“People always talk about young guys,” Schenn said with a laugh recently in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, “and my name doesn’t even come up anymore.”
Of course not. Schenn has been a bright spot for the Leafs so far this season, and he turned 21 on Nov. 2. He’s practically a – choose your own adjective: seasoned, grizzled, crusty – veteran.
With NHL defensemen these days, 21 is the new 31. At least we treat it that way sometimes. Thanks to the success of whippersnappers like the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty(notes) (20) – and the arrival of rookies like the Anaheim Ducks’ Cam Fowler(notes) (18) – perhaps we have lost a little perspective. Perhaps we have raised the bar a little too far, too fast for a position that has traditionally taken years to master.
Schenn, the fifth overall pick in the 2008 NHL entry draft, had a strong rookie season in ’08-09. When he struggled early last season, it seemed like a crisis when he probably was going through normal growing pains.
“I just wasn’t doing well,” Schenn said. “I didn’t play with much confidence. Everyone was kind of talking about the sophomore jinx. You’re going out there hoping not to make mistakes, instead of just going out there and trying to make plays. There’s a big difference in that. If you hope to not make mistakes, chances are you’ll make some.”
People often say Schenn had a poor second season. But Schenn said he hit rock bottom about midseason, and Leafs general manager Brian Burke said Schenn had a “really good second half.”
How good? Well, the Leafs acquired Dion Phaneuf(notes) from the Calgary Flames on Jan. 31, and Burke said of Schenn: “I thought he outplayed Dion down the stretch, and that’s saying something, because I thought Dion was pretty darn good.” Phaneuf would become the Leafs’ captain in the offseason.
“This is a hard league to play in,” Burke continued. “(Schenn) came in and played as an 18-year-old and then played last year as a 19-year-old. Most of those kids are back in junior, and he’s playing in the NHL on not a great team. We weren’t a very good team last year. So I think he was persistent and listened to the coaches and worked real hard, and it’s just come together for him now. I think fans can see what he’s going to be here for a long time.”
Schenn put on about 10 pounds in the offseason, taking him up to about 230. He has hit and blocked shots like the defensive stalwart he is supposed to be. He has a goal, five assists and a plus-5 rating, best on the team.
“He’s very physical and big enough to eliminate big bodies,” Burke said. “But his patience with the puck has really increased light years. He’s turned into a real reliable top-four defenseman.”
The Buffalo Sabres took Myers seven picks after the Leafs selected Schenn in the 2008 draft. Myers is three months younger than Schenn. He stayed in junior while Schenn broke into the NHL in ’08-09. Myers had an excellent first season – winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year – but struggled at the start of his second season.
It certainly seemed like a crisis. In his first 13 games, Myers was minus-12. The Sabres were 3-8-2. Myers was trying to do too much, and the Sabres couldn’t do anything right. Myers appeared to miss his partner, Henrik Tallinder(notes), who signed with the New Jersey Devils as a free agent in the offseason.
General manager Darcy Regier agreed about Myers missing Tallinder, but only in regard to familiarity. “Tyler wasn’t partner-dependant,” Regier said. “He achieved an awful lot because of his own skills and his own talents.”
Myers already is turning it around. Myers has been plus-3 over his past 10 games as the Sabres have gone 5-4-1.
“The wonderful thing about Tyler: It’s not attitude. It’s not work ethic. He’s extremely hard-working. He’s very humble,” Regier said. “And so I have full confidence … he will pull out of it.”
It all goes back to reasonable expectations of young defensemen, even those taken at the top of the draft.
“The hardest position to play on an ice surface is goaltender as far as the physical requirements,” Burke said. “The second-hardest position to play by a mile is defense. It’s way harder than playing forward – your responsibilities, the weight that’s placed on you to play mistake-free hockey, and the speed and talent of the other players. … So it’s a tall order. (Schenn) has responded well, and Tyler Myers is going to be just fine, too.”
Since joining the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Modano(notes) has talked about the need to get in shape. Part of it is that Modano is 40. Part of it is that the Wings demand so much from their centers. And part of it is that, well, Modano admittedly let himself go a little at the end of his career with the Dallas Stars.
“I just stopped doing what I was doing,” Modano said. “I got heavier. I didn’t eat very well. I kind of gave up on it. I thought the end was coming, was looking me in the face. I was like, ‘You know, I’m just going to have some fun and do what I can out there.’ I knew there was a transition happening, so I was like, ‘I’ll just try to hang on.’ I thought I was done, and these guys call.”
Modano went through his usual offseason routine, but not with the usual urgency, unsure of whether he would play again. He didn’t sign with the Wings until Aug. 5.
“I got here, and I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m way behind,’ ” Modano said.
Modano said he took vitamins to “get some things back in my body that 40-year-olds don’t produce anymore,” and he did extra work on off-days to shed about six or seven pounds, bringing him down to about 208 or 209. He started to feel better by late October, and after an eight-game stretch in which he didn’t record a point and was minus-8, he had a seven-game stretch in which he recorded six points and was plus-6.
“I hadn’t committed to it in a while like that,” Modano said. “I think if you’re in shape, if you feel good, you get some confidence, you feel better about how you’re playing and moving. I think that was a big thing for me. It’s probably the best I’ve felt in three or four years.”
Ah, to be on a young team like the St. Louis Blues, so full of energy and enthusiasm … and electronic sabotage. Take this 21st-century prank:
The woman was Conklin’s wife, Erika. Eventually they figured out that someone had messed with the call forwarding, sending calls intended for Conklin’s phone to Janssen’s.
“It’s amazing on this team that there’s anybody electronically savvy enough to do it,” Conklin said, laughing. “I know who did it. I know who the guilty party is.”
“We have enough fun at his expense, anyway,” Conklin said, smiling. “He’s got a lot of shortcomings. He’s got a big nose. He’s got bad hair. And that’s just where it starts.”
• Burke will have a tough time making a trade to improve the Leafs, according to one NHL executive. Burke can take on salary when most others can’t, but he’s short on assets that would make sense for him to move. He can’t afford to give up more high draft picks, can he?
• Blues defenseman Erik Johnson(notes) remembers receiving a text from a buddy June 17. It said simply: “Halak?” “I’m like, ‘What? Yeah, what about him?’ ” Johnson said. It wasn’t until Johnson used the Web browser on his iPhone that he realized the Blues had traded for goaltender Jaroslav Halak(notes). “It was a pretty big shock,” Johnson said.
• At least one NHL executive thinks the market in the most trouble isn’t Phoenix, but Dallas. Unless the deal falls through with Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer, the Coyotes’ ownership situation – and presumably the franchise – will be stabilized. The Stars’ situation remains far from settled.
• Jarome Iginla(notes) still can do it all. After posting two goals and an assist Sunday night in Detroit, Iginla tried for a Gordie Howe hat trick. Unhappy with a hit by the Red Wings’ Justin Abdelkader(notes) on teammate Rene Bourque(notes), Iginla challenged Abdelkader to a fight. The officials got in the way, and Abdelkader could be seen clearly saying: “I’m not afraid of you.” But let’s just say Abdelkader wasn’t very convincing.
• A postscript to Wednesday’s piece on Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman: While Stan went to Notre Dame, his sister Nancy went to Michigan, the Fighting Irish’s ancient football rival. She met her husband there. He roomed with a guy named Tom Brady. “They had quite a lot of battles,” NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman said of his son and daughter. “It was kind of interesting to watch them both support their own team.”