Friday, January 9, 2015

Islanders' Okposo, Capuano reflect on J.P. Parise


NEWARK, N.J. -- Former New York Islanders forward J.P. Parise, who died of lung cancer on Wednesday, is certainly on the minds and hearts of current players and coaches of the team.


Coach Jack Capuano and a few players discussed the legacy Parise left behind following the Islanders optional skate Friday at Prudential Center, where they are scheduled to play the New Jersey Devils.


Forward Kyle Okposo, who played for J.P. Parise as a member of Shattuck-St. Mary's prep in Minnesota in 2004-05, will always remember his smile and guidance.


"J.P. was a good man; I first met him when I went to Shattuck and I was 14," Okposo said. "He was a coach of mine and I developed a relationship with him over time in those years. He was someone I turned to when I needed some help, guidance or advice, and he's going to be missed."


Okposo, who had 47 goals and 92 points in 65 games at Shattuck in 2004-05, said Parise always had the right words.


"I remember his coaching and how he got me going," he said. "It made no difference if I was struggling in life or was down on myself, he always seemed to have the right things to say. He could always make me laugh too."


Capuano was grateful for the opportunity to meet and talk hockey with Parise during alumni functions. Parise scored 22 goals for the Islanders in 1975-76 and 25 in '76-77. He scored the organization's first Stanley Cup series-winning goal 11 seconds into overtime in Game 3 of the preliminary-round series against the New York Rangers in 1975. The Islanders advanced to Game 7 of the semifinals, with Parise contributing eight goals and 16 points in 17 games.


"I'm fortunate because I get a chance to talk to a lot of the alumni and spend some time; we've done a lot of ceremonies at home, but when you hear about his name you hear about his character and leadership," Capuano said. "You hear about what kind of teammate he was and the big goal he scored against the Rangers. He battled the fight and he has tremendous family and support around him. Our thoughts and prayers go to his family."


Parise spent parts of 17 seasons in the NHL and is the father of Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise.


"The whole hockey world knows his impact on the game and I feel for Zach and his family," Islanders captain John Tavares said. "I can't imagine what he is going through. Certainly J.P. was an impact player when he played for the Isles and Team Canada [in the 1972 Summit Series]. He did so many great things in his career and for minor hockey; he'll certainly be missed."


---



Flames prospect Poirier having all-star season in AHL


As far as forward Emile Poirier was concerned, the 2013 NHL Draft at the Prudential Center in New Jersey was just a day where he may or may not have had a chance to become a draft pick of a NHL team.


Though he'd had a successful major junior career, and NHL Central Scouting had him consistently rising in their top-40 projections that year, Poirier simply didn't expect it.


"I was just thinking I was going there with all my family and my friends and it was just going to be a good weekend to enjoy," he said. "And then I end up going that high and so I was really happy; it ended up a good weekend."


The Montreal native was the second of three first-round picks of the Calgary Flames in 2013, selected at No. 22 with a pick that had been previously acquired from the St. Louis Blues in the trade for defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.


Emile Poirier's 21 points are good for eighth in AHL rookie scoring and leads Adirondack. (Photo: Andy Camp)

Poirier returned to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for his final season in 2013-14, leading the Gatineau Olympiques with 43 goals, 44 assists and 87 points in 63 games. He made his professional debut in the American Hockey League at the end of last season, with two goals and two assists in two regular-season games and one goal in three games in the Calder Cup Playoffs.


Now a rookie with the Adirondack Flames, Poirier's production continues to impress those around him.


"We're starting to see Emile's habits change. He's starting to learn how to play the pro game," Adirondack coach Ryan Huska said. "He's not turning as many pucks over, [and] he's doing a better job of managing the puck. I think because of that, he's becoming a guy that's harder to play against and he's gaining confidence at this level."


Huska cites Poirier's past 10-12 games as a chunk of time that has caught his eye and the eyes of his coaching staff. The 20-year-old's offensive abilities have never been in doubt, but his play away from the puck and his on-ice responsibility are areas that, when worked hard at, complete a player's game.


After going five games without a point, Poirier has five goals and four assists in his past 11 games, including three game-winning goals and three multipoint games in that span. His 21 points are good for eighth in AHL rookie scoring and lead Adirondack.


"I like to generate offensively, and I like to be a factor on the ice," Poirier said. "On the forecheck, create some chances. … Even if it's a small detail, like finishing a check, that's pretty much what I do."


Parallel to his on-ice transition, Poirier's off-ice development is coming along nicely too. Living with fellow rookie Ryan Culkin, they are two of nine first-year players on the Adirondack roster, which gives them a solid support system as they navigate the ups and downs of professional life.


"They often talk about the meals that they cook for each other, and they're learning," Huska said. "The great part about the American Hockey League is that they get an opportunity to learn and make a few mistakes while they're young and hopefully be better for it down the road."


When rosters for the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic were announced earlier this week, Poirier and goaltender Joni Ortio were named the Adirondack Flames representatives. Again, Poirier's humble outlook on the skillset so many others love to point out played a factor in his reaction to the honor.


"My coach told me after practice. I was pretty happy about it," he said. "For sure, I was kind of surprised. I wasn't planning on having a chance to play out there."


Huska, who is working day in and day out with Poirier on molding his game and becoming that hard-working player the Calgary organization embodies, immediately offers reasons why Poirier's inclusion makes sense.


"He's one of those guys that tends to find the areas where the pucks are going to be, and he puts himself in a good position to shoot. He's got a great shot when he does let it go," Huska said. "He's a deceiving skater. I would bet most defensemen in our conference know who he is and when he's on the ice because they have to be on their toes when he's out there because he skates very, very well."


The AHL All-Star Classic takes place Jan. 25-26 in Utica, N.Y., and like the draft two years ago it'll be another experience for Poirier to enjoy. But after that, it's back to business for the young wing if he hopes to add his name to the list of hundreds of AHL all-stars who have gone on to the NHL.


"I need to play my game consistently every night. I need to bring that to the table every game," he said. "Never take a shift or a day off. That's the biggest thing that's going to help me going up."


For the latest news, scores and stats from around the American Hockey League, visit theahl.com.



NHL.com's Midseason Fantasy Hockey Awards


With the first half of the 2014-15 season now in our rearview mirror, it's time for our team of NHL.com Fantasy Hockey insiders to reflect on the performers and storylines that have defined the fantasy landscape.


Our regular fantasy contributors -- Matt Cubeta (@NHLQubes), Pete Jensen (@NHLJensen), Matt Sitkoff (@MSitkoffNHL), Brian Metzer (@Brian_Metzer), Evan Sporer (@ev_sporer), Sebastien Deschambault, David Satriano (@davidsatriano), Eric Goodman (@ericgoodman4) and Mike Battaglino -- have cast their votes, outlining the best fantasy players at each position based on eligibility in Yahoo! leagues.


These picks have been made based on the players' performances during the first half of the 2014-15 NHL season and not with further production in mind.


The list of midseason awards is also jam-packed with the most notable fantasy rookies and sleepers to watch in the second half of the season. So, without further ado, here are the 2014-15 NHL.com midseason Fantasy Hockey awards.


NOTE: If a player is listed at multiple positions in Yahoo! Leagues, then it was the writer's choice to put him where he wanted among the awards.













































































































































































AWARDMATT

CUBETA
PETE

JENSEN
MATT

SITKOFF
BRIAN

METZER
EVAN

SPORER
Fantasy MVP Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Seguin
Pekka

Rinne
Runner-up Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Jakub

Voracek
Jakub

Voracek
Tyler

Johnson
MVP - C Claude

Giroux
Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Johnson
Runner-up Evgeni

Malkin
Tyler

Johnson
Claude

Giroux
Evgeni

Malkin
Ryan

Getzlaf
MVP - LW Rick

Nash
Rick

Nash
Rick

Nash
Rick

Nash
Rick

Nash
Runner-up Alex

Ovechkin
Alex

Ovechkin
Alex

Ovechkin
Nikita

Kucherov
Alex

Ovechkin
MVP - RW Tyler

Seguin
Jakub

Voracek
Jakub

Voracek
Jakub

Voracek
Tyler

Seguin
Runner-up Patrick

Kane
Vladimir

Tarasenko
Vladimir

Tarasenko
Vladimir

Tarasenko
Vladimir

Tarasenko
MVP - D Kevin

Shattenkirk
Kevin

Shattenkirk
Kevin

Shattenkirk
Mark

Giordano
Mark

Giordano
Runner-up Mark

Giordano
Mark

Giordano
Mark

Giordano
Kevin

Shattenkirk
Kevin

Shattenkirk
MVP - G Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Runner-up Carey

