Ryan Reaves is a 6-foot-1-inch, 224-pound package of mean. The St. Louis enforcer is one of the NHL’s toughest brawlers. The fourth-line forward fights with as much ferocity as he checks.
In contrast, Los Angeles’s Alec Martinez is a 6-1, 209-pound defenseman. Martinez is neither physical nor a fighter.
But during last season’s playoffs, when the Kings and Blues squared off in their ice-bag series, Martinez had no choice but to confront Reaves.
The way Jeremy Clark recalls the incident, Reaves had run over goalie Jonathan Quick, LA’s most important player. Quick is not allowed to be touched.
“Martinez grabs him, gives him a double stick to the arm, shoves him backward, and gets in his face,” recalled Clark. “He gets in his face. He’s not giving an inch. Would Martinez win? Of course not. I wouldn’t put those two together any day of the week. But he’s built enough confidence to know that guys are backing you up.”
Clark is not on the Kings’ masthead. He is better known as the owner of Minnesota Top Team, a gym that trains fighters in boxing, mixed martial arts, and Muay Thai kickboxing.
But Clark is a regular visitor to Manchester, N.H., home of the Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate. In Manchester, Clark serves as a development coach for LA’s prospects. Clark’s primary job is to teach the players, including former Monarchs such as Martinez, how to fight.
Some of Clark’s teachings are physical. Most are mental.
“He teaches our guys a lot about having the self-confidence to know that if you’re put in a situation where you’ve got to fend for yourself, you have the confidence to know about balance and being athletic,” Manchester coach Mark Morris said. “He understands the game within the game. He has a great passion for hockey and teaching guys to believe in themselves.”
The Kings have welcomed tough guys. Raitis Ivanans was once their enforcer. Kevin Westgarth assumed the position. Their current muscle man is Kyle Clifford.
But the Kings also consider themselves team tough. They play an abrasive, in-your-face style that is as much about aggression as it is about fights. Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, Jarret Stoll, Robyn Regehr, and Matt Greene do not drop the gloves regularly. But all of their shifts are belligerent. They don’t let up when they enter the danger areas.
Consider Nolan as an example. The 6-3, 221-pounder plays an energy role for LA. On Dec. 11, Frazer McLaren took out Colin Fraser, Nolan’s teammate, with a hit. McLaren is one of the scariest fighters in the league. Last season, McLaren dropped Ottawa’s David Dziurzynski with one punch. But Nolan challenged McLaren to a fight.
Nolan’s hits also lead to scraps. Last Monday, he crunched Torey Krug into the boards. The check brought Milan Lucic calling. Lucic had the upper hand early, which drew the attention of Brian Murphy and Derek Nansen. But Nolan waved off the linesmen and continued the fight.
Such is the approach that Clark preaches.
“The biggest thing is confidence,” Clark said. “We play the hockey game whistle to whistle, with no fear about the consequences after the whistle. It’s all about confidence. You can’t have guys scared to go into the corner after the puck, scared to hit a guy at the blue line or in front of the net. You can’t have that fear after the whistle that a guy’s going to grab me and tune me up. You can’t have that, or you lose the game. What we sell is confidence.”
Clark’s heaviest lifting takes place in the summer. One of his current pupils is Buffalo tough guy John Scott. Clark also trained former enforcer Derek Boogaard.
In the offseason, Clark’s clients can focus solely on fighting. He drills in three pillars: self-protection, defense, then offense.
“Win, lose, or draw, even if you take a couple hits on top of the head and get dumped on the ice, you’re OK as long as you didn’t get injured,” Clark said. “If you don’t have a concussion, a broken jaw, or didn’t do something stupid, you can take confidence in that fact.”
Andy Andreoff is one of Clark’s Manchester charges. Through 44 games, the 6-1, 207-pound Andreoff led the Monarchs with 96 penalty minutes. Andreoff has improved technically as a fighter. He said he’s more balanced during a fight. Andreoff stands square to his opponent. He knows where to grab and how to start a fight. If Andreoff is going up against a bigger opponent, he’ll try to get inside to negate any reach disadvantage.
The biggest difference, however, is with his attitude.
“He’s helped with my confidence,” Andreoff said. “You can’t show that you’re scared. Then they’ll take advantage of you.”
