Great heights gave way to painful lows for Tyler Myers in Buffalo. In Winnipeg, the towering blueliner has revived his promising career.
Granted, it’s a Sunday afternoon and the weather in Winnipeg is unseasonably spectacular. For a city that has 10 months of winter and two months of bad skating, if you can wear shorts and a T-shirt and run the air conditioner in late September, it’s a day to be outside doing stuff, not sitting in a restaurant. Still, it’s strange to see Tyler Myers, all 6-foot-8 of him, walk into a downtown eatery wearing the standard hockey player’s fashion statement – ball cap on backward, T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops – eat his lunch and leave without being singled out by anyone, including the waitress who’s serving him. The irony is Myers had to go to one of the most hockey-mad cities in the world to get out of the glare. And that suits him just fine. “I’m not a guy who needs the spotlight or searches for it,” he said. “I’m pretty easygoing off the ice.” Myers has won over the fans of Winnipeg and rejuvenated a career that was stagnating in Buffalo. On the surface, it’s a familiar story. A kid comes in and wows everyone, wins rookie of the year, signs a huge contract (which included a $10-million signing bonus) and then struggles to live up to it. All right, so it’s not all that familiar. But that’s a lot of coin. And a lot of responsibility.
That experience in Buffalo, which led to his trade last season to the Winnipeg Jets, was turning Myers into something of an Eeyore. He tried to be positive, but the body language looked like he was defeated. After all, it’s difficult to stay positive when you’re playing most of the game in your own zone. Winnipeg, by contrast, has been good to him, and he has been good to Winnipeg. “You hear a lot about how the grass isn’t greener on the other side,” Myers said. “But when I came to Winnipeg, it actually ended up being a little greener.”
The truth is Myers was accepted with open arms because he isn’t the player he was traded for. He is the anti-Evander Kane.
Kane was a lightning rod for criticism in Winnipeg, a city where they like even their idols to be humble. It’s one thing to piss off the fan base, it’s quite another for the leadership group to make it crystal clear to management that a member of the team must go. And that’s what the Jets did with Kane, which led to Myers and a mother lode of other talent coming their way last February. While Kane was spending the summer taking out billboard ads on Sunset Strip in L.A. in an effort to win his supermodel girlfriend back, Myers was spending a quiet summer in Kelowna, B.C., with his wife and goldendoodle. “You hear the stories the past few years and ‘Kaner’ is more outgoing,” Myers said. “But as far as being the anti-Evander, I would just say I’m a pretty reserved guy. I would say we’re a little different off the ice, for sure.” (More irony. ‘Problem’ by Ariana Grande was playing in the background when he said that. “One less problem without ya.”) On Valentine’s Day, Myers was playing in just his second game with Winnipeg after coming over from Buffalo. The Jets were in the middle of a life-and-death playoff run and were in Detroit, trailing 3-1 in the second period. With the Red Wings carrying the puck in the neutral zone, Myers knocked it off Tomas Jurco’s stick, gathered it up and beat Kyle Quincey to the outside, which gave him a clear close-in opportunity that Blake Wheeler converted on the rebound. Winnipeg went on to tie the game and win it in a shootout. “That, for me, was when the game breaker came out,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “You could feel it. Basically, you could hear the guys on the bench say, ‘Holy f— is this guy a good player.’ ” The Jets went 15-8-3 with Myers in the lineup to secure a playoff spot. Myers said he felt at home in Winnipeg and with the Jets almost immediately, and the feeling was mutual. The Jets have one of the tightest-knit dressing rooms in the league, with a strong leadership group and a coach who seems to have an incredible feel for his players. It helped the adjustment that the Jets were so much better than the Sabres. They were one of the best possession teams, and the Sabres were the worst. In Buffalo, just 34.5 percent of Myers’ 5-on-5 starts were in the offensive zone, which was 11.4 percent worse than his teammates’ percentage when Myers was on the bench. In Winnipeg, 53.1 percent of his starts were in the offensive zone, which was just 2.6 percent worse than his teammates’ when he wasn’t on the ice. Clearly, Myers was being worn down by having to bail the Sabres out of defensive jams almost all the time he was on the ice, something Maurice noticed when he was an assistant coach with the Canadian team at the 2014 World Championship, a team Myers played for. One day during the tournament, Maurice and fellow assistant Peter DeBoer were discussing Myers when DeBoer made a very good point. “We were talking about how he’d fit on your team because he was a guy whose name was being bandied about (in the trade market) and (DeBoer) said, ‘You know, when you’re chasing the game all the time, you’re not even allowed to play the game the right way. You’re not allowed to go and play a smart game.’ ” It’s an assessment Myers concurs wholeheartedly with. Playing alongside Toby Enstrom for a coach who wants his defensemen to engage in the attack has done wonders for Myers’ confidence and his game. Myers has 10 inches and almost 40 pounds on Enstrom, but the two have a unique understanding of each other’s game. Enstrom is an offensive defenseman who brings that kind of high-level thinking to the defensive side of the game. That gives Myers the freedom to be a risk taker on the offensive side, and knowing Enstrom has his back in the defensive zone is a lot less taxing on him. Myers averaged about one minute fewer per game for the Jets than with the Sabres. And the minutes he was playing were far less demanding. In Buffalo, Myers averaged 2:56 of shorthanded time per game. Winnipeg cut that down by a full minute. With Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba also on defense, Myers doesn’t have to do nearly as much heavy lifting as he did with the Sabres. It has allowed him to get back to being the defenseman he was when he won the Calder Trophy in 2010. Going into training camp, Maurice wanted to impress upon his D-corps the importance of jumping into the attack, the way teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks do. So he set out to put together a video compilation of Jets defensemen pushing the pace offensively and getting up the ice on breakouts, which he labelled “D up the ice.” Maurice came up with 15 clips and noticed an unmistakable trend. “It was all Tyler Myers,” he said. The no-trade clause in the seven-year deal Myers signed with the Sabres in 2012 doesn’t kick in until 2016-17. There’s no way of knowing whether Myers would have vetoed a trade to the Jets if he could’ve, but he’s happy where he has landed. Winnipeg knows it isn’t a prime destination for free agents or players seeking trades, so the organization has done an outstanding job creating a family atmosphere in the dressing room. The Jets are protective of their players and treat them like gold, and it creates an environment where players feel comfortable and secure.
Much has been made of Winnipeg being the least desirable place in the league for players who can choose where to play, so the Jets have overcome that by bringing in an embarrassing number of good young prospects. It likely won’t be enough to keep Byfuglien, who’s a pending unrestricted free agent after this season – let’s face it, Brent Seabrook signing an eight-year extension at $6.9 million per with the Blackhawks didn’t help their cause one bit – so the Jets will rely more on Myers in the coming years. If playing in Winnipeg is a hardship, however, it’s an overrated one by Myers’ standards. He was born in Houston and lived there until he was 10, when he moved to Calgary, so the only minus-26 that bothers him was his plus-minus rating in his last full, and disastrous, season with the Sabres. “I heard about how cold it was,” Myers said. “That doesn’t bother me at all. I go from the couch to the rink and back to the couch. I don’t go outside much during the season. Plus, it was 28 degrees (82 degrees Fahrenheit) here yesterday.” In many ways, the Jets are getting more of a finished product in Myers. The bonus is the Sabres paid $21.4 million of Myers’ contract before trading him, meaning the Jets will pay him just $17.1 million for more than four years of work, though they do take on the entire $5.5-million cap hit. Having already gone through some difficult times in Buffalo has matured Myers as a player and given him an appreciation for how well things are going now in Winnipeg. The Jets are a team on the rise, albeit one playing in arguably the NHL’s toughest division. Their prospect list is to die for, and their current group looks promising. Even though they lost four straight games in the first round to the Anaheim Ducks last spring, the Jets led heading into the third period in each of the first three contests. Every game was entertaining and intense, with all kinds of speed and physical play. The Jets are looking to build on the success they had last season, and so is Myers. “I don’t get the sense he’s driven by the money to play,” Maurice said. “I want him to enjoy his career and enjoy coming to the rink because if we can get that back, and we did last year, that’s the key. I don’t know what the ceiling is with this guy. I know what I thought it was when he was 18, but the biggest payoff for us is he’s gone through these tough times, and now he’s here.” Back at the restaurant, Myers is tucked away in a corner on a day when there aren’t many people eating. Far from the autograph seekers and curious onlookers, Myers is relaxed and content, enjoying his chicken and wontons on a bed of rice with coconut sauce and a Santa Fe salad. He starts with chopsticks, but later abandons that plan and starts digging in with a fork. For a guy who looks like he should always be hungry, it takes him about 40 minutes to finish his meal. “I’m a super slow eater,” Myers said. “My wife is usually done eating 20 minutes before I am.” Eating is just about the only thing Myers does slowly. His NHL career, now in its seventh season, has been flying by. If the Jets are going to go places, they’ll need Myers to sometimes lead them, and he won’t be able to do that by taking things slowly. And if the Jets go where some think they’re capable of going, he won’t be able to duck into restaurants and sit for 40 minutes without being noticed, either.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the October 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.