Czech Republic will be burly at the World Cup, but survival will be tough

Dallas' Radek Faksa  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Today’s announcement of the Czech Republic World Cup roster made official what we had already known: Jaromir Jagr would not be suiting up for the national squad. And hey, that’s fair – the man is an icon and he needs some rest as he continues a marvelous NHL career. So let’s turn to the players who will be playing in Toronto this summer.

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Kessel doing with Penguins what was impossible in Toronto and Boston

Phil Kessel. (Getty Images)

Should Phil Kessel continue his personal assault on the playoffs and be named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as tournament MVP, fans in Toronto and Boston should feel nothing but happiness for him. Wasting their time and emotional energy lamenting what might have been would be an exercise in futility.

And that’s largely because it never would have been. You see what Kessel is doing in the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Penguins? Never would have happened in either Toronto or Boston. Fans in Boston can be thankful for what they got in return for Kessel – Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton for a while – then Jimmy Hayes and three prospects they got when they dealt the players they got for Kessel. Fans in Toronto can watch as Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington try to win a Calder Trophy for their minor league team and hope the first- and third-round picks turn into something nice.

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Development guru pushes the pace in fast, complicated drills to boost player skills

Jared Clinton
(Courtesy of Jari Byrski_

Arguably the nicest goal of Sam Bennett’s career came this past November. In a game against Pittsburgh, the Calgary Flames rookie faked as if to cut outside before dropping his shoulder, pulling the puck around Penguins defenseman Ian Cole and spinning him into the ground before using a few quick dekes to fool goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

For as good as Bennett’s goal was, it may not have been possible without time and effort put into developing the exact moves utilized to score that highlight-reel tally. The toe-drag, the deke and the patience with the puck, all executed at full flight, were the result of dedication to the skill development that separates him from his peers. It’s something he’s been doing since before he was drafted, and he continues to spend chunks of his off-seasons working on it with SK8ON’s Jari Byrski.

“That shows the type of confidence I have with the puck to make plays like that,” Bennett said. “It’s thanks to my work with Jari in the summer.”

The kind of skill development Byrski provides isn’t entirely new, but the emphasis players have put on developing individual puck skills has increased over the past several years. Skills coaches have popped up throughout the sport, and even notable names, such as Hockey Hall of Famer and ex-Capitals and Devils bench boss Adam Oates, are starting to share their knowledge. Byrski, 54, is one of the pre-eminent names in the business.

But skill development isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice. Byrski’s methods have had to change over the years to adapt to each specific player as well as the overall increasing ability of players – “individualization of the skill set,” as Byrski calls it. One major adaptation over the past several seasons has been adapting drills to match the increase in speed the game sees seemingly each year. That’s something Byrski focuses on and something helped by taking cues from overseas.

“The European system was emphasizing not just sheer power and strength but adding a bit of finesse to the play as well,” Byrski said. “Growing a player’s skill set as far as agility and being able to maneuver with the puck and stickhandling ability…I started to see the effect that training this way had on some of my students playing the games, and that started to dictate how we trained.”

Bennett, who worked with Byrski throughout his time with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, isn’t the only notable player Byrski has trained. Since his school opened in 1993, he has become a sensei to some of the game’s most talented puck handlers, passers and shooters. Jason Spezza worked with Byrski as a pre-teen and still returns to his camps in the off-season. Steven Stamkos is a regular attendee, as is Jeff Skinner. Brent Burns and Byrski have also worked together for many years, including during Burns’ transition from right winger to a Norris Trophy-contending defenseman. All this is to say Byrski is a well-respected voice in the skill development community.

Byrski’s drills, which Bennett said can be extremely difficult, range from simple stickhandling to maneuvering between and slipping the puck through obstacles. And everything is done with speed. The purpose behind the drills is to focus on the fine skills. But when it comes to getting the most out of progressing an individual skill set, it has to be the player who commits to the training.

Jimmy Roy, the Winnipeg Jets’ co-ordinator of player development, said building the necessary puck skills is player-dependent and specific to each individual, but there has to be “ownership” from each player. “If the players care as much about their career as we do as an organization, and we take ownership of the things that we’re trying to teach them and get them better at, that’s the best thing for a player. But realistically, the players are the ones who are going to get themselves to the NHL.”

