‘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

Sharks’ Erik Karlsson to return after missing nine games

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The San Jose Sharks have been one of the most dominant teams in the league over the past two months and will be getting even more good news on Saturday night when defender Erik Karlsson makes his return to the lineup after missing the team’s past nine games.

Karlsson last appeared in a game for the Sharks on Jan. 16 and had playing some of his best hockey of the season prior to the injury, recording 28 points over the previous 20 games.

It took him a while for his offensive production to get back to his normal career level, but Karlsson has been an impact player all season after arriving in an offseason trade with the Ottawa Senators. Among defenders that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Karlsson is in the top-five in both on-ice shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential.

His 43 total points are also among the top-10 even though he has, again, missed the past nine games.

So, yeah, he has been pretty outstanding no matter metric you want to look at.

The Sharks still managed to go 6-3-0 without him during that stretch and enter Saturday’s game having won six of their past seven games, a pretty strong statement on the overall quality of the team and the depth they have assembled. They are one of the NHL’s best teams, a true Stanley Cup contender, and now they are getting one of the best players in the league back.

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.

Skinner focused on present in Buffalo rather than future

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By John Wawrow (AP Sports Writer)

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jeff Skinner knows how much the Sabres and their playoff-starved fans want him to stay in Buffalo beyond this season.

”Ha, ha, I’ve heard,” the forward memorably said with a laugh in December. ”I’m having a lot of fun, too.”

And yet, two months later, Skinner is nowhere closer to providing anything resembling a definitive answer regarding where he’ll be playing once his contract expires after this season.

”The present is still where we are, and that sort of thing will play itself out,” he said Thursday. ”I think there’s no point in really talking about it now because there’s nothing really to talk about from me on my end.”

Skinner, however, can’t hide his emotions when asked how much he enjoys Buffalo.

His eyes brighten and he breaks into wide, toothy smile in saying: ”I like it here. Yeah, I like it.”

Cast off by Carolina as part of the Hurricanes’ latest rebuilding plan, the three-time 30-goal-scorer and 2011 NHL rookie of the year is approaching career-best numbers since being traded to the Sabres in August.

He has a team-leading 34 goals – three short of matching a career high – and is second in the NHL behind Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin (38). His seven game-winning goals are second in the NHL and most in Buffalo since Derek Roy had nine in 2008-09. Skinner has been so consistent, his longest goals drought was four games to start the season.

And he and captain Jack Eichel have been inseparable on a top line that’s played a significant role in keeping Buffalo in playoff contention in a bid to end a seven-year postseason drought, and on a team that finished last in the overall standings in three of the previous five years.

Despite going 11-15-5 since a 10-game win streak in November, the Sabres (28-21-7) already have 63 points – one more than they had last season – and sit 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind eighth-place Pittsburgh.

The topic of Skinner’s future is once again rising to the forefront with the NHL’s trade deadline looming on Feb. 25, and after Skinner was spotted having a lengthy conversation with his agent, Don Meehan, following a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders on Tuesday.

”To me it was just checking in,” Skinner said, referring to the meeting. ”No details to discuss. Nothing really to report.”

As for the approaching trade deadline, Skinner shrugged and said: ”I don’t think about it at all.”

It remains unlikely the Sabres will consider trading Skinner by Feb. 25.

General manger Jason Botterill told The Associated Press in December he didn’t consider that date as being a deadline for contract talks. And there has been no indication – publicly or privately – that Botterill’s stance has changed since.

Botterill has maintained regular contact with Meehan, and has said he wants Skinner to focus on playing and familiarizing himself with his new surroundings. What bolsters Botterill’s hopes is noting how Skinner chose to play in Buffalo by waiving his no-trade clause in a deal the Hurricanes acquired prospect forward Cliff Pu and three draft picks.

Eichel laughed when asked if he’s aware of Sabres fans campaigning for Skinner to stay.

”He has how many goals, 34?” Eichel said. ”I’m sure Sabres fans want him to stay. I mean, would they want him to leave?”

Eichel’s certainly on board, too.

”I’m not Skins’ agent. I’m not our GM, but he’s been a big part of our team this year,” he said. ”You could probably say we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

It will ultimately be up to Skinner to decide.

One positive is how much the Toronto-born player has enjoyed playing closer to home, and having his family attend games in Buffalo (essentially a two-hour drive) as opposed to Raleigh, North Carolina (roughly a two-hour flight).

Coach Phil Housley noted Skinner’s proximity to home and family has provided incentive. And it helps playing alongside Eichel.

”Jeff finds that open area, he’s a positional player, and Jack seems to find him in those areas,” Housley said. ”They just seem to have a great chemistry together.”

Skinner must also weigh what offers he might command in free agency at a time more teams are spending less in free agency and committing more salary cap-space to re-signing their own players.

All that can wait.

”As a player, you can only sort of control a small number of things,” Skinner said. ”For us right now, that’s moving on to tomorrow’s game and getting ready for that.”

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

Sam Gagner headed back to Oilers after trade with Canucks

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The Edmonton Oilers continued shaking up their roster by shipping Ryan Spooner to the Vancouver Canucks for Sam Gagner.

A day after moving Cam Talbot to the Philadelphia Flyers for Anthony Stolarz, the Oilers made the one-for-one swap hoping  the 29-year-old Gagner can rekindle his scoring touch from his early days in Edmonton.

Gagner spent the first seven seasons of his NHL with the Oilers where he posted five consecutive 40-point seasons to start his career and was a big contributor on the power play. He did hit 18 goals and 50 points two years ago in Columbus, but was slowly phased out after moving on to th Canucks last season. He’s only played seven games in Vancouver this season, spending most of his time on loan to the AHL Toronto Marlies where he scored 12 goals and recorded 37 points in 45 games. The team is hoping to get him to Brooklyn in time for Saturday night’s game against the Islanders.

Spooner’s travels continue as he’s now joins his third NHL team of the season. After signing a two-year deal with the New York Rangers in the summer, they then shipped him to the Oilers for Ryan Strome in November. (The Rangers retained $900K of Spooner’s salary in the deal.)

It’s one of those “change of scenery” deals we see often in the NHL. In this case, the scenery is familar for Gagner and the Oilers are hoping he can be a beneficial presence as they try to salvage the mess that is this season.

MORE: PHT NHL Trade Tracker

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

What’s better than a goalie goal? A double OT goalie goal

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Everyone loves a goalie goal — a true goalie goal. Not one of those bad passes that turns into a goal and the netminder gets credit because they touched it last.

Goaltender Anthony Hurtubise scored a goal Friday night for his St. Thomas Stars of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League. But it wasn’t just any goalie goal. The 20-year-old scored his in double overtime. Yes, double overtime. It was the only tally in the 1-0 win over the Komoka Kings.

Here’s Hurtubise describing how it went down inside the Joe Thornton Community Centre via Instagram:

We were tied 0-0 with about a minute and a half left in the second over time (3 on 3, if no one scores it’s a tie game, each team gets a point). Other team pulled their goalie to try and get two points as there are only a few games left before playoffs. I saw the goalie go to the bench while they were on the rush, made a glove save and took my shot.

(Komoka has already secured a playoff spot but clearly were trying to make up ground on fifth-place LaSalle.)

And not only did Hurtubise score the game-winning overtime goal, he also stopped 27 shots to record a shutout. Pretty nice way to spend a Friday night.

Stick-tap Chris Peters

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