Dane Jackson admits he’s had to rearrange his schedule a couple of times in the few weeks Troy Stecher’s patrolled the Vancouver Canucks blueline. He wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see the young defenseman as he made the jump from college hockey to the big leagues. Jackson, a former Canucks winger in the mid-1990’s, is now an assistant coach at the University of North Dakota where he worked with Stecher for the past four seasons, including last year when UND won a national championship.
He’s managed to catch a couple of Canucks games on television and is delighted to see Stecher looking like the same player he knew at the NCAA level – only Stecher is now holding his own in the best league on the planet.
“I’ve watched a few games, and I’ve watched him closely,” Jackson says in a phone interview from Grand Forks, North Dakota. “It’s fun to see. It looks like his skills and abilities are translating well to that highest level. We always knew he had special abilities here and the one thing that always stuck out for me was his tenacity and ability to win one on one puck battles — even against bigger, stronger guys. His quickness to get to a spot to win a battle seems to be translating. He has that special ability to win pucks and move pucks out of his zone efficiently, and he seems to be doing that well with Vancouver.”
Jackson recalls Stecher’s economy of motion as one of his best traits at the college level. Despite his 5’10” frame, the coach says Stecher always knew how to use his size effectively to shield forecheckers from the puck, and a quick stick allowed him to win his share of battles along the boards. Jackson says from what he’s seen in the Canucks games he’s watched so far, Stecher doesn’t appear to have changed his game and isn’t straying from the things that made him successful in the college ranks.
“If you can get to that puck first and can bump it to your partner or pass it up to the middle man, you’re fine,” he says of Stecher’s ability to quickly transition from defence to offence. “He’s very efficient that way and his agility really helps him in a lot of those situations. You’re never quite sure. I felt quite strongly that he had the ability to get there. I didn’t know if it would be right away, but it’s fun to see him stepping in rather seamlessly and having it translate to the highest level.”
Jackson admitted he was thrilled to see Stecher score his first NHL goal in a 5-4 overtime win against the Dallas Stars on November 13th. As much as he liked seeing the puck go in, Jackson loved the fact that in just his sixth NHL game, Stecher was put in a position to help the Canucks with the goaltender pulled for an extra attacker. And he says he laughed a little when he saw Stecher’s spin move at the blueline that allowed him to walk in and blast the puck past Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen.
That’s because Jackson has seen that move before.
“I still remember one of the early days in practice, the puck went up to the point and there was no pressure or anything, but we had told guys to be evasive and the puck came to him and he faked the shot and did a little half spin and opened his hips and pounded it to the net,” Jackson recalls. “I thought to myself ‘this guy’s a competitor in everything he does’. There’s a real burning fire in him that drives him to compete and be the best he can be. And years and years of doing that show he’s been working on his game a long time.”
With Stecher now solidifying his spot in the Canucks lineup, Jackson is working hard to help Brock Boeser make the jump, too. After a dream season as a freshman in which he scored 27 times in 42 games, the 2015 first rounder is finding life a little tougher in his second NCAA season. He leads his team with seven goals in 11 games although he’s gone three games without a point and has just one goal (his lone point) in his last seven outings.
Jackson knows the goal-starved Canucks are counting on Boeser to be a scorer for them down the road, but says UND needs him to start putting the puck in the net first.
“He’s got pressure to score here, too,” Jackson says. “Over the last little stretch, he hasn’t scored so we’ve talked to him and showed him a lot of video of how he scored last year. He has that attacking style and real good stick and an ability to shoot the puck. When guys aren’t scoring, they start to look for different ways to do it when I think you have to stick to your foundation of playing hard two ways and driving and shooting and going to the net consistently. If you start cheating a little bit or looking for different ways to get an edge that can lead to longer struggles.”
Jackson says it’s been a transition for the entire UND program after winning the national title. They lost key players like Stecher, and now others are trying to fill those voids. Things haven’t gone quite as smoothly as anyone at the school had hoped with UND winless in six games (0-4-2) and as a group the team has scored just three goals in its last three contests.
The Fighting Hawks are looking to Boeser, an alternate captain playing on the right wing with former Penticton Vees star Tyson Jost in the middle, to get the team’s offence back on track.
“There wasn’t too much adversity last year,” Jackson says of Boeser’s scoring drought. “He played with good players, and our team was a veteran team that won a lot, and we just knew there would be some adversity as he gets focussed on and keyed on always playing against the best guys and getting added coverage. Right now, it’s a little bit of that part where he hasn’t scored as much. He’s a heck of a player, and he’ll get there.”
It’s not unusual for scorers to find themselves in slumps and Brock Boeser is no exception. What gives Dane Jackson full confidence that he’ll snap out of it – and soon – is the way he’s putting in the effort on and off the ice to work himself out of this cold snap.
“I think he’s handled it well,” Jackson says. “He’s a receptive guy. We do video with him and extra skills after practice and he’s competitive and wants to score. He understands and takes it the right way. He’s got a leadership about him and a quiet confidence. He’s got a lot of self-pride, there’s not a doubt he’ll work his way through. But he’s been professional about it for sure.”
Boeser will get his next chance to find the back of the net this weekend when North Dakota travels to face 12th ranked St. Cloud State.