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Follow the Lead of Young NHL Players Stepping Up

By Scott Lowe - Photo

Usually when a catch phrase becomes part of our everyday vernacular there is some merit to its origin and usage.

We’ve all heard the term “sophomore slump,” a phrase that has been used to identify college or professional athletes who burst on the scene in their freshman or rookie seasons only to see a substantial decline in production during their second campaigns. This has been a scenario that has played out time and time again at the highest level of sports.

There are several possible explanations for this second-season decline. 

In some cases, it’s as simple as the opposing teams figuring the player out. Every athlete has tendencies and areas in which he or she excels, and once there is an entire season of that player competing available on film, opponents are likely to be more prepared to defend or attack a player’s strengths and tendencies while exploiting the weaknesses.

For other players, the drop off may be a result of complacency. Athletes put in years of hard work and make tremendous sacrifices to achieve their goals. Once someone attains a certain level of success it is a natural tendency to feel like they’ve made it and that the hard work is behind them. An athlete who enjoyed a successful rookie or freshman campaign may use the offseason to relax and recharge instead of sticking with the regimen that has helped the player continue to progress and be successful.

Another sports adage is that as an athlete you are never staying at the same level; you’re either getting better or worse. That simply means for those who want to excel, the hard work never stops. If you are a great player, but don’t put in the work during the offseason, those who are working harder will either catch up to or bypass you. So, if you are doing nothing to improve yourself while others are, in essence you are getting worse compared to the athletes who are putting in the extra time and effort.  

In hockey we talk about this all the time, especially when it comes to skating. We see so many players during the offseason who want to only play games and work on skills. Meanwhile, the best players in the world are busy getting stronger off the ice and constantly working on getting more explosive and powerful while making their strides more efficient on the ice. It never stops or eventually everyone passes you by and you’ve lost your spot in the lineup, or at the highest levels, are looking for a new line of work.

One thing that the National Hockey League’s return to play has shown is that this year’s crop of rookies and prospects seems to have taken advantage of the long layoff to come back better, stronger and faster in hopes of contributing right away and avoiding any type of sophomore slump whenever the 2020-21 season stars.

The great news for these youngsters is that the hard work is paying off already in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as several young players who were role players or considered future prospects – and maybe not even in the NHL at all when play stopped – used the downtime to their advantage and are playing at a very high level and making key contributions.

This is a great lesson for young hockey players everywhere. Right now, given the continuing COVID situation in our country, youth players still have a great opportunity to continue working hard on the areas of their game that need improvement on the ice while improving their strength and fitness levels off the ice.

On top of that, there have been anywhere from four to six NHL postseason games to watch and enjoy daily over the past few weeks. As has been mentioned in this space before, these unusual circumstances provide driven and motivated players with an opportunity to widen the gap between themselves and others who are not taking advantage of this extra free time to better themselves.

Watch these games closely and enjoy them while also using them as a tool to improve yourself. Study the players who play your position specifically, especially the ones who you like to watch and want to emulate. Notice how hard they compete in all three zones. Pay attention to how they move without the puck. Notice their commitment to defense. See how they move the puck and adapt to various game situations.

And while you are doing that, take a look at the young guys who have stepped up their games and notice how they are making a difference. 

Kirby Dach of the Chicago Blackhawks – he was born in 2001 by the way – was a first-round draft pick who spent most of his rookie season as a third- and fourth-line role player, putting up respectable numbers in the process with 8 goals and 23 points in 64 games. There were flashes of brilliance, and you could easily see why a team would use a first-round pick on him, but he lacked consistency and of course made mistakes that come along with inexperience.

Since returning to play, Dach has been a difference-maker for a Blackhawks team that squeezed into the Qualifying Round as a No. 12 seed and upset the high-powered Edmonton Oilers in four games to advance to the playoffs. Now centering the second line between talented young left wing Alex DeBrincat and superstar right wing Patrick Kane, he scored his first career playoff goal Thursday in an overtime loss to Vegas and has five points in six postseason games.

More noticeable than his production, however, has been Dach’s confidence and increased strength, as well as his ability and willingness to carry the puck and make plays. More of a dump-and-chase energy player who was willing to throw his 6-foot-4-inch frame and 200 pounds around to provide a physical presence before the playoffs, Dach now resembles the type of all-around player a team would happily draft in the first round.

“It’s funny that you mention him,” Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer said of Dach in a media session prior to the first round. “He’s one guy who has really caught my eye here in the games I’ve watched. He’s a kid who really used the four months off and looks like a different player. I only saw him once, and it was early in the year, but you can tell that the growth and confidence in his game is at a whole different level. He’s noticeable the entire time he’s on the ice.”

Another rookie, although and older one with professional experience playing in Switzerland, right wing Dominik Kubalik quietly had a good enough season – recording 30 goal and 16 assists – to earn recognition as a Calder Trophy finalist. But Kubalik returned from the break even stronger, jumping up to Chicago’s first line with team captain Jonathan Toews and scoring a franchise rookie-record five points in his first NHL postseason outing. He also became the first player in league history to score five points in his postseason debut.

He has cooled off a bit since, but still has seven points in six postseason contests – including the game-winning goal in the series-clinching win vs. Edmonton – and is a key cog on the first power-play unit.

Columbus Blue Jackets forward Liam Foudy spent most of the regular system playing junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League for the London Knights. The Knights’ team captain, he brought just two games of NHL experience to the Jackets’ Phase 3 training camp and wasn’t even in the league when play was halted because of COVID-19. But he clearly took advantage of his 4-plus months off, ultimately making an impression on one of the NHL’s hardest coaches to impress, John Tortorella, and earning a permanent spot in the lineup.

The 20-year-old Foudy’s speed, physicality and fearlessness in on display literally every shift, and he scored a big late goal to seal Columbus’ Game 5 Qualifying Round victory against Toronto. He is on the ice in key situations and skates on the second line along with veterans Boone Jenner and Nick Foligno.

“That kid wasn’t afraid to hold onto the puck,” Tortorella said after the Game 5 victory. “I think he’s probably one of our more freer, if I can use that word, offensive players out of our group right now. He’s willing to be in traffic. He’s willing to make plays in traffic. I watch him out on the power play on the blue line. I’m not crazy about where he was all the time, but he’s not afraid of the stage here.”

Earlier in that series Foudy and the Jackets faced 18-year-old rookie Nick Robertson, who was the talk of Maple Leafs’ training camp and was making his NHL debut in the series after leading the OHL with 55 goals. While he didn’t skate as much as usual early in the pandemic break, Robertson worked hard in the gym and followed a strict diet in an effort to add muscle to his 5-foot-9, 164-pound frame 

That prompted Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas to describe Robertson as being as committed as any player that he has seen at that age. Added head coach Sheldon Keefe in a conversation with The Canadian Press, “He knew it would be a challenge coming in. He needs to earn it. He needs to really show it and make it obvious that he’s ready. There’s going to be physical mismatches, but it’s a matter of how you can compensate for that using your intelligence and work ethic.”

Robertson was replaced for Game 5 of the Qualifying Round series by veteran Andreas Johnsson, who was returning from an injury, but his hard work during the layoff allowed him to make quite a splash at training camp, and he scored his first NHL goal in a postseason game. Ironically, Jason Spezza, who was drafted three months before the Los Angeles native was born, grabbed the puck for the rookie after his first goal. 

“The big thing that we have seen is the way he has been able to work — his work habits and the way that he skates and the way that he is on the puck,” Keefe told The Sporting News in describing Robertson’s game.

While it was evident in the early postseason games that some of the veteran players who got to spend extra time with their families while the season was on hold may not have come back to camp in the best of physical condition, many younger players without as many responsibilities at home appear to have done more than just play video games.

The other two Calder finalists, defensemen Cale Makar of Colorado and Quinn Hughes of Vancouver, already had solidified themselves as top players on their teams before the break. They haven’t missed a beat, though, since coming back and even have stepped forward as more mature team leaders. 

Both players are on the ice in every key situation for their teams. Makar has two points and is plus-4 in four postseason games after notching 50 points in his first full season, while Hughes, who led all rookies in scoring with 53 points, has 7 points in five postseason games and helped his team upset the defending-champion St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of their first-round series.

Makar and Kubalik ranked second and third, respectively, iin rookie scoring this season. Montreal forward Nick Suzuki, who finished sixth among rookie scorers with 41 points and steadily worked his way into a bigger role throughout the season, has emerged as a team leader for the Canadiens in their Qualifying Round upset of Pittsburgh and first-round series against top-seeded Philadelphia.

More of a role player who also saw some special teams time earlier in the year, Suzuki has made the leap to the Habs’ top line and anchors the first power-play unit. He has two postseason points and is plus-1 thus far, but has impressed with his commitment to playing a two-way game and his mature, playoff-style approach.

When hockey shut down in mid-March, nobody knew what the future would hold, but these young NHL players didn’t use that as an excuse to feel sorry for themselves or slack off. Whether play resumed or the 2020-21 season started as usual, they were going to be ready, and now they are peaking when the most important games are being played.

For many in the youth and junior hockey world there still are a lot of unknowns as the 2020-21 season hopefully approaches. But there still is time to take advantage of the situation and gain an edge when play begins later this summer or in the fall.

Follow the lead of these young NHL players who may actually only be a few years older than you. Ramp up your off-ice workouts, skate hard when you get the chance to be on the ice, eat better and study their games as the playoffs continue.

Adversity always presents opportunity for growth, and now is a great time to seize that opportunity.

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