With the 2013-14 season coming to a close, we can finally take a look at the past five months and really see who has enjoyed a coming-out party in the NHL. There are numerous people who have truly established themselves this year, but for now I'd like to focus on two in particular, starting with Colorado Avalanche coach Patrick Roy.
I just think he's been amazing. Since his team took the League by storm in October, there has been no drop-off in how he handles himself, how he interacts with his team or his level of communication with the staff and the players. You often hear him talk about his partnership with the players; what it means and what it represents. The players are just loving it.
Nathan MacKinnon was the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, but Roy didn't throw him to the wolves. He put him on the third line. There were times he wasn't playing center, there were times he wasn't taking faceoffs. As he's adjusted to the League and gotten better and more comfortable, Roy has expanded his responsibilities. He's done a great job of managing MacKinnon's ice time. Not just with him. I think Gabriel Landeskog has improved dramatically, as have Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly.
What about Erik Johnson? How far has he come under Patrick Roy? Not to mention Tyson Barrie. Going into this season, they had an American league defense crops. It's a credit to them, the way those guys have played as a group of seven. They may not be a household-name defense corps, but all those guys are playing hard and responsible. They're making plays and getting the puck to the forwards in transition.
I think a lot of coaches should take heed of what Roy is doing. You watch him on the ice for practices and he's very hands-on in terms of trying to show guys what to do and demonstrate how he wants things done. Not every head coach is willing to do that.
This has also come in the Central Division, which along with the Pacific is the League's toughest division. In those divisions, you're playing playoff hockey every night. Those divisions force you to sink or swim, so you've got to be great pretty much every night. Look at who you're going up against. Those are heavyweight fights every night. There's not too much margin for error right now in the Central, which could have five playoff teams in the Western Conference.
As long as we're talking about breakout seasons, let's talk about New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo. Here's a player whose game has improved by leaps and bounds. He has put in a lot of work behind the scenes to be really good. That is evident now that he is ranked among the League's top 10 scorers. He was getting those numbers playing with Thomas Vanek and John Tavares and now he's getting them without Vanek and Tavares. He's a world-class player and I just want to speak to a lot of the skill development he's putting in behind the scenes to be an elite player in this League.
You saw a bit of it last year during the playoffs and he put in a lot of work in after the playoffs ended. When the puck is on his tape, he creates a lot of options for himself and his linemates. When the puck is not on his tape, he's still able to open space for other players and be a distraction. Right now he has that little bite to his game and he's been great.
With Tavares hurt and Vanek with the Montreal Canadiens, Okposo is getting a great opportunity to be a true leader on that team. That will serve him well next season. That's why we'll be hearing even more from him, not to mention Patrick Roy and the Avalanche.
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