Hockey Notes

Goalie Schaefer returns from Russia, with glove

By Fluto Shinzawa
September 12, 2010

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The numbers, even by his own admission, are pedestrian: 22 appearances for CSKA Moscow last year, 6 wins and 10 losses, a 2.66 goals-against average, .895 save percentage.

For all that, Nolan Schaefer, dismissed by the NHL after 2008-09, is under contract in North America with the Bruins, with the possibility of finding himself back in big-league dressing rooms this season.

“The weird thing,’’ said the four-year Providence College puckstopper with a twinge of confusion, “is that I was having great years in Houston and San Jose prior to that. It took one bad year in Russia for me — statistically, it was the worst performance-wise — to get a lot of interest.

“I don’t know why. I guess that’s how it works out.’’

This offseason, when Evgeni Nabokov couldn’t find NHL work and Antti Niemi was jettisoned by the Blackhawks, there is little about the goaltending market that is playing out in traditional form. For Schaefer, the oddity began one year ago, when his contract with Minnesota expired. When the market opened on July 1, 2009, the unrestricted free agent waited for offers. Some came. Schaefer waited for better ones.

In retrospect, that might have been an error.

“I had some good offers in North America to play,’’ said Schaefer, who was signed by the Bruins to a one-year, two-way contract ($500,000 NHL/$75,000 AHL) on July 5. “We sort of sat on them. Bit of a mistake on our part. Some of the windows started to close with the goalie market. Then I had some opportunities in Russia and Germany.’’

Schaefer was coming off two respectable seasons in Houston, Minnesota’s AHL affiliate. With Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding filling the two Wild spots, Schaefer was one of the club’s go-to AHL goalies. In 2007-08, Schaefer went 19-13-0 with a 2.06 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Then in 2008-09, he posted a 26-17-5 record with a 2.52 GAA and .903 save percentage.

For all that, Schaefer’s reward was a one-year stint in the Kontinental Hockey League under the watch of former NHLer Sergei Nemchinov. Schaefer was one of three ex-NHLers on the CSKA roster, joining Somerville native and former University of Maine star Niko Dimitrakos and big-league veteran Mark Hartigan.

As per the small-world nature of hockey, Schaefer had ties with both players.

He was teammates with Dimitrakos in San Jose, while Hartigan once played for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Weyburn Red Wings, based 10 minutes away from Schaefer’s hometown of Yellow Grass.

The 30-year-old Schaefer, who made seven appearances for San Jose in 2005-06, had to adjust to the KHL’s nuances. Smaller players. Wider rinks. More time to wait for patient shooters to release the puck.

“I found that they like to hold onto the puck a little longer,’’ said Schaefer. “It’s really hard to compare the two leagues. Obviously, in my opinion, the NHL’s still the best league. But I went there and played.

“It’s a good league. I had a tough time adjusting. But I can’t say enough about the experience. I was a completely different goalie, playing the angles and using my size. I had to relax that theory and use my reflexes and a little bit more strategy instead of my positioning that I was used to doing here.

“I have to combine them now. You can’t play one way, then come here, because you’ll get burned on other things. I’m working on it.’’

Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas are locked into the two goaltending spots in Boston for 2010-11. But if either falls to injury, Schaefer, who projects to be the No. 1 goalie in Providence, would be promoted (he will be in Prague for the season openers against Phoenix, when the league will allow both clubs to carry three goalies). As he noted, he will require some tuneup work in training camp to reacclimate himself to the North American game.

“He does have good foot speed. He does move real well,’’ said Bruins goaltending coach Bob Essensa. “He’s a little unorthodox, but that isn’t always a bad thing.

“When I scout goalies and I see goalies that are a little unorthodox, sometimes it’s an advantage. When you get the shooters guessing, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“There are some things we need to address — not necessarily more orthodox — but get him some more tools for his toolbox.’’

Small change, big impact?
One of the minor tweaks made during last month’s research and development camp in Toronto was to reduce the depth of the net by 4 inches. By creating just that much more space behind the net, NHL thinkers believe it could free up room for offensive chances at one end and breakouts at the other.

There used to be a time when Wayne Gretzky made his living behind the net, holding onto the puck and looking to set up teammates for in-front chances. But one of the most significant shifts across the league has been the embrace of collapsing zone defenses.

In Gretzky’s prime, coaches were still instructing their forwards to stretch out and take away the points. Now, the emphasis is on eliminating the slot as a danger area.

Defensemen are stationed in front of the net. Forwards are scurrying away from the points and collapsing. As a result, there is less breathing room in front, and playmakers haven’t been as free to create from behind the net.

Perhaps with a few more inches of open ice, a playmaker like Nicklas Backstrom could dangle around defensemen, force others to commit one way, then look for Alex Ovechkin the other way.

“Everything is so collapsed,’’ said Bruins assistant general manager Don Sweeney. “Before, penalty-killers didn’t collapse quite as much. They’d stay more in a box formation. Now, everything is home-based. Everything collapses.’’

On the defensive side, shrinking the net gives puck-carrying defensemen a wider avenue for escaping pesky forecheckers. Consequently, breakouts could be quicker and crisper. A D-man who runs into forechecking trouble could reverse the puck behind the net and give it to his partner.

