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Plenty of room for young defensemen to roam

Friday, 10.16.2009 / 5:00 PM / Ice Age

By Phil Coffey - NHL.com Sr. Editorial Director

Back in the day, make that way back in the day, I was told that young defensemen were to be seen and not heard.

In other words, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut -- and learns. Judging by what is going on in the NHL this season, I think the statement was made owning to my lack of talent at such a tender age, because young defensemen sure are making themselves both seen and heard nowadays.

The early going of the 2009-10 season has seen a slew of young defensemen come to the fore. Yes, it is early, but their exploits are still worth noting, especially when you see a kid like Michael Del Zotto not only earning minutes from a demanding coach like John Tortorella in New York, but also leading the entire rookie crop in scoring as of Thursday with 2 goals and 5 assists in seven games. His teammate, Matt Gilroy, also is a rookie and also playing some mighty minutes with the Rangers, averaging over 18 per game.

"I have something to prove," the 25-year-old Gilroy told NHL.com's Dan Rosen. "That's the way I go at everything. Nothing is given to you, especially with Coach Tortorella. You've got to earn it and that's been my thing my whole life. I have earned everything I've got and I am not expecting anything else. I'm not as naive as, say, an 18-year-old coming in, but I'm still a rookie and I have to prove myself."

In Tampa Bay, much is expected of Victor Hedman, the second selection in the '09 draft, and he is delivering with 4 assists in five games and an average of about 25 minutes of ice time per game.

"There are expectations, but I like it," said the 6-foot-6, 230-pound defenseman. "There should be expectations. You play better when you play under pressure.

"We are playing against players that are going fast all the time here, and it takes time," Hedman said. "You have to be patient. You don't need to rush everything. You can't think everything is going to be there right away, but it's been good so far and I have to keep on working hard to develop."

The trend continues in Los Angeles, where Drew Doughty is now in his second season after a terrific rookie season in which he scored 6 goals and 21 assists while leading the Kings in average ice time. Doughty scored 2 goals and had 4 assists after six games this season. Another young defenseman to watch in L.A. is Davis Drewiske, who was plus-5 after six games and already has a goal and 2 assists. He appeared in 17 games for the Kings last season.

Other youngsters to keep in mind include San Jose's Jason Demers, Tyler Myers in Buffalo, Dmitry Kulikov in Florida and Zach Bogosian in Atlanta.

Tough times in Toronto -- To say the Maple Leafs' season hasn't gone as desired would qualify as the understatement of the season. An 0-5-1 record after six games has the natives restless and media talking that the players have quit on coach Ron Wilson.

Brian Burke, the man who put the team together, is fully aware that things aren't pretty right now, but he's not going to start tearing things apart before the season gets into double digits in games played.

"There are four major components, and we're not executing in any of them," Burke told the Globe and Mail. "That's our defensive zone play, our scoring, our special teams and goaltending. We're not getting the job done in all four areas, and that is a fatal combination.

"Everyone assumes that because we're (0-5-1) that dramatic and drastic changes are needed, when a large part of this might be timing," Burke said. "It might just be that we're starting to come together. We put a lot of new faces in the lineup and it's pretty hard to win when you're missing in all four areas. If we're even able to put together two of those areas, improve on special teams and goaltending for two games, we could be 3-3 or 4-2.

"To me, to quit on this group based on six games when there is so much going on -- it's not one leak in the tire that we can put a patch on -- it's not fair to the players. That's why it will take more than six games to assess."

Shoot the puck, Josh -- The New York Islanders are another team in search of a jumpstart. One way the Isles hope to get rolling is to get Josh Bailey scoring.

As Newsday's Mark  Herrmann reported, the team loves Bailey's penchant for unselfish play and the other intangibles he brings to the team. But Josh, shoot the puck!

"He knows that. We talked before the L.A. game," coach Scott Gordon said. "He had one shot in three games.

"To his credit, he is very unselfish with the puck. But I told him about having had the opportunity to watch quite a bit of (Boston's) Marc Savard. He's probably one of the best passers in the NHL, but he knows when to shoot. When he does shoot, it opens up other things for him."
 
