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.

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