As much as the Stanley Cup playoffs are about the ascension of players such as Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby into the championship elite, it’s also about the Dan Clearys, Maxime Talbots and Dave Bollands awakening national consciousness to their integral, less-pronounced roles on strong teams.
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If the Phoenix Coyotes win a round or more this spring, expect the name Lauri Korpikoski to become commonplace in the hockey fan’s vernacular.
“I think every team has an unsung hero and this is his year for that award in my opinion,” said Coyotes assistant coach Doug Sulliman.
The acquisition of Korpikoski in the summer of 2009 is one piece of evidence proving GM Don Maloney didn’t win GM of the year last season just because his team happened to go above and beyond expectations. Maloney, who used to work in the Rangers organization, was familiar with Korpikoski and managed to pick him up from the Blueshirts after a 14-point season when the Finn’s value wasn’t significant. The Coyotes shipped the underproductive Enver Lisin the other way and now he’s playing in the Kontinental League.
Korpikoski earned some penalty-killing time with the Yotes last season, but managed only 11 points in 71 games, so he was unfairly labeled in the mainstream as a peripheral piece. However, this season the 24-year-old has really found his confidence. He’s constructed a career year for himself with 18 goals and 38 points through 76 games and also leads the Coyotes in shorthanded time on ice per game.
“I think the way ‘Tip’ (coach Dave Tippett) approaches everything is you earn it,” Sulliman said. “Korpikoski came into training camp in tremendous shape and just earned it. He came in every single day and from his effort to his performance to production, everything was just pointing up for him. The opportunity was given and he made the best of it.
“It wasn’t like you’re going to get 18-19 minutes here; he was slowly brought along, which is Tip’s style. Every game there seemed to be situations where because he was playing so well late in games, he was the guy you wanted on the ice when you had a lead or even when you were chasing things. He’s just so quick. He gets in and can create loose pucks. He’s what I call a puck retriever – when they have it he has a way of getting it back.”
The big question, of course, is whether Korpikoski can bring it in the post-season. When you consider the fact he’s been sporting a walking cast for a month since cracking a bone in his foot — an injury that wasn’t detected at first — without slowing down, it appears Korpikoski has the all-in approach that lends itself to playoff success. When he missed Saturday’s important contest against San Jose it wasn’t because of his foot either, but because of a cryptic, short-term upper-body injury.
Sulliman believes the reason the left winger found his game at the NHL level this season has a lot to do with how he excelled in last year’s spring showdown.
“The way he performed in our seven-game series against Detroit and the way Tippett used him and leaned on him it gave him a lot of confidence,” Sulliman said. “I have to say that Game 7 where Detroit blew us out really, we had guys who just hit the wall and couldn’t do it. He was the one guy who, no matter what, always seemed to show up and give you something.”
In the past, Tippett has likened Korpikoski’s game to another defense-minded forward with offensive skills he coached in Dallas, Jere Lehtinen. While Korpikoski still has work to do before he reaches the 25-goal, 45-point paces Lehtinen was most often good for, Sulliman sees no reason why the Finn’s offensive game won’t continue on a northern trajectory. But make no mistake: this guy is an underappreciated defensive stalwart.
“He always seems to know where to be when he doesn’t have the puck,” Sulliman said. “When you’re in your end he has a knack for identifying who the most dangerous player is or where the most dangerous area is. He’s very conscientious that way.”
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His blog appears Tuesdays only on THN.com.
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