Players Who Were Helped/Hurt by Playing Overseas During the NHL Lockout
Through its lockout and subsequently delayed start to the 2012-13 season, the NHL has underscored the different-as-snowflake status of its players. Some of those who scattered to other leagues and returned when summoned in mid-January have either excelled beyond expectations or slumped in one or more of their trademark talents through the halfway mark of their 48-game schedule.
Some were injured before 2011-12 ended or otherwise figuratively ailing in their performance and wisely used the extension of the offseason to replenish their game elsewhere. Others may now be looking through unpleasant 20/20 hindsight as they battle an uncharacteristic lull in their reverse transition back to the NHL.
Here is a selective, mixed bag of four players who are justifying their decisions to seek alternative on-ice employment and four others who probably should have put their lockout time to different use.
Hurt: Dustin Brown
Brown logged 16 games in Zurich this past autumn. That much time spent practicing and playing on a bigger surface with a mixed caliber of competition may have temporarily drained some of his two-way, physical game.
The Kings captain was on the ice for five of the first seven even-strength goals his team surrendered this season and six of the first 10. Within that five-game span, he tallied only one point and brooked a minus-five rating.
In his last 10 outings, Brown has landed 29 hits and run up a plus-six rating. That is an encouraging improvement over the 25 hits and minus-five from his first 11 games of 2013, although his productivity is still off and on.
Helped: Patrick Kane
Between last year’s regular season and playoffs, Kane had five pointless skids lasting three games apiece, but none of any greater length. He had only two of those in 2010-11 and one four-game production drought in 2009-10.
Translation: Kane, now a sixth-year NHL veteran, has been in a gratifyingly consistent rhythm since his breaking out for career numbers in his third season. Tallying a career-low 66 points last year was not indicative of a game-to-game consistency that was not always there in his freshman or sophomore campaign.
Accordingly, standing idly by during the lockout and letting a six-month offseason extend to nine months could have put the leaned-on Blackhawks scorer at risk of rust. Instead, he went to Biel and posted a 13-10-23 scoring log in 20 games, after which he has returned to Chicago and bolted out to a comparable 12-15-27 start through 23 games.
Helped: Andrei Markov
Markov had a late start to his 2011-12 campaign due to injury, not dressing until March 10 of that season. That was his first NHL game since Nov. 13, 2010, meaning he had gone 15 months without competitive action.
Another lengthy layoff, which would have amounted to nine-and-a-half months, likely would have rendered the 34-year-old Markov rusty beyond hope. Instead, he spent the lockout in the KHL and logged 21 valuable games, one more than the 20 combined appearances he made with the Montreal Canadiens in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
The seasoned offensive defenseman subsequently rejoined the Habs and has tallied five goals and 14 points in 23 games. While there has been an eight-game production drought (Feb. 9-23) sandwiched in the middle of the start, Markov’s game is in substantially better shape than it could have been.
Hurt: Douglas Murray
Murray broke into the NHL in 2005-06 after spending the previous lockout that abolished the previous season with San Jose’s AHL club in Cleveland. That was not an option for him as a veteran this time around, having been a full-time Shark since 2007-08, so he returned to his native Sweden.
The 14 games he played in Djurgarden may have mollified his game a little. Through 21 outings in this belated season, with only 27 left, the stay-at-home blueliner is a minus-four, leaving him vulnerable to finishing in the red for the first time in his NHL career.
A week ago, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ross McKeon termed Murray the team’s “least effective defenseman” so far in 2013, elaborating as follows:
Douglas Murray is a physical force, but his lack of foot speed is preventing him from getting into position for those impact hits. He's never been one to chip in offensively, so the Sharks have to wonder what they really have here anymore besides a respected voice in the locker room.
None of what McKeon describes was a problem when Murray was protecting the zone more effectively, but that was all before his Swedish sabbatical this past autumn.
Hurt: Alexander Ovechkin
Ovechkin’s performance pattern over this 2012-13 season has not exactly matched his words in the middle of that pattern.
In early December, Brian Stubits of CBS Sports relayed a post on an Ovechkin-specific blog that quoted the Capitals’ captain’s interview with Russian reporter Igor Fein. Even while he was representing his hometown and going on a 40-point, 31-game scoring spree with Dynamo Moscow, Ovechkin indicated he would have preferred to be in Washington.
Now that he is, one has to wonder if he would have been better off staying in the States during the lockout, closer to his place of NHL employment and perpetual unfinished business.
Through 21 contests this NHL season, Ovechkin has charged up eight goals and 17 points, which would be irreproachable for most players, but not for someone of his otherworldly skill set. Mike Milbury of the NBC Sports Network bluntly indicated as much last week.
It may have been a good idea for most locked-out players to find another league to sustain or replenish their physical game shape. Ovechkin, however, needs mental retooling and may have served himself better by staying away from authentic game action and letting his recent years of underachievement sink in and translate to a second wind for 2013.
Helped: Tuukka Rask
Had he eschewed competitive, extramural game action until the TD Garden reopened, Rask may have rusted after 10-plus months of inactivity. Instead, after recovering his game shape over the summer, he went to the Czech Republic for the fall.
Fast forward to the present and Rask has a 2.09 goals-against average and .923 save percentage through 16 appearances with the Bruins. Both of those numbers were higher before he endured a pair of presumably fluky four-goal meltdowns at the hands of Montreal and Washington this week.
Hurt: Tyler Seguin
Like Brown, Seguin looks to be regaining his rhythm now, at least in the assist column, but that was not before coming back from Switzerland and having a less-than-ideal start to the belated 2013 NHL season.
During the first week of February, when he had a 1-3-4 scoring log through eight games with the Bruins and had been held pointless five times, Seguin himself addressed the potential side effect of his Swiss stint.
In an interview with ESPN Boston, he stated, “When you come back here, you've got to try to adapt back…We're playing on bigger ice over there” and added “I still don't think I regret going over there, but sometimes I've been thinking the last few days maybe going there wasn't the greatest idea.”
Helped: Thomas Vanek
In a story published in the Tonawanda News early last month, Vanek told author Kevin Allen the following about his momentary return to play in his native Austria:
The NHL is the best league in the world, but it's a grind. You sometimes forget, especially if you are losing, or missing the playoffs like we did last year, how fun this game can be. Being back over there, and seeing how the game has grown, takes you back to your roots even as a 28-year-old.
Not that he was hitting many slumps at any time beforehand, but back in Buffalo, Vanek has carried over his sustained, if not enhanced, passion and let it translate to a saturated eight-game scoring streak to start 2013. He had an 8-11-19 scoring transcript through those first eight ventures, 11-12-23 through the first 11 and 28 points through 21 games.
All of this is despite being on a Sabres team buried at the bottom of the Northeast Division. Buffalo is indebted to Vanek for having a hand in 44 percent of its first 63 goals.