The Will Sports Group

The RIG 28 for August

Aug 2

Aug 3

Aug 6

Aug 7

Sharks Re-Sign Goodrow
San Jose Sharks

SAN JOSE – San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) General Manager Doug Wilson announced today that the club has re-signed forward Barclay Goodrow (@bgoodrow23) to a two-year contract.

“Barclay played a key role in the success of the Barracuda last season and we feel he took a step forward in his development,” said Sharks Assistant General Manager and San Jose Barracuda General Manager Joe Will. “He took on more of a leadership role with the Barracuda and we look forward to him competing for a spot in the NHL this season.”

Last season, Goodrow, 24, recorded 45 points (25 goals, 20 assists) in 61 games with the San Jose Barracuda, the American Hockey League affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. His 25 goals led the team, and he finished 4th in points for the Barracuda. Additionally, he ranked 4th on the team with a plus-16 rating, and scored four of the team’s 14 shorthanded goals to lead that category as well. He played in all 15 playoff games with the AHL club this postseason, where he collected five goals, five assists, a plus-three rating and 45 shots on goal. He also played three games with the Sharks in 2016-17, registering an assist and three shots on goal.

Goodrow has 125 games of AHL experience with the San Jose Barracuda and the Worcester Sharks. In that time, he has 47 goals, 43 assists and a plus-25 rating.

In 77 career NHL games with the Sharks, Goodrow picked up 16 points (4 goals, 12 assists). In addition, he has an even rating, two game-winning goals, and two shorthanded points.

The six-foot-two, 215-pound forward is a native of Toronto, Ontario. He was originally signed by San Jose as a free agent on March 16, 2014.

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Aug 9

Miro Heiskanen Talks Upcoming Season, First Trip to US
Defending Big D

Aug 13

Thomas Chabot semble prêt à combler les attentes
Eric LeBlanc
RDS

QUÉBEC – Parmi l’imposant bassin de 60 joueurs au Boot Camp de Québec, Thomas Chabot pique la curiosité puisqu’il pourrait disputer sa première saison dans la LNH en 2017-2018 et il détient les atouts pour y parvenir avec fracas.

Le défenseur gaucher de 20 ans poursuit sa préparation estivale en participant à ce rendez-vous et il en profite pour déployer son style intrusif contre des adversaires de haut calibre.

Le moment est idéal pour tester le tout étant donné qu’il sait très bien qu’il attirera l’attention au camp d’entraînement des Sénateurs d’Ottawa. C’est tout simplement normal à la suite de son épatante dernière saison dans la LHJMQ et sa performance au Championnat mondial junior qui lui a valu le titre de joueur par excellence.

« Je vais arriver avec la même mentalité que l’an dernier. Je m’étais présenté au camp d’entraînement en voulant me tailler une place à temps plein. J’ai eu la chance de le faire pour le début de la saison sauf que je n’ai joué qu’un match. Je veux vraiment rentrer dans le club cette année et je souhaite leur forcer la main le plus possible », a expliqué Chabot qui avait affronté les Coyotes de l’Arizona le 18 octobre.

Renvoyé chez les Sea Dogs de Saint John au début novembre, Chabot a redoublé d’ardeur et il a bénéficié d’une aide précieuse pour accomplir la mission qu’il s’était fixée.

« On a souvent douté du fait que j’étais un défenseur bon dans les deux sens de la patinoire. C’était important pour moi de le prouver à tout le monde durant la dernière année. J’ai travaillé très fort avec mon entraîneur des défenseurs, Paul Boutilier », a raconté Chabot en citant cet homme de hockey réputé.

« J’ai passé beaucoup de temps à étudier des vidéos et je sautais souvent sur la patinoire avant la plupart des joueurs… J’ai vu l’occasion qui se présentait avec le Championnat mondial junior, je savais que je serais le défenseur de confiance et j’ai voulu en profiter pour montrer que je pouvais jouer contre les meilleurs joueurs de mon âge. Ça s’est bien passé et j’étais bien satisfait », a relaté le patineur de la Beauce en marge de cet événement qui amasse des fonds pour la Fondation québécoise du cancer.

Pour les partisans qui ont eu la chance de constater son aisance sur la glace au cours des derniers mois, il serait difficile de parier contre les chances de Chabot de mériter un poste régulier avec les Sens. C’est encore plus plausible à la suite de la perte de Marc Methot.

S’il convainc l’entraîneur Guy Boucher et son adjoint Marc Crawford – qui chapeaute les défenseurs – de miser sur lui dès maintenant, Chabot se dit persuadé que sa progression ne dérogera pas de sa tangente actuelle.

« Je pense qu’ils peuvent m’aider beaucoup. En restant avec eux pendant seulement un mois, j’ai appris beaucoup autant sur la patinoire qu’à l’extérieur. C’est certain que je vais me développer encore plus si j’ai la chance de rester avec l’équipe pendant une saison complète », a commenté celui qui a souvent passé 30 minutes ou plus sur la patinoire lors des parties des Sea Dogs la saison passée.

Malgré son évolution évidente, Chabot ne se plaindra pas de la gestion parfois intransigeante de Crawford avec ses protégés.

« Évidemment, c’est différent du junior. Tout le monde doit être exigeant, c’est un travail. C’est comme mon père qui doit s’assurer de bien faire le sien tous les jours quand il va enseigner. Marc m’a beaucoup parlé et il a passé du temps avec moi, je me sentais choyé d’avoir cette chance. En même temps, je sais que rien ne sera facile au niveau professionnel », a évalué Chabot avec maturité.

Informé du décès du vénérable Bryan Murray, Chabot a vanté la passion de cet homme inséparable du hockey. Ce décès vient s’ajouter à la liste de tragédies ayant heurté les Sénateurs comme l’épreuve du cancer subie par la femme de Craig Anderson.

Un défi personnel et collectif pour Ouellet

Chabot espère donc s’établir dans la LNH sans tarder. Un autre défenseur québécois, Xavier Ouellet, n’a pas réussi à emprunter la voie rapide avec les Red Wings de Detroit qui sont réputés pour leur patience avec leurs espoirs.

Après avoir disputé ses 4 premières parties dans la LNH en 2013-2014, Ouellet a dû se contenter de 21 rencontres la saison suivante et seulement 5 en 2015-2016. Sa patience a finalement rapporté lors du plus récent calendrier avec 66 matchs. Xavier Ouellet

Malheureusement pour Ouellet, ça s’est produit alors que les Wings ont été écartés des éliminatoires à la suite d’une impressionnante séquence de 25 participations.

Ce contexte renferme tout de même du positif puisque Ouellet pourra participer à la relance de cette organisation.

« J’ai vraiment hâte que ça commence, j’ai signé un nouveau contrat de deux ans ce qui me donne deux saisons pour continuer à me prouver. Je suis vraiment excité par la nouvelle saison et le nouvel aréna », a déclaré l’athlète de 24 ans.

À son avis, son équipe a surtout souffert d’une carence expliquant cette conclusion décevante.

« Ça va prendre plus de constance, c’est vraiment ce qui a coûté cher la saison dernière », a ciblé l’ancien du Junior de Montréal et de l’Armada de Blainville-Boisbriand.

D’ailleurs, Ouellet entend exercer une influence considérable pour renverser la vapeur.

« Je crois que l’expérience va m’aider à jouer encore mieux. J’arrive au plateau des 100 matchs dans la LNH (96 au compteur) et ça paraît. Tu maîtrises mieux tes repères et tu sais davantage comment gérer tes matchs; je pense que ça fera une grosse différence », a affirmé le gaucher.

Le choix de deuxième ronde en 2011 se dit donc convaincu de pouvoir propulser son jeu de quelques crans. Cette évolution serait la bienvenue, car les fervents des Wings ne risquent pas de tolérer longtemps les printemps trop longs.

« C’est certain que la pression sera présente, mais ce n’est rien de nouveau. La dose sera peut-être un peu supérieure avec ce qui est arrivé l’an passé, mais c’est à nous de revenir en force », a conclu Ouellet qui était un acteur prépondérant de ses clubs dans le junior.

