“Crazy good” Purcell key performer on one of NHL’s best teams
Fifth in a six-part series
Monday: Adam Pardy
The telegram — OTTAWA
He’s tied for fifth in scoring on the third-best team in the Eastern Conference, in his seventh National Hockey League season.
He’s a spark to an electric power play, getting a generous amount of ice time even strength, and is part of the leadership group within the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room.
But, geez, why won’t he shoot the puck more often?
Well, you know he’s living good when all you’ve got to complain about Teddy Purcell’s game is his reluctance to fire the puck. Kind of like grumbling about the price of gas when your ride is a Cadillac.
“I suppose with everything great you can say about people, you can start poking holes in their games elsewhere,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper shrugs. “Teddy’s probably never been one to think shot-first. We’ve got a few guys like that. So one of the things we have to get in his head is when you don’t have the puck, get to those dirty areas of the ice, and when you do have it, it can’t always be pass first.
“Although, he’s one of those upper echelon players who can make the pass that other guys can’t. So you have to give him some leeway.”
For years, Purcell’s been hearing all about his hesitation to wire the puck when it lands on his blade, from the Lightning colour man, Phil Esposito, the Hall of Famer who knows a thing or two about scoring goals, to former Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher, who tried to beat it into his player’s head to think shot-first more often.
Of course, Boucher might have been a bit too overbearing overall, eventually losing the trust of his players and the support of management when, some insiders say, he went against a direct order from up top to use Steven Stamkos in any and all game situations.
In Cooper, who led the Norfolk Admirals to an American Hockey League championship two years ago, a run which included a win over the St. John’s IceCaps in the conference final, the Lightning have a fresh voice in the room, a player’s coach who didn’t play a lot himself, but was a student of the game and now is an adept teacher.
And he’s quite pleased with the play of his second-line right winger from St. John’s, thank you very much.
“He’s a skill player,” Cooper said, “who has that great ability to see the ice. He sees plays that other guys might not see. He’s got a real high hockey IQ, and as a result, he makes other players around him better just by the way he distributes pucks.
“Sure, we’d like to see him shoot more. The thing is, he’s got a really good shot. It’s not like, ‘Hey Teddy, man, your shot’s really bad. You gotta pass.’ Instead, it’s, ‘You can rope that puck.’ It’s just a matter of continuing to harp on him.”
The Lightning trail only the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins in the East at the Olympic break, a far cry from last year when Tampa was ahead of only Florida and Colorado in the league.
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Purcell, however, didn’t miss a beat in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season, scoring 11 goals and 36 points in 48 games.
That came on the heals of a superb 24-goal, 65-point 2011-12 campaign, when, from Jan. 31 until the end of the season, Purcell notched 38 points in 34 games, a production bettered only by teammate Stamkos, Evgeny Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Joe Thornton.
He wore Canada’s colours for the first time in his career that spring at the world championship in Finland and Sweden.
“It’s crazy how good he is,” said his one-time teammate, Vincent Lecavalier, now of the Philadelphia Flyers. “His hands are unreal, his vision on the ice something else. He just finds you. Even if he’s got nothing, he’ll make that little move to get rid of a guy and he’ll find you backdoor.
“He’s very, very talented.”
But Purcell has slumped a bit this year, with 10 goals and 33 points at the break. It didn’t help that he went through a 17-game stretch in October and November with only one goal.
“I lost my confidence there for a while, and regaining it is always easier said than done,” he said. “It’s a tough game the best of times and to be consistent and be good game in and game out, you have to be at your best. When you don’t see results, and you’re kind of down on yourself.
“But since then,” he said recently before a Lightning-Senators game in Ottawa, “I think our line (with Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn) has been contributing.”
No doubt, players like Purcell and Tampa Bay’s captain, Martin St. Louis, felt it was their time to step up when Stamkos suffered a fractured leg on Nov. 12.
While St. Louis came out the next game with a one-goal, two-assist performance against the Anaheim Ducks, and then registered another five points in the next five games, Purcell continued to struggle for the next games before breaking out with two goals and an assist against the New York Rangers.
“I think so,” he said when asked if he felt the pressure to help ease the load with Stamkos on the sidelines. “Any time you’re an offensive guy, you want to help out any way you can.
“As athletes, we’re all competitive and we want to take on that extra role. But at the same time, you can never replace a guy like Stamkos.
“What we have been doing since he’s been out is playing collectively and playing as a group. I think we have the most players in the league on one team (eight) in double digit goals, and that’s pretty hard to defend.”
Purcell took a different route to pro hockey, leaving St. John’s as an 18-year-old to attend Athol Murray College of Notre — the Notre Dame Hounds — in Saskatchewan. He played the next two seasons in the U.S. junior league, in that hockey hotbed known is Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
He was never drafted — about 12 or 13 per cent of the current group of NHLers were never drafted — in part because, as a high school student back at Gonzaga in St. John’s, and high-scoring winger with the St. John’s AAA Maple Leafs midget club, he was three apples high, standing about 5-6.
Despite his obvious skill, Purcell still had his size working against him. It might be one of the reasons he was cut from the provincial under-17 team.
But a funny happened after he left Newfoundland. He grew — today, he’s a solid 6-3 and 200 pounds — and landed at the University of Maine, where he was the Hockey East conference rookie of the year. He turned pro after only one year at Maine, signing with the Los Angeles Kings as a 22-year-old and winning top rookie honours in the American Hockey League.
He would play parts of the next three seasons in L.A., but never really hit it off with Kings coach Terry Murray.
Everything changed when Steve Yzerman dealt Jeff Halpern to the Kings for Purcell and a draft pick.
“Some guys develop a little later,” said Lecavalier, who doesn’t fall into that particular category after going No. 1 overall to the Lightning in the 1998 draft. “But you can see he always had the skills. He was born with them, and worked hard to craft them.
“If you’re going to make the NHL, you’re going to make it. He’s a prime example. He’s got talent, he works hard and that’s why he is where he is.”
The one-time Memorial Stadium rink rat, who rarely missed a St. John’s Maple Leafs game, and was running around the building watching the team practice when he pipped off from school, is not taking his success for granted.
He’s a core player on one of the NHL’s better teams, is in the second year of a three-year contracts that calls for $13.5 million, and plays in Florida where he wears shorts to practice from his downtown Tampa condo.
He could be in Winnipeg.
“When I first came into the league, I was kind of a fan of all the guys,” says Purcell, now 28. “I still respect them, but you know you belong and you can contribute so it’s a different mentality.
“At same time, when you see a guy like Marty St. Louis, who I grew up watching and now you get to work with him, that’s a pinch-you moment.
“During the season, you don’t have a lot of time to think about it because you’re so busy and there’s so much going on. When you have your downtime, you sit back and think, ‘Wow this is pretty special to be able to do this for a living.’”
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort