In one way, Stephen Wood beat the odds.
Wood advanced from playing for Charlie Corey at Lawrence Academy to a four-year career at Providence College. According to the NCAA’s most recent data, 4.6 percent of high school players advance to Division 1 hockey (a statistic skewed, however, because most collegians come from junior programs).
During the 2004-05 lockout, Wood, a right-shot defenseman, played for the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms. He was teammates with future NHL regulars such as Dennis Seidenberg, Patrick Sharp, and Freddy Meyer. The Sudbury native’s former coaches include John Stevens, Davis Payne, and Jack Capuano, who have all stood behind NHL benches.
In another way, Wood belongs to the majority: those that never cracked an NHL lineup. According to College Hockey Inc., approximately 8 percent of D-1 players reach the NHL.
He was a second-team All-American his senior year. Wood was an offensive defenseman who dressed for 24 Phantoms games in 2004-05, the year would-be NHLers clogged minor league rosters. But he retired after the 2009-10 season, which he spent in England, because one element of his game was not as fortified as those of his competitors.
By Wood’s recollection, he was 7 or 8 years old when he read aloud a letter to his class detailing what he wanted to be: a college or pro hockey player. In the letter, Wood added a disclaimer: “If I play in the minors, that would be good, too.”
“I had a sick feeling in my stomach. It felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Wood said upon re-reading the letter, which he recently uncovered in his attic. “I wasn’t bitter. I just knew there was a lesson in that — that once I made it to the minors, I did that. Deep in the back of my brain, that was the goal, and I did that. I did everything I could to play in the NHL. But there was something in the back of my mind that I was successful having played in the AHL. I knew there was a lesson there.”
This is where Wood, again, belongs to the majority: as an ex-player unfulfilled by post-career off-ice employment. Wood entered corporate information technology upon retirement. Employers included Hitachi Data Systems and Dell. Wood has since left his office job to launch Beyond the Ice, an eight-week hockey program ($850) for boys and girls that will begin July 11 at Canton Ice House.
The on-ice sessions, available for three age groups (7-10, 11-14, 15-plus), will include nuts-and-bolts instruction. Off the ice, however, is where Wood thinks he has something unique to share.
Once a week, students will participate online. In the virtual classroom, Wood will emphasize the mental approach to hockey via his own experiences and those of speakers. Presenters include Canton’s Kevin Rooney, who won an NCAA championship with Providence in 2015. Rooney, an undrafted forward, is currently in the New Jersey Devils system. Matt Curran, an ex-Friar who was paralyzed in a 2001 accident, will share his story about his experience and launching the 33 Foundation, which helps patients with spinal cord injuries.
Their messages, Wood believes, will help young players understand the commitment required to improve in a sport where more is required than a clean stride and an accurate snap shot. The top players are competitive, determined, and focused thinkers. It’s why an intermission barking from Stevens, now head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, still resonates with Wood.
“He’s yelling at us and didn’t point to anything but faceoffs,” Wood recalled. “It’s a tipoff on if you’re ready to go. We lost the last six faceoffs, which is more than a one-on-one battle with the centerman. It’s the wingers and the D-men helping out. That stuck with me. It’s not systems-related. It’s not talent-related. It’s more grit than anything.”
Wood wants his school to be a sustainable model that he could offer elsewhere. He has drawn interest from youth programs in Wisconsin.
“It’s more important for me for a kid to grow his character through the game of hockey,” Wood said. “To see the difference in the mentality he takes day in and day out when he goes to school, the way he handles situations with his teammates, the way he handles himself with his classmates, his relationship with his parents. That is more important to me for this program than leaving with a better slap shot or a better stride.”
Players are in no rush to leave Irish
Boston College and Boston University repeatedly recruit some of the world’s best teenagers. The drawback, if you can call it that, of landing top talent is acknowledging their professional flight risks. Clayton Keller signed with Arizona after his freshman season. Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson became Bruins after staying at BU for two years.
After the 2015-16 season, BC coach Jerry York watched freshmen Zach Sanford and Miles Wood turn pro. Alex Tuch, who has completed his sophomore season, signed with the Wild.
Such first- and second-year departures have not been common at Notre Dame, the school that Anders Bjork might return to for his senior season. It is partly by design.
Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson targets recruits lower on the food chain such as Bjork and goalie Cal Petersen, fifth-round selections of the Bruins and Sabres, respectively. Their draft position is one reason neither player considered turning pro earlier in their college careers.
“Bjork’s not a first-round pick. Petersen’s not a first-round pick,” Jackson said of his 2016-17 co-MVPs. “That’s probably the biggest reason. I’m getting guys who are fourth- and fifth-round picks. A guy like [Stephen] Johns was a second-rounder, but we’re about getting guys who are a little bit less high-profile but still have the drive and determination to be players, and we try to develop them.”
One advantage of recruiting second-tier players is the likelihood of them staying in school longer. NHL teams are not as anxious about turning lower-round selections pro.
The Penguins, for example, watched 2010 third-round pick Bryan Rust stay at Notre Dame for four seasons before welcoming him to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. But Beau Bennett, Pittsburgh’s 2010 first-rounder, signed after his sophomore season at the University of Denver.
The longer players stay in school, the deeper connections they usually make with their programs. It’s possible Bjork and Petersen have something to prove before moving on. In Notre Dame’s last game of the season, Denver laid down a 6-1 hammering in the Frozen Four semifinals. It was similar to Notre Dame’s 5-1 loss to UMass Lowell in the Hockey East semis. Nine days later, the Irish qualified for the Frozen Four and won their revenge by ending Lowell’s season with a 3-2 overtime decision.
“I wouldn’t say we would have beaten Denver. They looked like a team of destiny,” Jackson said. “But I think our team was embarrassed by that game before a big crowd of family, friends, and fans. I would certainly hope they learn from that experience and grow from it . . . Frankly, we’re on the same course as what Denver was on four years ago. They didn’t make the tournament four years ago. They made it three years ago. We got knocked out in the first round last year. This year, we made it to the Frozen Four. This class of upcoming seniors, which Cal and Anders are both part of, it’s had the same trajectory Denver had. The big thing is Denver kept their seniors around. They kept guys like Will Butcher around. That certainly bodes well for any team that moves in that level.”
Different ways to play the wall
Power-play coaches got their money’s worth in the Pittsburgh-Washington second-round showdown. It provided seven games for man-advantage watchers to view Phil Kessel and Nicklas Backstrom, two of the leading half-wall men in the league.
What made it even more interesting was how the two specialists do their work in different ways.
Backstrom is a traditional half-wall quarterback. The No. 1 center is a pass-first creator who was blessed with difference-making options: T.J. Oshie in the bumper spot for rapid one-timers, Kevin Shattenkirk up top for point shots, and Alex Ovechkin at the left circle for his trademark ripper. When Backstrom controls the puck, penalty killers anticipate he will deposit it on the blades of others.
The left-shot pivot had four power-play assists in the playoffs, none slicker than his setup on Oshie’s opening goal in Game 6. Backstrom received the puck from Evgeny Kuznetsov deep in the offensive zone. The Penguins closed off Backstrom’s looks down low. So the center walked the puck up the wall to stretch out the Penguins. It worked. By turning his back on the net, Backstrom drew Brian Dumoulin and Carl Hagelin, which gave him more space to return the puck to Kuznetsov behind the goal line. Kuznetsov one-touched the puck to Oshie, who hammered a one-timer past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The right-shot Kessel, meanwhile, does his best work while facing the net. Because he’s thinking shot first, Kessel, unlike Backstrom, rarely turns his back on the goal to look for openings up top. Kessel’s feet and hips are almost always aimed at opposing goalies as he goes through his best options: walk the puck off the wall and unleash his whippy shot, snap a seam pass to Evgeni Malkin at the far post, or look for Sidney Crosby in the high slot.
Penalty killers know Kessel’s first read is to shoot. This opens up space for secondary options. But Kessel’s shot is so good that it regularly slips through even when opponents shift their PK boxes his way.
In Game 2, after Justin Schultz received a pass from Malkin, Kessel sneaked out of the corner and into his preferred position at the left half-boards. John Carlson, who had been marking Malkin, couldn’t close down on Kessel quickly. The ex-Bruin made Carlson pay. Kessel took several steps toward Phillip Grubauer and fired a snapper through the backup goalie’s pads.
During the regular season, Backstrom led all players with 35 man-up points. Backstrom averaged 7.48 points per 60 minutes of five-on-four play, according to www.corsica.hockey, second-highest in the NHL after Victor Hedman and Jack Eichel. Kessel (30 points, fifth-most in the league) averaged 6.01 points per 60. Despite Backstrom’s pass-first tendency and Kessel’s shoot-first reputation, they both scored eight power-play goals.
Backstrom and Kessel create their offense in different manners, proving there’s more than one way to run a power play from the half-boards.
McDavid first, then Draisaitl
Leon Draisaitl’s contract will expire on July 1. Connor McDavid, meanwhile, has one more year on his entry-level deal. Even so, Draisaitl will have to wait until his captain re-ups before he finalizes his extension with Edmonton. McDavid, appropriately, is the Oilers’ priority, even if the timing isn’t critical. Soon after July 1, the first date he’s eligible to re-sign, McDavid will put pen to paper on an eight-year extension at megabucks money. Only then will Edmonton turn to Draisaitl, whose deal will not be cheap, even compared with McDavid’s. The wide-shouldered forward — coach Todd McLellan can use him as McDavid’s right wing or as the No. 2 center — has a first-line ceiling. Draisaitl scored 29 goals and 48 assists in 82 games, then followed it up with 16 points in the playoffs. GM Peter Chiarelli has pledged to match if any rival signs Draisaitl to an offer sheet.
Arvidsson could be Czarnik’s model
Twenty pounds is a big difference. It is the weight advantage Viktor Arvidsson has over Austin Czarnik. But their height, speed, and skill level do not vary as greatly. As such, perhaps there is a future for Czarnik at right wing, the position Arvidsson mans on Nashville’s first line alongside Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. Arvidsson has been a dependable three-zone presence on the boards, which is not easy for a 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pound skilled player. If an opportunity at center does not open up for Czarnik, the Bruins could consider moving him out of the middle. He has too much skill for the organization to waste.
Phaneuf playing dependably
Dion Phaneuf’s seven-year, $49 million contract does not expire until 2021. Four more seasons of Phaneuf’s play at $7 million annually, however, do not seem as odious as before. The 32-year-old remains overpaid, but the left-shot defenseman is no longer the albatross of earlier. Phaneuf has been a very good fit in Senators coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system, which has him playing a defined shutdown role. One of Phaneuf’s baffling tendencies in Toronto was to roam and strand himself more than Thurston Howell III. Boucher gives Phaneuf the green light to step up in the neutral zone when he’s the strong-side defenseman to blunt opponents’ advances. Otherwise, he’s been tasked to stay at home in the defensive zone, use his stick and reach, and play forwards physically. Other teams used to take advantage of Phaneuf’s aggressiveness. That doesn’t happen as much anymore.
Difficult acclimation for Puljujarvi
This was a hard first North American season for Jesse Puljujarvi. While fellow class of 2016 members Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine submitted starry first seasons, Puljujarvi, the No. 4 overall selection, managed one NHL goal in 28 games. In the AHL, Puljujarvi scored 12 goals and 16 assists in 39 games. It’s not a bad pro start for most 18-year-olds. But Puljujarvi had higher expectations for himself, which is why he considered this season a disappointment. “He’s a very understanding kid,” Chiarelli told Edmonton reporters, “knowing he has that period of apprenticeship he didn’t think he was going to have.”
If there is any doubt about the blue line being Nashville’s position of strength, consider how the Predators run two defensemen on each of their power-play units. Most teams opt for one defenseman and four forwards on one, if not both, of their groups. But after using Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi on their No. 1 unit, the Predators roll out P.K. Subban and Ryan Ellis on PP2. In comparison, the Bruins are likely to use just one defenseman on each of their units next season: Torey Krug and Charlie McAvoy.
The Predators’ success could mean more outside interest for three of their Massachusetts employees: assistant GM Paul Fenton (Springfield), chief amateur scout Jeff Kealty (Framingham), and video coach Lawrence Feloney (Natick). All three are considered among the best at their respective positions . . . The Penguins had 60 percent of their regular-season games played by NCAA alums, a record high, according to College Hockey Inc. Phil Kessel (Minnesota), Nick Bonino (BU), and Ian Cole (Notre Dame) were three of the ex-collegians appearing in 80 or more games. The 2014-15 Rangers had the previous record (54 percent). Pittsburgh’s number has risen to 65 percent in the playoffs.
. . . Ex-Bruin Shawn McEachern will be one of five inductees into the Massachusetts Hockey Hall of Fame. The Waltham native will be joined by Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, fellow ex-Bruin Paul Hurley, builder Bernie Michaels, and skills coach Paul Vincent. A ceremony will take place at Hotel 1620 in Plymouth on June 17. Individual tickets are $60, while tables for 10 are $1,000. For tickets or more information, email email@example.com . . . The odds are overwhelming that if any Bruin jumps on the romper craze, it will be the one wearing No. 63 on his back.
For the second time in franchise history — and the first time while based in New Jersey — the Devils have the No. 1 overall draft pick. The first came in 1979, when as the Colorado Rockies they selected defenseman Rob Ramage. Ramage spent 15 seasons in the NHL, but only three with the Rockies before he was traded to the Blues for a draft pick that was used on John MacLean, who became the first-ever selection by the Devils in 1983. The 1979 draft class turned into one of the more fruitful in league history, starting with Ramage and including these 10 players (five Hall of Famers among them) who made a big impact in the pros. The Devils can only dream of having options like these at No. 1 this year.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.