“I like it,’’ said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “If you’re a defenseman trying to skate past a forechecking forward, you try and make that cut behind the net, then up the ice. But that’s a real skilled move for a defenseman. You’re making that move, retrieving the puck, and moving up the ice.

“Now, this way, there’s less net when you’re trying to make that corner. That’s a positive thing. It’s a corollary of the experiment. I think the original intent was to open up more space behind the net to set up and make a play. This is a side benefit.’’

A down side on knee lifts
Two seasons ago, as part of the NHL’s push toward increasing offense, goalies had to submit their equipment to shrinkage. Components that succumbed to the chopping block were the knee lifts tucked inside each pad. The theory was that the five-hole would open up for shooters. But the absence of knee lifts might be a factor in goalies feeling fraying in their hips. It could be one reason why Bruins goalie Tim Thomas required surgery to repair a torn labrum. “The league changed some of their policies with regards to the knee lifts, and I think because of that — and just the nature of the position — your hips are going to be suspect to certain injuries,’’ said Boston goaltending coach Bob Essensa. “I think you’ll see more and more of it as the game progresses. I’d like to see the league, if they could, try and address that to some extent. I don’t think it’s a huge advantage to give a goalie an extra half-inch here or an inch there in terms of allowing their knees to not quite go into such vulnerable positions. If a couple more hip injuries to prominent goalies in the league continue to happen, hopefully it’s something the league will take a look at.’’

Blue line revival
Shrewd move last month by Atlanta general manager Rick Dudley, who added inexpensive defensive depth by signing former Boston University standout Freddy Meyer to a one-year, $600,000 contract. With underrated all-around threat Tobias Enstrom (6-44—50, 22:16 average ice time last season) leading the charge, the Thrashers’ blue line could be among the strongest in the Eastern Conference. Former UMass-Lowell star Ron Hainsey is an experienced two-way defenseman. Johnny Oduya, who arrived in Atlanta as part of the Ilya Kovalchuk blockbuster, is one of Claude Julien’s favorite former players. Dustin Byfuglien, one of Chicago’s playoff heroes as a forward, could be moved back to defense. Brent Sopel won a ring as a stay-at-home depth defender for the Blackhawks. There aren’t many forwards who relish going into the corners against 6-7, 245-pound strongman Boris Valabik. And third-year pro Zach Bogosian is poised to have a breakout season. Then there’s the most important factor: the presence of coach Craig Ramsay, a defensive wizard. A Western Conference coach recently gave Ramsay, the associate coach in Tampa Bay in 2004, more credit than head man John Tortorella for the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run that year. The Thrashers don’t have as much talent up front, but Ramsay, who has always encouraged his defensemen to join the rush, will be looking to his blue liners to help create offense.

Loose pucks
The numbers won’t be official until next month, but the NHL Players Association is informing players that final escrow rates for 2009-10 will be between 9 and 11 percent. For a minimum-wage NHLer last year like Johnny Boychuk ($500,000), that’s approximately $50,000 of pre-tax dough he won’t be seeing. Nobody is crying pauper, but that’s not loose change, either. Escrow is one of the players’ biggest issues heading into the next collective bargaining agreement . . . On Thursday, following the Bruins’ rookie game against the Islanders, NESN will air “Back to Work: Bruins Training Camp Live at the Garden,’’ a two-hour program looking at the upcoming season . . . Like every corner of the world, the hockey community was reeling nine years ago when former Bruin Garnet “Ace’’ Bailey and ex-Catholic Memorial and BU standout Mark Bavis were killed aboard United Flight 175. Their memory still lives in racehorse Aces Mark, a 6-year-old gelding who claims Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and Ottawa scout Lew Mongelluzzo among its owners in Team Power Play Racing. As a 2-year-old, Aces Mark had a chip removed from his ankle, then underwent throat surgery that resulted in complications. For 14 months, Aces Mark recuperated at Cornell Equine Hospital. Most recently, Aces Mark has been racing at Saratoga. Like his namesakes, it appears Aces Mark is a fighter . . . As players return to their respective cities for training camp, it’s nice to see how fresh they look before the season. By the Cup finals last year, the players for Chicago and Philadelphia looked like ghosts, worn down by the regular season, Olympics for some, and four playoff rounds. It’s puzzling, therefore, that teams don’t target the morning skate for permanent retirement. Julien scrapped it prior to last year’s Game 7 against the Flyers. Didn’t look like it hurt the Bruins in the first period . . . Nothing official at this point, but Bruins management is expecting to bring approximately 40 players to Europe, which indicates that several rounds of cuts will take place in Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic . . . This Tuesday marks the two-year anniversary of the passing of former BU professor Jack Falla. He’s still very much missed among puckheads. In particular, the backyard-rink faithful . . . According to younger brother Nolan, ex-Bruin Peter Schaefer (left) is in Vancouver, where he’s keeping his future plans hush-hush. The elder Schaefer, last seen playing in Providence prior to his buyout ($766,667 on the books this season), hasn’t officially ended his playing career . . . After a luxurious offseason, Kevin Paul Dupont will be back at his trusted spot behind the wheel of the Sunday hockey notes. Be sure to compliment KPD on his well-toned arms. You know, all that heavy lifting this summer.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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