Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien may have been the first to comment on the the impact playing overseas had on some locked-out NHLers.
Call it the Swiss effect, and how what looked like a good idea – staying in shape by staying active during the recent labour strife – actually backfired on some players.
In the context of analyzing the play of Tyler Seguin in January, Julien noted his leading goal scorer of last season “had been out of sync because of the way they played in Europe with the bigger ice surface.”
Julien went on to say the game is much “more passive over there, so he’s got more time and more room. Tyler, if you give him time and space, he’s going to make something happen, but it’s a little more aggressive, a little tighter here and he’s readjusting.”
Hundreds of NHLers spent the lockout playing in a half-dozen leagues across Europe and Asia, and some made the transition back quite seamlessly. New York Islanders centre John Tavares and Detroit Red Wings winger Henrik Zetterberg are both in the top five in NHL scoring and San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton had a monstrously good start in the first six games before tailing off.
But many more ran into the same issues as Seguin, who had 25 goals in 29 games in the Swiss National League A, but had just three in the Bruins’ first 15 games (one into the empty net). Rick Nash (New York Rangers), David Desharnais (Montreal Canadiens), Logan Couture (Sharks) and Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings) all had difficulty getting used to the closer quarters of the NHL game.
Even Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin, who has experience moving between the larger international-sized ice and the smaller North American rinks, was slow out of the gate, and only picked it up again in the last week.
According to Brown, who played in Bern for former Kings coach Marc Crawford, “the biggest difference is the ice. Coming back here, I felt I had absolutely no room. I played about 15 games over there. I came back after the lockout and couldn’t believe how quick it was, coming back to the small ice. Your spacing is just off.
“There’s probably a lot more turning over there – and more stops and starts here, because it’s a shorter distance that you have to go. For me, the biggest problem was coming on the offensive side of the puck over the blueline. Over there, you have that extra 10 feet to find that soft area where the D can’t come at you,” Brown said. “The flip side is, if you played over there, your conditioning is probably there, so it’s just the timing of things. My timing was off for a couple of weeks.”
The shortened 48-game season is just past the one-third mark, and the NHL game is starting to feel normal again to Brown. After a slow start, the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings have now won six of their last seven games.
Brown has scored goals in three consecutive games, after being held without one in 12 of the first 14 games. His linemate, Anze Kopitar (who played for a second-division team in Sweden), is heating up, too, and taking some of the pressure to score off Jeff Carter, who has been the only consistent on the team to date.
For the Kings, who close out a short home stand Wednesday with a game against the Red Wings, before heading up to Vancouver for a Saturday date with the Canucks, it is starting to come together again. Their revamped defence, which is missing three regulars to injury from last year’s championship team (Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and Alec Martinez), is improving. Goaltender Jonathan Quick is back in fine form.
But mostly, the Swiss effect is starting to wear off – and no one is happier about that development than Kings coach Darryl Sutter, unless it is Brown himself.
“There’s a transition period, especially for the young guys and helping them get through the pace of the play,” Brown said. “I think they’re getting more comfortable, not only with our system, but with the speed of the game.
“Now, I’m adjusted back to this and you’re used to it, but those first few games and practices, there was no time out there.”