Price
Jaroslav

Halak
Marc-Andre

Fleury
Marc-Andre

Fleury
Corey

Crawford
Biggest

Surprise
Filip

Forsberg
Nick

Foligno
Tyler

Johnson
Tyler

Johnson
Johnny

Gaudreau
Runner-up Nikita

Kucherov
Nikita

Kuchero
v
Braden

Holtby
Nick

Foligno
Kris

Versteeg
Biggest

Underachiever
Nathan

MacKinnon
Nathan

MacKinnon
Kari

Lehtonen
Nathan

MacKinnon
Matt

Duchene
Runner-up Kari

Lehtonen
Matt

Duchene
Matt

Duchene
Jonathan

Drouin
Anze

Kopitar
Top Rookie Filip

Forsberg
Filip

Forsberg
Filip

Forsberg
Filip

Forsberg
Filip

Forsberg
Runner-up Johnny

Gaudreau
Johnny

Gaudreau
Aaron

Ekblad
Johnny

Gaudreau
Michael

Hutchinson
2nd-Half

Sleeper Pick
Mats

Zuccarello
Antoine

Vermette
Michael

Hutchinson
David

Perron
Dan

Boyle
Additional Pick Jacob

Trouba
Brendan

Gallagher
Jonathan

Drouin
Ryan

Ellis
Curtis

Lazar























































































































































AWARDSEBASTIEN

DESCHAMBAULT
DAVID

SATRIANO
ERIC

GOODMAN
MIKE

BATTAGLINO
Fantasy MVP Tyler

Seguin
Jakub

Voracek
Tyler

Seguin
Jakub

Voracek
Runner-up Jakub

Voracek
Tyler

Seguin
Jakub

Voracek
Tyler

Johnson
MVP - C Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Seguin
Tyler

Johnson
Runner-up Ryan

Getzlaf
Claude

Giroux
Claude

Giroux
Tyler

Seguin
MVP - LW Rick

Nash
Rick

Nash
Rick

Nash
Rick

Nash
Runner-up Max

Pacioretty
Nick

Foligno
James

van Riemsdyk
Nick

Foligno
MVP - RW Jakub

Voracek
Jakub

Voracek
Jakub

Voracek
Jakub

Voracek
Runner-up Vladimir

Tarasenko
Patrick

Kane
Alex

Ovechkin
Vladimir

Tarasenko
MVP - D Kevin

Shattenkirk
Kevin

Shattenkirk
Kevin

Shattenkirk
Kevin

Shattenkirk
Runner-up Mark

Giordano
Mark

Giordano
Brent

Burns
Mark

Giordano
MVP - G Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Pekka

Rinne
Runner-up Marc-Andre

Fleury
Carey

Price
Carey

Price
Carey

Price
Biggest

Surprise
Tyler

Johnson
Tyler

Johnson
Matt

Beleskey
Nikita

Kucherov
Runner-up Nikita

Kucherov
Nikita

Kucherov
Nikita

Kucherov
Jiri

Hudler
Biggest

Underachiever
Mike

Smith
Milan

Lucic
Mike

Smith
Nathan

MacKinnon
Runner-up Matt

Duchene
Nathan

MacKinnon
Jeff

Skinner
Semyon

Varlamov
Top Rookie Filip

Forsberg
Filip

Forsberg
Filip

Forsberg
Filip

Forsberg
Runner-up Aaron

Ekblad
Johnny

Gaudreau
Johnny

Gaudreau
Johnny

Gaudreau
2nd-Half

Sleeper Pick
Nick

Bjugstad
Derick

Brassard
Chris

Kreider
Jonathan

Drouin
Additional Pick Colin

Wilson
Nick

Bjugstad
Ryan

Strome
Mats

Zuccarello

---



Byfuglien's return to 'D' helps Jets overcome injuries


WINNIPEG -- The rash of injuries that threatened to spoil the Winnipeg Jets' 2014-15 season has instead brought a few revelations, lessons and wins along the way.


"You always get better in your most adverse times," Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said.


Indeed the Jets have prospered in the six-week span in which defensemen Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome, Toby Enstrom, Mark Stuart and Jacob Trouba each has sustained a long-term injury.


Enstrom, the first Winnipeg defenseman to miss significant time, is not expected to return until late January. Since he missed his first game because of a lower-body injury Nov. 25, the Jets are 10-5-4. A mark that was even more impressive before the recent 1-4-0 slIde the team finds itself on after a 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday.



Dustin Byfuglien



Dustin Byfuglien


Right Wing - WPG


GOALS: 9 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 22

SOG: 128 | +/-: 0



Yet, the Jets remain in contention for the franchise's first spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007. Presently, the Jets have 47 points and occupy the second of two wild-card spots in the Western Conference.

Along the way, the Jets have learned they had a No. 1 defenseman all along, even if he happened to be playing forward before the injuries began to accumulate.


By the time Dustin Byfuglien slid back to defense Dec. 5, Zach Bogosian (lower body) had joined Enstrom on the injury list. However, Byfuglien, a defenseman-turned-forward for nearly a year after Maurice replaced Claude Noel in January 2014, has carried the Jets ever since.


