Friday, August 8, 2014

U.S. coach says defense corps brings back memories of 2010


LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- When Mark Osiecki arrived here in August 2009 as an assistant coach for the United States national junior team that would be playing in the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, he looked at the defense that was assembled and wasn't sure how things would fit together.


Five months later, one of those defensemen, John Carlson, scored the overtime goal in the gold-medal game against Canada. The primary assist was credited to another defenseman, John Ramage.


Osiecki is back in Lake Placid, this time as the coach of the team that will go to Montreal and Toronto for the 2015 WJC, and as he looks at the eight defensemen remaining in camp, there's a familiar feeling: He's not sure how things will work themselves out.


However, much like 2010, he sees a talented group primed for big things in a few months.


"There's a lot of good hockey players here," Osiecki told NHL.com. "It just has to sort itself out a little bit. Solid group, similar to what was in Saskatoon, but not clearly defined."


In addition to Carlson and Ramage, that 2010 group featured an 18-year-old Cam Fowler, as well as offensive-minded Jake Gardiner, plus Matt Donovan, Brian Lashoff and David Warsofsky.


While it's tough to look at the current group and see a player the caliber of Fowler and Carlson, each of whom played for the U.S. at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, there are a few high-end offensive players. Among them are Michael Downing, a Florida Panthers prospect who played on the top pairing with Steven Santini (New Jersey Devils) in the United States' 7-1 win against Sweden on Wednesday and 9-1 win against Finland on Thursday. Also together for the first two games were Will Butcher and Ryan Collins.


"You're trying to go left and right when you can," Osiecki said. "Santini needs to be a rock. He needs to be a John Ramage, he needs to be a Patrick Wey in 2011, just a steady defenseman. That's how he has to play. The first three games he was trying to do everything. The last couple games he's starting to settle in and understand what we're asking of him."


Santini said he's feeling things come easier for him and that playing consistently with Downing has helped.


"I really enjoy playing with him," Santini said. "We played together as [defense] partners at the under-15 national camp. That's going back a while but we've known each other for a long time. Our two styles of play, we complement each other very well. It's been a lot of fun playing with him the last couple days."


Downing feels the same way. Both bring great size (Downing is 6-foot-3, 192 pounds; Santini is 6-2, 207) and physical play.


"We've played good off each other," Downing said. "We communicate well. We're both mean kids, we like to hit everything. So I think it's been really good with Steve."


Jack Dougherty, a 2014 second-round pick (No. 51) of the Nashville Predators, could come the closest to the Fowler/Carlson level of offensive skill. He had seven goals and 21 points in 57 games with the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team last season, and had one goal and two assists in the win against Finland.


"Everybody's got good puck skills, but different kinds of defensemen use them differently," Dougherty said. "We all have the ability to make the first pass out of the zone. I don't think any of us are guys that can go coast to coast and dangle and spin and flip the puck up. But we can all get the job done offensively and defensively."


That's just what Osiecki wants to hear. Even though it was two defenseman leading the rush to the gold medal-winning goal in 2010, the team the U.S. will have for the tournament won't need to have defensemen leading the attack.


"These guys need to be good first-pass guys and then to be support players," he said. "And they've done that. I think really what we've tried to get out after the first three days is you don't have to lead the rush, you're not going to end to end, you're not a Paul Coffey. We don't have that. And that's what we're trying to make them aware of."


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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Compher enjoying leadership role at U.S. junior camp


LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- J.T. Compher almost certainly has skated his last shift during the U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp this week due to an injury to his left hand sustained Wednesday blocking a shot against Sweden.


But there was no chance Compher was leaving town. Playing or not, the Buffalo Sabres prospect is too important to the process of building the team that will play for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.


"With the guys that are here now, you're trying to build more and more identity in the locker room and let [the players] do that," said Jim Johansson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey and the general manager of the United States WJC team. "He's got a pretty long history with a lot of guys in that room of being a leader on and off the ice. It's important for him to be here."


United States coach Mark Osiecki said one of his goals at the camp was to establish a leadership group that he and the staff could depend on. While a few players have stepped up, it's obvious Compher has emerged as the frontrunner to be captain of the team.


"He's done a really nice job," Osiecki said. "There's a group of those kids that are similar, but you talk to any of the support staff, the trainers, the equipment personnel, and they say he's very vocal and takes charge of the group. We have to start that now and develop that relationship between him and the coaching staff."


Leadership is something that comes easily for Compher. He captained a number of his minor hockey teams growing up in the Chicago suburbs, and in 2012-13 he was captain of the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team.


"I think being one of the older guys and going through the process helps with putting myself in a leadership role," Compher said. "I know a bunch of these guys, whether they've played major junior or they're younger than me or a lot of guys played on my [USNTDP] team. So it makes it easier when I'm a familiar face. I've been through it. Everywhere I've gone I've tried to take a leadership role, whether I wear a letter or not. Right now it's anything I can do to help the team. Coach Osiecki has put some good words of confidence in me that I can be a leadership guy on this team."


Compher will have a leadership role on at least one team this season. When he returns this fall for his sophomore season at the University of Michigan, the 19-year-old will be an alternate captain.


"It feels good that they have that confidence in me that I can lead them even though I might be younger than some of the guys," Compher said. "I think that whether you wear a letter or not everyone needs to be a leader and be the right way, but the guys with the letters do have to lead the way and play the right way on and off the ice."


Compher's way of playing on the ice is to blend a skill level that saw him finish with 11 goals and 31 points in 35 games as a college freshman with an agitating, grinding style.


"He's a pest to play against," Sabres general manager Tim Murray told NHL.com. "He likes to get under the other team's skin. He feels that's his niche and that's nothing but positive. I like the fact that he's involved in every scrum. I like the fact that guys get [angry] at him, guys are chasing him around the ice a little bit because of the way he treats them on the ice and the way he plays."


Compher embraces being the hated pest, but he's smart enough to know that there's a fine line to playing and excelling in that role; he said Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan, who drew 1.1 penalties per game while being whistled for 0.4 per game last season according to Extraskater.ca, is a role model.


"I just like playing hard, competing," Compher said. "It's my work ethic, trying to get the puck back as quickly as possible. That does agitate other teams. I try not to do too much after the whistle. I do play with an edge, play on that line and try not to cross it. ... You have to be careful of how far you take it when you're playing against top guys. You want to get in their head but you don't want to take it too far. It's a learning process as you go but so far I've done a good job of being hard to play against."


But Compher can do more than stir things up. Even with the U.S. up big late in its win Wednesday, he still drove to the net offensively to create chances and was laying out to block shots as the lone forward during a late 3-on-5 penalty kill. It was during that time that he sustained the hand injury.


Those are the kind of plays that rub off on teammates.


"I've been lucky to sit next to him in the locker room and watch him, how he conducts himself during a game, in between periods," forward Alex Tuch said. "He's a huge leader. That 5-on-3, he blocked two, three shots. That was huge."


Jack Eichel, expected to be a top-two pick at the 2015 NHL Draft, said Compher sets the work ethic bar for the team in camp.


"He does everything on the ice so well," Eichel, a teammate on the USNTDP U-18 team in 2012-13. "He's a guy that you can just try to model your game after. He just so good wherever he is, in the faceoff circle, in the [defensive] zone, he's great killing penalties, great on the power play. He's a role model to me and I really look up to him. He's a great kid and a great leader. He works so hard everywhere. Everyone else tries to match him. A guy like that on your team, it's really good. Everyone tries to work as hard as him, and if everyone works as hard as J.T., you know you have a good team."


Compher said the talk of him being a role model and potentially the WJC captain is flattering, but he's not spending a lot of time focusing on that. First he has to get healthy and then he has to make the team, both of which are far from givens. He learned that the hard way last year; at the final evaluation camp for the 2014 WJC in December, he injured his foot blocking a shot and had to miss the tournament.


For now it's about making the team; everything else can come after that.


"It's an honor just to be on the team, just to make the team and be able to play in this tournament," Compher said. "Right now I'm not focused on who gets a letter and whatnot. I would love to be in a leadership position. It's something I've done throughout my career so far. I think anytime you can be a letter on a USA team, a national team, it's something special. But overall it's not about who wears a letter or who gets an individual awards, it's about what we're going to do as a team in December and January."


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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Fucale wants to be Canada's WJC starter again


BROSSARD, Quebec – It is rare for the starting goaltender of the Canadian National Junior Team to return for a second year on the job.


Since Marc-Andre Fleury, now with the Pittsburgh Penguins, did it at the IIHF World Junior Championships in 2003 and 2004, only Arizona Coyotes prospect Mark Visentin has started at least half of Canada's games in back-to-back years at the WJC. He started four games each in 2011 and 2012.


Montreal Canadiens prospect Zachary Fucale is hoping to add his name to that list.


The goaltender for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League started the final five games of the 2014 tournament for Canada and is back this year to try to secure the starting job for the 2015 WJC, which is being held on Canadian ice in Montreal and Toronto.


But Fucale is well aware that what he did last year won't guarantee him the job this time, especially considering that Canada failed to medal for a second straight year.


