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.”

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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NBCSN’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Sunday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream at 8 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

After back-to-back overtime games on Thursday and Friday night, both which saw the winning team overcome a three-goal deficit, the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs will meet Sunday night in a win or go home scenario. This is the only Qualifying Round series to go to Game 5.

The winner of this game will play the Lightning in the First Round.

A win in this game would give Columbus a postseason series wins in consecutive seasons for the first time in franchise history. Last year, the Blue Jackets won their first-ever playoff series by becoming the first team in NHL history to sweep the Presidents’ Trophy winners (Tampa) in the opening round.

WHAT: Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WHERE: Scotiabank Arena – Toronto
WHEN: Sunday, August 9, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: John Forslund, Mike Milbury
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(8) Toronto Maple Leafs vs. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets (Series tied 2-2)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Blue Jackets 2, Maple Leafs 0 (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 4: Maple Leafs 3, Blue Jackets 0 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Blue Jackets 4, Maple Leafs 3 (OT) (recap)
Friday, Aug. 7: Maple Leafs 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)

West NHL playoff matchups set after Stars finish third, Blues slip to fourth

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With the Stars beating the Blues 2-1 via a shootout, the West NHL matchups are all set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blues joined the Bruins as teams that finished the regular season at the top of their conferences but sank to the fourth seed thanks to rough round-robin showings, while the Stars rose a spot to third. In case you missed it, the Golden Knights took first by beating the Avalanche, who settled for second in the West.

Meanwhile, three of the four East NHL matchups are set for the First Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Lightning await the winner of Game 5 of Blue Jackets – Maple Leafs (on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET; livestream).

The Blues held a 1-0 lead for much of the round-robin game. Joe Pavelski then tied things up 1-1 in the dying seconds, however, setting the stage for the Stars to snatch the third seed via a shootout. It all felt … fitting.

Jeff Vinnick of Getty Images got an exclusive shot of fans who will miss the round-robin games:

G-get it? (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

NHL Return to Play: Final Round-robin standings

nhl round robin standings
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The NHL round-robin schedule has wrapped up and know the final standings. The Flyers and Golden Knights went undefeated through three games and have clinched the top seeds in their respective conferences.

The Bruins may have been a 100-point, Presidents’ Trophy winning team during the regular season, but they went winless and will have to settled with the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Below is a look at the final NHL round-robin standings and the First Round matchups.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Final standings

Philadelphia Flyers (3-0-0, 6 points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (2-1-0, 4 points)
Washington Capitals (1-1-1, 3 points)
Boston Bruins (0-3-0, 0 points)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Flyers 4, Bruins 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3
: Lightning 3, Capitals 2 (SO) (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Lightning 3, Bruins 2 (recap)
Thursday, Aug. 6: Flyers 3, Capitals 1 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Flyers 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Capitals 2, Bruins 1 (recap)

First Round matchups
• Flyers vs. Canadiens
• Capitals vs. Islanders
• Bruins vs. Hurricanes
• Lightning will play the winner of Toronto/Columbus series.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Final standings

Vegas Golden Knights (3-0-0, 6 points)
Colorado Avalanche (2-1-0, 4 points)
Dallas Stars (1-2-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-2-1, 1 point)

Sunday, Aug. 2: Avalanche 2, Blues 1 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Golden Knights 4, Stars 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Avalanche 4, Stars 0
Thursday, Aug. 6: Golden Knights 6, Blues 4 (recap)
Saturday, Aug. 8: Golden Knights 4, Avalanche 3 (OT) (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 9: Stars 2, Blues 1 (SO)

First Round matchups
• Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks
• Avalanche vs. Coyotes
• Stars vs. Flames
• Blues vs. Canucks

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Three of four East playoff matchups set after Capitals take third, Bruins land fourth

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After the Capitals beat the Bruins 2-1 to take the East’s third spot, three of that conference’s four playoff matchups are now set. The 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers proved to be unpredictable with the Flyers in first, Lightning in second, Capitals third, and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins fourth.

This concludes the East portion of round-robin games. The West side is complete, too, after the Stars beat the Blues in a shootout. We’ll get a totally complete playoff picture league-wide after Game 5 of Maple Leafs – Blue Jackets.

Game 5: Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs, 8 p.m. ET; livestream

T.J. Oshie opened the scoring, while Tom Wilson reminded people of amusing David Pastrnak tweets by nabbing the 2-0 goal that became the game-winner. Once again, the Bruins’ top line didn’t find the net, although David Pastrnak looked spry. It’s also fair to wonder about John Carlson‘s health heading into the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three of four Eastern Conference matchups now set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Philadelphia Flyers vs. 12. Montreal Canadiens

(Yes, that still feels weird on a few levels.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. winner of Blue Jackets/Maple Leafs Game 5

Who would you prefer to face if you were the Lightning?

3. Washington Capitals vs. 7. New York Islanders

The Capitals vs. former head coach Barry Trotz? Not bad.

4. Boston Bruins vs. 6. Carolina Hurricanes

Tough draw for the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins, huh? Boston needs to hope that the Hurricanes got a little rusty after quickly sweeping the Rangers.

All West NHL matchups set for 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs

1. Vegas Golden Knights vs. 12. Chicago Blackhawks

Robin Lehner against the team he briefly played for this season? Fun/awkward.

2. Colorado Avalanche vs. 11. Arizona Coyotes

Taylor Hall against Nathan MacKinnon and the rising Avs could make for good theater.

3. Dallas Stars vs. 8. Calgary Flames

Calgary could be a threat, although the Flames have been up-and-down.

4. St. Louis Blues vs. 7. Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks boast quite a bit of starpower for a lower seed (although the West presents multiple lower seeds that, while flawed, have some big names).

MORE:
• 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.