Byrski understands that, too. He’ll be approached by agents and players about off-season training, and, on occasion, teams will step in and look into getting a player the help to take the next step. “It will sometimes happen that when I have a player from an organization come to me in the summer, the organization is going to call me and address that they’ve seen this or that, but usually the player knows that from the exit meetings, especially the young players,” Byrski said. “They know what the team is seeing, what they would like them to work on or progress.”

Working on puck skills isn’t something that ends, either. Each season, a player has to work on making progress. Byrski worked with Daniel Alfredsson late in his career and recalled how impressive the then-Senators captain’s ability to control the puck was. Alfredsson told Byrski it was because of the work put in to sustain those abilities. “You learn how to maintain a skill set, how to nourish it, how to cherish it,” Byrski said. “When you’re young, you don’t appreciate the opportunities. But as you mature, you start to realize the potential that you have can be utilized in a greater way. Which means training. A lot of training.”

Continued training can breed confidence, which is backed up by Bennett’s belief that each off-season he’s worked on skill development has made him a better player. Byrski, who has formal education as a children’s psychologist, said confidence, or a lack thereof, can have the greatest effect on a player’s game, especially in a league that has become so obsessed with numbers – those that appear on the scoresheet and those underlying advanced statistics that don’t. But over the course of an off-season, a player’s confidence can grow and his game can become much better. Byrski compares it to adjusting a television set to get the clearest look at their game. “The first day they come in, they even tell me after 40 minutes, they feel sluggish, so the picture is faded,” Byrski said. “They already know and they’ll tell me they need to focus on something. As the off-season progresses – dryland, off-ice, on-ice – you can see the brightness, you can see the colors coming in. By the time a player leaves, you can see that it’s a much sharper picture.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Future Watch edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

Oilers coach McLellan rips team after loss to Flames

Daniel Nugent-Bowman
Todd McLellan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Edmonton Oilers lost 5-0 to the Calgary Flames on Saturday night in what was the final matchup of the Battle of Alberta at Rexall Place before they move into their new downtown arena in the fall.

And Todd McLellan couldn’t have been steamed about it.

The first-year Oilers coach blasted his team after the game, calling the players’ lackluster output “frickin’ embarrassing.”

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Maple Leafs’ dozen debutants makes this team the greenest ever

Tobias Lindberg  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

When Tobias Lindberg steps on the ice with the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Buffalo Sabres tonight, he’ll be part of a team record that hasn’t been matched in almost 100 years.

Lindberg, one of the prospects acquired from the Ottawa Senators in the Dion Phaneuf trade, will become the 12th player to make his NHL debut for the Leafs this season, joining William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Byron Froese, Nikita Soshnikov, Brendan Leipsic, Kasperi Kapanen, Rinat Valiev, Frederik Gauthier, Garret Sparks and Viktor Loov. It’s actually 13 if you include goalie Antoine Bibeau, who dressed as a backup for 11 games this season, but didn’t see any action.

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No Canadian teams will make the playoffs, but everybody should relax about it

Goaltending hurt Calgary (Photo by Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s official: no Canadian NHL teams will be making the playoffs this season. We knew this in our hearts for at least a month, but now it’s written in stone. And other than the Rogers TV execs trying to remember which of their molars contains the cyanide capsule, there’s no need to worry if you’re a Canadian.

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Ranking all seven Canadian teams’ playoff hopes for next year

Carey Price and P.K. Subban. (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

For shame, Great White North. For shame. A year after five of seven Canadian NHL teams booked tickets to the big playoff dance, 0.0 will participate in the post-season. Monday night’s results pretty much nailed the nation’s collective coffin shut. The Ottawa Senators would have to win their final six games, and the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings would have to lose out aside from their remaining head-to-head matchup. So, yeah, Ottawa won’t pull off a miracle two years in a row.

It seems most fan bases and local pundits accepted that fate several weeks ago, however, as no Canadian squad was anywhere near a playoff berth. The Sens still sit 10 points back. It’s time to move on and start asking about next year. Which Canadian team, if any, has the most realistic odds of returning to the post-season in 2016-17? It’s time to rank their chances, from worst to best.

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