's that good. He's got great hands and great leadership off the ice as well. That's why he's had two Stanley Cups and has been a leader with this team."

Perfect player?

Darryl Sutter was GM of the Calgary Flames when Kopitar was selected with the 11th pick overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He wished he had a chance Kopitar back then. But in the ensuing years, Sutter, now the coach of the Kings, got to know the big center as a fierce competitor and a No. 1 center most teams would love to have.

"He is a big No. 1 center with skill and talent. Most other teams would drool over having him," Sutter explained. "He plays the minutes big minutes on offense and chips in on defense.

"He's a presence ... all the time."

The 28-year-old center inked a new eight-year contract with the Kings worth $80 million, includes a $9 million bonus to be paid July 1 and another $9 million bonus on July 1, 2017.

"He's worth every penny of it," Sutter said. "That's what I knew about him. He plays lots of minutes, plays lots of situations, takes faceoffs, doesn't bother what style is going on, he can handle it.

"You win championships with players like that. Guys get rewarded for winning Stanley Cups -- and when they're with one franchise for that period of time, when you've won Cups, then everybody is looking forward to the next part with them."

The fist-pump I referred to in my opening can now be compared to how he felt looking out his window.

As a youngster, Anze Kopitar would wake up in the morning, walk out on the balcony of his family’s home in Jesenice, a town of about 21,000 people on the Adriatic Sea, in Slovenia. Kopitar says its not unlike a young boy growing up in North America with his nose pressed against the window, looking in the distance. Only Anze wanted to see more than just the countryside in his native Slovenia, which gained its independence and split from Yugoslavia in 1991. He wondered what what out there in the distance beyond the tunnel that separated the former Yugoslavia and Austria ... for him.

"I was five minutes from Austria and 25 minutes from Italy, but ..."

Kopitar paused to reflect on the whole big world that his family helped him to reach, from the hockey rink Matjaz, his dad, built for him to learn to skate and refine his skills and where he taught him a lot of the 1-on-1 drills he used as a hockey coach in Austria, to the discipline he learned working at his mom, Mateja’s, restaurant to the insistence of his grandmother, a schoolteacher, that Anze take English as a second language.

Anze Kopitar wasn't dreaming about the NHL, when he was growing up in the tiny border town. His parents wouldn't let him stay up at night to watch any NHL games that might be shown on Slovenian TV. That didn't stop Anze from waking up in the morning and getting on-line to study the scores and stories of a game that seemed so far off.

Kopitar grew up reading about how Sergei Fedorov, his favorite player, defected from his Russian team in Seattle before the Goodwill Games in 1990. He watched and followed Fedorov's career with the Detroit Red Wings. He dreamed that he might someday also make his way to the NHL.

"It was really helpful to have a dad who knew so much about hockey," Anze said. "He gave me great advice. I remember we spent a lot of time watching old tapes. We'd watch different NHL players, Fedorov was one of my favorites. I'd watch his stride, his skills, his disciplined among others. Then my dad and I would try to work on certain parts of my game and use the tapes as a learning tool."

A few minutes with Kopitar and you come away thinking he's 19 going on about 30. He's bright, outgoing, smart and always looking to challenge himself to do more. The problem some European players have with adjusting to the culture, the language, the bigness of everything over here doesn't seem to affect Anze. Nothing seems to bother him.

Except for missing his mom's cooking. The Kopitar's had an eating establishment in Slovenia.

"My mom made sure I worked hard, but also had some fun," Anze laughed, who would take orders sometimes, but ...

"Some of the waitresses weren’t strong enough to handle more than a couple of plates," Kopitar said. "Three or four plates filled with pasta or with a huge steak got too heavy for them. But I got to be good enough that I could carry about four plates at a time."

And the balance from those plates ...

"Yeah, it didn’t hurt my balance on skates, either," Anze joked.

And in school, Kopitar not only worked on his native Slovenian language, but he added English and German to his repertoire.

"Grandma was right," Kopitar said. "There are so many things knowing different languages can open up to you in life."

Marc Crawford, who coached in Colorado, Vancouver and Dallas, was Anze Kopitar's first coach in the NHL. He came up with the ultimate compliment for his rookie center.

"He's our most dangerous player on most nights," said Crawford. "He's really reliable for such a young age and what a competitor. He really likes to challenge opponents one-on-one ... and he wins most of those battles."

Then, Crawford went to a baseball comparison.

"In baseball, the experts like to talk about the elite players in the game being 5-tool players (refering to those who can hit, run, hit for power, play defense and can throw)," Crawford said. "Well, Anze is already a 5-tool player in our game."

GM Dean Lombardi on locking up Kopitar on a new eight-year contract.

"Whenever you're dealing with the value of these players, you're saying, 'Are you getting value?' " Lombardi said. "That's one part of the equation. The second part is how are you going to replace them?"

Well ...

With Kopitar, you don't replace the man who took the faceoff and went to the new for the tip-in against the Rangers in overtime for a 4-3 victory.

"How do you replace a No. 1 center?" Lombardi said, shaking his head.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Jason Spezza and playmaker-scorer for Dallas

By Larry Wigge

Creative. Almost like a chess master, looking to move the pieces around on the chess board in front of him to create checkmate. That's the brilliance of Jason Spezza.

In his second year with Dallas Stars, the 6-3, 220-pounder from Mississauga, Ontario, is reminding some experts in the game of the young, bright prospect in his late teens.

"What you see is what you get with me," Spezza explained in St. Louis. "It's not like I came out of nowhere. People have been looking over me for years. It's like living in a fishbowl where everyone can see everything you've done and every little imperfection they've seen is magnified a thousand times."

Imperfections? Not quite.

In 11 seasons in Ottawa and two season with Dallas, Spezza as recorded the 800th point of his career -- he reached the plateau in 831 games or nearly a point per game. At the same time, he extended his goal streak to six games with two goals against the Blues in a 5-4 overtime loss March 12.

It happened to be the third five-game plus goal streak in his career -- five straight Senators games in 2005-06 and he had a six-game streak in 2009-10.

For the season, Spezza now has 28 goals and 25 assists. For the fifth time in his career he has his eyes on the 30-goal mark.

"Everything he shoots goes in," says coach Lindy Ruff. "You look at the first shot and I think it went through the defenseman's legs and then through the goalie's legs. He had a couple of lasers that he launched on the road in Ottawa and Montreal. He's shooting the puck well. All the goals have been a little bit different, some have been around the net-front and he's had some great shots so right now it's just going good for him."

He makes the perfect complement to first line center Tyler Seguin -- some in Dallas refer Seguin to Mike Modano and Spezza to Joe Nieuwendyk.

Though Spezza was the top-rated player in the 2001 season, he went second to Ilya Kovalchuk. Then-Vancouver Canucks General Manager Brian Burke argued that there were great assets for each player to be picked No. 1 overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. But ...

"Anybody who passes on Jason Spezza will have to swallow real hard," he said loud and clear.

Spezza is one of those high-risk, high-reward players who will try anything -- carrying the puck deftly through traffic without flinching like a high-wire star, or making one of those ooh-and-ahhh behind the back passes -- to make a play that could result in a goal ... and a win.

"He has magical puck skills," Montreal scout Rick Dudley, former general manager in Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Florida, told me draft day.

At 1, Jason won a baby contest. Pictures of his blond curls made him the poster boy for Baby, a Broadway musical back in the summer of 1984. It was Spezz's photo that went on the marquee. A TV commercial for Minute Maid followed. Then there was modeling for clothing for Woolco and Kmart.

Those billboards he mugged for ended when he was 9 or 10 and his parents, Rino, his first hockey coach, and Donna, wanted Jason to be a regular boy ... and do the things other boys did while growing up.

But there was clearly never anything regular about Spezza. He's good at just about anything he does. And hockey was his dream.

"It's all I ever wanted to be," he recalled. "All my time and effort was put into being a hockey player. At 15 or 16, I knew I was going to have a chance to play pro hockey. It was just a matter of how good could I be. My dad was my coach, kind of an intense guy, and he pushed me."

GM Jim Nill acquired Spezza from Ottawa for a host of prospect July 1, 2014. Nill will never look back.

"People don't realize how fast he is and he thinks the game while he's moving at that speed," explained Nill. "Even when he's not feeling good on a night, he can still make things happen. That's what a great player can do."

All I know is there aren't a lot of stickhandlers out there in this generation or any other who has just surpassed one of Wayne Gretzky's many records -- which Spezza has done, entering the Stanley Cup finals of 2007 against Anaheim with multiple points in his last six road playoff games. Gretzky's record of five straight road games with multiple points was set way back in 1988.

Spezza has had to deal with the pressures of similar comparisons because he was a child prodigy in Canada. The kid with the soft hands and creative mind was the subject of stories when he was just 13, when he made a quantum leap from peewee hockey in Mississauga, Ontario, to bantam. At 15, he was already off to major junior hockey and whispers had already started that Jason could be the next Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

The can't-miss tag we often put on these phenoms didn't take as quickly as a Gretzky, Eric Lindros or Sidney Crosby. Perhaps it was because Jason was tall at 6-3 and a little gangly and the rest of the body was still trying to catch up -- similar to, say, a Joe Thornton.

It's no coincidence that Spezza's mind works on the offensive -- and it doesn't stop when he leaves the rink.

"I've got this 62-inch plasma screen in my living room -- and I'm constantly plopping in a tape of Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky or Steve Yzerman, looking for pointers. It's like homework for me," Spezza smiled. "Mario Lemieux was always my guy and that will never change. He would look around and look around and then make the perfect play. It was magical."

And the homework doesn't stop there, either. Spezza is a fan of autobiographies, particularly of athletes who have that ability to be THE MAN such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

"Tiger's really THE MAN," he says. "He doesn't do anything wrong. All he does is win."

Ottawa GM Bryan Murray has pulled out the tapes of a maturing Steve Yzerman, when Stevie Y learned how to be as important to the Red Wings on defense as he had been on offense in his first few years in Detroit.

"Bryan has talked to me a lot about when Steve Yzerman was with him (in Detroit), and at first, he was an all-out offensive player," Spezza said. "And John Muckler tells me the same things about his days in Edmonton, when he had to prod Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and some of those other great Oilers would have to learn to concentrate more on defense ... if they wanted to win."

