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The Stew: Goalie Chemistry, Overreactions, Courage in NHL Drafting

April 3, 2023, 3:42 PM ET [4 Comments]
Paul Stewart
Blogger •Former NHL Referee • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulStewart22

Congratulations to the Boston Bruins for winning the President's Trophy for the 2022-23 NHL regular season and for continuing to pile up the wins beyond that: three in a row, nine in the last 10 games, 125 points on the season. It's been a magical regular season for Boston. As a fan of the game itself, I cannot help but appreciate the accomplishment. Soon, however, comes the true test: the Stanley Cup playoffs. I've seen plenty of runaway top seeds hit a snag -- or run into red-hot goaltending and some adverse puck luck -- in the spring.

One factor that I don't think mentioned enough when assessing teams: goalie chemistry. Everyone looks at whether there is a clear-cut No. 1 starter and whether the backup (or 1B guy, depending on the club) is capable of thriving with a run of starts if the starter/1A were to get injured in the postseason. While these are important considerations, I'd add to it there's a need for the two goalies on a team to have a strong working relationship and camaraderie regardless of which one is starting.

I've seen clubs where there are internal tensions between two goalies who let their desire to be the undisputed No. 1 goalie become something detrimental to the club. It's normally unspoken because of the optics of not wanting to look like a bad teammate or lacking professionalism but the body language makes it hard to hard when one goalie (or both) isn't fully invested in his partner goalie having comparable success when in net. It's usually nothing personal. Some goalies don't like have internal competition fo playing time and tend to play better when that situation does not exist.

Here's the thing, though: in the big picture, it's a much healthier and sustainable dynamic when a team's two goalies are a truly united front and not just lip service to it. That, in fact, has been one of the things that has impressed me the most about Boston's club this year. Even from the outside, it is obvious that no one pulls harder for Linus Ullmark (46 starts) than Jeremy Swayman and no one pulls more than Swayman when it's his turn to play (30 starts) than Ullmark. This is important because, come playoff time, teams tend to pick one guy to take the ball and run with it. The stronger the professional chemistry between the goalies on the roster, the less troublesome it is keep both goalies in the right frame of mind.

An Emotional Even Keel Isn't Always Easy But It's Vital

As much of you know, officiating multiple sports is a Stewart family tradition that goes back to my grandfather simultaneously reffing in the NHL and umpiring in Major League Baseball for decades. Many of the fundamentals of officiating transcend the particulars of the sport involved: the same principles apply.

Officials are only human. We're subject to having a bad day, too. Over on Twitter, several people asked me what I thought "should happen" to minor league regular/ MLB fill-in umpire Randy Rosenberg after a simple miscommunication led to a knee-jerk overreaction and player ejection.

You probably saw it on the all sports highlight and/ sports talk shows last week, because it was in the news for the next couple days. In case you didn't see it, here's a brief synopsis of what happened: In a spring training game between Toronto and Philadelphia, Rosenberg caught some heat over a pitch clock dispute. He then tossed a new baseball out to the pitcher on the mound.

The pitcher on the mound requested a different ball. Philadelphia catcher JT Realmuto extended his glove for Rosenberg to hand him another ball. Not feeling the ball being placed in his glove, Realmuto (who wasn't looking at the umpire) withdrew his glove in expectation of the umpire again throwing a new ball to the pitcher. Instead, just as Realmuto moved his glove away, the umpire tried to hand a ball to the catcher. The ball dropped into the dirt.

Rosenberg reacted immediately. He ejected the catcher from the game. Realmuto, from all evidence, had not been trying to show up the umpire. It was a simple miscommunication to which the ump overreacted. Realmuto, to his credit, stayed calm. He justifiably asked to know why he'd been ejected. The umpire looked sheepish. A relatively low-key discussion ensued. Realmuto then left the game.

If the umpire didn't immediately feel awful about his initial overreaction, he no doubt did after seeing a replay for the first time. His crew chief and MLB supervisor no doubt had a private word or two about it. Hopefully, the umpire contacted the player and said, "My bad. I'm sorry for overreacting like that."

That, then should be the end of it: With a lesson learned that it's better to take a moment to assess a situation rather than to make a hasty decision that you regret within moments. I've been there myself: That sinking feeling that you messed up and then the agony of seeing the replay. In this case, an emotional rush to judgment was involved.

