Dual-role players? Defensemen as wingers show it can be done

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Brendan Smith caught his breath for a few seconds on the bench before New York Rangers coach David Quinn called his name again.

Smith had just skated a shift as a defenseman and was needed at forward, too. The natural defenseman hopped over the boards and got back on the ice at a different position.

”The more I do it, I get more comfortable,” he said.

Smith is one of a couple of throwback-style players bouncing between forward and defense this season. He and Florida’s Mark Pysyk are the latest to follow the lead of Hall of Famers Red Kelly and Mark Howe and present-day Brent Burns and Dustin Byfuglien, and their experience could open the door for more multiposition players in a sport that usually defines being a center, wing or defenseman very specifically.

”It’s definitely different,” Pysyk said. ”I think guys at this level probably could make the switch given enough time to get comfortable with their new position because everybody skates well.”

Kordell Stewart earned the nickname ”Slash” by playing quarterback and wide receiver in the NFL and slugger/pitcher Shohei Otani can star for the Los Angeles Angels in multiple ways in baseball. But specialization in hockey starts early as it does in other sports – forwards, defensemen and goalies all tend to be identified as such at a young age.

Smith as recently as Thursday shifted from his regular wing position back to defense to fill amid injuries, and the same night, Pysyk – back for another stint at forward – scored his third goal of the season. For one game in November, (almost) lifelong defenseman Tyler Lewington played a few shifts up front for the salary-cap strapped Washington Capitals when they could only dress 11 forwards.

”There’s a lot more to a forward’s game than I thought before,” said Lewington, 25, who hadn’t played forward since he was 10. ”It’s something that’s not easy.”

This kind of thing was more common in the 1920s and ’30s, Kelly played his first 12-plus seasons in Detroit as a defenseman and next eight-plus in Toronto as a forward, winning the Stanley Cup eight times – four at each position. Howe played his first three World Hockey Association seasons as a left winger alongside dad Gordie and brother Marty before switching to defense full-time.

Before video was more prevalent, Howe used to watch game replays late at night to figure out how to hone his game on the blue line. He made the Hall of Fame primarily for his time as a defenseman. Before and after his transition, he noticed differences like fewer scoring chances in practice as a defenseman – and more idle time on the bench as a forward biding his time for the next shift.

Now pro scouting director with the Detroit Red Wings, Howe called Smith the perfect example of a player who can adjust to the variations of playing forward and defense.

”(As a defenseman) it’s more of a game of you go when you can, but you have to be responsible defensively. You have to learn to read and when to jump up in the play,” Howe said. ”As a forward, you’re learning at key points of the game: ‘When do you try to make a play? When is it a smart play to dump the puck in the corner? When you definitely not want to turn a puck over?’ And with both (positions), you take different chances.”

While Pysyk hadn’t played defense since he was 6 or 7 until earlier this season, Quinn knew from recruiting Smith to Boston University that this dual role was possible. Quinn asked Smith last season to try it, and it worked so well that it has stuck, with Smith also killing penalties as a defenseman.

”You’ve got a guy who obviously plays forward 5-on-5 but he’s been one of our better (penalty) killing defensemen,” Quinn said. ”It gives you a little bit of flexibility on your roster, which is always nice game in and game out.”

Three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville trusts Pysyk the same way. He won the Cup in 2010 with Chicago moving Byfuglien back and forth and using the combination of his big frame, hard shot and smooth skating as an advantage.

”That versatility was a great asset to have in playoff series,” Quenneville recalled. ”Sometimes you could put him on a forward line to create space, I’d like to say, on power play (as a) net-front presence, but then you’ve got a big shot at the point. You could multitask with him in the course of the games.”

The same was possible for Burns when he played forward and defense with Minnesota earlier in his career. He became a full-time defenseman before a 2011 trade to San Jose and won the Norris Trophy as the best player at that position in 2017.

Quenneville likes having a defenseman at forward at times because they tend think of the game more conservatively.

