Should prospect goaltenders play a lot in the AHL – or a little in the NHL?

Matt Larkin
Matt Murray.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

A fractured larynx
 is horrible news for anyone. Merely writing about such a gruesome, frightening injury churns the stomach. For Providence Bruins goaltender Malcolm Subban, though, taking a puck to the throat Feb. 6 was especially discouraging.

After all, he was somewhere he didn’t think he should be.

If it were up to Subban, 22, he would’ve been far away from Portland, Maine and the Providence warmup, where he sustained the injury before a game against the Pirates. Subban spoke to THN shortly before training camp, and he made it clear he would rather be an NHL backup, fighting for scraps behind Tuukka Rask in Boston, than an AHL starter.

“From the OHL to the AHL, once I got in and got comfortable, I did really well coming in as a young guy, so I feel I can do the same in the NHL,” he said. “I’ve done it at the last two levels and succeeded there. So, looking at it the same way at the NHL level, I could play until I’m 28 and develop in the AHL, you know what I mean? So who’s to say when the age is? I definitely feel I can jump up there, and I’ve had a good couple seasons in the AHL.”

Subban wasn’t pulling a prima donna act. He dutifully accepted his AHL assignment to start 2015-16. He only admitted his preference for the big club when asked. And his mentality reflects how virtually every young goaltender feels once he’s drafted. They all want to be in the NHL as soon as possible, no matter how small the workload might be.

“In one sense, we’d all think there’s something wrong with them if they didn’t say that,” said Pittsburgh Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, a former NHL goalie.

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The Right Way: The Maple Leafs complete franchise makeover is going swimmingly so far

Ken Campbell
William Nylander. (Graig Abel/Getty Images)

The Toronto Marlies are generally treated as the bastard child of the Toronto Maple Leafs, an afterthought in a hockey market where fans call into talk radio and wonder why their NHL team can’t just trade for P.K. Subban, like it’s that easy, or simply snap their fingers and sign Steven Stamkos and John Tavares when they become free agents. Toronto’s AHL franchise plays in a former horse palace, albeit a wonderfully refurbished one that makes for a great viewing experience, and despite being in the AHL’s biggest city and the Center of the Hockey Universe™ where they’re in first place and the NHL team is dead last, you can always get a ticket. Sometimes you might even have to pay for it. But there’s a lot of foot room for patrons since the arena is usually only about two-thirds full.

On this day in early February, however, the Marlies have the rule of the roost. The Maple Leafs are out of town on an extended road trip, so the Marlies take over the big club’s practice facility, a four-pad rink in the west end of the city. At one point during practice, Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe breaks the team into two groups, with one traipsing over to one rink to work exclusively on skill development and the other staying behind to work on systems.

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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.

Future Watch: Dylan Strome is primed to become the No. 1 center Arizona desperately needs

Dylan Strome. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

The Strome family has a tradition. Three sons have been drafted into the OHL over the years, and a couple nights before each one has left home, the family has thrown a big party featuring all their relatives. The son who was leaving would give a speech, and things would get misty. OK, fine. There were full-on waterworks. Ryan is the eldest and currently a member of the New York Islanders. Matthew is the youngest and just gave his speech last summer before departing the family home in Mississauga for Hamilton. And in the middle is Dylan, an Arizona Coyotes draft pick who has been tearing up the OHL as a member of the high-flying Erie Otters for nearly three seasons. “We thank everyone for the help and generosity they’ve given us,” Dylan said.

“They’ve followed us for so many years of our lives, and they know we’re going off to do what we love to do. For them to help us out so much, you get emotional when you talk about it. I was crying, Matt was crying, Ryan cried. I cried when Ryan said it, I cried when Matt said it. My parents were both crying. It’s OK to show emotion in our family.”

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Hockey’s travellin’ man, Ryan Bahl, is one continent short of setting a record

Ronnie Shuker
(All photos Courtesy of Ryan Bahl)

Ryan Bahl can swear in Cantonese, Czech, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish and, of course, English, including a potpourri of American, South African, New Zealand and Australian slang. They’re the first words he learns when landing in a new country, sticks in hand, hockey bag in tow. No matter where Bahl has travelled to play the game – Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America, and even Africa – profanity has proven to be the universal mode of communication.

“If you get into it on the ice, you can just use curse words,” Bahl said. “I try to learn the worst words possible and use them if it gets too heated.”

