It's more about work than skill

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

BUFFALO -- Ken Hitchcock, like any NHL coach, demands perfection through hard work.

He was especially tough on Jeff Carter earlier this season and twice the 21-year-old rookie from London hit the wall mentally.

But there was a method to the madness and Carter sucked it up to develop into a bonafide NHLer with the Philadelphia Flyers.

"The demands that we placed on him were to work and to be tenacious," Hitchcock said yesterday before Carter played his second playoff game against the Buffalo Sabres.

"We know his skill level and we know what his top end is, but you've got to have a work ethic on a shift-by-shift basis to play in the National Hockey League, no matter what your skill is.

"So we were demanding of that with Jeff and he really started to respond right around Christmastime. He had a tough go of it for a little while and once he got through that, he was ready to go.

"When he started to respond with the work ethic, we started to accelerate his ice time and accelerate the accountability we thought he was capable of handling and now what you see is just a good National Hockey League player."

Carter, the Flyers' first-round pick, 11th overall, in 2003, scored 23 goals, but the stat that really jumps off the page is that seven were game-winners, tying him for the team lead and 11th in the league.

"Not only that, a lot are highlight-reel goals," Hitchcock said. "And there's very few players left in the National Hockey League that score from where he can -- top of the circle.

"That's a hard thing. It's the quick and accurate release and the goaltender's not ready for it. And the other thing is he can shoot through traffic. Most players shoot it and it bounces off shinpads or it goes wide.

"He can shoot it through the defender and be accurate enough to find a hole."

But Carter's initial task was to earn the coach's trust so he would get those opportunities to exhibit what he can do.

There were times when Carter wondered if that would happen, if the fifth fastest coach in NHL history to reach the 400-win plateau would gain confidence in him.

"Once you get down on yourself, it's pretty hard to get out of it. But there's always guys looking to take your job, so you've got to keep on rolling with it," Carter said of his approach.

He can smile now.

"This definitely hasn't been a normal season. I never really played with a set line, but (that trust) comes with a lot of hard work. It's definitely been a learning experience."

He's on a line with rookie R.J. Umberger and Niko Dimitrakos, who the Flyers got March 9 from San Jose.

Umberger scored 20 goals, marking the first time in Flyers history they've had two rookies with 20 goals.

Carter is proud of his seven game-winners because it shows Hitchcock "gave us more opportunity to be out at the end of the game. The coach has trust in us to be out there and they're obviously looking for us to put pucks in the net."

Hitchcock reiterated how important it was for Carter to develop an NHL work ethic after playing with the OHL's Soo Greyhounds.

"No matter how many times you talk to a junior kid, until they have to go through it, they don't understand it," said Hitchcock, who coached in the Western league before coming to the NHL.

"The difference between a good NHL player and a player who's a journeyman or who can't make it, is strictly, in a lot of cases, work ethic.

"What we've tried to instil in Jeff is that no matter what his skill level, you can't rely on that when you get here. You have to have an everyday work ethic and he's really developed that and really responded the way we anticipated he would.

"Look, we count on him big-time and that's a compliment to him. That's not to put pressure on him, but he responded in the right way.

"And that's what coaching is at this level. It's not about the mistakes a player makes, it's about the work ethic because you know when you have a player at this level that has a really good work ethic, the mistakes get eliminated.

"And that's sometimes the confusion with young players. They think the coach is on them for the mistakes. It's about coming to work every day, it's coming to be a responsible player every day.

"Once they understand that, there's that freedom in their mind that they know what to expect."


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