"I've told Jason that his role has to evolve, that he has to more accountable at both ends of the rink," Murray said. "It's only because I believe in him so much that I single him out in video sessions -- in front of the rest of the team."

You don’t have to hit Spezza over the head with a hammer to make him see what he has to do to be his best.

"It was like a switch was turned on for Jason," former Ottawa teammate Daniel Alfredsson said. "Clearly, no one wanted to take away his creativity. It's just finding a happy medium, a maturing that comes with experience."

Now, it would be safe to say that Spezza's play on the ice -- his accountability -- is beginning to look more like those videos he has studied. And that Jason would look more and more like a Lemieux, Gretzky and Yzerman. Spezza clearly has that innate ability to create something from nothing, to anticipate where the puck and fellow players are going.

Like a chess master, Spezza will be looking for time and space and check ... and mate.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

At 6-8, Tyler Myers is becoming a BIG influence

By Larry Wigge

Anything from Winnipeg usually begins and ends with Dustin Byfuglen or Jacob Trouba.

In defense ... that's just how it is up north.

But that's before Tyler Myers got something in his head ... that he, too, was a Jets defenseman worth some notoriety.

Against Detroit on March 10, the 6-8, 219-pound defenseman left star center Henrik Zetterberg standing by after one of Myers fakes with the puck in the first period. He zig-zagged his way in on the Red Wings goal in a mind-boggling art of offense.

Then again on March 14 in Vancouver, Myers led the defense of the Winnipeg Jets to a 5-2 victory over the Canucks -- twice in the first period setting up goals.

The two point against the Canucks gave Myers nine goals and 18 assists this season.

He relayed a conversation with former Buffalo coach Ted Nolan as being upbeat and supportive.

"He told me that it's a game of mistakes and at my age I'm going to make mistakes and to not worry about it, just to keep playing,” Myers explained. "I think for me just to hear that just made me feel that much more comfortable to take a little bit more risk and to start getting back to my game.

"I think it was in the right direction before. But I think hearing that triggered a little bit more in me to be a little bit more aggressive."

For Myers that kind of support led him to become the Calder Trophy winner with the Sabres as a rookie in 2009-10.

How good is Myers right now? Well, he was the coveted piece in the trade last season that sent Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian to the Buffalo Sabres and Jets head coach Paul Maurice says Myers has exceeded even the lofty expectations the club had for him at that time.

"From the time he came in till now, his whole body of work is probably better than even we expected. He's been that good for us," Maurice said. "We’ve moved partners around for him, he changes roles, he plays against the other team’s best now very regularly. And he contributes to the offense.

"But the consistency in his game has been fantastic. He doesn't have too many off-nights and even on his off-nights, he's still playing against the other team's best and a lot of times getting it done. He's been very, very good."

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

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

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

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

Not much flusters Myers. He's smooth and composed on the ice and laid back off of it. That led to his Sabres teammates' finding an appropriate moniker for him: "The Big Easy."

"I like it," Myers said. "They can keep calling me that."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analytically speaking, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler Myers hungers for a chance to become a shutdown defenseman in the NHL. Look how long it took Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara and Hal Gill to be sucessful NHL defensemen.

That, my friend, is happening before our eyes in Winnipeg, where Myers is making a name for himself offensively -- and defensively.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Alex Galchenyuk is hot -- and he has a new weapon

By Larry Wigge

If Alex Galchenyuk gets anxious ... gets preoccupied ... get nervous ... he works on his shot.

"I work on my shot a lot, in the summer, in practice, but this year mostly it's been about variations and being less predictable," he explained. "You have to adjust because the goalies know the tendencies and they can read you."

Well then ...

Everything about Galchenyuk, the third pick in 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Montreal Canadiens, starts and ends with his shot, er, his stick. He has a new weapon in his hands this season and it is firing pucks like bullets.

Galchenyuk using the Bauer 1S composite stick, after using CCM sticks in the past. He signed an endorsement deal before this season to exclusively use Bauer equipment and apparel while working with Bauer Hockey’s product-development team to provide insight and feedback.

So far the feedback is pretty exciting.

Coming into this season, 20 goals was the best the 6-1, 198-pounder from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, could do.

Now ...

Galchenyuk has exploded for two goals against Winnipeg, Dallas and Buffalo in consecutive games beginning March 5. That matches Brian Savage's Montreal record set in October of 1995. The last member of the Canadiens to have five multi-goal games over an eight-game span was Jean Beliveau from February to March in 1959.

Galchenyuk now has 25 goals for the season.

Galchenyuk didn't only change brands, he also started using a bit of a longer stick with a different flex this season.

"It's a completely different stick," Galchenyuk said, who has always tinkered with his sticks.

"Always been white tape," he said. "I guess when I was growing up, my dad was always taping his stick white, so I kind of stuck with it."

That's one change the Russian bred youngster took from the father, Alexander, who was in the midst of a 20-year pro hockey career. Milwaukee of the International Hockey League just happened to be one his dad's many stops during his hockey odyssey. Alex, the youngster, grew up all over the world as a hockey brat in the United States, Germany, Italy, Belarus and Russia, but he was born in the U.S.