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Aug 14

Aug 20

Maple Leafs’ Leivo on avoiding Vegas: Babcock’s ‘excited to give me another shot’
Lance Hornby
Toronto Sun

TORONTO — For Josh Leivo, there’s a silver lining to not becoming a Golden Knight.

After four seasons of toil, holding on to hope from the fringes of Toronto’s roster, he’s still part of what should be the most competitive Maple Leaf teams in years. While going to the incoming Las Vegas club via the expansion draft might have worked in the long run, he’d be starting from scratch there with many like-minded forwards on their second, third or perhaps last chance as NHLers.

Instead, Leaf coach Mike Babcock told him in their late April exit meeting to keep plugging away this summer, an early signal he’d be protected in the expansion draft. As Leivo’s 24th birthday passed, he was indeed on Toronto’s safe list after many thought he’d be exposed and be the Knights’ selection from the Leafs. Instead, Vegas took sniper Brendan Leipsic of the AHL Marlies.

“You didn’t know what was going to happen at the time, but when they informed me they wanted to keep me, it was wonderful to hear,” Leivo said this week as the Leafs conduct informal summer workouts. “They wanted to develop me and keep me on the roster. I’m very excited they gave me that opportunity. I just want to go out this year and prove myself to them.”

Leivo, however, will once again face some daunting obstacles to working his way off the taxi squad.

Right wingers William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Connor Brown won’t just give up their spots. That trio, all younger than Leivo, as well as veteran fourth line pest control expert Matt Martin, missed a total of only six regular season games last year. The left side is crowded, too.

But Leivo just never goes away, with 10 points in 13 games last year and a combined 18 points in 41 games since his NHL debut in 2013-14. That would put him close to 40 points when projected through a full season, hence the attraction for Vegas or perhaps other teams in future trade talks.

The Innisfil, Ont., native garnered praise — and even some power play duty — from Babcock when he did get ice time. But Leivo’s part-time status also subjected him to some roster machinations.

Vague injuries and a five-game conditioning stint with the Marlies that still saw him unable to play upon return constantly clouded his status in 2016-17. And this year, Kasperi Kapanen, Nikita Soshnikov and other Marlie forwards might further intensify the job hunt when crucial exhibition games roll around next month.

“Young guys are fighting for spots, but I feel it’s like that every year here,” Leivo said. “As you get older, you realize what’s at stake and you want to make the most of the chance. We have a group who built a lot of chemistry last year. Even when I wasn’t playing, they were still great to me and when I got in, I felt like I hadn’t missed a game. Hopefully this season is even better.

“They knew I did well last year and I think Mike was excited to give me another shot.”

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Lyle in OHL spotlight feature
Nugget.ca

They say a dose of disappointment makes one stronger. North Bay Battalion defenceman Brady Lyle has identified with that old adage over the course of the summer, one that included the longest day of his life.

Ranked 53rd among North American skaters on NHL Central Scouting’s Final Rankings ahead of the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago, Lyle and his family weighed the options and decided to make the trek to the Windy City. 500 miles, two days and seven rounds later, Lyle, along with a smattering of other disappointed prospects, returned home without hearing their names called.

“It was a choice, I knew it was kind of possible,” he said with a pause. “I wasn’t expecting it to turn out that way, but it happened.”

At a crossroads, Lyle didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the experience, opting rather to use it as a springboard to something bigger as he got busy preparing for his third OHL season in his hometown of North Bay.

“It just adds motivation,” he said. “The people that know me know that I work pretty hard and I’m a driven person. It gives me that extra edge and determination when I think about the whole ordeal. It makes me want to be a better player.”

The 6-foot-1, 196Ib. right-shot defenceman was originally a first round (18th overall) pick of the Battalion in the 2015 OHL Priority Selection out of Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep., a private school in Faribault, Minn. that is best known for developing NHL star Sidney Crosby. Lyle overcame a broken collarbone in the pre-season of his rookie campaign with the Troops before recording 10 points (1-9–10) in 44 games. He made progress this past season, putting up 25 points (4-21–25) in 58 contests.

Though hockey, like anything in life, presents its share of obstacles, there are folks along the way who can identify with the struggle, those who have walked through similar situations in their own lives. Fortunately for Lyle, one such person hangs out just down the hallway at North Bay Memorial Gardens.

“It fuels you, I missed the draft twice and didn’t get picked until I was 19,” said Battalion assistant coach and former Mastercard Memorial Cup champion Adam Dennis. “I hope Brady turns this into the best thing that ever happened to him.

“He’s auditioning for 31 teams now instead of just one.”

Lyle’s deep roots in North Bay have made him a valued member of the team in the community. He enjoys interacting with kids at minor hockey practices in the city and is able to live at home with his family throughout the season. His father Dave owns and operates The Abbey Cards & Gifts, a long-standing business in downtown North Bay.

A smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman, Lyle grew up admiring OHL players Dylan Staples and Danny Desrochers as a young player in North Bay.

“The Lyle family are big contributors in the community,” noted Dennis. “Brady has come up through the minor hockey system here and the kids really look up to him. He’s really embraced his standing as a role model and I think his hard work and determination sets a great example for younger players.”

North Bay fans, often referred to as the ‘seventh man’, are likely to see more of their hometown product this season as he takes on more responsibility alongside established defenders in Arizona Coyotes prospect Cam Dineen, Swedish sophomore Adam Thilander and a trio of overage possibilities in captain Riley Bruce, Zach Shankar and Jesse Saban.

“I think I’m ready to step into more of a leadership role and provide some more offence from the back end,” he said. “I think we have a few guys frustrated with the way things went last season, whether that’s because of injuries or just the way that we played as a team. We’re not going to stand for that repeating itself, so it’s needless to say we all have higher expectations.”

It should be mentioned that Lyle’s summer wasn’t totally shrouded in disappointment. An invitation to Development Camp with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent invitee provided a silver lining and something that left quite an impression on him.

“What a great experience,” he reflected. “It was 10-times better than I expected it to be, just seeing their facilities and the way that they treated us. I was really thankful to receive a lot of useful feedback from their player development staff.”

Ironically enough, Lyle’s exit meeting was with Ducks Director of Player Development Todd Marchant, a former 16-year NHL veteran who wasn’t drafted until he was almost 20 years-old.

“It really gave me some perspective,” he noted. “We talked about guys who got passed over but still ended up being successful NHL players because of hard work and determination, guys like Martin St. Louis.

“Whatever happens in the future, I was really inspired by my time in Anaheim, just to get a taste of that environment. It’s definitely left me wanting more.”

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Aug 22

Seguin ready to shift back to center with Stars
Dave McCarthy
NHL.com

TORONTO — Tyler Seguin will get a chance to be the No. 1 center for the Dallas Stars this season, playing the position exclusively after being shifted to wing at times the past few seasons.

It’s something coach Ken Hitchcock, who was hired to replace Lindy Ruff on April 13, stated was his intention, and Seguin is all for it.

“Absolutely, I feel like I’m a natural centerman,” Seguin said at BioSteel Camp on Monday. “The past few years, I’ve kind of flipped back and forth. I don’t get angry when I’m playing the wing, but I definitely get a little more excited when I’m playing center. Through all the ups and downs like every season has, I hope I stay a centerman and I look forward to working with our new coach and getting better at the position.”

Seguin said playing center allows him to be more creative with the puck and generate offense more effectively.

“It enhances my speed first and foremost,” Seguin said. “I find a lot of times when I’m on the wing, I can’t really get my speed going as quickly to start a play. You’re kind of standing still more as you’re going back on offense, so definitely being a centerman, I’m more happy there.”

Seguin had 72 points (26 goals, 46 assists) in 82 games last season, but the Stars failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs after finishing 34-37-11, 15 points out of the first wild card from the Western Conference. Dallas acquired, and then signed, goaltender Ben Bishop in a trade from the Los Angeles Kings, acquired defenseman Marc Methot in a trade from the Vegas Golden Knights, and signed unrestricted free agent forwards Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal and Tyler Pitlick.