”They usually have that mindset of being above the puck, so they keep themselves in the play, and defensively they have that responsibility,” Quenneville said. ”You get to handle the puck a little bit more, but I think they’re always in that position where offensively they’re complementing the guys they’re playing with, being either the safety guy or the extra guy that’s always going to be in the right spots.”

Pysyk, who’d prefer to play defense but can do both, is still getting used to the idea that he is not always the last guy back.

”It’s weird seeing a pass go past you and then chasing it from the other end,” he said.

Smith, who is in his 10th NHL season, is more comfortable on defense but thinks he could be a ”slash” player if need be.

”The biggest adjustment would be to change your mindset of defensive to offensive and knowing where to be at the right time because there’s so many moving parts,” Smith said. ”The hardest part is making sure that you can mentally prepare yourself for it.”

Vegas Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith sees his brother playing two different positions and knows he – and many others – wouldn’t be able to handle it.

”I can’t skate backward, can’t stop anyone,” Reilly Smith said. ”It takes a lot of versatility to be able to do that.”

Avalanche stay hot with win over Sabres

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The injury situation is not slowing down the Colorado Avalanche.

Their 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night was their fourth in a row and improved them to 12-3-1 in their past 16 games to help them keep pace in the race for the top spot in the Western Conference.

What makes this current run so impressive is the number of players they have out of the lineup, currently playing without Mikko Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Matt Calvert, and starting goalie Philipp Grubauer. It is a testament to the way general manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche front office has improved the team’s depth over the past year.

That depth was on display on Wednesday night.

J.T. Compher scored the game-winning goal with just under nine minutes to play on Wednesday night, while 20-year-old Martin Kaut scored his first career goal earlier in the night.

The big star of the game for the Avalanche, though, had to be goaltender Pavel Francouz. He continued his outstanding season by stopping 31 out of 33 shots. He helped keep the Avalanche in the game early in the first period, and then made a handful of highlight reel saves late in the third period with the Avalanche trying to protect their one-goal lead. The 29-year-old has been a great find for the Avalanche and earned a two-year contract extension earlier this month.

As for the Sabres, this was their first game after a busy trade deadline that saw them add Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun in an effort to play meaningful games down the stretch, and maybe hang around in the Atlantic Division playoff race. While their recent hot streak has helped bring them closer to the Toronto Maple Leafs for that third spot, they still have almost no margin for error the rest of the way. By failing to gain a point on Wednesday they remain eight points behind the Maple Leafs.

 

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.

WATCH LIVE: Penguins visit Kings on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After falling at Washington on Sunday afternoon for its third straight regulation loss, the Penguins head west for a California swing that has them at Anaheim on Friday and San Jose on Saturday. Prior to dropping its last three, Pittsburgh had gone 16-4-2 since Dec. 27 and has closed the gap on the first-place Capitals in the Metro.

Patrick Marleau is now on his third team in three seasons after spending the first 19 seasons of his career with San Jose. The Sharks drafted him second overall in the 1997 Draft (after Boston selected Joe Thornton), which was held in Pittsburgh, before Marleau signed as a free agent with Toronto in July 2017. He spent two years with the Maple Leafs before the Sharks picked him back up in October when he was a free agent. With the Sharks near the bottom of the standings, Marleau is now back with a contender as he searches for that elusive Stanley Cup after losing to his new team in his only Cup Final appearance.

The Kings are on the other end of the spectrum, as they sit last in the West and will miss the playoffs for the second straight season and fourth time in the last six years. This comes after a run of five straight playoff appearances from 2010-2014, which included two Stanley Cup championships (2012, 2014).