"I can speak Italian, Russian and English obviously," Galchenyuk said. "Actually I used to speak French ... I think I'll be starting French lessons in a few days."

He considers himself a hockey brat and is proud of it.

Galchenyuk returned to North America at 15 to play midget hockey in Chicago in the hopes of being drafted into the Ontario Hockey League and the Sarnia Sting were happy to oblige when they made the skilled, playmaking center the league's first overall pick in 2010.

"Maybe I see the world differently," Galchenyuk said of growing up in so many different countries. "I obviously feel half Russian because my parents are Russian, but half American because I was born here and I love the States. I love the country.

"It was my decision who to play for all the way. I talked to my dad and he said make the decision as you feel comfortable and I felt comfortable with USA Hockey and the organization, how they treat their players."

But that stuff is what a father-son talk about.

"We talk like father to son mostly," Alex said. "Sometimes we don't even talk about hockey. But he definitely enjoys watching me play.

"Sometimes he gives me advice and sometimes he just lets me do my thing."

Habs captain Max Pacioretty said the light bulb has gone off for his young teammate in the offensive zone.

"You get to a certain level and it's like the switch gets flipped," Pacioretty said. "There's no reason why or any recipe on how to get there, at least that's how it felt with me."

Indeed, Pacioretty, who broke out in a big way in his fourth full season around the time of his 200th NHL game. Galchenyuk has now played 261.

Montreal coach Michel Therrien said, "Alex is not the same player that he was maybe three months ago. The fact that he kept working, kept working. I think he's more mature in his game, he's going harder to the net, he's paying a little bit more attention to detail."

The biggest claim to fame for the 2012 NHL Draft wasn't about the first pick or the second pick, but the No. 11 pick Filip Forsberg, selected by Washington and later traded to Nashville, about about what a great scorer he has become. No. 1 Nail Yakupov and No. 2 Ryan Murray have mostly been insignificant. Now, No. 3 Alex Galchenyuk has come in to play.

While most NHL people didn't like him at center ... they are changing there opinions.

"A lot of people compare to a Marian Hossa or Evgeni Malkin type of player," Galchenyuk said. "My strengths are my ability to make playmaking plays. My ability to see the ice. My hockey sense. My hands."

He must learn to shoot more, saying, "Should shoot ... but I pass. I must work on that."

He always had his dad alongside. He laughed at one time he forgot that dad was his coach.

"Not a dad and son relationship at the rink," Alex said, shaking his head a little. "I made a huge mistake, when I called him dad at the rink. He's my coach ... and his has my future in mind. I learned long ago that he was harder on me than anybody else."

Stats can only reveal so much about a player -- Galchenyuk oozes skill, his wrist shot and stickhandling in tight quarters are clearly elite.

"In the past, he had nice two or three-game stretches," said Therrien. "This last month, he's been able to maintain a high standard of play."

Now, the main thing in this league is that you just have to get the shot off. Everything happens so quickly.

His one-timer from the off-wing is a weapon that's to be feared, but Galchenyuk said he's been working less on the strength and release of his shot than on when to use it.

That variable in shooting ...

Take it from Montreal goaltender Ben Scrivens.

"First off, everybody in the league can shoot the puck hard," Scrivens explained. "Within reasonable expectations, they're all pretty accurate, first line to fourth line. The difference between the elite shooters is how effectively they can get releases off. The guys who can pick their spots without giving any tells to the goalies about where they're putting it. The less movement you can have pre-shot.

"It's pretty difficult to beat guys with a big windup or the big stretched out wrist shot. What Chuky does so well is that he's in a shooting position almost all the time that he has the puck. His release starts from the same place that his stickhandling starts and his passing starts. So you never know which one he's going to do until the puck's coming down on you.

"Obviously he's got a great shot, but it's all the stuff pre-shot that makes him really elite."

Like we said Alex Galchenyuk works on his shot ... when he anxious, preoccupied or nervous. And he's got a new weapon on his side.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

David Perron doesn't have to wait any longer with Ducks

By Larry Wigge

It's been a long time ago that the kid wearing the white skates with the golden Midas touch stickhandling and shooting the puck was desperately determined to be noticed.

There is nothing average or normal about the story of a 27-year-old David Perron.

"He's got a great shot, quick hands," explained Sidney Crosby. "He's really skilled with the puck. He's confident with it. You can tell he doesn't mind hanging on to it. That's usually a pretty good sign. When a guy doesn't mind hanging on with it, that mean's he's pretty good with it."

A pretty good way to look at the 6 foot, 198-pounder from Sherbrooke, Quebec, who was a first-round pick, 26th overall, in the 2007 NHL Entry draft by the St. Louis Blues.

"I think that David is a dynamic player and he has an unbelievable skill set that sometimes takes a little time getting used to playing with," said St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong. "Not for a coach ... but for his teammates to get used to his nuances.

"I think David's going to fit into any system. He's a consummate professional and he wants to be a good player."

Nonetheless, Perron is now playing for his fourth NHL team, following stays with St. Louis, Edmonton, Pittsburgh and Anaheim.

He was acquired the Ducks on January 15 from the Penguins with Adam Clendening for Carl Hagelin.

Perron has scored eight goals and 11 assists in 22 games. He has put up a remarkable plus-13 ranking with the Ducks. His combined total between Pittsburgh and Anaheim is 12 goals and 23 assists. His top goal total was 28 in his first season with Edmonton in 2013-14.

David is a nit-picker with his sticks. When he gets them delivered from the factory, he cuts them down ... and cuts them down some more.

It helps Perron be one of the NHL's better puckhandlers. He maneuvers quickly in tight spaces and gives the Ducks more of that skill element.

"I'm not a proponent of short sticks, but whatever's working for him, I'm never going to say 'change,'" Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau said.

It might as well be a magic wand for the Ducks.

"When you're talking like pure, pure hands, you're thinking about David," defenseman Kris Letang said. "You're thinking about Pavel Datsyuk, T.J. Oshie, Patrick Kane. Those type of guys."

Pretty good company, I'd say.

"I feel better as far as my game," Perron said. "It's not about points. I think I'm controlling the puck a lot and making plays. The stats are maybe similar in that regard, but I think it's the way you feel out there, the way you make plays, and I feel like I've been doing that."

And Ducks are rolling ... not like the highway traffic he now has to deal with the Los Angeles.

"There are highways with a lot of lanes out here ... and even carpool lanes," he says, shaking his head. "It's definitely different than anywhere else I've driven. But it's nice knowing wherever you're going, there's nice weather. It's pretty cool to be here."

Back to the white skates ...

Perron was eligible for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's midget draft, but was overlooked in 2004. Again in 2005. Finally, in the sixth round of the 2006 draft, his name was called.

Perron remembers being sprawled on the floor of his family’s home watching the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in June, after he had 24 goals and 45 assists in 51 games as a midget for St. Jerome.

"I remember watching Erik Johnson walk up to the stage as the first pick in the draft and wondered what it would be like to hear your name spoken in front of the whole hockey world," Perron remembered wondering. "That was my draft year, too. But scouts told me my name probably wouldn’t be called.

"Still, my mom, dad and brother and I were there in front of the TV eating popcorn and drinking soda and wondering ... if my name would be called."

Some in the Sherbrooke minor hockey program said the kid with the white skates was a troublemaker. Others said he was too individualistic to conform to team goals. Maybe he was just a late bloomer who needed a break.

Last June, Perron finally found out how it felt to hear an NHL team announce his name in front of the hockey world when his name was called by the Blues.

Which proves that success is definitely no accident -- and you can't find a how-to list that is going to show the pathway to success.

"I knew my name was in that same draft with Erik's, but I also knew that my chances of being chosen as a midget were slim and none because I didn't exactly take the same path that he did," Perron said. "But I wasn't about to let anyone tell me I couldn’t make it. I went back and worked harder."

Perron laughs now at the thought that some scouts told him he couldn't make it.

"It was funny, but 26 of the 30 teams interviewed me before the 2007 draft. None in 2006," Perron observed. "I remember talking with Columbus’ chief scout and he asked me; 'Why the heck didn't we draft you last year?' I told him as a joke; 'I don't know, you tell me.' I was a good player last year, too.

"It’s sort of like I went from being an unknown one year to the NHL the next. That’s pretty good stuff, eh?"

Good stuff, indeed.

"Whatever it takes" is the St. Louis Blues’ theme for the 2007-08 season. And Perron could be the poster boy.

"Not everyone here at the All-Star Game for the YoungStars took the same pathway to the NHL as Erik Johnson and Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin as the first player in the draft," Perron said with conviction. "Look at Pavel Datsyuk. He was overlooked in the draft ... and then didn’t get picked the next year until 170 or something like that. Are you going to tell me that he doesn't belong here? Or that he can’t dominate the game?"

Perron is smart, determined and most of all, passionate. Give him a rink and a puck and he’ll skate and shoot and stickhandle till they run him out of the building.

David sort of slew his Goliath with 39 goals and 44 assists at Lewiston of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season. He played a pivotal role in the MAINEiacs’ championship season and was the team's second leading scorer at the Memorial Cup with 12 goals and 16 assists in just 17 games. Plus, he excelled for Canada in an eight-game "Super Series" against the Soviet Union in August.

"He was flat-out awesome, that's what I said to myself after seeing that," Blues President John Davidson said. "I knew we had a player. "He's got a great passion for the game. He's a rink rat. There's no question he's got the ability to score goals and pass the pucks, plus he has no fear of going into any area on the ice."

"David’s the special story," said Erik Johnson, now with Colorado. "Look at the obstacles he’s had to overcome."

Davidson added: "You don't see a guy in the first year make the club and do what he's done."

Perron told anyone who would listen that he planned to make the Blues when he arrived in St. Louis at a development camp for prospects in July. That confidence was rocked a bit, however, when he reported to training camp in September and ... he got to his locker and discovered that someone had painted black shoe polish over his white skates.

"At first, I'm like; 'What happened?' " Perron explained. "I understood when Coach (Andy Murray) told me that no one on this team was going to be different than anybody else and that Doug Weight, Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya wouldn't be happy seeing a rookie coming here with white skates."

The Blues recognized the great individual skills and passion in Perron. Like an unbridled stallion. They also recognized a young kid who still has a lot to learn. And, boy, has it been a learning experience for David.

"I had to learn to be a pro," he said. "I had to learn the rules, the discipline, the consistency it takes to be in the NHL."

His favorite player growing up was Alexei Kovalev.

"Kovalev was my favorite player growing up," Perron said. "I just liked, obviously, the skill level he had. The hands, a different style than most players have in the league. Growing up, I just tried to do whatever he was doing ... his moves."

But, Perron needed to add muscle and stamina that he couldn't get at Lewiston, where there was no training facility like they have in St. Louis. Plus, David needed to learn responsibility. That came quickly, when the 19-year-old went to the wrong practice rink one day as well as when he missed a flight out of Montreal and returned late after the Christmas break.

There are, it seems, tricks that a 19-year-old can teach a 30-something veteran.

Upside. Skill. Passion. Quantum leap.

David Perron was overlooked by scouts ... and to think, they told this kid he couldn't make it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Justin Abdelkader scores big goals for the Red Wings

By Larry Wigge

Timing is everything.

With the clock is ticking. The situation is tight and tense as to whether the Detroit Red Wings are to extend their consecutive streak of making the playoffs to 28 years.

On this night the Wings are playing the Winnipeg Jets. They have fallen behind 2-0. But, with a slick pass from out of the right wing boards, Justin Abdelkader finds star rookie winger Dylan Larkin out in front with a backhanded pass early in the third period.

Then, with the game tied and less than five minutes remaining, it was Abdelkader who was positioned in front of the net. GOAL. Wings win 3-2.

Abdelkader patrols the front of his net like Tomas Holmstrom, not as nasty, and he scored from around the net like Johan Franzen -- Red Wings he grew up loving.

Big goals? Abdelkader scored the winning goal with 18.9 seconds left in the NCAA championship against Boston College in 2007. Then, two goals in the Stanley Cup finals against Pittsburgh in 2010 -- the first rookie to score in consecutive Cup Finals games since Minnesota's Dino Ciccarelli in 1981.

"That's part of my game," Abdelkader said. "I just go out there and play hard, you know, finish my checks, work hard in front of the net. Obviously it's nice to draw some penalties but for me it's just go out there and play a 200-foot game, be physical when I can.

"If I get under guys' skin, great. Draw penalties is good too. So I just try to do my part and try to get us a win there."

Tonight against Winnipeg ...

"It was two big points," he explained. "It's nice not to have to push that to overtime and shootout because sometimes that's a flip of the coin.

"So to win in regulation and to get this win, especially after being down 2-0, shows the character in this room, and we have a lot of fight in here."

Said Larkin, "He's a big moment player. It's good to see a guy who does everything for the team score a big goal like that."

Larkin, who was drafted out of Muskegon, Michigan, was the
second round, 42nd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft by the Red Wings. He has 17 goals and 19 assists and is quite the power play players -- five goals and 10 assists on the Power Play.

Joe Abdelkader is a school teacher and Sheryl is a nurse. Honest beginnings. His first piece of sports memorabilia is a Red Wings jersey and his favorite player was naturally Steve Yzerman.

The Abdelkader's were there in front of the TV set for Justin's first goal -- sort of.

"We both kind of nodded off between periods," Joe Abdelkader said. "Then, I woke up and said, 'Sheryl, he has the puck.' And, then he shot and scored. We both jumped so high we almost touched the ceiling."

People were talking about Abdelkader ...

Like former Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, who is now with Buffalo. He was telling a gaggle of reporters at the 2009 Stanley Cup finals that he also grew up in Muskegon and was one of the first players from that area to make it to the NHL, but ...

"I never had a billboard in Western Michigan, Justin did," Bylsma said with a little tough of jealousy in his voice. "I don't know if he still does. But I was fully aware of this kid from Michigan growing up.

"I remember seeing the billboard and I was a little jealous I never got one -- not that I'm a billboard type of guy. But he got it."

As it turns out the billboard in Muskegon wasn't for Justin's play at Mona Shores High School, where he was Michigan's Mr. Hockey in 2004 when 37 goals and 43 assists in 28 games. But rather it was a billboard for a knee injury he had in high school and the rehab he had afterward.

"The billboard was for a physical therapy unit that helped me with my rehab after knee scope when I was in high school," Abdelkader said a little embarrassed to know that the whole world now knows of this billboard he thought he had lived down before he got to Michigan State, where NCAA rules said the sign had to come down and no prohibited him from being involved in any sort of advertisement. "It was weird, actually. I had surgery, worked on getting my knee back in shape and there I am splattered all over a billboard, showing my knee and how I could now do things I couldn't when I injured the knee."

Bylsma's jealously aside, he is proud of this Muskegon kid, who went on to go to Michigan State University, from one Muskegon kid to another.