Seguin said the signing of Radulov, who agreed to a five-year, $31.25 million contract July 3, had him most excited.

“I was really happy to get a goalie, and when we got Hanzal, I thought to myself, ‘That’s the forward we probably need,’ and that was going to be huge,” he said, “but when we topped it off with Radulov, it got me a little giddy. I was definitely excited to see that.”

Although they have not met, Seguin said he has been texting with Radulov, who had 54 points (18 goals, 36 assists) in 76 games for the Montreal Canadiens last season, and is hoping he gets the chance to play with the right wing.

“Absolutely, I do,” Seguin said. “Obviously with him playing in the Eastern Conference, you don’t see him too much. I’ll be honest, I’ve looked at some YouTube clips and stuff, and I can see how good a player he is. He’s so good on the puck, he’s a good playmaker, and he’s a guy who always has good puck-possession numbers. You can see he controls the play, so I’m looking forward to that.”

With the improvements made, Seguin knows the expectations will be for the Stars to return to the playoffs and be among the top teams in the conference. Dallas finished as the No. 1 seed in the conference in 2015-16 after going 50-23-9 (109 points).

“I think the expectations from all of us are going to be high,” he said. “We’ve had these summers with the Stars organization where we’ve made some big moves. It started with my first year (in 2013), there were a lot of big moves that summer. Now with a new coach and new everything, I think this might be the biggest of moves in an offseason. So I don’t know how much more you can do with X’s and O’s; there’s no excuses. It’s in the room now; it’s in our team to put it together starting at training camp.”

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Josh Ho-Sang Q&A: Tavares’ decision, Calder chances, zoos, cartoons
Luke Fox
Sportsnet

TORONTO – Bright, shiny things await Josh Ho-Sang.

After wrapping up Day 1 at BioSteel Camp, rushing up and down the St. Michael’s College ice pad alongside friend Connor McDavid, the New York Islanders’ super rookie is off to take in the solar eclipse with his mom.

“She’s really excited about it,” says the creative right winger, smiling. “I can’t let her down.”

Since Ho-Sang’s well-chronicled training camp late-show in 2015, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone No. 66 has let down. (And, yes, haters, Mario Lemieux approves of Ho-Sang’s sweater number.)

As an AHL call-up in 2016-17, the 2014 first-rounder wasted no time making an impact at the NHL level, collecting 10 points in a 21-game look and positioning himself as the type of offensive threat who could earn Calder consideration this season—especially if defenders are preoccupied with the new guy, Jordan Eberle, ahead of Ho-Sang on the Islanders’ depth chart.

Today, as always, Ho-Sang wears his passion for hockey on the sleeve of his red New York Giants windbreaker, but he doesn’t shy away from topics away from the ice.

His answer to the ambiguity surrounding Isles captain John Tavares’ future in New York, for example, is wiser and more worldly than you might expect from a 21-year-old jock.

“If you care about John Tavares as a person, then it doesn’t really matter where he ends up. It’s about his personal happiness and well-being,” says Ho-Sang, noting Tavares’ public preference to remain an Islander long term. “Whatever decision he makes is for John, and you have to be happy for him.”

Monday we caught up with Ho-Sang for a quick chat about Tavares, the AHL-NHL talent gap, his definition of greatness, and how he’d style his mask were he to play goal.

SPORTSNET.CA: How’s your summer going?
JOSH HO-SANG: It’s been great. Just hanging out, training every day, so it’s been lots of fun.

Training aside, what’s the most fun you’ve had?
I’ve done lots of fun stuff. I went to the zoo. I went to museums. I went camping. I went to New York a couple times. It was a pretty slow summer, mostly training and stuff. I have a big year next year.

The best zoo animal is…?
I think the orangutans. They’re cool beans. I went to the Toronto Zoo and the zoo in New York.

Describe the biggest difference between the AHL and the NHL.
Planes and buses.

