Monday, March 27, 2017

Throwback: Five American players to watch at the 2012 World Junior Championships

Originally written by Erika Schnure for Red Light District, 12/7/2011

On Monday, USA Hockey announced their preliminary roster for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships in Alberta. 29 players are on the preliminary roster, and by December 22, they will be trimmed to a final 22. There are eight players returning from 2011's team, but it's some of the newer players that could be the biggest surprises. Here are five new guys on Team USA to watch in this year's tournament.

1. John Gibson, Goaltender
Last year, Jack Campbell and Andy Iles shared goaltending duties on the roster, but Campbell was the main man in net, as Iles spent just over nine minutes on the ice in total. Campbell's high draft selection (11th overall by the Dallas Stars in 2010) could be attributed to his impressive first appearance on the international stage, playing for USA in 2010's tournament. He followed it up with another amazing performance in 2011, hence Iles' limited ice time.

But if there's anyone that could challenge Campbell for the primary spot in the net for the tournament, it's John Gibson. A second round (39th overall) selection by the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, Gibson cut his teeth with the U.S. National Development Team starting in 2009. This fall, he headed to Kitchener, Ontario to become the starting goaltender for the Kitchener Rangers. Through 19 games played with the Rangers, he has 12 wins, a 2.58 goals against average, and .931 save percentage -- better statistics than Campbell.

The Pittsburgh native also has international experience. He was the starting goaltender for Team USA in the 2010 World U-17 Hockey Challenge, and recorded the best GAA and save percentage of any goaltender in the tournament. Though Gibson admits he didn't even know the World Juniors tournament existed until last year, any opportunity to represent the USA is something he takes seriously. "It's important to me," Gibson told The Record (Kitchener). "Any time I can represent my country, I want to do that."

Kitchener coach Steve Spott agrees that Gibson could very well end up the starter come tournament time. "I believe he’ll push Jack Campbell for the starting position," Spott said. "I believe he's going to give USA Hockey's coaching staff a lot to think about. He's just a money goaltender and will be a tremendous asset for them in that tournament."

2. Seth Jones, Defenseman
The youngest player on the preliminary roster (born Oct. 3, 1994), Jones comes from pro athlete stock. His father is "Popeye" Jones, who played in the NBA for 12 years and now serves as the assistant coach for the New Jersey Nets. Seth was born in Texas during Jones' three-season stint with the Dallas Mavericks. Seth definitely takes after his father in terms of size -- at 17 years old, he is 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds.

Jones, a two-way defenseman who spent last season playing with the U.S. National Development Team, caught the eye of Team USA general manager Jim Johannson in the team's summer evaluation camp. At the time, Jones was just 16 years old, and was already drawing comparisons to NHL All-Stars. "He reminds of me of Erik Johnson to a degree," Johannson said. "He is just an all-around solid player. He's the real deal. Good instincts in all areas and he plays the game in all zones."

Jones isn't even eligible for the NHL Draft until 2013, but he could earn himself a spot on the final roster for Team USA. NHL general managers are already champing at the bit to get Jones drafted to their team, and if he survives the cuts, his play in the tournament could catapult him to the top of the rankings for the 2013 draft.

3. Jarred Tinordi, Defenseman
Though two years older, Tinordi is much like Jones in several personal aspects. He is another product of the U.S. National Development Team, and his father too was a professional athlete. But hockey insiders are much more familiar with Tinordi's father -- former NHL tough guy Mark Tinordi. Like his father, Tinordi is a gritty, physical -- and huge (6-foot-7) -- defenseman.

Drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2010 draft, Tinordi had originally committed to play at Notre Dame, but opted to go the junior route and signed with the London Knights. Last season with the Knights, he had 14 points and 140 penalty minutes.

Tinordi was part of Team USA in the 2010 Under-18 World Juniors, and won a gold medal in the tournament with the team. In addition to his skill, his leadership qualities are highly-touted. He captained the USA U-18 team, and currently serves as captain of the Knights. His size and work ethic could make him a valuable presence on the blue line.

4. Brandon Saad, Left Wing
Chicago Blackhawks fans are already very familiar with Saad's name -- the 2011 second-round (43rd overall) pick was a pleasant surprise in this fall's training camp, earning him the opportunity to play in two regular season games with the Blackhawks in October. After his two game appearances, he was sent back to his junior team (Saginaw Spirit), but he had already made a big impression on USA general manager Jim Johannson.