Admittedly, it's tough for a young player like Bailey to break character and start shooting instead of passing, but it's a habit he realizes he must break in order for the team to succeed.

"I've always kind of gotten in trouble for not shooting the puck enough," Bailey said. "It's something I definitely need to start doing."

Patient to a point -- Brent Sutter knows that his Calgary Flames will not be assimilated into his ways in an instant. Still blowing a 5-0 lead in Chicago is something that won't sit well for a long time with the coach.

And Sutter won't change his approach and system, so the boys best be learning things quickly and not blame things on reverting to bad habits from last season.

"The better way for me to phrase it is that we're not getting enough out of our new ways yet," Sutter told Scott Cruickshank of the Calgary Herald. "I don't want to be disrespectful to anything that's gone on here in the past, but I do know the way things need to be done going forward. I respect what the players are saying, but I'm not going to comment.

"To me, I look at this year as a fresh start," Sutter continued. "I haven't changed my outlook on that. It's a fresh start for everybody. New coaching staff. New players. What's gone on in the past is the past. This is the way we're doing it now.

"You know, there's no time table," Sutter said. "With the changes that have been made this summer -- the staff, the players, the outlook -- it's something that you work on, on a daily basis. Could take a day. Could take two weeks. Could take two months. You don't know.

"But I do know that what's being done ... is what we all want done. Forming new habits isn't always an easy task."

And that's the truth -- Paul Maurice isn't losing sleep these days wondering what might have happened against the Penguins in the Western Conference Finals last spring.

It is what it is, according to the Carolina Hurricanes coach.
 
"They were just better than we were," Maurice told Hall of Famer-to-be Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Everyone has their own (adversities) to deal with. We went through two grinding series (before facing the Penguins), but, at the end of the day, they were just faster and sharper than we were, and that was the end of it."

Maurice thought his 'Canes were competitive early in the eventual sweep -- "Especially in the first two games, clearly our goaltender (Cam Ward) was exceptional, (and) we were still in those games and had them tied at different points or had a chance to tie them" -- but that was not the case when the series shifted to Carolina.

"I thought that, at that point, we had slowed down," he said. "And they were just better."

Something a lot of teams discovered last season.

Hail and farewell -- Before the season gets too busy, the gang here at NHL.com wants to take a minute to wish our colleague Eric Stephens well. Eric covered a lot of events on the "Left Coast" for us last season and he is now covering the Anaheim Ducks for the Orange County Register.

NHL.com's loss is a gain for Ducks fans and readers of the register. Good luck Eric.

Well Said I -- "Everyone talks about goals, goals, goals. Well, we scored five goals in Chicago and lost 6-5. The other night (in Columbus), we're up 1-0 and playing a real strong road game ... then, all of a sudden, it's 2-1 and you lose the hockey game. We really needed to step up there and say, 'We can win this game 1-0.' That's the mindset that this team has to get to." -- Flames coach Brent Sutter accenting the need for defense.

Hot start -- Anaheim's Corey Perry has gotten off to a sizzling start with 4 goals and 3 assists in seven games.

Coach Randy Carlyle told the aforementioned Eric Stephens that Perry's invitation to Team Canada's summer orientation camp for the 2010 Olympics paid off.

"It's a credit to Corey because the work that he put in preparing for the Team Canada tryout and thus preparing himself earlier for the season is paying dividends," Carlyle said.

Well Said II -- "Unpredictable in every aspect. But he's a guy that has a great shot and he has a touch for scoring. He can be not doing exactly what you want, but he's going to come in at the right time and the puck will be there.

"He's trying to play exactly the way we want. He wants to learn. He's asking questions. To me, it's going to come. Sometimes on the power play he'll be perfect to help the other winger that he needs to help. And other times he's not there. He does it at times, but not all the time. But if he stays like this and keeps getting the goals, I don't mind." -- New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire talking to the Star-Ledger's Rich Chere about David Clarkson.