After finishing last season with the second-worst record in the entire league and worst record in the Western Conference, the Kings have continued to struggle this season. They once again sit with the second-worst record in the league and last in the West as they look set to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in more than a decade.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Pittsburgh Penguins at Los Angeles Kings
WHERE: STAPLES Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Penguins-Kings stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PENGUINS
Jason ZuckerSidney CrosbyConor Sheary
Bryan RustEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist
Patrick Marleau – Evan RodriguesDominik Simon
Jared McCannTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Jack JohnsonKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJustin Schultz
Juuso Riikola – Zach Trotman

Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

KINGS
Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown
Alex IafalloBlake LizotteTrevor Lewis
Trevor Moore – Gabriel Vilardi – Martin Frk
Nikolai Prokhorkin – Mike Amadio – Austin Wagner

Joakim RyanDrew Doughty
Ben HuttonMatt Roy
Kurtis MacDermidSean Walker

Starting goalie: Jonathan Quick

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Alex Faust and analyst Jim Fox will call the action at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, Calif.

Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom to miss at least 2 weeks

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Some tough news for the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night as general manager Jim Benning issue an update on the status of starting goalie Jakob Markstrom.

Benning announced that Markstrom underwent a “minor lower-body procedure” on Wednesday and that his return to play status will be re-evaluated in two weeks.

The Canucks are already playing without one of their top wingers, Brock Boeser, due to injury. They are currently in a fight for the top spot in the Pacific Division. Their next game is in Ottawa on Thursday night as they continue their current four-game road trip. They play seven games over the next two weeks and will rely on Thatcher Demko and the recently acquired Louis Domingue to take over the goaltending duties.

It is definitely not an ideal situation for the Canucks. Markstrom may not get a ton of attention league wide, but he has solidified the Canucks’ goaltending position the past couple of years and has been outstanding this season with a .918 save percentage in 43 games.

He is eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and has certainly played his way to a significant raise on his next contract.

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.

Avalanche vs. Sabres: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Colorado Avalanche. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just more than a quarter of the regular season to go for Colorado, the Avalanche sit in a divisional playoff spot as they vie with St. Louis, Dallas and Vegas for the top seed in the Western Conference. The Avs have won three straight and are one of the hottest teams over the last month and half, having gone 11-3-1.

Though the defending champion Blues are on top of the West, both the Avs and Stars are right on St. Louis’ heels. For the second straight season, it appears the Central will come down to the wire (last season, the top three teams – Nashville, Winnipeg, St. Louis – finished the season separated by just one point).

Philipp Grubauer left the outdoor game at Air Force against LA on Feb. 15 with a lower-body injury and has not played since. 29-year-old Pavel Francouz, who made his first NHL start earlier this season, has started all 4 games since Grubauer has been out and allowed just 6 goals (3- 0-1 record, 1.46 GAA, .941 SV%). On the season, Francouz is 16-5-3 with a 2.27 GAA.

The Sabres enter this game having won two straight and five of their last six games. Although they sit in sixth in the Atlantic, this run has managed to close the playoff gap between them and Toronto (third in Atlantic) and Florida (fourth) over the past two weeks, with each of those clubs struggling (Buffalo eight points back of Toronto).

At the beginning of the month it seemed the Sabres would be sellers at the trade deadline and looked to be headed towards another offseason without a playoff appearance. A strong two-week stretch has shifted things a bit as Buffalo is within reach of a playoff spot and did not approach Monday’s deadline as a sell-off.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres at Colorado Avalanche
WHERE: Pepsi Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 7 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Sabres-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SABRES
Victor OlofssonJack EichelSam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonWayne Simmonds
Jimmy VeseyCurtis LazarMichael Frolik
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Brandon MontourRasmus Ristolainen
Jake McCabeHenri Jokiharju
Rasmus DahlinColin Miller

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

AVALANCHE
Gabriel LandeskogNathan MacKinnonValeri Nichushkin
Tyson JostJ.T. CompherJoonas Donskoi
Vladislav NamestnikovPierre-Edouard Bellemare – Martin Kaut
Mark BarberioVladislav Kamenev – Logan O’Connor

Ryan GravesCale Makar
Samuel GirardErik Johnson
Ian ColeNikita Zadorov

Starting goalie: Pavel Francouz

Kathryn Tappen will host Wednesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. John Forslund, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will have the call from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo.