‘Dinosaur’ defensemen like Orpik survive in NHL by adapting

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

When John Tortorella compares Brooks Orpik to a creature that went extinct 65 million years ago, he means it affectionately.

”He’s a little bit of a dinosaur because he hits, and there isn’t a lot of hitting in this game,” Tortorella said.

Orpik, who helped the Washington Capitals win the Stanley Cup last season and played his 1,000th NHL regular-season game Tuesday, is certainly a rarity. Big, rugged, defensive defensemen are going the way of prehistoric animals, mask-less goaltenders, helmet-less skaters and enforcers, except the ones like Orpik who have adapted to keep pace with the speed of modern hockey.

”I think if you don’t adapt to where the league’s going, then you’re pushed out,” Orpik said. ”If you weren’t willing to adjust how you trained or maybe shed some weight, that would push you out of the league. … There’s that and there’s obviously more of an emphasis on being able to move the puck up quickly.”

NHL teams are looking for the next Erik Karlsson or Thomas Chabot, smaller, more mobile defenseman who can lead the rush and pile up the points. Slower, play-it-safe defensemen like 6-foot-7, 245-pound Hal Gill don’t roam the ice anymore, and those players must approach the game differently.

”I’ve heard people come up and say, ‘Hey, my kid plays just like you,”’ Gill said. ”And I’m like, ‘Well, you better change quick.”’

Tortorella, who coached Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004 and is in his fourth season with Columbus, sees value in big ”miserable” defenders who can play a tough game. He believes the loss of that kind of player has contributed to an increase in scoring over recent years – which is what the NHL wants at the expense of old-school muscle.

Players like Orpik and St. Louis’ Robert Bortuzzo are far less prevalent than when Gill stayed in the NHL for 16 years from the late 1990s through 2013. Bortuzzo thinks the term ”stay-at-home” doesn’t apply anymore; even slow defensemen have to do more than just sit back, hit and defend like they used to.

”’Defensively conscious’ would probably be a better term nowadays and one that fits the game,” the 6-4, 216-pound Bortuzzo said. ”At this stage of the game, you need to be able to join the rush, you need to be able to move pucks. … The days of a defenseman not being able to skate and keep up with the pace of play is done. Guys are too fast and moving too quick.”

No one’s confusing Orpik, Bortuzzo, Vegas’ Deryk Engelland or Buffalo’s Zach Bogosian for speed demons, but puck moving helps those players stay in the NHL. Bortuzzo said his focus has always been on his skating, and similarly Orpik and Boston’s Zdeno Chara have worked with skating coach Adam Nicholas to adapt.

Even if they can’t get markedly faster, they can better manage their skates and sticks and use their size as an advantage.

”What I work on with those guys a ton is just always giving them good footwork-type drills and suggestions to allow them to still be able to control space and tempo,” Nicholas said. ”What we talk a lot about is continuing to be puck-moving machines and how to always stack decks in your favor to have time and space, control it and transition pucks very quickly.”

Todd Reirden, during his time as a Penguins assistant, helped Orpik evolve from a hit-seeking missile to a defensive stalwart. Orpik began picking his spots for hits and using his stick more to defend.

”That has allowed him to still have the physical element when he needed to around the net front against some of the skill guys,” said Reirden, who now coaches Orpik with the Capitals. ”He’s been able to really change his game to fit into today’s hockey.”

Orpik cites former Pittsburgh teammate Kelly Buchberger as the greatest influence on him as a young player. Buchberger hasn’t played since in 2004 but has since seen Orpik become an example for younger players of the same ilk.

”Players have to adjust to the new rules in the game. He’s adjusted very well,” said Buchberger, a retired winger who coaches the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans. ”If you have players like that, you don’t want to get rid of those players.”

Coaches and teammates all love guys who save goals with blocked shots, big hits and provide some snarl. Gill sees value in the kind of simplicity Hall of Fame Nicklas Lidstrom played with, and having contrasting styles on the blue line allows skilled, jump-up-in-the-play defensemen to take some more risks and score goals.

”They’re a real good safety valve a lot of time for D-men who do want to get up the ice and move the puck,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”You can’t just have offensive defensemen throughout your lineup. You want to have guys who will take care of the back end. You need guys that can play both ends of the ice.”

BOB BACK IN BLUE

The Columbus Blue Jackets made quick work of an ”incident” involving goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky last week after he was pulled from a game at Tampa Bay, punishing him by making him miss a game, meeting with him and getting him back with the team the next morning. Captain Nick Foligno said the leadership group, coaching staff and front office are adept at pushing aside distractions – which is important given that Bobrovsky and scoring winger Artemi Panarin could be free agents this summer.

”No matter who it is, it’s all right, we’re going to handle the situation and get back to what really matters and that’s trying to win hockey games,” Foligno said. ”We’re trying to win hockey games, trying to become a Stanley Cup champion and nothing’s going to get in the way of that. That’s kind of the message for everybody.”

POWERFUL PACIFIC

The first-place Calgary Flames have won five in a row, the San Jose Sharks seven in a row and the Vegas Golden Knights eight of their past 10. Move over, Central Division, the Pacific is where the power is out West, especially with San Jose rolling behind Erik Karlsson.

”Our game’s in a good spot,” Sharks captain Joe Pavelski. ”The standings are tight. You see Calgary winning every night, you see Vegas winning every night. You throw us in there. We’ve been on a good stretch.”

GAME OF THE WEEK

The Winnipeg Jets visit the Nashville Predators on Thursday night in a matchup of the top two teams in the Central Division.

LEADERS (through Tuesday)

Goals: Alex Ovechkin (Washington), 33; Assists: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 53; Points: Kucherov, 75; Ice time: Drew Doughty (Los Angeles), 26:42; Wins: Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas), 26; Goals-against average: Robin Lehner (N.Y. Islanders), 2.16; Save percentage: Jack Campbell (Los Angeles), .930.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Russ Conway, writer who brought down hockey union boss, dies

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LAWRENCE, Mass. — Russ Conway, a hockey writer who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992 for his stories about corruption in the NHL Players Association that helped bring down union head Alan Eagleson, has died. He was 70.

His death was reported by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he had started at the age of 18 and later served as sports editor.

A longtime Boston Bruins beat writer, Conway published a series of articles that exposed Eagleson’s lucrative conflicts of interest as the union boss, player agent and organizer of international tournaments. Conway’s reporting spawned investigations in both the United States and Canada that resulted in Eagleson serving six months in prison and forfeiting his Order of Canada.

The Hockey Hall of Fame kicked Eagleson out and gave Conway its Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award in 1999 for bringing honor to journalism and hockey.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

Carolina Hurricanes
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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.