No hard feelings -- Nikolai Khabibulin says he has no hard feelings about leaving the Chicago Blackhawks for the Edmonton Oilers during the off-season. The veteran goalie understands life in a salary cap world and realizes tough decisions often are the result.

"I still have a condo here, friends here," he told Len Zieh  of the Sun-Times. "I really enjoyed being here. The city is great."

Simply put, the Hawks needed to spend money elsewhere and allowed Khabibulin to depart. Even as far back as the start of last season, Chicago put Khabibulin on waivers as a means of shedding salary. Instead, he remained with the Hawks and became an important reason why Chicago reached the Western Conference Finals.

"It wasn't really that bad," he said. "I knew what I could do. I was confident that I could play." That's certainly evidenced by his 25-8-7 record, 2.33 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. But despite those numbers, Khabibulin realized the Blackhawks likely wouldn't reach the numbers he wanted on a new contract.

"After free agency started, we weighed all the positives and decided where to go," he said of moving to Edmonton for a four-year deal. "There was nothing to really compare to, as far as with the Hawks. It was a pretty easy decision for me.

"I don't look back. It is what it is," he said. "Everything happens for a reason. Their team hasn't changed much. They should still challenge for the top in the conference. If they win the Cup, great. If they don't … "

It won't be his problem.

Olympic motivation? -- The word on Johan Franzen is a four- to six-month recovery for a torn ACL that requires surgery. Obviously a big-time loss for the Red Wings, but it may well be a big-time loss as Sweden looks to defend its Olympic title in Vancouver this February.

If all goes well, Franzen will be cleared to play in early February, presenting some dicey decisions for the Swedish roster -- and Franzen too.

"I haven't really thought about that yet," Franzen told Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press. "It's more the disappointment of not being able to play with the Red Wings. If the Olympics start and I'm not in, that will be a bummer. But I'm shooting for that and trying to get back as soon as possible."

Franzen was injured after running into Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook a week ago Thursday.

"I lost my balance somehow and then my weight and his weight, the knee, it didn't hold," Franzen said. "It took me a few seconds to get ready to get up again. Then when I got back to the bench it felt better, so I continued. In the intermission, the doctor checked it and it felt pretty stable, so I put a brace on and kept going. But the more the game went on, the more it hurt.

"My focus is to get back as soon as I can," he said. "But at the same time, I don't want to rush anything. I know it takes time."

Well Said III -- "It was like two different times. The first two years were pretty rough, when we didn't play well and didn't have any fans. Then John McDonough took over for the second stage. We had a lot of positive thoughts, and it was fun to play here. I really enjoyed it, even though the first couple years were rough. I have nothing bad to say." -- Nikolai Khabibulin on his time with the Blackhawks

Tribute for the King -- Anyone entering the coaching field knows there are going to be a lot of addresses before all is said and done. But despite the all-too-frequent upheaval, the good coaches are the ones who keep finding new positions.

Guys like Dave King as an assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes.

He has been the head coach of the Calgary Flames and Columbus Blue Jackets and also had stops in Russia, Sweden, Canadian junior hockey, Canadian university hockey, Canada's entry in the World Junior Championships and the 1984, 1988 and 1992 Winter Olympics.

That impressive resume now has brought him to Phoenix to teach the young Coyotes. He arrived with the praise of his colleagues following not far behind him.

"He really influenced all of us to organize ourselves at practice, to have a game plan," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock told Jim Gintonio of the Arizona Republic. "He saw the game intellectually way above us. We always thought the game was hard work and determination, and that would get it done.

"We never really knew much about systems of play, but Dave brought structure to all of our thought patterns."

King chuckled when told of some of Hitchcock's glowing praise.

"I wouldn't go that far," King said. "I've been around a long time, and ... I just think you come up with ideas, try to be innovative in what you're doing, and I guess you discover a couple things along the way."

His preparation and grasp of tactical points convinced Coyotes coach Dave Tippett that he needed King on his staff.

"I respect his knowledge of the game as much as anybody in the world," said Tippett, a two-time Olympian under King.


Quote of the Day

The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

— Bryan Trottier on making his return to coaching as an assistant with the Sabres