Because of the draft and commitments with the Blackhawks, Saad was not able to attend the summer's World Juniors evaluation camp, but Johannson had no issue with including him on the preliminary roster. "The bottom line with him is being able to show us that he wanted to be a part of the program and that his level of play was going to be what we were looking for," Johannson said. "He got off to a great start with Chicago and played a couple games with the 'Hawks. But more importantly for us, when he went (back) to Saginaw, he performed well, he's competing in all aspects of the game that we saw in him as a younger player and what he needed to improve on. He's shown that."

Since returning to Saginaw, Saad has 19 points in 11 games. Though he and Tinordi are rivals in the Ontario Hockey League, they were teammates on the American U-18 team that won gold in 2010.

5. Austin Watson, Center
Watson is one of the rarer players on the preliminary roster that have never been involved in the U.S. National Development Team, but don't count him out based on that. He made a name for himself in his first season in the Ontario Hockey League as a member of the 2009 Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires. Watson began his sophomore season with the Spitfires, and could have won a second Memorial Cup, but he was traded to the Peterborough Petes to close out the 2009-2010 OHL season.

Watson was drafted in the first round (18th overall) of the 2010 draft by the Nashville Predators. He's praised by scouts for his offensive ability while being able to play a grinder-style role, blocking shots and sacrificing his body to make plays. So far this season with the Petes, Watson has 28 points in 28 games.

In this deep pool of possible players, Watson could be a long shot to make the final roster, but his positive, team-first attitude may be his X factor.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Throwback: Caps power play resurges

Originally written by Erika Schnure for Red Light District, 10/25/2011

In the second half of the 2010-2011 NHL season, the Washington Capitals' power play went from one of the best in the league to practically non-existent. From February 2011 through the end of the regular season, the Capitals' power play went 16-for-88, just 18.1%. In the playoffs, it got even worse, ending in a 14.2% over nine games.

Coach Bruce Boudreau said that once the power play started to tank, it just got worse from there. "Last half of last year was a lot of 'panic-ville.' I think guys were holding their sticks too tight, trying to make the pretty plays all the time," Boudreau said. "When you're an offensive player, and you don't have the numbers that you're accustomed to, and every day people are asking you, 'How come your scoring's down?' Your confidence is down and you're not comfortable, and then you're trying harder. It may not look like you're trying harder, but you're trying to put square pegs into round holes, and you're doing things that you shouldn't be doing."

The poor power play of last season was a true departure from previous years. The Capitals finished second in the NHL in 2008-2009, and first in the league 2009-2010, with both seasons at 25.2% success on the power play. After the substandard success rate of the latter half of the 2010-2011 season, the Capitals finished the year in 16th place with 17.5%.

Now, seven games into the current season, the Capitals' power play is singing another tune. They're current first in the NHL on the power play, going 8-for-27, good for a 29.6% success rate while allowing zero shorthanded goals. That includes a 30.0% success rate at home.

What's so different about this year that is leading to an effective power play? Boudreau says that the players have stopped trying too hard and have returned to simple plays that work. "We're just getting back to what we're doing," Boudreau said. "I think with them seeing some success at doing what they're doing, they're going, 'Wow, let's just continue what we're doing.' Hopefully, it stays the same."

If you ask winger Mike Knuble, he attributes the success to the structure of the power play units. With Mike Green and Dennis Wideman healthy (both struggled with long injuries last season), the two offensive defensemen set up on the point, while fellow first unit components Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Troy Brouwer to cycle down low. Troy Brouwer was camped in front of the net while Mike Green scored two power play goals in Saturday's win against the Detroit Red Wings, and Knuble says crashing the net as Brouwer did is the key.

"There's times when we've gotten away from the net and you wonder why the power play is struggling. Then you look at the film, it's because you're not around the net enough," Knuble said. "So it's good to see that we have a net presence, it's the way to do things. It's the way that a power play should be executed. The skilled guys on the outside then you have somebody around the net that can finish and get in the way. It's a part of our success."

Boudreau and Knuble agree that last year's poor power play could have also been attributed to the separate lengthy losses of Mike Green and Dennis Wideman. "I think (Green's injury) had something to do with it," Boudreau said.

Knuble heaped praise on his teammates, saying, "It's great to have healthy Mike (Green), he's very sharp with the puck, and makes a lot of things happen. And Wideman I think, when he arrived last year (at the trade deadline) after Mike went down (hurt), he was tremendous, really was quarterbacking everything. When he went out of our lineup (injured) that was a big hole, too."

While it could be that Green and Wideman are healthy, the renewed power play success is more likely attributed to the fact that that the team isn't trying too hard, staying away from the pretty passes that go nowhere. Aside from a return to simplicity, Knuble also points to a more intangible, psychological reason for the power play progress.

"Guys are hungry right now on the power play," Knuble said. "Everyone who's moving the puck around is hungry and not just killing time and trying to look for the pretty play. Work hard and if you get an open shot, take it."

Throwback: Jose Theodore starts strong in Florida

Originally written by Erika Schnure for Hockey Primetime, 10/21/2011

photo by Getty images
The Florida Panthers made arguably the greatest amount of moves during the 2011 off-season, most notably in goal. After Tomas Vokoun walked to take $1.5 million in Washington, the Panthers brought in former Capital Jose Theodore, who spent the last year backing up Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota.

With a rebuild in full swing, it was difficult to tell how the new hodgepodge team would work together, but five games into the Panthers' season, the team is 3-2-0, largely thanks to the heroics of Jose Theodore. Theodore is standing tall with a .920 save percentage, 2.47 goals against average, and one shutout in four games played.

It hasn't been an easy road for Theodore. During two seasons in Washington, beginning in 2008, he was pushed aside in the playoffs in favor of Semyon Varlamov. Theodore called the  situation "a stinger," as he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He was officially relegated to backup status in 2010-2011 with the Wild, playing 32 games with a record of 15-11-3.

Theodore is turning over a new leaf in Florida, signing a two-year deal with the Panthers over the summer. "You look at where the team's going, especially I'm not 20 anymore, I want some changes now," Theodore told the Miami Herald in July. "I think this was the best fit."

He's been designated as the starter after goaltender Scott Clemmensen underwent minor knee surgery near the end of training camp. He's ready to rise up to that starting role. "Last year was a little step back, but I've got to show my teammates that I still play well at 35," Theodore told the Sun-Sentinel.

He made that impact early, flying out of the gate to begin the season and making 27 saves on the New York Islanders for a 2-0 shutout in the Panthers' season opener. It was the 31st shutout of Theodore's career. "(Theodore is) a competitor,'' C Stephen Weiss told the Sun-Sentinel after the game. "We knew he was going to be there for us."

Even though he's the starting goaltender now, Theodore isn't resting on his laurels - he knows that once Clemmensen returns, the fight for the starting goaltender position continues. After a lackluster training camp and preseason, during which he allowed 12 goals in two exhibition games, Theodore is working hard to show that he should remain the go-to guy in net.

"Let's not forget, Jose Theodore is a good player," Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen told reporters after last week's shootout win over Tampa Bay. "He's proven that over the length of a career. We felt that he was a No. 1 goalie, but for me he really had to earn it. He had a pretty stinky training camp, but since then he’s been pretty solid."

Thus far in the regular season, the team has been working well together, particularly with Theodore providing the support in net. In Theodore's eyes, the future looks bright for the Panthers. "I think we're working well together right now," Theodore told reporters Saturday. "We've been working hard in practices and we're starting to figure out what we got to do to win some games."

After a stellar preseason, Jets C Mark Scheifele scored his first NHL regular season goal Wednesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Winnipeg Jets have four more games to decide whether or not to keep Scheifele in Winnipeg or return him to his junior team. ... Jets C Alexander Burmistrov, in his second year in the NHL, has shown a vast improvement from his rookie year. The 19-year-old is turning the heads of his linemates, including C Nik Antropov. "Definitely he's improved from last year," Antropov told the Winnipeg Free Press. "I can see that in reading the game and the patience he has shown on the ice, especially in the last couple of games." ... Florida Panthers G Jacob Markstrom made his first NHL start in a 3-0 loss to the Washington Capitals. Despite the score, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen blamed the defense for the loss. "(Markstrom) had a good solid game for us and gave us a chance to win,'' Dineen told reporters. "He can play in this league and it showed early on when he had that pressure on him. I'm proud of him under tough circumstances." Markstrom made 29 saves. ... The Washington Capitals are 5-0, their strongest start in franchise history. However, coach Bruce Boudreau knows that's no reason to get too excited. "When it comes to April and May I'm not going to be able to sit here and say: 'Hey, we were 5-0 and we got that record. Isn't that great?'" Boudreau told reporters. "It's not really going to hold a lot of weight. It's just the process of getting to where we want to get." ... The Carolina Hurricanes sent D Justin Faulk to AHL Charlotte on Wednesday. Faulk saw action in three regular season games after an impressive preseason. ... Six games into the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a 1-3-2 record. General manager Steve Yzerman says the team has to be better. But he's not panicking quite yet. "The urgency in the guys' play is there," Yzerman said to media. "I like the effort of our team in every game. All teams go through stretches in a season where they struggle. Ours is just right off the bat."