Fighting is the toughest job in the league. There is nothing natural about tussling with a big man, staying upright while balanced on two slivers of metal, and pulling and punching at the same time. Like players at every position, fighters need coaching. It’s hard enough to do battle with an opponent. But it’s just as tough for a fighter to deal with the worries inside his head.
“Every player has self-doubt and moments of anxiety,” Morris said. “That’s a normal reaction. It’s violent at times. If you can ever get past that fear factor or manage your fear, you’re so much further ahead of the game.”
Tortorella should have stuck with guns
On Feb. 4, the Bruins will play the Canucks at TD Garden. It will be John Tortorella’s second game behind the Vancouver bench since returning from his 15-day suspension. By then, Tortorella should have apologized to his first line for his actions against Calgary on Jan. 18.
When Tortorella, as the home coach that night, saw the Flames’ roster report to start the game, the first thing he should have done was have a good laugh about Kevin Westgarth centering Blair Jones and Brian McGrattan. The second thing on Tortorella’s list: gather Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Ryan Kesler and tell them to have at it.
With Flames coach Bob Hartley choosing to start his hit squad, the Canucks could have grabbed a 1-0 lead on the first shift. Henrik Sedin wins 51 percent of his faceoffs. Over the last three seasons, Westgarth has taken three draws. Chances were good that Sedin would have picked the draw cleanly, scooted toward the net, and initiated a scoring sequence before Calgary’s granite-hands group lifted their blades from the ice.
The other scenario, the one Tortorella feared, would not have happened. McGrattan and Westgarth are tough guys, which means they’re honorable.
There’s no chance McGrattan and Westgarth would have jumped the Sedin twins. Attacks happen for a reason, be it Shawn Thornton on Brooks Orpik, Ray Emery on Braden Holtby, or John Scott’s attempted mugging of Phil Kessel. They do not take place on the game-opening faceoff. Had McGrattan and Westgarth been foolish enough to try something, the Sedins would have retreated while linesmen Lonnie Cameron and John Grandt would have halted any silliness.
Instead, Tortorella answered with his muscle men. We know what happened next.
Tortorella insulted his best players. His actions signaled two things: The Sedins and Kesler are not good enough to win a draw and score against a fourth line, and they’re not smart enough to pull out of trouble.
It’s too bad the Bruins-Canucks game will be at the Garden. Had the Bruins been on the road, Claude Julien could have started his fourth line to instigate Tortorella. Because the Boston-Vancouver rivalry isn’t hot enough.
Krug and Smith’s timing was a little off
Torey Krug and Reilly Smith have similar career trajectories. Both played in the CCHA. Both signed their entry-level NHL contracts on March 25, 2012. Both left school (Michigan State, Miami University) after their junior seasons. Both are in line for big-time salary bumps because of their offensive play this season. And neither is eligible for arbitration, which is a good thing for the Bruins.
Because Krug and Smith were 21 years old when they signed their entry-level deals, they would have required three years of pro experience to be eligible for arbitration. One year of experience is 10 pro games or more. Both are considered second-year pros. But Krug played in two games for the Bruins in 2011-12. Smith dressed for three games with Dallas after signing his deal.
It’s doubtful either player would have gone to arbitration this summer even if they had that right. Last year, all 21 arbitration cases were settled before hearings. But arbitration would have helped to frame the second contracts for Krug and Smith. Their statistics would have been very friendly in arbitration. Instead, their only negotiating power is to hold out. Their cases show that every decision is important, even regarding games that look like throwaways at the time.
Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero loaded up at last year’s trade deadline, adding Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Doug Murray, and Jussi Jokinen. It wasn’t the first time Shero complemented his roster before the deadline. In 2011, the Penguins brought back Alex Kovalev. In 2010, they added Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jordan Leopold. In 2009, Shero acquired Bill Guerin. It won’t be easy for Shero this year to land veteran help. In previous years, the Penguins had cap space to fold in contracts. They’re up against the ceiling this season. So, if the Penguins want to improve their roster, they’ll have to make trades with money going out the door. The wow trade would be moving Kris Letang, given the organization’s two-way depth in Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, Brian Dumoulin, and Philip Samuelsson. But Letang’s future price tag — $7.25 million annually starting next season — is a big nut for other teams to assume.
