9 December 2013, 15:29

VOR's NHL 1-on-1: Roman Josi, complete player, rising star

By David Kerans

WASHINGTON (VOR)-- It is rare indeed for an NHL player to give you the impression that he could play any skating position on the ice, on command, and do so at a very high level.

Of course a few players bounce up and down between defense and forward when teammates are injured—Peter Harrold of NJ and Dustin Byfuglien of WIN are well-known examples. And we don't doubt that some top stars like Duncan Keith or Eric Staal could play anywhere, if they put their minds to it. But anyone who takes a close look at NSH's young defenseman Roman Josi will notice that he brings an unusually wide set of tools to every game. He plays in the first D pairing, alongside team captain and Team Canada stalwart Shea Weber, but you could easily see him holding down a top-6 forward spot in the NHL.

Josi contract

Josi arriving for a press conference after signing a seven-year deal with NSH, June 2013  Photo credit: © EPA, Steffen Schmidt

We had an opportunity to see Josi in action against Ovechkin and the Capitals on Saturday night, and can say he delivered more than expected. NSH's decision to sign Josi for seven years over the off-season looks very wise to us. And our post-game discussion with Josi deepened our confidence in his preparedness to anchor NSH for many years to come.

Holding Ovie

Teams facing NSH generally do what they can to keep their top scorers away from the Predators' Weber-Josi pairing, and the Capitals were no exception. 

WSH coach Adam Oates adjusted his line changes at least a bit to match his Ovechkin-Backstrom-Johansson line against NSH's other D-men. But NSH coach Barry Trotz managed to respond with Weber and Josi most of the time, and he was quite pleased with how they did against The Great 8:

"They did terrific. I thought the Ovechkin line had all their chances on the powerplay. I thought the Ward-Erat-Chimera line was by far the best line of the night. I’m not looking at the stats sheet. I’m looking at zone time, hard to play against, chances." –Barry Trotz, post-game press conference

Ovie and Nik

Ovie and Nik: Ovie and his foil Backstrom wind up for another attack against Nashville  Photo credit: © AFP, Patrick Smith

We noticed Ovechkin get loose for a chance in the slot once in the first period, but Trotz is right to be proud of his top D-pair. Not only did they did keep Ovechkin’s line under control, but we didn’t notice Ovie spending any time in front of NSH’s net. He’s scored quite a few from the doorstep lately, but he might not have been anxious to tangle with Weber in front of the crease Saturday night.

In Ovie’s defense, his team didn’t need much from him on Saturday night. WSH got out to a quick 3-0 lead. The outcome was never really in doubt, as (previously high-performing) NSH goalie Marek Mazanec spent the night whiffing on a slew of point shots. Trotz conceded to the press that it was a disappointing night in net.

So fans will have to wait until Russia faces Canada in Sochi in February to see a full Ovechkin-Weber duel. That will be something to see.

Josi doing it all

Josi, for his part, controlled Ovechkin and every other WSH forward without undue stress. He led the team with over 27 minutes of ice time, but was never burned, never scrambling, never pushed around. The three goals WSH notched while he was on the ice had nothing to do with him (or Weber).

Josi shot

Josi getting down to the dot for a shot against PHO a few games ago Photo credit: © AFP, Frederick Breedon

Of course Josi is not the ultimate hockey player—thus, he doesn’t overpower or intimidate opponents (the stats confirm that he takes a lot more hits than he receives), nor does not have the magical close control puck skills of NSH assistant coach Phil Housley (well, who ever did?). Nor do we imagine that he's got the hands of a Danny Briere (for instance) around the net.

But Josi neutralizes and outduels forwards with quiet efficiency, and showed us several times how easy it is for him to jump into rushes. His play for most of this this year has been measurably less aggressive than last year: coming into Saturday he had only 5 assists in 19 games played, and the average distance from which he has shot is over 50 feet, as compared to just 37 feet last season (a very big difference). We have to assume that the concussion he took at the start of the season slowed him down, and he admitted to Swiss reporter Laurent Schaffner after the game that he had not felt fully himself for a few games after coming back (if you’re curious, the concussion came courtesy of COL’s Steve Downie, whom PHI soon picked up—are you surprised?). He looked fully himself on the attack Saturday night. He swept through WSH all by himself late in the first period before zipping a wrist shot off his rear foot top corner past Team Canada-candidate G Braden Holtby—a very sharp goal. And he was leading a 2-on-1 when teammate Eric Nystrom scored NSH’s second goal. Goal and an assist for Josi.

Josi over Hudler

For the colors: Josi shackling Jiri Hudler in Switzerland’s World Championship QF victory over the Czechs in May 2013  Photo credit: © EPA, Anders Wiklund

Given better goaltending…

The loss to WSH was NSH’s fifth straight, so of course the mood in the locker room was not festive. But neither did we detect any desperation or resignation. This does not resemble the death spiral we detected taking shape in the NYI locker room a few weeks ago. Coach Trotz said he “…can’t fault the effort” and feels confident that the team can compete strongly if the goaltending doesn’t disappoint. Getting their world-class goalie Pekka Rinne back sure wouldn’t hurt.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Josi after the game, and found him fully committed to getting NSH back on track:

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Kerans: You work with Phil Housley, an assistant coach here, and a legend here in North America. He was extremely good in close quarters with the puck. How is he making Roman Josi a better player? Does he work a lot with you personally?

Josi: Oh, he does work a lot with me. And for a young player, obviously you want to learn from a guy like Phil Housley. He’s one of the best defensemen of all time, and yeah, he works with us all in practice doing different things, and talks to us. So it definitely helps.

Kerans: Does he work with you on close puck control, things he was so good at, or is it something different every day?

Josi: Everything. I think he just sees something in the game (and works on that), or he sees the things you do well, and he wants to help you get better at them. He works on everything. I didn’t watch him play, but I think he was a complete player.

Kerans: Oh, I watched him. He was awesome. You’re great too.

Josi: (chuckles)

Kerans: Tonight, once the score was 0-3, I noticed you attacked a lot. Did the coaches tell you to attack? Or do they trust you to know when to attack more?

Josi: Uh, yeah, they want us to join the rush. I think it’s a tough league, and you can’t beat guys one-on-one anymore, so you to be the guy to join the rush. They want us to do that, but do it when it’s a good risk—you can’t join the rush every time. But if there’s a chance, you want to go up.

Kerans: When you were growing up, you had to decide between playing defense or forward. You have enough talent to play either one. Why did you choose to play defense? Some guys choose defense because they want more ice time. Some say they like defense because their often uncovered when they come up (to attack).

Josi: Actually I played forward when I was younger. And I think I was 13 or 14 when the coach pulled me back, because we didn’t have enough defensemen. I liked it back there, and yeah, I’m glad I did it.

Kerans: I’m sure you were the best on your team many years. So when was the last time you played 60 minutes in a game, an entire game? Did you ever do that when you were growing up, when you were a kid?

Josi: (laughing) No! I never did that. We played some short games when I was I kid, maybe 15 minutes, when I played it all. But not 60, no.

Kerans: How about growing up—when did you start out in hockey?

Josi: I was four.

Kerans: Are you from a hockey family, or were you the first?

Josi: Actually my dad was a soccer player, and my mom was a swimmer.

Kerans: Why didn’t you become a soccer player?

Josi: Oh, I played soccer, until I was about ten. I played both. My older brother had started playing hockey, and I just went to practice and watched him play, and I started too.

Weber monster

Mega D Weber, here sending Paul Stastny into orbit  Photo credit: © AFP, Frederick Breedon

Swiss reporter Laurent Schaffner: You are one of the most used players on the team. How do you see this responsibility? Is it not overwhelming, at the age of 23?

Josi: No, I like to get a lot of ice time. If you get a lot of ice time you are really in the game. I like to take responsibility, and also for me it’s great to play next to Shea {Shea Weber, his D pair}. He’s one of the best defensemen in the world, and that’s great for a young defenseman like me.

Kerans: How about the youth system in Switzerland? In Russia, if you are born in 1990, say, everyone on your team is born in 1990, and every year you keep the same coach, he stays with you year-after year. Do you have that system in Switzerland, or no?

Josi: No, we have two birth years in each team, say 1990 and 1991, and every two years you move up and have a new coach at the next level. So, where I played, in Bern, I had a lot of great coaches. They were almost pros themselves, so that definitely helped.

Kerans: That’s the system we have in the United States, by the way. Do you know who discovered you for the NHL? Were there many scouts talking to you when you were 16 or 17, or just a few?

Josi: Uh, I talked to a lot of scouts before the draft, in my draft year, and a couple of guys came over to Switzerland. And Nashville came with a Swedish guy. And obviously at the combine I talked to a lot of people.

Schaffner: You suffered a concussion in October. How is it feeling now? Are you back to 100% of your capacities, and how is the recovery going?

Josi: Yeah, the first couple of games I came back I didn’t play well. I didn’t really play my game. But now I think it’s getting better, and I’m feeling better (on the ice).

Schaffner: The Olympic Games are coming up. Are you already thinking about it, or how is it going?

Josi: Well, it’s obviously in your head, it’s an Olympic year. But right now you’re not thinking this far away. You’re thinking about your job here in the NHL and you want to play here. I mean, I know it’s coming, but I’m focused on the Predators right now. And when the time comes for the Olympics, then yeah, I’m going to be excited about it.

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