That’s it?
That’s it. Obviously people see a big contrast between the AHL and NHL. There is one, but all the guys in the AHL are really, really good. A lot of those guys can play in the NHL. I played against some really good hockey players there. That league attributed to me being able to come into the NHL and being able to produce OK. It helped me hit the ground running up there.

For the first time in three years, there is no generational player in the NHL rookie class. The 2018 Calder Trophy race is seemingly wide open. Is it a goal of yours to be in that conversation?
Yes and no. As an athlete, I believe that individual trophies are nice, but if you’re the best player in the world, your team is winning all the time. If that’s what your striving for, your team is more of a reflection of you. I see it a lot in basketball lately. People want to talk about who the best basketball player is. If you say it’s LeBron James, well, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant won it this year. I’d say those guys are the best. It’s tough in sports to grade what makes a guy exceptional. I think it’s your ability to make the players around you better and help your team go for a run. If your team hasn’t made the playoffs and you change that — like Connor — that’s greatness. His team hadn’t made the playoffs in [10] years and he goes to the team. His first full season, they make the playoffs. That, in my eyes, is greatness. That’s what I’m chasing. I want to win as many Stanley Cups as I can. That’s my focus. If individual trophies come along, it’s nice. But if I can be a winner my whole career, it’s a better life to live.

Your Twitter feed is a stream of inspirational messages. What’s the motivation behind that?
I stopped for a bit because there was a bit of cyber bullying going on my social media.

How so? You got harsh responses to your tweets from fans?
Yeah, just stupid stuff I didn’t want to deal with. I see everything people say on Instagram, their comments. It’s gotten more positive than it was, but when I got sent back from camp, people were really negative. I’m not a fan of negativity in my life. I stopped tweeting for a bit.

It’s nice because people have sort of forgiven me for that and I can pass my messages. As far as the inspiration, I believe as an athlete you have a voice. Whether it’s 100 people or 2,000 people seeing my tweets, every person that reads them takes that information in and they can use that in their own life. You’re gently touching each life that you come across. As an athlete, that’s your duty. You have the ability to voice your opinion and spread a message to, say, 10,000 people in one day. The average person can only talk to, like, four people a day. You have to take advantage of that, and it’s something you’re starting to see athletes do. For me, it’s important for kids. I had a lot of people tell me I couldn’t do stuff when I was younger. It’s important for little kids to know that as much as it’s important to follow the rules, it’s important to break through them too. [smiles]

John Tavares says he’s in “no rush” to sign a contract. As a teammate, how does that make you feel?
I respect what John is doing. He has every right to take his time. He still has a year on his contract. He’s not going anywhere. He’s not disrespecting anyone. He’s taking the length of his contract, and I don’t see a problem with that. I know for fans it’s unsettling because there’s no security. If Johnny’s gonna stay, he’ll stay and be great. If Johnny wants to leave, that’s up to him, and I’m sure he has very good reasons as to why. As an outsider, as a fan, you want to feel attached to the decision, but at the end of the day, if you’re attached to John Tavares the person, whatever he does is for him. You have to be happy for him. I’m really happy to hopefully play a full season with Johnny and learn as much as I can because I don’t know what’s going to happen with him.

What’s the biggest thing you learned about Tavares the person?
He gets it. That’s how I explain John. He does the right thing every day and knows why he’s doing it. He doesn’t question it. John is sick. He’s a good dude to be around because he’s so focused.

Does hockey need more scoring?
Make the nets bigger. It’s not rocket science. They can literally make the nets wider and not make them [deeper]. It’s the same game. If you want more goals, that’s what I’d do. The goalies are really good. That’s reality. The technology side has to give because athletes are just going to keep getting better. There are goalies who aren’t in the NHL that are outrageously good.

If you were a goalie, what would you put on your mask?
There’s some funny stuff out there. The goalies’ freedom of expression is cool. I’d put a bunch of cartoon characters.

You watch a lot of cartoons?
Yeah, they’re so funny.

Like what?
I love old cartoons, new cartoons. I used to love Johnny Bravo, Ren & Stimpy. I love Family Guy, Futurama, American Dad. I love kids’ cartoons, too: SpongeBob, Johnny Test, Danny Phantom… I watch all those shows. Life of a hockey player.