Of Andrew MacDonald, Chris Phillips, and Henrik Tallinder, three of the defensemen among the Bruins’ trade targets, MacDonald plays the toughest competition. The Islanders regularly match MacDonald and Travis Hamonic against top forwards. MacDonald (fifth in the league in ice time per game) also led the league with 175 blocked shots entering Friday. That indicates MacDonald plays against elite forwards who are good at controlling the puck and generating scoring chances. That isn’t the case with Phillips and Tallinder. In Ottawa, coach Paul MacLean uses Jared Cowen and Erik Karlsson as his shutdown pair. Phillips, most recently paired with youngster Cody Ceci, is on the second duo. In Buffalo, Tallinder and partner Tyler Myers see some shifts against first lines, but are generally used as the No. 2 pairing. MacDonald’s deployment and age (27) prove that he’ll require more assets in return than Phillips (35) and Tallinder (35).
The Bruins’ visit to the United Center last Sunday confirmed something scary: When they’re rolling, the Blackhawks play a sport that doesn’t resemble hockey. In the first period, when their legs and hands were the sharpest, the Blackhawks created scoring chances on almost every shift. They play with electric pace and precision in all three zones. Chicago could go four rounds deep in the playoffs once more, especially if it acquires help up the middle. Center is their only relative soft spot. There’s a significant dropoff between Jonathan Toews and second-line pivot Andrew Shaw. You can peg the Blackhawks for play in June if they get a No. 2 center and drop Shaw to the third line. Chicago is loaded for another run next season, too. All their big boys are signed. It will get tricky in 2015-16, when Toews and Patrick Kane are eligible for bank-breaking raises. But the cap should rise enough to fold in their deals, which could approach $10 million annually.
It could be quiet on the trade front this season. Too many teams are already up against the cap. Clubs also have to re-sign their own players this summer. The latter reason will make rentals on expiring contracts very valuable leading up to the March 5 trade deadline. Prices will be “stupid high,” as one executive put it. In other words, it’s a good time to be a GM with expiring contracts on your roster. New Sabres boss Tim Murray is in a great position. Buffalo’s big-time UFAs-to-be are Tallinder, Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson, and Steve Ott. The Sabres already have two first-round picks, their own and the one they acquired from the Islanders in the Thomas Vanek trade. Murray can land at least one more first-rounder if he moves any of his expiring contracts. He can then flip those picks prior to the draft in June for NHL-ready assets. If Miller decides to re-sign, Buffalo’s rebuild might not take very long.
The Blues made a big move in supporting Jaden Schwartz and his family on Friday. Mandi Schwartz, Jaden’s older sister, played at Yale but never finished her college career. She died of cancer on April 3, 2011. On Friday at Ingalls Rink, the Bulldogs held their annual White Out For Mandi game, which raises funds for the Mandi Schwartz Foundation. Jaden Schwartz attended the game for the first time, accompanied by his teammates. The Blues, who played the Rangers at Madison Square Garden the night before, then traveled to Long Island in advance of Saturday’s game against the Islanders. Nobody who has lost a sister should stand alone. The Blues made sure that didn’t happen to their teammate.
Winnipeg will most likely cease its AHL affiliation with St. John’s after 2015-16. The Jets’ preferred location for their farm team is Thunder Bay, Ontario. Travel between the two provinces would be far easier. The St. John’s IceCaps have to fly everywhere, which eliminates most of the advantage of playing in the Atlantic Division . . . One reason why the Devils are out of the Eastern Conference’s top eight is their inability to score in the shootout. The Devils are 0-8 in the skills contest. Of the 25 attempts they’ve taken, Reid Boucher is the only player to score. Two years ago, Ilya Kovalchuk (11 for 14) and Zach Parise (8 for 16) helped New Jersey go a league-best 12-4 in the shootout. Both players have since walked, with the Devils getting nothing in return. It’s imperative for GMs to build their rosters with the shootout in mind . . . Referee Kyle Rehman and linesman Derek Amell served as the no-fun police in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. They busted up a brewing fight between goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Peter Budaj. Rehman grabbed Fleury, while Amell kept Budaj from crossing the red line. Spies report the party-pooping officials regularly hand out raisins at Halloween instead of chocolate.