|Thrashers' defenseman Garnet Exelby credits Atlanta's current assistant coach Brad McCrimmon with helping him become a better all-around player.
McCrimmon has significantly impacted Exelby’s career.
Exelby and McCrimmon first crossed paths in 1998, when McCrimmon was the coach of the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades. In his two seasons as the Blades’ coach, McCrimmon not only led the club to a 40-point improvement during the 1999-2000 season, but he also turned Exelby's game around. The Ste. Anne, Manitoba native had a minus-34 rating in the 1998-99 season, but improved to a plus-14 rating the following year.
"I give him a lot of credit for my being here," Exelby said. "For our paths to cross again and for me to be able to work with him again, it's a great opportunity."
It didn't take long for the Exelby-McCrimmon relationship to produce additional plus-minus magic. At the start of the 2003-04 season, the Thrashers hired McCrimmon as an assistant coach. Exelby finished a disappointing minus-10 during his first year in the NHL, but with McCrimmon as a coach the following season he reversed his number to a plus-11.
McCrimmon won't take any credit for Exelby's success. In this case, the teacher gives the pupil all the kudos, pointing to Exelby as a quick learner and hard worker.
"He's a good student who's learned the game real well," McCrimmon said. "He's made himself into a very dependable player. He's an every-nighter who plays hard against any player who's on the ice."
The Thrashers thought so much of the up-and-coming defenseman that they inked him to a multi-year contract when Exelby became a restricted free agent the past summer.
"He's a good, hard-nosed type of defenseman," assistant coach Steve Weeks said. "He was very good in the minors and he came up and played very well for us. He keeps it simple. You're not going to find really fancy things from him. He's a good hitter who's a hard-nosed, rugged defenseman."
But in his four-plus NHL seasons, Exelby has proven to be more than just a rough-and-tumble player. For example, the 26-year-old missed 18 games with mononucleosis last season, but wound up tying his career-high with 10 points, registering two goals and eight assists in 58 games. He also appeared in all four of the Thrashers’ playoff games last season.
Exelby believes his game has come a long way in a short time because coaches like McCrimmon, Bob Hartley – the Thrashers' former coach – and veterans like former teammate Dallas Eakins gave him the knowledge and opportunities to develop into a reliable defender.
"When I first came into the League, Bob (Hartley) let me know that I was going to play no matter what, which was great," Exelby explained. "It took some of the pressure off me, allowing me to make mistakes as a young player without having to worry about it. Getting that confidence from the coaches and the organization that early on in your career is huge for a young player. I was fortunate enough to play with Eakins in the minors and learn from McCrimmon once I got to the NHL.
"As a young defenseman you learn that you have to try and slow things down. You can't press; you have to let the game come to you. You can't try to do too much out there. That's why it's great having veterans around. They tell you on the ice when to go and on the bench what to do in certain situations. But you also have to trust your instincts and play your game. You just have to remember not to try and do too much because in this League one mistake and the puck can wind up in the back of your net."
Prior to making his professional debut, on March 11, 2003 in New Jersey, Exelby played three seasons of junior hockey in the WHL with the Blades and Regina Pats. He registered 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points and 331 penalty minutes in 189 contests, and tallied four assists in 17 playoff games.
He was drafted by the Thrashers in the eighth round, No. 217 overall, of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.
Who's hot -- Alexander Ovechkin was named the NHL's First Star for the week ending Dec. 30. The Washington forward tied for first among NHL scorers with five goals and two assists for seven points, as the Capitals won two of
Southeast Quotes – "Brad (McCrimmon) is an important part of our coaching staff and this well-deserved promotion reflects the expanded role I have asked him to take on. He has a great deal of NHL experience, is very well respected and has earned this opportunity. Along with Steve (Weeks) and Tony (Borgford), I look forward to working together as a staff and continuing the significant strides we have taken."
-- Thrashers interim coach and General Manager Don Waddell, discussing promoting Brad McCrimmon to associate coach.
"I think we're really starting to believe that we're a good hockey team. But again, we dug ourselves such a big hole at the beginning of the season, we're just slowly but surely creeping our way back into things."
-- Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig said after the Caps came from behind Tuesday night to beat Ottawa, 6-3.
A look ahead -- On Friday, Jan. 4, the Carolina Hurricanes travel to Atlanta. On Saturday, Jan. 5, the Lightning are in Ottawa, the Capitals travel to Montreal, the 'Canes head to St. Louis and the Panthers are in Pittsburgh. On Sunday, Jan. 6, the Thrashers host the Sabres.