"[Byfuglien] seems like he has been all over the place defensively and offensively," Stuart said.


Winnipeg is 7-5-3 since Byfuglien moved back to the blue line, even though Trouba (upper body) missed his first game because of injury Dec. 16. Stuart (lower body) was injured the same night in a fight.


"We found a top-pairing defenseman," Maurice said of Byfuglien, who has four goals and six assists in his 15 games as a defenseman. "You can't get those guys. Nobody gives them up."


Another revelation has been 23-year-old defenseman Ben Chiarot, who had been a somewhat overlooked prospect with St. John's of the American Hockey League. Since the injuries, Chiarot has not only moved into the NHL, he has taken over as Byfuglien's defense partner and safety valve, showing himself to be a capable stay-at-home defenseman able to complement Byfuglien's free-flowing style.


"You've found two guys that change the dynamic of your group," Maurice said. "Our defense is deeper than it was three months ago, and we found that out through injury, so it has been a great thing for us."


Winnipeg also added veteran Jay Harrison in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 18. Harrison, who played for Maurice with Carolina and the Toronto Maple Leafs, arrived after Stuart's injury, and his simple style has meshed quickly with Maurice's system.


But the biggest change has been Byfuglien. Often criticized as prone to defensive miscues and for taking too many risks, Byfuglien has mirrored the transformation Winnipeg has undergone since Maurice's arrival a year ago.


The Jets' 2.82 goals-against average last season ranked 22nd in the NHL. Their 2.37 goals-against average this season is tied for sixth.


Maurice has implemented a system tailored to his players' speed and size while stressing strong puck support, better neutral-zone play and better reads by all five players on the ice.


"It was a style of game, first and foremost, that the team had played for years," Maurice said of Winnipeg's former system. "It was a certain style of game. [Byfuglien] has a skill set that can put up numbers in that style of game.


"We've changed what we want to be good at as a foundation of our group. We would like to eventually get to a point where you see that more creative offense, but the foundation of our game has to be there first. He said, 'OK,' and realizes that that is the prerequisite for him staying as a defenseman, and he has been great at it.


"[Byfuglien] is learning when to go and when not to go. [It is] almost the first time that there is not always a green light in what he is doing, but that is what offensive defensemen [do], the great ones, they pick the right spots."


At times Byfuglien has dominated and taken over games. He tormented the Philadelphia Flyers with punishing hits against Claude Giroux and Brayden Schenn on Dec. 21. The hits led Philadelphia coach Craig Berube to exchange words with Byfuglien after the game.


In a 5-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Jan. 3, Byfuglien's early hit on Toronto's Phil Kessel rendered the Maple Leafs star quiet for the remainder of the game. Byfuglien went on to score a goal and had an assist.


"It's just confidence," Byfuglien said after the win against Toronto. "It's knowing that I can protect the puck and find time and room for someone else to get open, and hopefully they can make it happen afterwards."


After the Jan. 3 win, Byfuglien was asked if he had ever played better during his NHL career


"No," Byfuglien said. "Not even close."


Byfuglien has also reduced some of the workload for other Winnipeg defensemen, playing 27 or more minutes in eight of his 14 games since moving back from right wing.


The eye test supports the strength of Byfuglien's play, but possession analytics also bear out his impact. The Jets had a 53.7 Corsi percentage in Byfuglien's first 14 games as a defenseman.


Bogosian returned for Winnipeg's game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday, a 4-1 loss. He's a significant addition with road games against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks this weekend.


Enstrom and Stuart are practicing in full and accompanied the Jets for their road trip through the Pacific Division. Clitsome had back surgery Thursday and will not return anytime soon. Trouba could be back in the lineup in February.


"[The injured players] realize we've done a good job holding down the fort and playing some good hockey, so I'm sure they're excited to get into the lineup and be a part of it," Jets captain Andrew Ladd said. "I think it was something that was said when everybody went down. It was going to make us play a better team game, and I think we've done that since a lot of those guys got hurt."


Maurice will face a different dilemma soon: The Jets will have a glut of defensemen.


"We've got guys coming back, and there are going to be some fights for jobs soon because some of these guys that have played, have played very well," Maurice said. "We've got some competition now to play on the team. They've earned the opportunity to stay in the lineup."


However, Bogosian, Enstrom and Stuart are major additions back into the lineup.


"You forget about what these [injured players] can do," Maurice said after seeing them in practice this week. "When you lose a guy for long enough, it's like a trade [when he returns]."



Thursday, January 8, 2015

Parise name a mainstay in Minnesota hockey


ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Together, J.P. Parise and his son, Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise, have bridged two different generations of Minnesota hockey fans.


