PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s best coaching jobs this season

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There is not a single aspect of the NHL that is more difficult to evaluate and analyze than coaching.

Want to know how difficult it is and how bad we tend to be at it?

Just look at the past, oh let’s say, 10 Jack Adams Award winners and see how many of them are still with the team they won it with, or how many of them were fired within a year or two of winning it. It is stunning how many of them are gone within two years.

Either they forgot how to coach in that time since winning, or we picked the wrong winners.

The coach of the year usually goes to a coach whose team exceeded expectations and snuck into the playoffs, likely on the back of a superhuman performance by a goalie that carried the team. Pick a Coach of the Year winner and then take a look at how the starting goalie performed throughout the season. There is going to be a fairly strong correlation.

This season the coach of the year award has seemingly been a one-horse race involving New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, only lately getting a little bit of pressure from Rick Tocchet in Arizona.

Given the circumstances around those two teams it is understandable.

But have those two coaches actually been the best coaches in the league this year and done the best job? Maybe, but maybe not.

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the eight best coaching jobs in the NHL this season, and there are a couple of names at the top you might not be thinking of at the moment. We are not looking for the coach that has benefitted the most from a goalie, or a coach whose teams marginally exceeded expectations.

We are looking for the coaches that have done the best job in the NHL.

You probably will not like it, but hear us out.

1. Craig Berube, St. Louis Blues. When the Blues fired Mike Yeo in mid-November they looked like a team that was going nowhere. They had been shutout in three of their previous four games, had only won seven of their first 19, and just had absolutely nothing going for them. They were completely mediocre across the board, and in some cases, completely stunk. Offensively, defensively, goaltending. All of it. It was a dreadful looking team that seemed doomed to a forgettable, wasted season.

Enter Berube and new starting goalie Jordan Binnington.

The easy thing here is to assume that Binnington’s play is key factor driving the Blues’ turnaround, and to a point, he is. He has helped fix what was a black hole in net and is putting together an incredible rookie season. But it’s not just him, and this can not be emphasized enough.

There is real improvement within the rest of the team since the coaching change.

First, some numbers looking at Mike Yeo’s final 53 games behind the Blues’ bench and Berube’s first 53 games.

The overall possession numbers are better. The shot attempt numbers dropped significantly. Their ability to control scoring chances improved. All of that together, plus a solidified goaltending position, has dramatically improved the record.

If you look at the numbers in the context of this season alone the numbers are even more striking.

That is real, team-wide improvement that isn’t just related to the goaltending change.

Keep in mind that Berube also did not have Alex Pietrangelo for 10 games in December and spent two months without David Perron, one of the team’s leading scorers, from mid-January until mid-March. He is also coaching without Vladimir Tarasenko at the moment.

They are simply a totally different team under Berube, and not be a small amount, either.

2. Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins. This is not the NHL’s deepest roster, and we already know this. We already know this because we have been saying “what about their depth?” for two seasons now.

Keep that in mind and then consider how many games some of their top players — the players that have to carry the most weight for this team because they do not have a ton of depth — have missed this season.

Patrice Bergeron has missed 15 games.
David Pastrnak has missed 15 games.
Charlie McAvoy has missed 26 games.
Jake DeBrusk has missed 13 games.
Zdeno Chara is 41 years old and has missed 18 games.
Torey Krug has missed 12 games.

There are more, but these are the big ones.

It would stand to reason that a team that was already thin on depth, and playing in a division with two of the best teams in the league, might struggle a bit.

Not even close. Entering Monday the Bruins have the NHL’s third best record, are a top-five possession team, and probably already giving Toronto Maple Leafs fans nightmares about their inevitable first-round playoff matchup. Cassidy is not getting enough credit for the job he has done this season. Not by a long shot.

3. Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning. Cooper is the coach that simply can not win the coach of the year award because his team is too good, which is just plain dumb. As if it’s easy to just win 55 of your first 72 games no matter how much talent you have at your disposal.

He didn’t have his starting goalie for a month and went 12-3-0 with Louis Domingue playing every game (and not playing all that well, I might add) during that stretch. Insane.

We have tried to turn the MVP into an award that a player can’t win if their team is too good (they don’t need you!) or not good enough (they lost with you they can lose without you!) and only seems to go to the best player on a mediocre team that sneaks into the playoffs as first-round cannon fodder for a Stanley Cup contender.

The Jack Adams Award has become the exact same thing. We only give it to the coach of a team that was bad the year before and then barely made the playoffs, whether it was the coaching that got them there or not.

Here is a secret: Great teams can have great coaches, too. The Lightning are a great team with a great coach.

4. Pete DeBoer, San Jose Sharks. Like Cooper, another coach that probably won’t get enough credit because of the talent on his team.

Here is the argument for him: The Sharks have the second-worst team save percentage in the NHL at .893. That is an appallingly abysmal number. It is such a fantastically bad performance by the duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell that this team has no business being anywhere near the top of its division and the top of the Western Conference standings.

They are the only team in the NHL that currently occupies a playoff spot and sits lower than 20th in team save percentage.

Here is where the other teams ranked 20th or lower (in order) sit in the league-wide standings.

19th
21st
26th
29th
30th
31st
17th
23rd
22nd
28th
4th (this is the Sharks)
20th

Goaltending this bad is supposed to be impossible to win with. I know the Sharks have a lot of talent, but they’re not the only team in this tier with a talent on their roster, and goaltending has sunk all of them.

Oh, and the Sharks have also been without Erik Karlsson for a significant chunk of the season. And they are still steamrolling teams and one point back of the top spot in the Western Conference … with no goaltending to speak of.

DeBoer is like … the bizarro Jack Adams winner. Instead of being a coach whose team has climbed to the top of the standings on the back of his goalie he has climbed to the top in spite of his goalies.

5. Rick Tocchet, Arizona Coyotes. If I were a betting man I would say that if the Coyotes make the playoffs that Tocchet is going to win the coach of the year award, and probably by a wide margin. This is what Jack Adams Award votes live for. The Coyotes were the worst team in the Western Conference a year ago, have missed the playoffs six years in a row, and have been absolutely decimated by injuries all season, crippling what was already a thin roster. Heck, even losing just starting goalie Antti Raanta could have been enough to ruin their season, even without all of the others.

But here they are, holding a playoff position in mid-March and seemingly in the driver’s seat to take a Wild Card spot. Darcy Kuemper deserves the bulk of the credit for that, but the injury situation has definitely been a huge hurdle, and it would have been really easy for this team to just pack it in and self destruct. They haven’t, and the coaching staff deserves credit for that.

[Related: Coyotes’ GM on dealing with injuries, Tocchet’s influence]

6. Barry Trotz, New York Islanders. Trotz deserves a ton of credit for taking over what looked to be a sinking ship of a franchise at the start of the season and, quite frankly, not allowing it to completely sink.

They missed the playoffs a year ago, lost their best player to free agency, entered the season with three of their top-four returning forwards in contract years, and there really wasn’t any reason for anyone to believe in this team. So far, they have proved a lot of people wrong and made a pretty stunning turn around to go from one of the worst defensive teams of the modern era to what is, currently, the best defensive team in the league when it comes to preventing goals.

That is worth a lot.

But this goes back to what we talked about up at the top. How much of that is the coaching of Trotz, and how much of that is the result of the Islanders’ two goalies producing the league’s best save percentage? And if that is the result of coaching, how much of that is Trotz and how much of it is the work of goalie coaches Piero Greco and Mitch Korn? I am not saying that Trotz hasn’t had a positive influence on the team, because he almost certainly has. He is a great coach and his resume in the league speaks to that. I just don’t know that he or the Islanders would be having this kind of season without stunning play of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

They are the true difference-makers this season.

7. Bill Peters, Calgary Flames. In most years Peters would be the type of coach that would be a slam-dunk Jack Adams winner. A first-year coach, taking over a non-playoff team a year ago, and driving them to the top of the Conference standings. But with teams like the Islanders and Coyotes exceeding expectations, Berube helping to turn around the Blues, the Hurricanes becoming relevant again, he just seems like he is going to be lost in the shuffle. It is unfortunate because his team has been legitimately good, and I almost wonder if this is what the Hurricanes would have looked like the past few years with a couple of more finishers and some decent goaltending on their roster.

8. Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes. There is definitely a different vibe around this team, and not just because of the storm surge celebrations that are driving some people mad.

It just finally feels like everything is starting to click for a team that always had promising young talent but could never really put it together.

The thing about the Hurricanes’ climb up the standings is there’s not really much difference in their actual performance from an analytics standpoint.

They have always been one of the best possession teams in the league, and they still are.

They have always been one of the best shot suppression teams in the league, and they still are.

The two things that always sunk them were goaltending and not enough forwards that could actually finish. The big change this season is that Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney came out of nowhere to give them competent goaltending they needed to actually look like the good defensive team they have always been, and they found a couple of forwards with real finishing ability in prized rookie Andrei Svechnikov and Nino Neiderreiter, who they stole from the Minnesota Wild.

Brind’Amour has done a great job, but even with all of the losing in recent years there was still a strong foundation in place. They just needed the right move or two to bring it all together.

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.

Should Bruins add more at trade deadline after Coyle?

After trading Ryan Donato and a pick for Charlie Coyle, GM Don Sweeney said that the Boston Bruins might be done at the trade deadline.

“I don’t know if we’re necessarily going to do anything else,” Sweeney said during a conference call, via NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty. “We are going to continue to make calls and receive calls, and we’ll continue to monitor the marketplace to see what may or may not fit with our hockey club. We’re going to continue to cross our fingers that we stay healthy. I think our club has . . . put themselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot and improve the positioning if possible as we come down to the last 21 games. We’re going to continue to look at areas. But we’re excited.”

The Bruins pushed their winning streak to seven games on Wednesday, tentatively giving them home-ice in a potential first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. So, yeah, it’s understandable that Boston’s excited about its chances. The fact that they’ve accomplished this while navigated injuries to the likes of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Zdeno Chara only brightens their outlook.

But, should the Bruins continue to add? Let’s take a look at how much of a boost Coyle might be, what the Bruins have to work with, and try to gauge the pros and cons of more trades.

A versatile piece

As strong as the Bruins have been in 2018-19, they’ve been extremely top-heavy, counting on a mixture of staunch defense, fantastic goaltending, and the top line of Pastrnak-Bergeron-Brad Marchand.

Charlie Coyle could give David Krejci a viable winger, along with Jake DeBrusk. He has plenty of experience centering his own lines, too, so Boston may eventually decide that Coyle works best as a 3C.

When we look back on the trade, it’s possible that we’ll realize that the Bruins might have sold low on Ryan Donato’s potential. Whatever the cause (coach, his own struggles) was, the 22-year-old was only averaging 12:30 TOI per game this season, down from last year’s rookie workrate of 14:42.

Whether Coyle explodes alongside a playmaker like Krejci, merely produces at his solid Wild rate, or anchors a third line, it’s nearly certain that he’ll provide more immediate dividends than what Donato would have delivered from Bruce Cassidy’s doghouse.

If Coyle ends up being the extent of the Bruins’ trade deadline spoils, it wouldn’t be all bad.

Cap Concerns

Now, if the Bruins want more, things get interesting.

At a very affordable $3.2M cap hit (through 2019-20), Coyle doesn’t break the bank, and is likely to be more valuable than he’s getting paid. The Bruins also didn’t give up much in draft capital to land Coyle, merely handing over a conditional fifth-rounder along with Donato.

So the Bruins have their picks, most notably from the top three rounds, along with the Rangers’ fourth. For a contending team that’s already added a roster player, the Bruins have reasonable ammo to try to go after someone else.

Cap Friendly projects the Bruins’ trade deadline cap space at about $15.74M. (Things get a little tricky when you consider prorated cap hits and possible performance bonuses, but the bottom line is that they have more to work with than the full-season projection of $3.384M.)

Considering the circumstances, Boston would be best served only looking for a rental.

It’s unclear if Zdeno Chara would continue his run of one-year deals, and if he’d seek a raise from his current $5M mark. Charlie McAvoy‘s headed for a big raise from his rookie deal, with the only question being how much he’ll get. Danton Heinen‘s slated to become an RFA, too. Overall, the Bruins have enough concerns (including Torey Krug only being covered through 2019-20) that they’d be wise not to make too many longer-term additions. Again, Coyle’s only locked down through 2019-20 himself, so he’s likely to be more expensive in the future in his own right.

If the Bruins wanted to go bolder – but more awkward and complicated – they could also try to move David Backes‘ contract.

Backes, 34, carries a $6M cap hit through (whew) 2020-21. According to Cap Friendly, Backes has a no-movement clause through this season, which then morphs into a modified no-trade clause, so Boston would need Backes to OK a move.

Getting another team to absorb Backes’ contract would also require some convincing, yet maybe the Bruins could bribe a budget team to take it on in exchange for a pick or two? While his cap hit is unsightly, the term is becoming less formidable, and his total salary drops from $6M in 2018-19 to $4M in 2019-20 and 2020-21. These details make a Backes trade feel far more likely after this season, but it might not hurt to explore ideas now.

The bottom line is that the Bruins have some bullets in the chamber, but they’ll probably be hunting for mid-range targets, rather than the Artemi Panarin-level stars. If they even take any other shots, mind you.

A question of windows

We’ve gotten into nitty gritty details, but zooming out on the larger terrain makes future planning arguably even more interesting.

On one hand, this might be the Bruins’ best chance at a deep run. While they’ve been able to unearth some real gems in the draft, particularly Pastrnak and McAvoy, the Bruins are nonetheless highly dependent on some aging players.

Chara is 41, and still important. Bergeron seems ageless at 33, but you never know when Father Time will pull an about-face. Marchand is 30, and Krejci is 32. Tuukka Rask isn’t ancient at 31, and Jaroslav Halak isn’t either at 33, yet a more demanding game could open the door for both of their impressive goalies to slide.

For all we know, the Bruins’ window could close, and as we’ve seen from teams like the Kings, sometimes that collapse is abrupt.

That said, there’s no denying that the Bruins face a bumpy road to a hopeful playoff run.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are so far ahead of everyone else, it’s honestly kind of ridiculous. There’s the impression that we still haven’t seen the best of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who might still have some tricks up their sleeves at the trade deadline. And those are just the most prominent teams in the Bruins’ bracket.

Such competition serves as potential inspiration to add, but it also might feel discouraging. Should the Bruins really mortgage their future when they’d be beating long odds in getting out of the second round?

The good news is that the Coyle trade doesn’t close all doors for the Bruins, but it doesn’t mean these are easy questions to answer.

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.

Bruins win after forcing overtime on controversial third-period goal

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Add the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks to Stanley Cup Final matchups that would be epic.

This game was great and ridiculous in so many ways.

The Bruins led 4-2 at one point, trailed 5-4 in the third after going over 20 minutes without a shot on goal, tied the game on a goal that shouldn’t have counted and then won 6-5 in overtime to rub it all in the faces of the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN on Monday.

Pete DeBoer coached his 800th game on Monday and it appeared he was headed for a nice win to cap it off. But he quickly turned incensed with 1:49 left in the third period when the Bruins tied the game 5-5.

The goal came after a clear high stick from Chris Wagner, who then put the puck in when it fell to the ice, but the referees chose not to review the play, effectively sending the game to overtime.

The goal flustered the Sharks.

In overtime, Evander Kane was heading for a clear cut breakaway when the net behind Tuukka Rask was found to be off its moorings. The play was halted, further frustrating San Jose (even though replays show it was Kane who dislodged it earlier in his shift).

And then Charlie McAvoy drove home the final dagger with 1:01 left on the OT clock.

The ending was so crazy that we haven’t even gotten to Joe Thornton and his hat trick.

Yes, one of the NHL’s elder statesmen potted his first treble since Oct. 27, 2010, when his beard was merely stubble and all one color.

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? Nope. Even at 39, Thornton continues to be a special player.

The Bruins rolled in SAP Center in San Jose riding a five-game winning streak and a 10-game point streak and looked like they were heading, easily at first, to a season-long sixth straight win.

They led 3-0 in the first period (and it could have been four if not for this save by Marc-Edouard Vlasic — which may have not actually been a save at all) before Thornton clawed one back with three seconds remaining in the frame.

Jumbo Joe’s first sparked the Sharks out of the intermission and Joe Pavelski reduced the deficit to one with his 32nd on the power play. The Bruins answered four minutes later through Jake DeBrusk. With a 4-2 lead, the Bruins’ sticks fell silent.

For the next 20-plus minutes, it was San Jose who dictated the play and all of the shots.

By the time the Bruins had their first shot on goal in the third period, the game was tied. A few moments later, Thornton tallied his hat trick and the Sharks led 5-4.

The Sharks dropped just their second game in their past nine, but the loss keeps them one point back of the Calgary Flames for the top spot in the Pacific Division.

The Bruins, meanwhile, tighten their grip on second place in the Atlantic Divison. They now lead the Toronto Maple Leafs by three points, although Toronto has two games in hand.


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

Sharks’ Vlasic makes wild goal-line save

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The difference between a goal and a save can come down to mere millimeters sometimes.

This one, however, came down to a razor’s edge.

The Boston Bruins came within less than of scoring a goal in the first period of their game against the San Jose Sharks on NBCSN on Monday when Charlie McAvoy‘s point shot flirted with the edge of the goal line at the 7:32 mark.

The puck appeared to teeter on the goal line before Marc-Edouard Vlasic swatted out of the net. You be the judge on the above video evidence. It’s so incredibly close.

To the referee’s credit, he immediately waved no goal, a testament to his hawkish eyesight. He was right. Video review determined that the puck, somehow, did not cross the line.

The game continued until the 10:13 mark before the play was reviewed.

The call didn’t seem to faze the Bruins, who scored three straight and led 3-1 after the first period.


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

High-schooler ‘sticks it to cancer’ with surprise comeback

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NBC Sports is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL Sunday tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

It was standing room only in the rink, with those in attendance unaware of the surprise that was to be announced in a few moments. Derek Zacchino was lined up on the blue line in full uniform next to his Bethpage High School teammates prepared to take part in the ceremonial puck drop for a benefit game in his honor.

It had been a trying three months for the junior defenseman and his family. A surprise diagnosis after the first practice of the year changed the entire season. Now here he was inside the Town of Oyster Bay Ice Skating Center holding a secret that only few people there knew.

Hours before the benefit game Derek learned that partaking in the pre-game puck drop wouldn’t be his only on-ice duties that evening.

***

September 4 on Long Island was a hot one. Temperatures reached the 90s the day before many schools opened in the area. That Tuesday also marked the first day of practice for the Bethpage Eagles hockey team.

The 2018-19 season was to be one of transition for the Eagles. Despite losing the league’s top goaltender and scorer, and some of their top defensemen to graduation, they were hoping to build off last season’s run where they won their conference, reached the Nassau County final, and participated in the New York State tournament.

Derek left that first practice early feeling ill. He found himself experiencing double vision and ended up vomiting in the dressing room. Having experienced headaches over the summer, he chalked it up to being related to concussions he’d suffered in the past. One week and numerous tests later, he found himself on the way to Cohen Children’s Medical Center after doctors discovered a large mass.

“Sorry I couldn’t come to practice tonight, I had to go to the hospital. Turns out I have fluid on my brain,” was the text Derek wrote to Eagles head coach Jeff Schmier, who initially thought he was feeling dehydrated.

Doctors had found a tumor on Derek’s brain and were able to take most of it after emergency surgery the next day. After some tests, it was discovered the tumor was malignant and he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an “aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“[My wife and I] were just numb. I just thought life as I know it was ended,” said Derek’s dad, Don. “If something takes Derek away from me, I don’t see how I can ever be the same, let alone move on.”

But seeing Derek’s attitude after surgery and the diagnosis, especially as his concern focused on when he could play hockey again and not what he’s been through, helped Don and his wife Dawn deal with the situation.

“He never complained,” said Don. “He never showed sadness or [asked] ‘why me?’ That’s what carried us through. People ask me at work all the time, ‘How are you going through with this? You’re amazing.’ I’m not amazing. My son’s amazing. When I grow up, I want to be Derek. He was leading my wife and I in this journey of positivity. He never let us break down, because how could we? It doesn’t seem to be affecting him.”

Following the surgery, a schedule began that featured radiation treatments five times a week and a chemotherapy infusion every Monday. Derek still wanted to attend school, so treatments took place after classes ended for the day. His new challenge also didn’t keep him away from rink. He was still able to attend practices and games just to be around his teammates and help keep a sense of normalcy.

“It wasn’t too hard being away,” said Derek. “It was more tough not being able to play in the games.”

***

As Derek went through his cancer battle, the community rallied around the Zacchinos. Plans were made to turn Bethpage’s Dec. 19 game into a benefit for the hospital, which saw T-shirts featuring the slogan “Stick It To Cancer” sold in large quantities, as well as gift baskets and signed items donated by various NHL teams to be raffled off.

The night that was expected to raise only few hundred dollars ballooned into something bigger.

Once the crowd filed into packed rink, the atmosphere by those in attendance was likened to that of an NHL playoff game. Everyone was there to support Derek, but earlier in the day some surprise news changed the entire feel of the night.

As Derek sat down for his lunch period, Don called with the news that his doctors had cleared him to play that night. Now he had to go the rest of the day without revealing the secret.

When they arrived at the rink later that day, only Derek, his parents, Schmier, and the head coach of the opposing team, Oceanside High School, knew he was playing.

Derek arrived about 90 minutes before the game because he wanted to beat the crowd and say hello to everyone he needed to and then get ready. “I came in and I’ve never seen so many people in such a confined space,” he said. Schmier had arranged to have each team in the league have a representative in attendance, some of whom sent a number of players from their roster.

A former member of the Eagles’ team who now helps out assisted Derek in getting his equipment into the dressing room without anyone noticing. As Schmier did his usual pre-game pep talk, he emphasized to his players the importance of focusing on such a big night, especially as they were facing a 9-0-1 team. He finished by revealing the secret.

“One more thing,” Schmier said to his players. “I have some news that is going to rock your world. Like I say, defense wins it. We have someone that’s going to be joining us playing tonight and I need one of you players not to dress tonight. Talk about it amongst yourselves. Derek’s going to be playing tonight.”

From there the dressing room erupted in cheers, some players even broke down in tears at the news. It was a needed emotional boost for a team that was going through an up-and-down season.

Once the furor died down, Derek started getting ready, but kept getting interrupted by requests from local news stations for interviews. He didn’t really get to settle in until later on, and once he hit the ice he was running on adrenaline.

Still, while he took part in warmups in full uniform and all of his equipment on, no one in the crowd knew he would be playing. It was Dave Schneider, Bethpage superintendent of schools who made the announcement, which resulted in a roar from the crowd.

There was still a game to be played and the Eagles came out gave their best performance of the season, one that was capped by a strong defensive effort in the final moments.

As Bethpage held a 4-3 lead with under a minute to go and after some penalties, Oceanside found themselves with an empty net and a 5-on-3 advantage. 

“There’s no way I’m getting off this ice,” Derek told Schmier when asked if he wanted to stay on for the final shift.

A complete 60-minute effort wouldn’t be without some luck. As Oceanside pressed for the tying goal, their best chance clanked off the goal post with seconds remaining. The ensuing face off was tied up in the corner by Bethpage and time ran out with the Eagles immediately surrounding Derek in celebration.

“I have never been involved in a sporting event like that night. It was so emotional,” said Schmier, who still remains impressed at the level his team played at that night. “I’ve watched games since… I actually told them, I don’t ever want to hear that that team was better. I saw what you could do tonight, you have no more excuses because they were capable of that.”

Northwell Health

The game took place two days before Derek’s 17th birthday and the victory only added to a night that was a complete success. By the end, $21,016 (Derek wears No. 16) had been raised for pediatric cancer research at Cohen Children’s Medical Center.

“I don’t think anything really changed me,” said Derek of his cancer experience. “I learned that there’s a lot more good people out there than you think.”

Derek was unable to finish two other games the rest of the season, as the effects of his radiation treatments were too much for his body. His fight wasn’t over yet as there was a second surgery on Feb. 1. Another MRI in January showed doctors that part of the tumor that was left there originally did not go away and it had grown a little. The good news was that the surgeon was confident he could go in and get it, mainly because there was more room between the tumor and the brain than he originally expected.

Pro-active treatments are now being done to prevent the cancer from returning and eventually he’ll begin an oral chemotherapy treatment. The fatigue he experiences from the radiation treatments is expected to wear off by the end of the month and while they’re not focusing on it yet, he should be fully ready to return to the ice next season.

A week after the second surgery, Derek was a guest of New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk during his annual Kancer Jam fundraiser. The two connected thanks to a teacher at Bethpage High School and met after a game at Madison Square Garden in late December.

Shattenkirk wasn’t the only NHL player to reach out. Fellow Long Island native Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins sent a signed jersey, as did Alex Tuch, who got his Vegas Golden Knights teammates to autograph one for Derek.

***

Through this experience, nothing phased Derek. While his family were concerned about his health, he never complained about what he was going through. His only concern was when he’d be able to play hockey again.

“I don’t even think it’s still hit me,” said Derek, who was named after Boston Bruins great Derek Sanderson even though Don is a die-hard Rangers fan. “When I found out that my last surgery went well, as the doctor said, in remission as of right now. I never really freaked out. So I don’t think it’s even hit me that I was diagnosed with it yet, let alone healed.”

“He was never high and low,” said Don. “He’s Derek. This is Derek.”

That was never more evident as the four of us sat for an interview last week and Schmier casually broke the news to Derek that he would be the team’s captain next season.

“I guessed my senior season year would be our best season,” said Derek. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

The Eagles will only graduate four seniors in June, which means the 2019-20 season will feature an upperclassmen-heavy roster. That will be a team led by a motivated captain who has conquered the ultimate obstacle.

“I didn’t know until this happened, the magnitude of [nothing phasing Derek] and really how impressed I am,” said Don. “Looking back, this is Derek’s personality. The strength and the poise, this is a whole other thing.

“Like I say, when I grow up I want to be him.”

Pre-game studio coverage begins at noon ET on NBC with NHL Live, which will be on-site in Hockeytown at The Rink at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit, Mich. Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will anchor pre-game, intermission and post-game coverage throughout the day alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. In addition, Tappen will provide reports and interviews from the Team USA vs. Canada women’s hockey game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Sunday afternoon.

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule:
N.Y. Rangers at Pittsburgh – NBC – 12:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
St. Louis at Minnesota – NBC – 3:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
Philadelphia at Detroit – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live)

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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.