"Even when he was young, I followed his career, even though I had not met him," Bylsma said. "Then when he went on to Michigan State and I remember hearing talk about where he was going to rank as a pro. I was fully aware of him, though I never got a chance to meet him until this year in Grand Rapids, where I met his family."

So, Dan what do you think of Justin's play so far against your team?

Added Bylsma, "When your team plays well enough and you have a great team concept, you give everybody a chance to put on the cape on any given night. Unfortunately for us he's been wearing it for two games here."

So far, Justin Abdelkader learns fast. You couldn't tell that from the billboard.

"I've said this guy is a player you're going to talk about for a long time," coach Mike Babcock, who now coaches at Toronto. "He's going to be a physical force in the league forechecking and he's going to have enough hands to be around the net and play with the good players and he's going to be a net presence."

Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi, after he chose Abdelkader to represent the United States, "He's very difficult to play against, and he's only going to get better."

But Ablekader, who stands 6-2, 215-pounds, is one of the fastest players in NHL. He can do things with his shot, with his hits and ... with his body.

"I've always played the same way, kind of with a chip on my shoulder and always wanting to win," Abdelkader said. "I don't know where that comes from. But one thing you can't teach players is competitiveness.

"You can't tell someone to just go out and do it; they have to do it themselves. I think for a lot of players, that's the reason they either make it or they don't."

Sheryl, his mom, remembered, "He had the dream when he was in elementary school. I found a paper where they had to write about what they wanted to do in life and it said, 'I want to be an NHL player.'

" 'I want to play for the Red Wings.' "

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Loui Eriksson's just keep on rolling in Boston

By Larry Wigge

A little voice constantly rolls around in Loui Eriksson's head. It gets louder these days.

It's about not settling short.

"I remember telling him, 'Don't be satisfied with just being a solid player,' " Arizona coach Dave Tippett recalled of conversation he has with Eriksson when the two of them were with the Dallas Stars. "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.

The 6-2, 183-pound left winger from Goteborg, Sweden, became a 20-goal scorer and 70-point scorer. Oh, he top that in 2008-09 with a 36-goal campain. But ...

Then he was traded prospects Joe Morrow, Reilly Smith and Matt Fraser to Boston for Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley and Ryan Button on July 4, 2013.

Things were never the same for Eriksson after the lop-sided trade, because in the last three years his numbers were compared to Seguin's 37 goals and 47 assists in 2013-14 and 37 and 40 last season plus 32 goal and 36 assists after 67 games this season.

Eriksson's numbers would look meagher next to Seguin's.

"Lots of people judge him on the Seguin trade and they compare those two, but they're totally different players," said Boston teammate David Krecji. "They're both very good players. Loui is so good at all the little details, he's very good at both ends of the ice. And so far this year, the puck is going in the net for him."

Rightly or wrongly, the Bruins traded Seguin, the second overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, and there was cast in the shadow of Seguin -- this despite Eriksson's 24 goals, 26 assists this season.

"Maybe a little bit," Eriksson said when asked if he was worried about the comparisons. "But that's how it is to play in this game. You have to have pressure on you and I think everyone is ready for it. So I'm just going to do all I can to prove to all the guys here that I'm a good player."

Said Boston coach Claude Julien, "I think it's pretty obvious he's a smart player. His pace of the game is getting better as he's getting used to his linemates. When a coach has players that he trusts, that he can put on at the end of the game, he's always one of those guys that is on the list.

"That says a lot about his game. Eriksson's first season was a rough one with the concussions, but since then I think he's just gotten better and he's getting more comfortable with our team and our surroundings."

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.

"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," Eriksson explained. "Yeah, I was real skinny, but I was confident I had the skills to someday play in the NHL."

Still, the story of this former second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft began last season as only a sidebar.

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," Brendan Morrow said of the reliable winger from earlier in his career at Dallas. "He does a good job of complementing everyone."

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."

Tippett recalled a conversation he once had the Dave Allison, then coach of the Stars minor league affiliate. He asked who he should keep his eyes on.

"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.' "

But it will always come back to Loui Eriksson's numbers vs. Taylor Seguin's.

Looke at it the other way: Would Boston GM Peter Chiarelli think twice about taking on Eriksson's contract over Seguin's?

"When his name made it into the discussion," Chiarelli said, "it was like, ‘Yeah, we'd have interest.'"

Think about THAT.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Devan Dubnyk had to wait a long time for the Wild

By Larry Wigge

Devan Dubnyk was spending some quality time with his mother, Barb, when his wife reached him by phone in his car after practice last January.

"Jennifer was frantic," Devan recalled his wife's voice. "Well, almost ... "

She said that Don Maloney, the general manager of the Phoenix Coyotes had left him several phone messages. He was desperate to reach you.

When you want to get away from phone calls and messages, Dubnyk had a button that you push that puts them on hold. But ... when it happens to be Maloney's calls.

Dubnyk, who left practice 20 minutes earlier ... and now he wanted to spend some time with his mother, who was visiting from Alberta to see Devan's thriving young family -- Jennifer and Nathaniel, with another young one on the way.

A little lunch. You know ...

But he had to return Maloney's call.

"He told me that he and the Minnesota Wild had worked out a deal for me for a third-round pick," he remembered.

Quiet. He traded me to where.

"I felt numb for a moment," he said. "Then, I looked at my mom.

"I remembered how she went through breast cancer 13 years ago when I was 15  ... and how it shaped me going forward. It's made me so much more of a stronger person."

The Regina, Saskatchewan, native, didn't say on that January 10, 2015 afternoon was how much of a difference he would make to the Minnesota Wild roster. He would make big time effect on the Wild right from the start.

After flying from Arizona, Dubnyk beat the Buffalo Sabres that night, 7-0. Then, he promptly played 38 straight games.

Dubnyk loved the workload, even it it seemed onerous.

"If you'd asked me before then, I'd have said it's insane," he recalled. "After 12 or 13 games in a row, I was thinking 'Whoa, this is getting long,' but once it was at 24 or 25 games, I was on autopilot. I enjoyed it. Does it make sense to do that now?"

He had a 1.78 goals-against average and .936 save percentage, finished 27-9-2 with five shutouts, was fourth in voting for the Hart Trophy (for NHL MVP) and got the Wild to the playoffs, helping them get to the second round.

Then he got a six-year, $26-million contract.

Little did he know then about the rest of the journey.

"It's a good story," Dubnyk says. "It's fun to think back on it. We were 12 points out of a playoff spot at the time.

"It just seems so long ago. It's such a different mindset and kind of place in my life to where we are now with this group here and just being on this team and in this city. It's crazy the difference that it is. But it's fun to look back on it."

Said Wild captain Zach Parise, "That's a position that's always magnified. The way that position works, if you have an off night it can unfortunately cost you the game easily. Whereas if you're a forward and you have an off night, you can blend in and do other things ... but not as a goalie."

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville used the comparison to Corey Crawford in talking about Dubnyk.

"That's the easiest decision you have to make," he said. "That's one of those where, hey, he's got the net, we're going, we have to win every game. That was kind of the mode we were in and I’m sure that was mindset. As a coach, it's a no-brainer."

The Wild went to the bargain basement ... and came out with a answer in goal.

The 29-year-old finally found a home -- after stays in the last 12 months in Edmonton, Nashville, Montreal, Arizona and Minnesota.

Even a stay at Hamilton of the American Hockey League.

"Every day in Hamilton, pretty much," Dubnyk said. "Every day I woke up in the Staybridge Suites in Hamilton and looked out at the bikers at Tim Hortons."

Now there's a brief stay that wasn't much fun.

Then, after months of no job offers, Arizona called. He was to be Mike Smith's backup, with the chance to work with goaltender coach Sean Burke.

In Arizona, Dubnyk, the 6-5, 210-pound goaltender, worked with Sean Burke -- himself a pretty big netminder. Burke changed some of Dubnyk's techniques and transformed him.

"It would've surprised me if he would've gone to the Wild and struggled," Burke said. "I believed he was at a stage where if he was just given an opportunity to play consistently, he would be a good performer."

Dubnyk likened the stay with Burke to a opportunity ...

"Not overstated at all. It's not that he took me and morphed me into a different person. I think just at the time I was in my career, I just always wanted a chance to work with him. It was a bit of a round-about way to get there," Dubnyk recalled. "But, at that time, he just puts confidence in you. He brought me in there and trusted me as a goalie. He put all his trust in me that I could go out there and stop the puck.

"We were just gonna work on some tweaks. He's a guy who you know will have your back, you know he'll go to bat for you at all times. So you can just go out there and play. That trickles through the coaches and management when you have a guy who believes in you that much. He just took a few things that he saw in my game that he wanted to sharpen up and really work on that and being patient on my skates. He was one of the best when he played at being patient and using that size and not going down early and really being on his two skates all the time. If I can try to take a little of that from him, it certainly helped me a lot."

Said former Edmonton teammate Jordan Eberle, "He's such a great guy, and it seems like every night you’re watching the highlights, he's getting a shutout or a win. You want to see that guy have success."

"It's hard to describe the feeling," Barry Dubnyk said. "I see it in him. It's what I would call 'comfort zone.' "

Dubnyk was a former first-round draft choice, 14th pick, by Edmonton in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

"I was always of that mindset. It's scary. It does get to a point where you start to wonder. Is there gonna be a spot for me?" he said. "You don't wonder if you're capable of having a spot, but it's is there gonna be one available? It's scary when you see that it all can be taken away from you.

"I played five years in the league and struggled for the first five. You wonder if there's gonna be a spot for you. So going into this year when I did get that job with Arizona and the confidence they put in me, my approach this year was to just enjoy it, enjoy every minute. Enjoy every day I go to the rink. Don't take anything for granted and then I get the call from Minnesota.

"So whether it was once a week or once a month, I was just gonna try to enjoy that 60 minutes. And really take it in and enjoy it and having that approach was helping my game was helping me go out there and relax and keep the pressure off and just really wrap myself up in those single games and when you can do that, the wins feel that much better, too. I've felt really good about things coming here."

Looking back, Devan Dubnyk remembers the good and bad of it ... all of it.

"It has felt like a lot longer than a calendar year," he said. "It has felt like 10 years, probably. Last year probably took a few years off my life."