Over nine seasons, J.P. was one of the most popular players for the Minnesota North Stars. From 1967 until 1975, and again for one final season in 1978-79, the Parise name became synonymous with the North Stars franchise.


J.P. Parise died Wednesday at the age of 73 after a battle with lung cancer.


"He was really a great teammate, and when you think of the guys you've played with and the guys you've played against, the guys who you really got to know, J.P. was one of those guys," said Wild radio analyst Tom Reid, a teammate of Parise's with the North Stars. "It was so fitting the fact that he was able to come back here to Minnesota and have his son come back here."


J.P. Parise was one of the most popular players for the Minnesota North Stars. (Photo: Getty Images)


After his playing career was over, the elder Parise stayed in Minnesota, becoming a coach and hockey director at the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary's school in Faribault, Minn., about a 35-minute drive from St. Paul.


There he influenced the careers of countless players, including current NHL stars Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.


Toews said he'd remember J.P. as someone who made his transition to a new school and a new home a lot easier when he first arrived at Shattuck as a young teenager.


"He had so many great stories and one-liners. Just the advice he'd give to the young guys in high school there. If you were ever going through a tough time, or you weren't playing well or you're having a tough time being away from home, he always seemed to have a way to pick you up," Toews said. "Like I said, he had an amazingly positive effect on myself and a lot of other young hockey players at Shattuck. It meant a lot to our careers for sure."


He also coached his son Zach, perhaps the most popular current player in what locals call the "State of Hockey." As one of the top players in the NHL, people often forget about Zach's older brother Jordan who, like Zach, played at Shattuck and the University of North Dakota.


J.P. was never one of them. Over 45 years of close friendship, Reid said J.P.'s devotion to family and the way he talked about his sons and his wife, Donna, will be what he remembers most.


"When he talked about Jordy or Zach, it was always the same," Reid said. "He taught them what it was to be successful."


When Zach signed with the Wild in the summer of 2012, along with close friend Ryan Suter, it allowed each to play closer to family and friends. In recent months, that had been a blessing.


With J.P.'s condition worsening and the unexpected death of Suter's own father, Bob, of a heart attack in September, Ryan Suter said coming to Minnesota had taken on special meaning.


"We actually talked about that a week ago, probably two weeks ago when he knew that his dad wasn't doing that well," Suter said. "At least the good thing is we got to be here. Just think if we would have signed other places, they wouldn't have got to come to as many games as they did get a chance to come to. Looking back, that's the best thing that's happened to me."


Opening up about J.P. was especially difficult for Suter with his own emotions still so fresh. The younger Parise and Suter grew up playing against each other, with Zach at Shattuck and Ryan with the Madison Capitols. Parise then went to UND and Suter to the University of Wisconsin. But they've also grown close, being a part of several national teams, two U.S. Olympic teams and now with the Wild.


"It's a terrible thing to happen to a good person," Suter said. "I think, us as a team here, we feel for Zach. You know how hard it is having to go through that, for me. So for him, I can't imagine what he's going through right now. Just a good person and it's too bad that [J.P.'s] gone."



Connor, ready for Michigan, awaiting Draft moment


As a Michigan native, Kyle Connor long has dreamed of playing hockey at the University of Michigan.


But before that happens he'll get to live another dream, hearing his name called at the 2015 NHL Draft.


Connor, a 6-foot-1, 182-pound left wing/center with the Youngstown Phantoms of the United States Hockey League, earned an A rating on NHL Central Scouting's player to watch list.


"He's a solid two-way player and plays hard in both zones," Central Scouting's Greg Rajanen said. "Nice stride and quickness and good in tight with the puck. Saw him against the [United States National Team Development Program] U-18 team and elevated his game against them and wants the puck. And when he gets it he makes things happen."


In 25 games this season Connor has 11 goals and 31 points, tied for seventh in the league. He took part in USA Hockey's summer junior evaluation camp -- Connor was one of three 2015 draft-eligible players invited -- and skated at the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in September. He'll also play in the 2015 USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 13 in Dubuque, Iowa.


That's a strong follow to last season, when he was second in the USHL with 74 points and fourth with 31 goals. He also had four goals, seven assists and a tournament-best plus-8 rating to help the United States win the gold medal at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.


"I like to use my speed to my advantage," Connor told NHL.com. "I think that's one of my assets. Use my speed, my playmaking to make the players around me better and just produce offensively and be held accountable in the defensive zone."


Youngstown general manager/coach Anthony Noreen said Connor's best asset is his speed, and that he's learning to use it at both ends of the ice.


"The think about Kyle is he's just as fast with the puck as he is without it," Noreen told NHL.com. "If you give him an inch, he's going to beat you. And once he beats you you're not going to catch him."


At the defensive end Connor's speed, as well as his increased strength, has allowed Noreen to be use Connor in more situations.


"He's not one of those guys that as a coach you have to continually keep preaching about the defensive side," Noreen said. "'I want you to keep scoring but you got to get better defensively.' He wants to be better defensively. I think as an elite offensive player you'd be doing him a disservice if you didn't let him do things offensively ... [but] he wants to be a complete player. He wants to be better defensively.


"Last two years Kyle never took penalty kills and he is now. We have one of the best penalty kills in the league and he's a big part of that. He was a guy who never played in the last minute of one-goal games when we were up a goal and he does now. I think that's a tribute to how much he's gotten better defensively. He's able to use his speed to close gaps on guys. I think he's gotten stronger, which can allow him to win some battles. And I think he's a lot simpler defensively with the puck and in his decision-making."


The strength factor also is something that Connor is focused on improving.


"Kyle works just as hard in the weight room as he does on the ice," Noreen said. "Sometimes with the elite skill guys you have to tell them it's not just about on the ice; you have to do the work off the ice. That's never been an issue with him. Especially with this summer, knowing how big this year was, he came back and he was noticeably bigger. ... If you look at him, his body, his frame right now, he's starting to fill out and look like a man. A big part of that is his commitment in the weight room. Not doing it because we're pushing him to do it or we're making him do it; he's doing it because he wants to do it. I think as long as he continues to do that I expect him to continue to fill his frame out."


Connor will take his well-rounded game next season to the University of Michigan.


"It was one of my dreams growing up," Connor said of being a Wolverine. "Being from the Michigan area I was always a Michigan football fan, all the sports. They offered me [a scholarship] for hockey and I was ready to go."


The Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League own Connor's Canadian Hockey League rights. While he said the OHL is an interesting option, playing at Michigan remains the plan.


"It [the OHL] is always an option," he said. "I like to leave everything open. Right now I'm going to Michigan and that's where I'm going for now."


Before that, however, he has to finish the season in Youngstown. It's his third season there. Moving at age 15 from his home in Clinton Township, Mich., to join the Phantoms wasn't easy, but Connor said it's helped him grow up.


"It was really tough the first couple of days or couple weeks, being away from your family," Connor said. "I had a really nice billet family and it was an easy transition. The play, the hockey, the teammates really helped me get up to speed. ... It was a big speed adjustment the first couple games but you just go out and play hockey and just adapt to it."


Noreen said watching Connor develop has been a special experience for him.


"Kyle was the first player that we ever tendered here [in 2012]," Noreen said. "It was my first year as a head coach and he was a 15-year-old kid. I'll never forget having him in and his family and trying to convince him that this was the right place to come for the next three years. They trusted us, our organization, and me that it was. He's one of those guys that not a day goes by that he doesn't do something on the ice, I'm talking since Day One he was here, that you don't just shake your head and realize how fortunate you are to be a big part of someone like that developing. I feel like I've learned as much from him as he has from me. He's one of the guys that as a coach, this is why you do it. You do it for kids like that, kids that love the game, kids that want to get better, that have a bright future."


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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Maple Leafs' Kessel aware critics 'expect more'


TORONTO -- With his team having made a coaching change, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, already their top scorer, is feeling additional heat to improve his play.


Kessel, who ranks 10th in NHL scoring with 18 goals and 41 points in 40 games, has just one goal in his past nine games and three in the past 12.


"Obviously we haven't been winning and that's what happens; they're going to come after you," Kessel said. "It's never fun, but it's part of the business."


Former Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson suggested Tuesday during a radio interview that the core group of players on the Maple Leafs, which includes Kessel, may be uncoachable. Kessel was asked about his former coach’s statement and said, "I don't really care, to be honest with you. I didn't see it, so it doesn't really faze me."


Kessel has not missed a game this season and leads the team in scoring. He was asked if he feels he has done his part.


"I don't know," Kessel said. "You guys have to answer that. I don't know what you expect from me out there, but obviously you expect more."


Kessel was also asked about his consistency.


"Sometimes I go cold out there," Kessel said. "I don't think I'm any different from anyone else in the League. What do you expect me to do out there?"


Kessel admitted the players must accept responsibility for the coaching change which saw Randy Carlyle dismissed Tuesday and Peter Horachek named as the interim coach Wednesday. Kessel also believes the team can still enjoy success this season.


"You never want anyone to get fired, right?" Kessel said. "That shows your group didn't get it done and I think it's disappointing for all the guys here when your coach gets fired. Hopefully through the last 42 games we can get it together. We're still in it, right? We're fighting and we've got to get back on track."