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Corey Crawford paid his dues, and now he’s getting the respect he deserves

Ken Campbell
Corey Crawford (Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

At some point, this season or next, Dustin Tokarski is going to skate out and take his spot in the crease for his 256th game in hockey’s minor leagues. When it happens, there’s a good chance Corey Crawford won’t notice. Why would he? The guy is a big shot now, with two Stanley Cups under his belt and probably more coming. He’s pulling down $6.5 million large, with another $23 million coming over the next four years. He has full control of the net and the unwavering confidence of the franchise that has set the gold standard for all others in the NHL. Why should he care about some journeyman backup making a start in the minors on Tuesday night in Bakersfield or Elmira or playing against something called the Greenville Swamp Rabbits?

Here’s why. Because when Tokarski finally plays that game – he was at 249 and the third goalie for the San Diego Gulls in the AHL – Crawford will finally be able to say that somebody in this freakin’ goalie business has played more games in the minors than he has. Of the 86 goalies who had appeared in the NHL this season as of mid-March, not a single one had played as many games in minor pro backwaters as Crawford had. For five years, spanning 255 games, Crawford played in the minors, first in Norfolk, Va., then three years in Rockford, Ill., a place whose claim to fame is Home of the Sock Monkey. Read more

Don’t be fooled: There’s a method to Brent Burns’ bearded madness

Ryan Kennedy
Brent Burns (Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)

When famed pirate Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach went into battle, he did so as the most intimidating man of the seas. As noted in the essential text General History of the Pyrates by Captain Johnson, Teach grew his beard out to frightful lengths and a bushy depth that saw the hairs come up to his eyes. To top things off, he would stick lit matches under his hat, so that his eyes would glow and “made him altogether such a figure, that imagination cannot form an idea of fury, from Hell, to look more frightful.”

Blackbeard may have acted like a lunatic, but the man knew what he was doing to strike fear into his foes. Brent Burns isn’t allowed to stick lit matches in his helmet, but like Blackbeard, he is one hell of an intimidating force. His beard may appear wild, but just as Teach fastened black ribbons to his facial hair, Burns is meticulous with his growth. “It takes a lot of beard oil and tender loving care to keep it tight,” he said. “Guys are always teasing me about getting food stuck in it, but I keep it clean. I’d rather eat off this beard than some dinner plates.”

Over the years, this season in particular, the beard has become synonymous with the player. On the ice, Burns plays with his hair on fire. Calling it reckless wouldn’t be far off. Burns himself describes it as “off-the-wall.” As with his beard, however, what might seem crazy is actually well thought out. Although Burns may look like a wild man on the ice – all 6-foot-5, 230 pounds of him, teeth missing, scruff threatening to engulf his face – he is a marauder on a mission. There is purpose, calculation, strategy, planning behind the player, and even the man himself. Dare we say, there’s a method to his madness. Read more

Content in Alex Ovechkin’s shadow, Nicklas Backstrom is free to play his game, and be the Caps’ resident prankster

backstrom644

Nicklas Backstrom has the yips. Too bad, as golf is by far his favorite summer pastime. He’s damn good at it, a five handicap. He carves his way through most courses off the tee, in his approach shots, via his short game. Put the man on a green, however, and his knees start to wobble. Backstrom can’t putt. He’s terrible at reading undulations.

“PlayoffPreview”

Of all skills on a course for him to lack…putting? Really? This is Nicklas Backstrom, the tranquil Swede with golden blond locks and stoic green eyes. The robotically efficient playmaking machine. The man with more assists than any player not named Joe Thornton or Henrik Sedin since breaking into the NHL in 2007-08.

Putting is the closest thing on a golf course to passing. You’d think it would cater to Backstrom’s talents as much as any non-hockey skill, but it doesn’t. It’s a reminder he’s far more human than he lets on. It hints at someone nothing like the person he appears to be on the ice.

On the surface, Backstrom fits a template. He grew up a hockey nut in Valbo, Sweden. He took up the sport by the time he was three, shortly after his father, Anders, retired from a 10-year career with Brynas of the Swedish League. Nicklas’ older brother, Kristoffer, also went on to play in the SHL. Nicklas was so obsessed he would sometimes sleep with his skates on. He idolized the likes of Daniel Alfredsson and Nicklas Lidstrom. He was a six-year-old jumping up and down on his couch when Peter Forsberg scored the postage stamp goal at the 1994 Olympics.

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