The Lowell Devils are in decent shape this season. The team is tied for second place in the Atlantic Division, and they're just nine points back of Eastern Conference leaders Hershey. Yet despite the successful first half of the season, just one player was named to this year's AHL All-Star squads.
For head coach John MacLean, that seems about right.
"We have more of a team concept," said the coach, who himself is a veteran of 20 years in the NHL as a player. "That's basically the way we're built. When the team has success, individuals have success. We're comfortable with that here. Basically, as a group we try and play together, and we have a lot of guys that contribute."
One of those players is Tyler Eckford, a 24-year-old from Vancouver who was selected to Team Canada in next week's AHL All-Star Classic. The event pits a Canadian team against players from the United States and the rest of the world. Getting chosen for the team is a reward that the second-year pro takes seriously.
"It's definitely a huge honor, especially because we are such a close team," Eckford said. "That's kind of a big part of our identity. It's a great honor to be chosen. Obviously, the selection has a lot to do with how we've played this year as a team collectively. It's kind of an honor for [the whole team]. I'm just the one that's fortunate enough to be going."
MacLean said the team expects a lot out of the young blueliner.
"He's a young, up-and-coming defenseman," MacLean said. "We expect him to be able to compete at that high level. He has a lot of talent, but as we all know, talent only takes you so far. So he's starting to learn that he has to work along with it."
Next week's festivities won't be the first major step for Eckford this season, as he made his NHL debut with New Jersey in November. In that game, he got called for a tripping penalty late in the second period, and the Ducks converted on the power play to score the game-winning goal. Despite the miscue, Eckford impressed New Jersey head coach Jacques Lemaire.
"He was good. He looked relaxed and he was skating well," Lemaire told NJ.com after the game. "He moves the puck well. He's going to be a good player. It's just going to take some experience, knowing what he can and can't do."
MacLean echoed that sentiment, saying AHL players always come back with some newfound knowledge after a trip to the NHL.
"You like to see these guys get the opportunity," MacLean said. "It's great for them, and it's also a part of their learning process. … You have these guys [in the NHL], they all work hard, they all skate the same way you do, [the AHL players] wonder, 'What's missing?'
"So you have to come back with a work ethic, [knowing] that you do need to work a little more and you do need to push a little bit. The talent level's not that much of a difference [in the NHL]. It's the commitment level that gets you from one leg to the next."
With the added experience, Eckford has been a reliable defenseman all season for MacLean and the Lowell Devils, leading the team with a plus-14 rating. He has 24 points already this season after posting 27 in 72 games last year, and he credits much of his own personal success with the team philosophy.
"Last year, obviously my plus-minus wasn't exactly what it is this year," he said. "We pride ourselves on our defensive game, the whole organization — from up top [in New Jersey], down to here and then down to [ECHL affiliate] Trenton — we really pride ourselves on that.
"Without everyone playing collectively as one unit, you're not going to have [success]."
A team can't buy into such a philosophy without proper coaching. Luckily for Eckford and the rest of the Devils, MacLean has the kind of resume that any young player would love to have. MacLean was in the NHL from 1983 to 2002, spending time with the Devils, Sharks, Rangers and Stars. He owned the Devils' scoring record with 701 points until Patrick Elias surpassed him last March. He won the Stanley Cup in 1995 with the Devils and won another one as a Devils assistant coach in 2003.
It's something that the players keep in mind.
"He knows what it takes to win," Eckford said. "I think everyone has a respect level for him. When he speaks, we all listen. I think it's shown in the way we've played this year so far, and we definitely need to continue that.
"He's a great coach. He knows how to get the most out of his players, and I think it's definitely showing."
Despite the body of work, MacLean said he spends more time focused on the present when asked if his history with the Cup helps get his players' attention.
"Yeah maybe for a little bit, but that doesn't last very long," he said with a laugh. "You get a little bit of [extra respect] a little bit early on maybe, but day in and day out, it's more about what you do at the rink and whether or not you're consistent about how you approach things. You can't really rest on your laurels … It's what you do day in, day out. It's no different for a player as it is for a coach."
So once the Devils wrap up a busy weekend, Eckford will be off to Portland, Maine, to join the All-Star festivities. His outlook heading in shows that he knows what it takes to maintain his level of play.
"It's been a great year for me, personally," he said. "It's really kind of nice to succeed, but it's also a lot of hard work and maintaining that success that are the important things. It's one day at a time, and it's working hard, and it's keeping up the effort — and that's what's expected. As long as that happens, hopefully, I'll be successful in the future."
For the 24-year-old, it's certainly worked so far.
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