"We didn't win. Obviously that's the goal, that was my goal, that was the team's goal, and we didn't do it," Fucale said at the Canadian team's summer development camp being held this week outside Montreal. "To me, I look in the mirror and I say, 'I have to step it up.' I'm preparing in order to just make this team, and then afterward preparing in order to perform the best I can in the tournament in order to win this time."


Fucale is one of four goalies at the development camp; they were selected from a group of 10 who attended Hockey Canada's goaltending camp in June.


Eric Comrie (Winnipeg Jets) of the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League, Tristan Jarry (Penguins) of the Memorial Cup-champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL and Philippe Desrosiers (Dallas Stars) of the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic are not simply fighting for the backup role. Each has been told that he will be given full consideration for the No. 1 job.


"I don't think he has any [advantage]," Canada coach Benoit Groulx said of Fucale. "We have four goalies here and we think we have four very good goalies. Tristan Jarry won the Memorial Cup, Eric Comrie's a good goalie, Philippe also, so they're all good. Like any returning player last year, [Fucale] was part of a team that ended up with no medal, and our goal is more than that. He's got confidence in himself, he's a very good goalie, but everything's in front of us. He has to prove himself like anybody else here."


With star forward Jonathan Drouin expected to play with the Tampa Bay Lightning come Christmastime, Fucale may be relied on to lead Team Canada. His ability to do that will go a long way toward determining his role at the WJC.


Watching each of the goaltenders vying for a spot will be Hockey Canada goaltending consultant Fred Brathwaite, who will be zigzagging across the country from the start of the season to December scouting as many goalies as possible.


"For some funny reason we have them spread out as far as possible, from Tri-Cities [in] Washington to Halifax," Brathwaite said with a laugh. "I'll probably see everything in between there as well."


Brathwaite repeated at least five times that the goalies chosen to attend the final selection camp in December will be the ones playing the best hockey at the time. That means even goaltenders not present at this camp could make the cut.


But he also admitted that Fucale has a slight edge because of what he did last year.


"I think in the past that's happened before, where people were a shoe-in going in and then had a rough go during the season," Brathwaite said. "So we're looking for anyone playing the best. Obviously, [Fucale] has an edge on everybody else, but it's still an open game. And just because guys aren't here doesn't mean they're not going to be looked at as well."


That's what the three other goalies at the summer camp need to hear, and as friendly as it might be, there's no hiding the level of competition between the four hopefuls.


"I'm kind of the underdog here, but I'm just as good as Zach and I can do the job as well as he can," Desrosiers said. "They told us the two goalie spots were available and they'll take the two best ones, so it's up to me to have a good start to the season and a good camp here. If I do that, I should make the team."


Fucale did not have the type of tournament he wanted last year in Malmo, Sweden, allowing four goals on 22 shots in a 5-1 semifinal loss to Finland before allowing two goals on 32 shots in a 2-1 loss to Russia in the bronze-medal game. The memory lingers, and the native of Rosemere, Quebec hopes to erase it playing in his hometown.


"It's definitely a little bitter. We didn't win, and we wanted that victory," he said. "But that was last year, and now we're preparing for the next tournament. Everything that happened last year can help us, but for now we're preparing for this tournament.


"It's a nice opportunity. It's exciting to be able to play in Canada. But I have a lot of work to do to make this team."



Sunday, August 3, 2014

Kessel confident in Maple Leafs' chances this season


The Toronto Maple Leafs ended last season with 12 losses in their final 14 games to settle for a disappointing 12th place finish in the Eastern Conference. But given the plethora of changes on the ice and in the front office, forward Phil Kessel believes the Maple Leafs are now in a better position to make a run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs.


"I think we had a good team," Kessel told the Canadian Press following Sportsnet's Ball Hockey Challenge at Rexall Centre in Toronto, where he and other NHL players played ball hockey with tennis star Roger Federer. "We were there last year. We had a bad stretch. We don't have that stretch, we're right in it."


That stretch started with an eight-game losing streak that essentially finished the Maple Leafs' playoff hopes. The team retooled in the offseason with the hiring of Brendan Shanahan as team president. Shanahan in turn hired Kyle Dubas, 28, as an assistant to general manager David Nonis. Peter Horachek and Steve Spott were hired as assistant coaches on Randy Carlyle's staff.


Toronto also added defensemen Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak and forwards David Booth, Petri Kontiola, Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli, and avoided arbitration with defenseman Cody Franson and goalie James Reimer.


"This year we made some good additions and I think we improved as a team, and we're going to be ready to go," Kessel said.


"We've got to be prepared for the long season, and we won't go through one of those [skids] again."


A four-time NHL All-Star, Kessel led the Maple Leafs in scoring last season with 37 goals and 80 points, the fifth straight full season he's had at least 30 goals.



30 in 30 schedule: Breaking down teams in August