Heading into the game Wednesday against the Washington Capitals, the Toronto Maple Leafs still hold the final wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Boston Bruins.


Asked if he feels the core group of the Maple Leafs players needs to be broken up, Kessel said, "I think we've got a good team here. We're always right there every year and all of a sudden we hit these rough patches. We've just got to find a way to not go through them and play good hockey all year long. You know you're going to lose a couple of games here and there, but you can't go on long losing stretches like we have in the past."


Kessel believes making the Stanley Cup Playoffs is a possibility.


"We're always on the verge of making the playoffs," Kessel said. "I think there's a difference between making the playoffs and being a championship team. Everyone realizes that. We're always fighting. This year we had that long winning streak and then we go on a losing streak. I think that happens every year with us. We've got to somehow kick that and no matter what we have to get a win or two in there to bust up those losing streaks."


Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin said it never comes down to one player being the entire problem for a team’s struggles. He sympathizes with what Kessel is going through.


"I have never played for a Canadian-based team and I don't know how big the pressure is, but sometimes you just want the media to leave you alone and just focus on the hockey game," Ovechkin said. "It's not about one guy; it's about the team. Of course, if you are the face of the team most of the time you are going to get the blame. I don't think it's a Kessel problem. It's a team problem. If I was in his position I just wouldn't listen to you guys and don't talk to you guys."



Inside the matchup: Bruins vs. Penguins


Fantasy top 60 'D': Barrie a bright spot for Avalanche


Every Wednesday during the season, NHL.com fantasy hockey correspondent Brian Metzer will provide you with in-depth defensemen analysis. From updated weekly top 60 rankings to trending players and more, Metzer will be your go-to guy for fantasy blue line advice all season long.


UPDATED TOP 60 DEFENSEMEN RANKINGS

Patrick Roy returned to the Colorado Avalanche last season and coached them to the third-best record in the NHL and their first berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three seasons. Many players contributed to that success, including Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon, but defensemen Tyson Barrie might have been an even bigger surprise.


Barrie, selected in the third round (No. 64) of the 2009 NHL Draft, took a few years to develop, making his debut on Feb. 7, 2012. He played 42 games over his first two seasons in the League, scoring 13 points (two goals).


That wasn't what fantasy owners expected after seeing Barrie collect a combined 289 points over 342 games with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League and the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League. So they were thrilled to see him finally break out during Roy's magical first season.


The 23-year-old appeared in 64 games and established himself as a key contributor from the back end for the Avalanche in both 5-on-5 situations and the power play, where he averaged 2:47 of time on ice per night. He established career highs in goals (13), assists (25), points (38), power play points (10), shots on goal (101) and penalty minutes (20).


Those totals earned Barrie a new two-year contract with the Avalanche and had fantasy owners making him the 26th defenseman off the board in Yahoo Standard League drafts this fall. Unfortunately, the Avalanche haven't responded the way they did last season and are wallowing in last place in the Central Division and sitting third from the bottom in the Western Conference.


With the Avalanche struggling, Barrie starred and out-produced his draft position almost immediately by scoring 20 points in his first 26 games, but it is what happened in the following 10 games that had owners tweeting questions asking if they should cut bait.



Tyson Barrie



STATS PRIOR TO JAN. 7 GAMES


GOALS: 3 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 24

SOG: 71 | +/-: -2



Barrie picked up one assist as the Avalanche floundered offensively, averaging just 2.00 goals per game over that span.

The case of Barrie is one that calls for some patience. If you stuck with him, he is currently riding a three-game point streak that has seen him collect three assists, five shots on goal and a plus-5 rating.


While the recent dry spell might have made it appear Barrie was headed for an off season, he is actually ahead of last season's pace. His points per game are up from .59 to .61 and his shots per game have jumped from 1.57 to 1.74. He is producing at roughly the same rate on the power play and is on pace to set career highs in hits and blocked shots.


Barrie is still owned in 80 percent of Yahoo Fantasy Leagues, but now might be the time to check in about making a deal for him. He will be productive, as his current and former hot streaks have shown, and you may be able to catch someone napping on the fact he had that rough 10-game stretch.





Ryan Ellis



STATS PRIOR TO JAN. 7 GAMES


GOALS: 5 | ASST: 13 | PTS: 18

SOG: 81 | +/-: 12



TRENDING UP

Ryan Ellis , Nashville Predators -- Ellis recently went through a dry spell of four games, but he is heating up and has put together a run that's seen him collect two goals and three assists over a three-game scoring streak. Ellis is skating close to 20 minutes per night, gets time on the power play and has pushed his season totals to five goals, 13 assists, 81 shots on goal and an attractive plus-12 rating. He may not be scoring enough to be used in all standard leagues, but he certainly brings a ton of punch in deeper formats. He is owned in 28 percent of Yahoo leagues, so there is a good chance he is available in yours.


