15 Prime Cuts for November

In this month’s 15 Prime Cuts, I take a look at the impressive San Jose Sharks, a few players in the AHL to keep an eye on, Pavel Bure (of course), the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brandon Saad, and much more.

1. The San Jose Sharks have quietly done a masterful job of extending their window to win. An aging core (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle) has been bolstered by impressive young talent (Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Logan Couture, among others), and the Sharks have done a better job than any other NHL team at knowing when to put their young players in the NHL.

Most importantly, though, has been the improvement from Antti Niemi. The former Blackhawks goaltender has gone from talented but very inconsistent to one of the best goaltenders in the league, night-in and night-out.

I could and should probably write more words on how San Jose has managed to remain competitive (incredible scouting, particularly with regards to the NCAA). Doug Wilson is one of the best managers in hockey.

2. Mike Santorelli continues to be the straw that stirs the drink in Vancouver. The Canucks are going to be without Jannik Hansen and David Booth for a little while, and they have loaded up their top line with their three best forwards (Sedins and Ryan Kesler). They have been able to do this in large part because of Santorelli’s strong play centering the second line. He’s still creating offense and is more than holding his own against some really talented centers.

3. I have been quite high on former Wisconsin defenseman Brendan Smith for a few years now, but he still doesn’t look ready to take that next step in his development. Smith spent a few years in the AHL, and most figured he was going to be more than ready for the NHL when the Red Wings eventually brought him in as a regular. He has a lone assist through nine games this year, and has even been healthy scratched a few times. I still think he has the upside to be a really good NHL defenseman, but it may be time to temper expectations a bit. I am wrong sometimes!

Smith is a step or two behind Brian Lashoff on the back end right now, and Detroit has a slew of young defensemen coming up through the ranks.

4. Quick thoughts on the Thomas Vanek/Matt Moulson trade – there aren’t many players in the NHL who have better hands in close than Moulson. But Vanek is one of them. There aren’t many players who can get a stick on point shots or can find a way to put the puck home in tight spaces than Vanek.

The rumor that has been circulating for a little while is Vanek returning to home next summer (well, his second home) to play for Minnesota. The Wild will have $7.5 million coming off the books when Dany Heatley’s anchor contract expires. Vanek could slot in very nicely at that price point. The Wild, however, do have a few talented young players who are going to be in line for pay bumps in the near future.

I don’t see Moulson finishing the season in Buffalo – he should be a highly sought-after deadline day rental. But getting the picks and the ability to turn Moulson into more picks was a nice move by the Sabres. Too bad everything else they have done has been terrible.

Vanek’s hand-eye on display:

5. Sidney Crosby gave a recent interview to NBC, and the topic of concussions came up. Crosby on his level of concern regarding concussions in hockey right now:

“You know what? I’m not that concerned to be honest. I’m probably more confident than ever that they’ll eventually find ways to help. Whether it’d be prevent them, or to treat them. I think the awareness is at an all-time high now for all sports.”

And on that subject, a Toronto-area hospital is going at great lengths to get better at diagnosing concussions in children.

“We’re looking at testing as many kids as we can on cognition, balance, strength,” says Reed, an eager, bearded man who has a background in both occupational therapy and lacrosse, both playing and coaching. “And what we’ve found is measures that may not have been used — strength, performance, cognition, getting people into real-world environments — these things are discovering things that otherwise we wouldn’t have found.”

How many future Sidney Crosbys are playing hockey out there in Canada right now? Not many. But a lot of those youth hockey players are future doctors, or accountants, or lawyers, or contractors, or whatever. They have a lot of years left in their lives. And if we can somehow get better at preventing the long-term effects of concussions (or at the very least understanding better why they occur), I’d say that is a great thing. Assuming Crosby can remain concussion-free for the rest of his career, he was probably the exact player (or at least calibre of player) that needed to go through the extreme ordeal that was his road to recovery to bring awareness and importance to a topic that is going to shape the future of amateur and professional sports around the world.

6.The Los Angeles Kings are currently 20th (as of late October) in the league in goals for, and they have a pair of impressive young talents off to great starts down in the AHL – forwards Tyler Toffoli and Linden Vey. Toffoli is a prototypical sniper – big and strong, he has already proven that he can hack it in the NHL. 

Vey put up 116 points in 2010-11 with the Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL), and he had 67 points last season with Manchester. He’s not as big as Toffoli, but possesses arguably more offensive ability. It will be interesting to see how long the Kings wait to give him a shot in an offensive role.

7. Matt Duchene has quietly developed into one of the best players in the NHL. My favorite player growing up was Pavel Bure (more on him soon), and there isn’t a player in the league that reminds me of Bure more than Duchene. I really enjoyed this interview he gave to the Denver Post recently, as he spoke candidly about his struggles under Joe Sacco, as well as why he went out and started working with a sports psychologist.

So he did something about it.

Last summer, Duchene started seeing a sports psychologist. Many athletes do this, but don’t like to talk about it. Duchene is proud he did it, and has no hesitation talking about it. Talking to a psychologist has helped him have a different view of himself, and what he needed to do to get to where he is now: happy, productive and better equipped to handle the pressures of his job.

“My first (couple of years), if I wasn’t scoring or things weren’t going well, I would come to practice the next day and I would put so much pressure on myself to score. And then if I didn’t, I would get down and it would carry on to the next day,” Duchene said. “Now, if I have a slump, I just stay consistent with what works, because it will eventually work.

