Growing up in Winnipeg, young hockey players loved Teemu Selanne. Justin Falk
was no different. But now, instead of cheering for the Finnish sniper and scouring for his autograph, the 6-foot-5 defenseman has the cheery task of shutting down the current Duck, along with the rest of the National Hockey League’s premier talents.
Averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time per game with a plus-4 rating, Falk must be doing something right. The 23-year-old did play 22 games for the Wild last season, but this season's first half has been his official coming-out party.
Minnesota’s fourth-round pick (110th overall) in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft gained immeasurable experience with the Houston Aeros last season. It wasn’t just the high level of play, the exposure to pressure situations or finding success as a young defenseman, but Falk learned the ins and outs of head coach Mike Yeo’s system.
When Yeo was hired to take over the Minnesota Wild this summer, it meant that same style of play would also make its way to the State of Hockey. After being a healthy scratch the first seven games of this season, Falk got an opportunity and he pounced.
Falk sat down with Wild.com to discuss his improvements, assistant coach Darryl Sydor and his rendezvous with Selanne at the faceoff circle. Wild.com
: Is the game slowing down for you?Falk
: Yeah, I guess I’ve been around this level for a good chunk of last year, too. When we’re playing, we’re confident and we’re having fun out there, then the game comes easy. As a group, and with the D-core, we’re doing well. Can’t complain with the effort we’re getting on the back end.Wild.com:
Is there a certain element to your game that you feel you’ve improved on the most?Falk
: I think a lot of it’s just mental. I’ve had the tools to play at this level. I showed it last year for 22 games. It’s just that mental thing about accepting that mistakes are going to happen. You’re playing against the best players in the world. They’re good at what they do, too. Their job is to make us make mistakes. I think things are going well so far and getting really excited about what’s to come.Wild.com:
You talked about playing against the best players in the world. What has been your toughest assignment so far?Falk
: When you find yourself lined up against (Pavel) Datsyuk, (Henrik) Zetterberg or (Corey) Perry, (Ryan) Getzlaf – whoever it is – each night, each team has their big guns. When you get to go out there and play against them it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a task you really strive for and want to do your job.Wild.com:
Is there a player you looked up to growing up that now you look across to the opposing bench, and say, “Wow, we’re on the same ice together now?”Falk
: Oh yeah. You watch guys like Rob Blake growing up and big physical defensemen. Being from Winnipeg, it was pretty neat lining up against (Teemu) Selanne on a faceoff. You know, you grow up watching the guy and he’s everyone’s idol and role model growing up as a kid as a hockey player back home. And that he’s still playing and performing the way he is, it’s pretty cool.Wild.com:
Did you say anything to him?Falk
: I told him, “You signed a jersey for me when I was eight years old.” He had a good laugh and said he was getting too old for this game. And I’m like, “Well, if you’re still playing the way you are, I think you’ve got a few more left in you.”Wild.com
: What about Darryl Sydor? Brought into the organization last year and you’ve worked with him quite a bit. Now both of you are up with the big club.Falk
: It’s been a huge help. It’s a very tight relationship. Probably one of the more tighter relationships I’ve ever had with a coach. The stuff he’s taught me on the ice and the mental aspect of the game. I couldn’t be more grateful for the time we’ve had together. Very excited that there’s more to come.Wild.com
: The coaching staff and a bunch of the defensemen were together down at Houston last year. Now all of you are in the same room up here.Falk
: We had a good run down there last year. Whenever you go deep in the playoffs, that builds that connection with coaches or players and with D partners. For that to come up here and to translate and to show that success – I’m not surprised whatsoever. We’re doing well, we’re playing simple, we’re playing hard, we’re doing what we're asked for and having fun.Wild.com
: When people say you young defensemen have experience in this system – that you know what coach Yeo wants to see – what specifics are they pertaining to, from a defenseman’s perspective?Falk
: The way we play in the defensive zone. How we pressure. How we go back for pucks on retrievals. The mindset of getting the puck north and to the forwards as fast we can. Stuff like that is what we became accustomed to last year and is our style of play now. And today’s NHL is showing that it’s working.Wild.com
: With so many veterans and young defensemen battling for playing time, does that put any other pressure on you?Falk
: We all want the best for each other. They’re going to do what they feel is best for the team to do. We understand it’s a business and you know one night you might not be in and the next night you might be in for a while. With injuries like we’ve seen, you can never have too many defensemen back here. We’re all going to pull for each other, push each other, work hard out there and put the best lineup out there to continue to win.