Is that how you kill time travelling, watching cartoons on your tablet?
When I have to. When I travel. I read a lot, too.

What do you read?
All kinds of stuff. Depends on my mood. Sometimes I’m in the mood to learn. Sometimes I’m not at all, so I’ll read stories. I like facts a lot. Weird facts are cool.

Biographies, then?
It depends on the person. I have to be interested. I can’t read up on a subject I don’t care about. I need to like it.

Give me an example.
This past year I read Malcolm X’s biography. That was really good. I read 1,000 Facts on World Geography. It goes into detail about the different mountains and glaciers and all that stuff. Cool stuff.

What was the Islanders’ message to you this summer ahead of what should be your first full NHL season?
Get good.

That’s it?
It’s simple. They want me to come in and be the best. It’s not much more complicated than that. They want me to be a top player in the league, and that’s what I want. So it’s easy.

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Aug 24

Johnson and Savard produce as a pairing
Alison Lukan
Bluejackets.com

Last season saw the pairing of Jack Johnson and David Savard take on a new role on the blue line and it was one in which they flourished. In the process, the two became a big part of how the defensive “engine of the Blue Jackets” is evolving.

“Our back end is as hard to play against as anybody in this league,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “(Johnson and Savard) are heavy, mobile, and strong as bulls.”

What underlies this assessment?

When the 2016-17 season started, Johnson and Savard not only heard head coach John Tortorella’s message that defensemen should join the rush and become part of the team’s offensive efforts, they also saw that they would be changing when they played.

With rookie Zach Werenski and Seth Jones taking over on the two power play units, veterans Johnson and Savard decided their calling was to be as sharp as possible at their defensive game.

“Our role changed from last year and we wanted to play really well defensively,” Savard said. “That’s what we focused on early in the year. That’s what we’re trying to do every night.

“Settling into our defensive play gives us more chance to go on the offense. Because we are playing defensively, we close guys quicker, and we get more chances to go in the offensive zone.”

And the on-ice results showed that the pairing’s efforts produced results.

They became the twosome that the coaches put on the ice to protect a lead and assistant coach Brad Shaw would deploy for more defensive zone starts.

Johnson saw his defensive zone starts increase by just over four instances per 60 minutes according to naturalstattrick.com, and Savard saw his grow by two-and-a-half per 60. Even with the change, both players’ play produced a slight decrease in scoring chances against per 60 when they were on the ice.

Each player also slightly improved in shot attempts against per 60 over the 15-16 season, (Johnson went from 58.65/60 in 15-16 to 56.28 while Savard went from 57.55 in 15-16 to 54.97).

“I have a huge comfort level with them knowing what I’m going to get every time I put them on the ice,” Shaw said. “You can’t say a much better thing about a D pair. To play that consistent game with and without the puck is a really tough thing to do on a nightly basis. They seem to have found a groove individually and as a pair working off one another.”

But showing up defensively wasn’t the only goal for Tortorella’s defense, and Johnson and Savard answered the offensive bell as well. Even in a new role, Savard stayed consistent in five-on-five points scored per 60 from 2015-16 (.8) to 2016-17 (.9) while Jack Johnson saw a jump in point production from .3 points/60 two years ago to .7/60 last year according to firstlinestats.com.

“It was exciting to play for Tortorella because he was encouraging us to get up (and join the offense),” Johnson said. “I haven’t had that many coaches over the years encouraging defensemen to get up there.”

And for Shaw, so much of the pair’s evolution on both sides of the puck ties back to the mindset they had coming in – to be the best defensive pair on the team.

“To make that statement changes how you play,” Shaw said. “You play with less risk, you don’t get on the wrong side of the puck quite as often. When you know you have to provide the example, it changes how you play. You play more positionally.

“It doesn’t take away from how often they’ve done a good job getting up in the play, that’s not what we’re trying to take away from them. They’ve done a great job of blending it. Their reads on when to (play defensively and when to play offensively) have been fantastic.”

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