8. Duchene has also trained the past two summers with Andy O’Brien, who is one of the smartest trainers on the planet. I have interviewed O’Brien a few times (you can check those interviews out by going to the fitness section of this blog), and he trains numerous other elite athletes (including Crosby).

“Two years ago, before I came into camp, I was squatting 500 pounds eight times. But the problem was, it wasn’t functional,” Duchene said. “OK, my legs were strong, but it wasn’t connected to my core. This past summer, I would do 150 pounds, but with perfect form where I was activated everywhere. You get so much stronger doing that, and get so much more out of it because whenever you’re lifting too heavy, your form isn’t right and you’re not connected. Before, I had some weaknesses, like my hip flexibility was awful. That’s the biggest thing I’ve improved on, hip flexibility.”

Duchene has gotten both his body and his mind on the right track. You can’t have success without both of them working together in a positive manner.

Bure-like speed:

9. There isn’t a team that I enjoy watching more than the Toronto Maple Leafs (sacrilege as a West Coaster, I know). I love the mix of youth, speed, grit, and tenacity that they have on their roster. I started to follow them pretty closely last season, and that has carried over to this year. James van Riemsdyk, in particular, is a player who I think has a really bright future in this league. He will be a significant part of the American roster over at Sochi in a few months, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him score 40+ goals a couple of times. He has terrific chemistry with Phil Kessel.

Now the Leafs just need to find them a top line center.

10. Brandon Saad takes a page out of Patrick Kane’s trick-book (the blind spin-o-rama pass). What a goal:

Here’s Kane pulling off the move last season:

Would a player like Saad had developed as well had he been drafted by another NHL organization? I’m not so sure. There is something to be said for a young player being able to play with great talent and without a lot of pressure to produce (just look at how well Logan Couture has blossomed in San Jose).

The key to a quick rebuild isn’t necessarily stockpiling young assets (although that helps). It is finding the right two or three of these young players and quickly surrounding them with talent and character veterans who can handle the major responsibilities (at least off the bat). I often wonder how good Sam Gagner would be had he spent another year in the OHL and/or not had to play such tough minutes for such a bad team at such a young age.

Don’t get me wrong, Gagner is still a really good player. This situation could also be applied to Josh Bailey on Long Island (or any number of talented young prospects who were rushed into the NHL). Unless you have a can’t-miss stud prospect who is physically ready for the NHL (like Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado), let them develop.

11. Here is an interesting read on the debate between shot quality and puck possession. I am heading to the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference this February in Boston, and am looking forward to seeing some hockey/statistic discussions. There is still a ways to go with regards to analytics in hockey (the more well-known stats like Corsi, PDO, and so on have limitations), but there are also some very smart people working hard to make progress in the industry.

I think the next breakthrough(s) for statistics in hockey may come more from the human performance measurement side (the training, sleep, recovery side of it). Hockey players spend a few hours at the rink each day, but what they do the other 80-90% of the time has much more of an impact than people think. And the better that we can start to measure those things, the better our understanding of performance becomes.

I also look forward to the day where the NHL has cameras installed in every rink, like the NBA did with the SportVU cameras last season (the installation of them in each arena was mandated by the league).

12. I had the privilege of facing off in a mock NHL salary arbitration debate with Brian Burke this summer (it was a fascinating process to say the very least). Burke has his detractors, but I respect his straight-forward opinions on hockey. I enjoyed this guest column from him on the merits of keeping fighting in hockey.

Ninety-eight percent of NHL players voted to keep fighting in the game, yet somehow members of the news media take it upon themselves to try to convince the players that the scribes know what is best for them. They don’t write about the times a heavyweight skates by his opponent’s bench to say, “Settle down, or I’ll settle you down,” and it works. They don’t notice a tough guy warning an opponent at a faceoff. They’ve never heard a star player march into their office, slam the door and demand the team get tougher because he’s getting killed out there by opponents playing without fear. They’ve never seen a chippy game on the edge settle down after a good fight.

13. 55 seconds of dominance by the Sedins. Henrik’s deft pass to Daniel right before he steps into the slot is/was a thing of beauty:

14. Example #4343 of why hockey players are crazy tough. An update on Patrice Bergeron’s insane list of injuries from the 2013 Cup Final:

After our Game 6 loss, I went to Mass General, where they found that 30 percent of my lung was collapsed. One of the shots might have touched or punctured it. They put in a tube to drain the area and fill it back up. It hurt, but it was more frustrating that we weren’t coming out of it with a Stanley Cup.

15. The reason that I fell in love with the sport of hockey was Pavel Bure. The Canucks are retiring his number this weekend. My friend Derek Jory has been releasing some great stuff in preparation over at Canucks.com. My friends at the Fan Zoo have put together a very limited edition lithograph for sale. 

I wrote about Pavel’s journey to the Hockey Hall of Fame last year – you can read that here. It’s kind of fitting that the Maple Leafs are the team Vancouver is facing after Pavel’s ceremony. For one, Pavel essentially ruined the career of Toronto’s star goaltender Felix Potvin during the 1994 Western Conference Final (why Toronto was in the West I will never know…). Potvin, to this day, is still looking for his jock.

But, most importantly, the Leafs are the organization that seem to have a ceremony every week on CBC (and growing up watching the Canucks, that meant that the Leafs games always ran late and cut into Vancouver’s 7pm start time). A bit of payback, perhaps?