by A.J. Atchue || for NHL.com
Lowell Devils second-year defenseman Tyler Eckford is well aware of the New Jersey organization’s longstanding attention to defense and shutting down opponents’ top weapons.
That’s part of the reason why Eckford knew he had to improve his defensive game this year if he was to have any shot at advancing his career beyond the American Hockey League.
The 24-year-old Vancouver native makes no bones about the fact that he views himself as an offensive defenseman, but if you’re not learning to play solid defense as a defenseman, it will catch up to you quickly.
Case in point: After a 2007-08 season in which he led all rearguards at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks with 31 points, Eckford turned pro for 2008-09 and promptly paced Lowell in defensemen scoring with 27 points (2g, 25a) in 72 games.
But with those 27 points came a team-worst minus-16 rating, certainly not an accomplishment Eckford wanted to go out and brag about no matter how much he contributed offensively.
“I was definitely not happy with my plus/minus last season,” Eckford said. “Over the summer, I wanted to improve on that, and this year I focused on being better on the ice, not being a liability, and I think I did a decent job of giving the coaches confidence in being able to put me out there in the last five minutes of a period or in a 3-3 game in the third period.”
Indeed, this season featured almost a complete turnabout in Eckford’s plus/minus. He finished second on the Devils at plus-11 while still increasing his offensive totals in both goals (8) and points (31) despite playing 11 fewer games than he did as a rookie.
For Eckford, a 2004 draft pick by New Jersey, his second pro campaign accurately reflected what he set out to accomplish before it began.
“I tried to work on my defensive mentality, tried to work on my own end a little bit, reading the play, and not overextending myself,” he said. “When I can, (I still tried) jumping into the play and making a difference.”
Though not a defenseman by trade, Eckford’s head coach in Lowell sure knows a little about the NHL game and the New Jersey organization, for that matter.
John MacLean, who scored a franchise-record 347 goals over 14 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, came aboard to run Lowell’s bench for 2009-10 after spending six years as an assistant coach with the big club.
“It’s tough for young guys as defensemen to go from offense to defense, but he’s learning how to position and post people off a little bit better,” MacLean said of Eckford. “And I think as his strength improves, his overall game will improve.”
According to Eckford, the two-time Stanley Cup champion MacLean – as a player in 1995 and as an assistant coach in 2003 – earned the team’s immediate respect, and he installed a system that allowed all his players to use their skills to their advantage. Ultimately, it translated to success on the ice both individually and as a team.
Lowell finished 39-31-4-6 for 88 points and became New Jersey’s first AHL affiliate to reach the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2000. The Devils are currently battling the Atlantic Division champion Worcester Sharks in a first-round series, and Eckford shows a goal and is plus-1 through three games.
Eckford has no doubt shown improvement defensively, but he continues to play a key role at the offensive end of the ice.
“I see the ice well, and I make a good first pass, and I’d like to think I’m a power play guy but I can also play penalty kill and be a solid d-man as well,” said Eckford.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Eckford consistently makes his presence felt on the power play. He tallied five of his eight goals and 19 of his 31 points on a Devils man-advantage unit which clicked 20.2 percent of the time, ranking them fourth-best in the AHL.
“His shot is the biggest thing – he has a really good shot and gets his one-timer off,” MacLean said. “They key is getting that shot off and getting it through, and you get the points from either rebounds, deflections, or scoring on your own.”
Eckford takes the view that as a defenseman in hockey, it only adds to your value if you can also make significant contributions at the offensive end.
“Any time you can add to the offense as a defenseman, it’s a bonus to the team,” Eckford said. “I just try to shoot as many pucks toward the net as I can, and whenever the opportunity arises, jump into the play and be that fourth guy on the rush.”
Eckford got his first taste of the big time in late November, appearing in his first three NHL games with New Jersey.
He made his debut in Nashville on Nov. 19 and then earned an assist at Dallas two nights later before his initial NHL contest at the Prudential Center on Nov. 25 vs. Ottawa.
“It was a great honor to be called up to an organization like New Jersey,” said Eckford. “You have those nerves, but if you don’t, you have something wrong with you. The coaches gave me the opportunity to play, I played on the power play, and overall it was just a really great experience.”
In terms of his chances at sticking in the NHL, Eckford and MacLean both point to consistency as one of the biggest remaining hurdles.
While he’s displayed immense growth in many areas this season, it really comes down to Eckford putting all of his tools in the toolbox and making sure the entire box comes with him on the ice each night.
“In an 80-game schedule, obviously some games are not going to be as good as others,” Eckford said. “(But) I’d really like to work on my consistency and come with that top level every night.”
“I think it was a really good maturing year for Tyler,” MacLean said. “Sometimes talent isn’t enough, and I think he’s realizing that and he’s trying to make a conscious effort to work on that, to be consistent. The consistent level of play night in and night out is something he’s learning and getting better at.”