Reilly Smith

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.”

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Since losing ’18 Cup Final, Golden Knights look more like Caps

Almost 18 months since the Vegas Golden Knights’ improbable inaugural season ended, they look much more like the team that vanquished them in the Stanley Cup Final.

If you can’t beat ’em, be more like ’em.

Once a ragtag group relying on more will than skill, Vegas is beginning to resemble the Washington Capitals they faced in the 2018 final. The Golden Knights don’t have carbon copies of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, but they added some serious skill in forwards Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone and could easily follow the Capitals’ championship model.

“They’ve done a great job,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “I think they’ve added another layer. I thought when we beat them, we were a little bit deeper team, especially up front. Then adding Stone, adding Pacioretty, signing Stastny – those are three really good players, so they have a whole new layer of offensive, really solid players on their team. In theory, I think they’re a better team than they were.”

The Golden Knights who went to the final in their expansion season had a first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith and leaned heaviest on defensemen Nate Schmidt, Shea Theodore and Deryk Engelland. All those players remain but have the pressures eased off them, given internal promotions and external additions.

Forward William Carrier, one of more than a dozen players left from the 2018 final, said this is a better team.

“Right now, we’re a more talented team,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s a different team. We’re a more skilled team than we were back then. But back then we had that air about (us) – we were the hardest working team in the league. I want us to get back to that. We were a fast team, we were a quick team that first year and everything went our way. We had a lot of puck luck and a lot of good things that happened that first year.”

Those good things stopped when the Capitals wore down the Golden Knights with their depth and won the series in five games. Then, last spring, Vegas got knocked out in the first round when a blown call in Game 7 against San Jose snowballed into a disastrous third period.

Bouncing back from two tough playoff exits is another lesson the Golden Knights can learn from the Capitals, who kept getting stopped in the second round or earlier before breaking through and winning it all.

“We’ve had some disappointments,” said Kelly McCrimmon, who took over for George McPhee as Knights GM last summer. “That’s your ultimate opportunity to evaluate and to learn and to assess where you need to be better. … There’s things you need to do to get you to the playoffs, there’s things you need to do to get you through the playoffs. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been a playoff team both years, we’ve gained that experience.”

Capitals winger Tom Wilson looks at Vegas as a team built for the playoffs because of its size, skill and toughness. It’s almost like gazing into a mirror.

“They have a really stable team – they can establish all four lines and roll,” Washington’s Jakub Vrana said. “They play hard, and they work hard for every inch of the ice. That’s what’s been winning them games. We do the same thing.”

Blending the work ethic and the grittiness that got Vegas into the final with the talent that could get it over the top is now the challenge. Gallant doesn’t shy away from the comparison to the Capitals, who perfected that mix.

“The work comes before the skill, and when you get your talented guys and your skilled guys working real hard, then that’s when you’re going to have the right team,” Gallant said. “I think the team in Washington, that’s what they do. They’ve got some real talented hockey players, but when they work hard, they’re a great team.”

The next stage in becoming a consistently great team is integrating homegrown players, like Cody Glass and Nicolas Hague, who were picks from the Golden Knights’ first draft in 2017. Vegas is at the salary cap like the NHL’s best teams and isn’t afraid of the big expectations that come with that.

“We don’t feel or act or believe we’re an expansion team,” McCrimmon said. “We’re in Year 3 as a franchise, and like every other team, always trying to get better, always trying to win more games, always trying to be a playoff team and have success.”

FIRST TIMER

Lifelong Maple Leafs fan Ron Ruckstuhl, 52, was diagnosed with Lewy dody disease three years ago and told he had five to seven years to live. In August, son Joshuah sent a tweet to retired NHLer Paul Bissonnette hoping his dad could attend a game in Toronto for the first time.

“I’ve waited 52 years for something like this,” Ron said.

As part of the “NHL First Timer” video series, the league surprised Ruckstuhl at his house earlier this month and took him and sons Joshuah and Ryan to the Leafs’ game Nov. 5 against Los Angeles.

“I’d never seen my dad smile and laugh (like that),” said Joshuah, 28, who is his father’s full-time caregiver. “For a little bit, you didn’t realize he was sick. You could see him forget about being sick for just a little bit.”

The league is releasing video of the occasion Wednesday to mark World Kindness Day.

“This is what it’s all about,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said. “To be able to put joy in somebody’s life like Ron’s and to be able to show his story to the world is quite an honor and it makes me proud to be a part of the NHL.”

NO LONE WOLF

Phil Kessel is fitting in just fine with the young Arizona Coyotes and has come a long way from playing in the shadow of – and winning two titles with – Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin in Pittsburgh.

“He fed off those guys in Pittsburgh really well,” said coach Rick Tocchet, who also was an assistant with the Penguins. “Sometimes he was under the radar, and he’d come up with some big goals because (opponents focused on) Malkin or Crosby. Now there’s a little bit more focus on him.”

Tocchet said Kessel has done more leading because he recognizes, at 32, he should. It’s working.

“Phil, the young guys love him and he’s taking pressure off guys,” Tocchet said. “When some guys aren’t scoring, to be honest with you, the media are not on the guy as much because Phil takes that pressure off. So he does take the pressure or the burden off some guys if they’re not scoring.”

The Buzzer: Tkachuk leads another Flames comeback; Faksa keeps Stars rolling

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Three Stars

1. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames. A little less than a week ago Tkachuk helped the Flames complete a pretty improbable comeback in Nashville by scoring the game-tying goal late in the third period and then winning it in overtime. He had a similar night on Tuesday, helping the Flames erase a two-goal deficit late in the third period against Arizona. He scored his eighth goal of the season to bring the Flames to within one, a goal that was followed by Mark Giordano‘s game-tying goal less than a minute later. That set the stage for Tkachuk to score another overtime winner. Opponents may hate him, but he is turning into a star.

2. Radek Faksa, Dallas Stars. Don’t look now, but the Stars are starting to put things together. After winning just one of their first nine games — and looking ugly in the process — the Stars have now won seven of their past eight games and are back to .500 on the season. They continued that surge on Tuesday with a 4-1 win over a banged up Colorado Avalanche team. Faksa was the offensive star of the night with a pair of goals.

3. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights. Smith provided all the offense for the Golden Knights in a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, scoring both goals to give him nine on the season. It helped the Golden Knights snap out of a mini funk that had seem them lose four of their previous six games.

Other notable performances from Tuesday

  • Victor Mete scored two goals for the Montreal Canadiens in their win over the Boston Bruins. He scored one goal in his career entering the night. Read more about it here.
  • Carter Hart needed a big performance and he gave the Philadelphia Flyers one on Tuesday, stopping 33 out of 34 shots in a 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • Patrick Marleau has scored three goals since re-joining the San Jose Sharks. All three of them have come against the Chicago Blackhawks. He scored another one on Tuesday in their dominant 4-2 win. Read all about it here.
  • Nico Hischier scored his second goal of the season and Nikita Gusev tallied a goal in the shootout to help the New Jersey Devils get a much-needed win against the Winnipeg Jets.

Highlights of the Night

The Islanders won their 10th game in a row on Tuesday and the highlight of the night had to be Cole Bardreau scoring his first career goal on a penalty shot. Read all about the Islanders’ win here.

This could qualify as a both a blooper and a highlight, but we are going to focus on the highlight here as the Blues continue their great play by finishing a 3-on-0 rush in overtime, made possible by two Canucks players colliding at the other end of the ice.

One of the best plays in hockey is the perfectly time breakaway out of the penalty box. Mats Zuccarello is the lucky recipient of it here in the Minnesota Wild’s 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.

Blooper of the Night

Fortunately for John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs they were able to beat the Los Angeles Kings, but this shot in his first game back was not what he wanted.

Factoids

  • San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau became the sixth player in NHL history to skate in 800 consecutive games in their 4-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. [NHL PR]
  • Bardreau is just the seventh player in NHL history to score their first career goal on a penalty shot. [NHL PR]
  • Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara skated in his 1,500th NHL game. [NHL PR]

Scores

New York Islanders 4, Ottawa Senators 1
Philadelphia Flyers 4, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Vegas Golden Knights 2, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
Montreal Canadiens 5, Boston Bruins 4
Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Los Angeles Kings 1
New Jersey Devils 2, Winnipeg Jets 1
Dallas Stars 4, Colorado Avalanche 1
Calgary Flames 4, Arizona Coyotes 3 (OT)
St. Louis Blues 2, Vancouver Canucks 1 (OT)
Minnesota Wild 4, Anaheim Ducks 2
San Jose Sharks 4, Chicago Blackhawks 2

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.

The Buzzer: McDavid, Matthews deliver on opening night

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Three Stars

1. Leon DraisaitlOilers

The big Oilers forward blew away previous career-highs last season, scoring an impressive 50 goals and 105 points. Considering the 21.6 shooting percentage he rode, and previous seasons of 70 and 77 points, many expected Draisaitl to come down to Earth.

Well, he began the 2019-20 season just as hot.

Draisaitl was the only player to score three points on Wednesday (one goal, two assists), and the Oilers needed all three of them in a snug 3-2 win against the Canucks. Draistail also generated a +2 rating, six shots on goal, and logged a defenseman-like 26:46 TOI in that win (about five minutes more than Connor McDavid‘s 21:40).

2. Auston MatthewsMaple Leafs

Matthews continues to be a force on opening nights, generating two goals as the Maple Leafs shook off a shaky start to cruise against the Senators. One of Matthews’ two goals ended up being the game-winner, and both came off absolutely splendid passes (from William Nylander and Mitch Marner respectively).

John Tavares ended up being named captain instead of Matthews (understandably), but if you handed out an “O” for opening nights, you’d have to hand that letter to Matthews.

Matthews had a +2 rating and eight SOG.

3. Reilly SmithGolden Knights

If you prefer, you might name Mark Stone as the better Golden Knight of that dominant win for Vegas, as Stone generated two points (1G, 1A) of his own while being great all-around as always.

It felt like Smith was everywhere whenever given a chance, though. Smith scored two goals, including a shorthanded laugher, and could easily have had two shorthanded tallies if not for a great breakaway save by Martin Jones.

Wednesday was quite a display for Vegas’ long-running top (or 1A/1B?) line of Smith (five SOG), William Karlsson (two assists, six SOG), and Jonathan Marchessault (an unusually deferential one SOG).

Highlight of the Night

Connor McDavid’s goal wasn’t necessarily the prettiest of the first night of the 2019-20 season, but it ranks as one of those moments where McDavid makes NHL defensemen look overmatched and, well, not like professionals. While the Oilers haven’t been on most preseason picks lists, few would be that shocked if McDavid, Draisaitl, and a select few other players find a way to drag Edmonton to the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Especially after watching goals like these:

Factoids

  • Cody Glass already made history by becoming the first Golden Knights draft pick to play an NHL game for Vegas. He followed that up by scoring a nice goal, becoming the youngest Golden Knights player (20 years, 184 days apparently) to score a goal.
  • Again, Matthews is really good at this Game 1 thing.

Apparently this is McDavid’s sixth goal in an opener, setting an Oilers record.

Golden Knights did a thing

Scores

TOR 5 – OTT 3
WSH 3 – STL 2 (OT)
EDM 3 – VAN 2
VGK 4 – SJS 1

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s Stanley Cup picks
• 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.