In the two days that followed, the umpire involved had to deal with the replay being all over the internet, social media, ESPN and local shows. If that didn't reinforce the lesson with a carnival-like oversized hammer, bells and whistles, nothing would.

A situation like this needn't be career-ending for an official. Own up to the mistake, learn from it as a means of self-improvement and you'll end up gaining respect on the field and among your officiating brethren. The mistake shouldn't define you. The character shown in turning a short-term embarrassment into a long-term lesson learned can become a positive. It can also be a story you pass along as a teaching tool for others.

In hockey, the lesson is: It's a lot easier to put your arm up for a penalty than it is to put it back down. Take an extra moment to mentally process what happened.

NHL Draft: The Lesson from the Jagr Draft

The late Jerry Melnyk, a legendary NHL scout who previously played for the St. Louis Blues, often passed this word of advice along to people in his profession: There's a lot different things to consider but, at the end of the day, there's no substitute for talent. If you think someone is the best hockey player available regardless of the qualifiers that get attached, step up and take him in the Draft. Have the courage of your convictions.

Most famously with Melnyk, with scouts across the NHL were well aware of the talent of Flin Flon Bombers center Bobby Clarke but scared off by the fact the player had Type 1 diabetes, Melnyk advocated for Clarke's selection. The entire league bypassed the player in the first round because of a manageable medical condition.

Twenty-one years later, shortly after the fall of communism in the former Czechoslovakia, there was ongoing concern over what the future would hold politically. From a hockey standpoint, it was still far from certain if and when Czech players selected in the 1990 NHL Draft would become available to the NHL clubs that drafted them.

This is why the 2nd overall pick, Petr Nedved, defected to Canada before the 1989-90 season and played for Seattle in the Western Hockey League. On the flip side, there was a lot of fear among NHL teams that considered drafting 18-year-old Czech forward Jaromir Jagr that it could prove very difficult to get the player over to North America any time in the future.

Holding the fifth overall pick, the Pittsburgh Penguins showed the courage to select Jagr, anyway, because Craig Patrick understood the type of talent involved. He took the risk. As it turned out, all the fears of unavailability proved to be unfounded. Jagr debuted in the NHL at age 18 and the new governments formed in the post-Velvet Revolution Czechia (Czech Republic) and Slovakia proved to be enduring.

There are some similarities today when it comes to the 2023 NHL Entry Draft. Due to the ongoing geopolitical situation and the steps that Vladimir Putin and the KHL have taken in the effort to prevent young players from leaving the domestic league for as long as possible, prospect Matvei Michkov is caught in the crosshairs.

Talent-wise, Michkov has future NHL superstar potential. After Connor Bedard, Michkov may have best chance at becoming a "franchise player" talent. But he's tied in to an KHL contract until at least the summer of 2026. It's one thing for an NHL scout or GM to say "I think he'll be worth the wait" and another to bypass other highly talented players who will be available for NHL duty within a year or two with no hassle or intrigue in getting the player signed and into camp on a timeline created solely by level of NHL readiness.

After Bedard and Adam Fantilli go off the board with the first two picks the 2023 Draft -- a very talented a deep crop across the first 10 to 15 potential selections --it's anyone's guess whether Michkov falls out of the top five. Could be there with the seventh pick? The ninth? At one point does a team say, "There's too much talent here to let current politics be the reason we didn't Draft him.

Fortune favors the bold. Just as it with Clarke in 1969 or Jagr in 1990, there seems to be a level of talent involved with Michkov that the team that steps up to draft the player will be the one that ultimately comes away looking the smartest. A three-year wait isn't THAT long. The player will still only be 21 at the time. The development time wouldn't hurt him hockeywise and, as for the politics, who knows what might happen. Perhaps he'd become available sooner. Perhaps not, and there'd be headaches in bringing him over. But that wouldn't be the first rodeo for such undertakings.

At the end of the day, there's no substitute for talent. If everything else were equal, would you hesitate to select this player with your first round pick? If the answer is "no" then have the courage to draft him and figure out the rest in the seasons to come.

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A 2018 inductee into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Stewart holds the distinction of
being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
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