TRENDING DOWN


Jason Garrison , Tampa Bay Lightning -- Garrison recently missed four games with an undisclosed injury, but has not been producing much even when he's been in the lineup. He has just three points over his past 14 games and he's registered a minus-3 rating over his past eight. He still possesses a big shot from the point but isn't getting the power-play time he once was. While he could provide some production in deeper leagues, we'd suggest looking elsewhere for production.



Simon Despres



STATS PRIOR TO JAN. 7 GAMES


GOALS: 1 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 10

SOG: 49 | +/-: 8



KEEP AN EYE ON

Simon Despres , Pittsburgh Penguins -- Despres is finally starting to show the hockey world why he was a first-round pick (No. 30) in 2009. He has four assists over his past eight games, but what makes him worth a look is he can help in a variety of categories. He recently had a seven-shot game, pushing his season total to 49, he's up to 10 points and he is second among all defensemen in hits with 121. Playing on a talented Penguins team, 25 points is feasible. He is owned in 13 percent of Yahoo leagues.




TOP 60 FANTASY DEFENSEMEN


These rankings are based on expectations for the season ahead. Value is quantified by defense pairings, overall upside and past performance in standard Yahoo categories (goals, assists, plus-minus, penalty minutes, power-play points and shots on goal). NOTE: Players with D/RW eligibility in Yahoo leagues (Dustin Byfuglien , Brent Burns ) have been ranked as defensemen.

























































































































































































1Mark Giordano, CGY (SAME)31Brent Seabrook, CHI (-3)
2Kevin Shattenkirk, STL (SAME)32James Wisniewski, CBJ (-2)
3Brent Burns, D/RW, SJS (SAME)33Dennis Wideman, CGY (+2)
4P.K. Subban, MTL (+2) 34Jake Muzzin, LAK (+5)
5Shea Weber, NSH (+2) 35Nick Leddy, NYI (+2)
6Erik Karlsson, OTT (-2) 36Jason Garrison, TBL (-7)
7Kris Letang, PIT (-2) 37Marek Zidlicky, NJD (-4)
8Keith Yandle, ARI (+1) 38Trevor Daley, DAL (-2)
9Victor Hedman, TBL (+1) 39Aaron Ekblad, FLA (+2)
10Duncan Keith, CHI (+1) 40Justin Schultz, EDM (SAME)
11TJ Brodie, CGY (+1) 41Erik Johnson, COL (+1)
12Sami Vatanen, ANA (+1) 42Torey Krug, BOS (+1)
13Ryan Suter, MIN (-5) 43Dion Phaneuf, TOR (+1)
14Dustin Byfuglien, D/RW, WPG (+1) 44Matt Niskanen, WSH (-6)
15Drew Doughty, LAK (+3) 45Dougie Hamilton, BOS (+1)
16Tyson Barrie, COL (SAME)46Justin Faulk, CAR (+1)
17Alex Pietrangelo, STL (-3) 47Hampus Lindholm, ANA (-2)
18Oliver Ekman-Larsson, ARI (-1) 48Anton Stralman, TBL (SAME)
19John Carlson, WSH (+3) 49Danny DeKeyser, DET (SAME)
20Niklas Kronwall, DET (-1) 50Jack Johnson, CBJ (SAME)
21Mark Streit, PHI (+3) 51Mike Green, WSH (+2)
22Ryan McDonagh, NYR (+3) 52Ryan Ellis, NSH (+7)
23Zdeno Chara, BOS (-3) 53Andrej Sekera, CAR (-5)
24Johnny Boychuk, NYI (+2) 54Jared Spurgeon, MIN (SAME)
25Andrei Markov, MTL (-3) 55Marco Scandella, MIN (SAME)
26Cam Fowler, ANA (-3) 56Alexander Edler, VAN (+2)
27Roman Josi, NSH (+5) 57Kevin Klein, NYR (-1)
28Christian Ehrhoff, PIT (NR - IR) 58Brian Campbell, FLA (-6)
29Cody Franson, TOR (-2) 59John Klingberg, DAL (-2)
30Alex Goligoski, DAL (+1) 60Marc-Edouard Vlasic, SJS (SAME)

Key injuries: Olli Maatta, Tobias Enstrom, Ryan Murray, Kimmo Timonen, Jacob Trouba, Zach Bogosian, Damon Severson, Lubomir Visnovsky


*NR - IR : Not ranked last week because of injury

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