Can Cam Fowler avoid the sophomore slump?

1 Comment

Having a great rookie season is a great accomplishment for any player in the NHL. After constant years of hard work, making the NHL and succeeding is a dream come true for any person who’s ever laced up a pair of hockey skates. Players will put in countless hours while they’re relentlessly chasing their dream—the closer they get to the brass ring, the harder they’ll work to make it.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when players take a step back in their second season in the league. Its goes by many different names: sophomore slump, sophomore jinx, Jim Carey, whatever. Many time’s it’s just a bit of complacency in an ultra-competitive game where thousands of players are fighting for a precious few spots on NHL rosters.

He was one of only five players to make the jump straight from the draft to the NHL last season and was the only defenseman to make the transition. He certainly didn’t disappoint. It may have flown under the national radar, but his 40 points as an 18-year-old rookie put him in the company of guys named Housley, Stevens, Bourque, Murphy, Berard, Myers, and Niedermayer. Not bad company for a guy who dropped like a rock at the 2010 Entry Draft.

The next step for Fowler to develop into a complete, two-way defenseman. “[I’m just] trying to develop into that top-tier defenseman,” the Fowler shared. “I want to be a guy that a team can build around. It seems like every premier team in the league has those one or two d-men that just stick out and play a lot of minutes and log a lot of ice-time out there. That’s something I want to do—I want to be able to play in all situations and just complete my game overall.”

That doesn’t sound like the kind of player who is content with his 40-point rookie season. Becoming a two-way defenseman will be imperative for the Ducks as they deal with injury problems on the blueline and look for players who can add a strong defensive game. He’s already getting more time on the penalty kill this season as Toni Lydman continues to recover from an injury that kept him out of the first two games in Europe.

Still, Fowler is a defenseman who has the potential to be an elite blueliner with his puck skills, on ice vision, and smooth skating ability. He hasn’t lost track of his bread-and-butter. His ability to jump into the play as a defenseman is something that that separates him from most other d-men.

“The coaching staff preached to me last year that that’s what they wanted me to do.” Fowler said. “Whether it was joining up in the play late to make it a 3-on-2 or whatever it may be, I think that’s an element of my game—that when I’m skating is when I’m at my best. The coaching staff, there are no reins on me or anything. Its go. They trust me when to make those reads, when to jump and when not to jump.”

Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle said the main difference between the beginning of last year and this year is confidence. Although even with the added confidence, the coaching staff didn’t think he had the best training camp—but it was different story once training camp ended and the games started in Europe.

“It’s all about his ability to get around the rink and read situations.” Carlyle said. “If the two games [in Europe] were any indication, we have Cam Fowler back.”

The coaching staff aren’t the only ones who see a difference in Fowler this year. Fellow 2010 draft pick Devante Smith-Pelly, who is fighting to stick with the team this year, says the difference has been night and day.

“It’s crazy what a year did to Cam,” Smith-Pelly said. “He’s a lot more mature, you can tell. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s faster. He was obviously a great player coming into this team and no seeing him for a year and then coming back and seeing him every day, you can tell he’s gotten a lot better and a lot more mature.”

It’ll be critical for Fowler to use his maturity and have it translate to his play on the ice. If the team can depend on him for 25 minutes per game, it’ll ease the workload for bottom-pairing guys, and allow guys like Toni Lydman and Lubomir Visnovsky a breather every so often. Still, Carlyle is quick to make the distinction between an increased workload and increased pressure this season.

“I don’t want to put the pressure,” Carlyle said. “I don’t mind the workload, but it’s the pressure of having to accomplish more than he did last year. We would accept a young 19-year-old defenseman to accomplish what he did last year. If he was to come in and have 10 goals and 40 points, would we accept that as a good year? I would say yes. Our expectations are not for him to go to 20 goals and 60 points right off the bat. That’s not the pressure we’re putting on him. If he does it, that would be great. But we’re not going to put that kind of pressure on him or any of our younger players. We think that’s incorrect. We think its tough enough to play defense in the league as a 19-year-old. He did it as an 18-year-old. Sometimes those ‘sophomore jinxes’ do come into play, we don’t want to look at that as a possibility. [We want him to] just go out and play, give us your best, your best that you gave us last year was good enough.”

There won’t be any whispers of a sophomore slump if Fowler can pick up where he left off last season. Judging by his attitude at the beginning of the season and his willingness to improve upon his overall game, last season looks like it’s only a hint of the vast potential Fowler can bring to the Ducks.

The rest of the league should be afraid.

Fists fly in Winnipeg: Wheeler and Chiarot exchange pleasantries in practice altercation

Getty Images
1 Comment

WINNIPEG — The gloves came off at Winnipeg Jets practice on Saturday.

A small scuffle that involved a couple of Jets players ensued after a point shot was taken by Blake Wheeler during a drill. That melee turned into fists being tossed between Wheeler and Jets defensemen Ben Chiarot, with Wheeler being sent to the dressing room by coach Paul Maurice after the fight broke up.

“It’s just boys being boys,” said Chiarot, who had a small cut on his nose after practice. “Tempers get up. Intensity in practice is always a good thing and that’s something we’re trying to bring here before the playoffs. I look at it as a good thing.”

Wheeler didn’t speak to the media following being sent off. He appeared to be sporting a welt over his left eye and tossed his helmet into the Jets bench before heading down the tunnel.

The Jets own a 10-point stranglehold on the second seed in the Central Division and appear set for their first playoff appearance in three seasons.

Winnipeg notched its 100th point of the season on Friday in a 3-2 overtime win against the Anaheim Ducks.

Mark Scheifele, who was in the vicinity, said he was just an innocent bystander in the ordeal.

“I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I was just sitting in the slot, I don’t know if I had anything (to do with it.)”

Paul Maurice watched the fracas from center ice but didn’t say anything until Wheeler’s glove’s game off, at which point he yelled for the pair to stop.

“You’d like a few more of those during the year if you could,” Maurice said after practice.

When pressed as to why, Maurice spoke of keeping the intensity level high throughout the season.

“Our theory in how we practice is really short, as fast as we can, a full-contact sport,” Maurice said. “In the games, somebody gets an elbow up, somebody gets a piece of someone that happens and occasionally in practice that’s going to happen. It’s all good.”

Jets forward Adam Lowry said players were already moved on to the joking phase following the altercation.

“They might be mad at each other for 10 minutes, but you don’t expect a grudge to be held too long,” Lowry said. “I’m sure (by Sunday), they’ll be laughing about it.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Flying under the radar: Kyle Connor’s rookie season has been quietly impressive

Getty Images
1 Comment

Tucked away behind Blake Wheeler’s career season, Patrik Laine’s 43 goals and Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina-type season is Kyle Connor’s impressive rookie campaign.

I’d be open to suggestions, but you’d be hard-pressed to show me another rookie having a more impressive season than Connor is that is also seemingly flying under the radar in the National Hockey League.

Up until about week ago, no one outside of Winnipeg was talking about the former Hobey Baker runner-up. And there’s a good reason for that given that Laine was doing things that, historically, no teenager had ever done.

“Everything goes under the radar when you play for Winnipeg,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler this past Tuesday. “He’s been one of the huge X-factors for our team. Him stepping into our lineup and contributing at the rate he’s contributed at, it’s a huge reason why we sit where we are today. He was a got that you had high hopes for coming into the year, but obviously a little bit of a question mark. You didn’t really know what you were going to get. He’s taken the opportunity that he’s got this year and done a great job.”

Connor, like he has all season, just carried on working in the shadows of others. Piling up the goals until there was no choice but to take notice at what he’s doing.

Connor’s 28 goals are just one goal back of Brock Boeser for the rookie goal-scoring lead, something that Connor should surpass before the end of the season given his recent success in that department. He’s second the Jets with five game-winners.

“It’s nice to have the coach have confidence in you,” Connor said. “To be able to go out there and try to make something happen and get a chance for game-winnernner.”

Connor is picking up 1.8 primary points per 60 minutes played and his goals-per-60 is sitting at 1.3.

He also has a little streak going for himself, with two overtime goals in the Jets past two games, becoming the second rookie ever to accomplish the quirky feat.

And he’s done so by using his speed to create space for himself in open ice.

There’s not much of a case to be made for Connor and the Calder — that belongs to Mathew Barzal. But Connor should be in the conversation, if only for the recognition of what he’s done.

Unlike the Barzals, the Boesers and the Kellers and the Gourdes, Connor didn’t begin the season with the big club. Instead, the 21-year-old former Michigan Wolverine didn’t make the grade for the opening day roster out of training camp. He was just mediocre. And with a team oozing with offensive talent, mediocre wasn’t going to cut it.

Connor, banished to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League, played four games for the Jets farmhand, collecting three goals and five points, before his stay across the hall at Bell MTS Place came to an abrupt end.

Injuries to Adam Lowry, Matt Hendricks and Mathieu Perreault meant the Jets needed some reinforcements, so Winnipeg recalled Connor on Oct. 16.

He hasn’t looked back since.

Connor’s recalled came with a period spent playing with Bryan Little and Laine before he was promoted to the top line.

It hadn’t worked out with Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers on the top unit, and moving other pieces meant a cascading effect and a lot of line juggling. If Connor could fill in the void, the Jets could concentrate on getting their other three lines right.

So there was a chance and a challenge: prove he can keep up with the relentless pace of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and you’ll stay right where you’re at.

Connor obliged.

Outside of a few hiccups — dropping down to the third and fourth lines at times — Connor has become an important piece on Winnipeg’s top line — a shifty player with a knack for finding enough space in front to get a quality scoring opportunity.

“He’s awesome. He’s gotten better and better as the season’s gone on,” Jets forward Mark Scheifele said after Connor’s game-winner on Friday. “He goes to the right spots. He battles hard in the corner, he goes to the right areas, he goes to the dirty areas. He does everything so well and obviously, his knack for scoring is top notch. He’s been really fun to play with this season. It’s exciting to see him grow like that.”

Connor has exploded for six goals in his past eight games, but it’s perhaps what he learned in an eight-game drought prior that’s played an important role in what he’s been doing lately.

“So, he’s played a lot of good games, but the game in Carolina, he doesn’t score, plays exceptionally well and I think he was really working hard all that stretch, he had that little block there where he wasn’t scoring,” Maurice said on Friday. “He seems to me that he’s relaxed a little bit when the puck is on his stick. Confidence for any player is such an important thing and can’t be given to anybody, you get one and then all the sudden you get that good feeling and then you attach that good feeling to some really good play. He’d been playing very, very well and not scoring, so he wasn’t very far off it and a little bit of confidence and away he goes.”

The only real pressure on Connor is what he puts on himself in Winnipeg. There’s enough heavy lifting happening, so Connor has had the freedom of figuring out his game and what works.

“Well, you can never be too comfortable in this league,” Connor said. “Something I learned through this year is you’ve got to bring it every day. You’ve got to prove yourself. I think I’m getting more confident every game I play but I don’t think I’m too comfortable. You come to the rink and you’ve got to prove yourself.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL Playoff Push: Blues, Panthers chasing key points on Saturday

Getty Images
1 Comment

Friday night was light as far as NHL action goes, with only 10 teams squaring off against one another. But it didn’t stop the plot from thickening in both conference’s playoff races.

New Jersey and St. Louis picked up big wins their respective conferences. The Devils put a three-point gap between themselves and the Florida Panthers, who still hold two games in hand over New Jersey. The Blues, meanwhile, moved to within one point of the final wildcard in the West and three points of the third-place Minnesota Wild in the Central Division.

Both teams are coming into the second game of back-to-backs on Saturday, and both need wins again, especially New Jersey as the Panthers play host to the lowly Arizona Coyotes.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Eastern Conference:

The Panthers still hold the keys to their own playoff fate in the East, and with the Devils in tough against a rested Tampa Bay Lightning team on Saturday, that gap could close to one after the night is over.

With the Boston Bruins idle, the Lightning will be looking to push their lead atop the Atlantic Division to six points. Boston will have two games in hand after the day is through. Columbus can move into second in the Metropolitan Division with a win, two points behind the Washington Capitals if the latter fails to pick up points against the Montreal Canadiens.

Western Conference:

The Blues face their toughest test yet this season when they host the Blue Jackets, who have won 10 straight and are the NHL’s hottest team. Both teams have something to gain and, thus, something to lose in the matchup, but it’s the Blues who need the points more.

St. Louis is on even terms when it comes to games with the Colorado Avalanche, who hold the second wildcard in the West. The Avs don’t have it easy against the Vegas Golden Knights in a matinee affair on Saturday, but a loss by Colorado could give the Blues some extra motivation against Columbus.

The Sharks will look to tighten their grip on the second spot in the Pacific Division with a win coupled with a Los Angeles Kings loss to the Edmonton Oilers in Saturday’s late game.

Tank wars:

Buffalo got some help in the race for the best chance at Rasmus Dahlin as there is now a three-point gap at the bottom.

Coyotes: 61 points in 74 games, 23 ROW
Canucks: 61 points in 75 GP, 26 ROW
Sabres: 58 points in 74 GP, 22 ROW

If the playoffs started today

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Western Conference

Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Anaheim Ducks
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Saturday’s games

Golden Knights at Avalanche, 3 p.m. ET
Flames at Sharks, 4 p.m. ET
Red Wings at Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET
Capitals at Canadiens, 7 p.m. ET
Hurricanes at Senators, 7 p.m. ET
Coyotes at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET
Lightning at Devils, 7 p.m. ET
Blackhawks at Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
Sabres at Rangers, 7 p.m. ET
Blues at Jackets, 7 p.m. ET
Predators at Wild, 8 p.m. ET
Kings at Oilers, 10 p.m. ET

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Hall leads Devils; Jets’ Connor plays OT hero again

AP Images

Players of the Night

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Yeah, they lost, but it would have been a much worse outcome for the Anaheim Ducks if not for their goaltender. During a 3-2 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Gibson was outstanding in stopping 39 shots while his teammates threw only 18 Connor Hellebuyck‘s way.

Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils: The Devils earned a very important two points during a wild 4-3 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. After blowing a 3-1 second period lead, it was Hall (three points) who helped New Jersey claim the extra point with the winning goal 27 seconds into the extra period. He now has a career high 81 points.

Antti Niemi, Montreal Canadiens: Niemi earned his first shutout of the season with 35-save effort as the Habs blanked the Buffalo Sabres 3-0. Artturi Lehkonen opened the scoring and Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher added very late insurance markers as Montreal snapped a four-game losing streak.

Highlight of the Night

Devils forward Blake Coleman gave us this one-handed beauty against the Penguins:


Patrik Berglund scored twice as the St. Louis Blues stayed in the playoff hunt with a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks. The Blues have won six of seven and four in a row to put themselves a point behind the Colorado Avalanche for the West’s second wild card. In his return to the lineup, Vladimir Tarasenko gave Anders Nilsson the old change-up for this goal:

• The Jets gave us a pair of pretty goals Friday night during their 3-2 win over the Ducks. First, check out Blake Wheeler’s hands as he set up Mark Scheifele’s 22nd of the season:

Wheeler was also part of this pretty passing play that ended with a Nikolaj Ehlers goal:

In the end, it was Kyle Connor notching the overtime winner for the second straight game:

David Pastrnak and the Boston Bruins dealt the Dallas Stars a big blow to their playoff hopes with a 3-2 win. “Pasta” scored the go-ahead goal with 11.1 seconds left in the third period, erasing a 2-0 lead the Stars had entering the final 20 minutes. The Stars are four points out of a wild card spot with seven games left in the regular season.

• No word if she was successful.

Factoid of the Night

Devils 4, Penguins 3 (OT)
Canadiens 3, Sabres 0
Blues 4, Canucks 1
Jets 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Bruins 3, Stars 2


Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.