VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Jordin Tootoo has a right to hold his head high.
His decision to take a leave of absence in mid-December in order to receive treatment under the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse and behavioral health program was a difficult one. It created a different sort of public scrutiny of his actions, both preceding and following, in addition to the fact that it was an admission of personal failures.
He rejoined the team in late February and was cleared to return to action following the All-Star game.
Ever since, he has played more with his head up.
An unprecedented number of assists, particularly in the Western Conference quarterfinal series victory over Anaheim, is the most compelling piece of evidence that the 28-year-old forward suddenly has a keen understanding of what’s going on around him during a game.
“He has really great awareness right now, great clarity, attacking the puck on the forecheck, reading off the movement of the puck,” coach Barry Trotz said. “And then when there is a play to be made, he has good awareness of where his teammates are.
“He made some really good passes, very poised plays. There’s no panic in his game. You talk about a player being in a zone. He’s in a zone right now. He’s in his zone.”
Tootoo’s four assists tied for the team lead in the first-round series and were twice as many as he had in 24 games in the Predators’ five prior playoff appearances. Not once during the regular season did he have even one assist in back-to-back contests.
All four were primary assists and they came in the last two games, which accounted for half of Nashville’s goals in those two victories including Jerred Smithson’s overtime winner in Game 5. They came in a variety of ways, either while skating with the puck or while he was stationary and watching the play develop in front of him.
“He’s a little more aware, he’s using his teammates well,” Smithson, who has played with Tootoo in recent weeks, said. “He’s doing some great things. I think it starts with his skating. He’s moving his feet and he’s flying out there. When he’s doing that, he opens up so much space for everybody out there.
“… The way he’s playing right now, it’s great. It’s huge for our team.”
Too often in the past, Tootoo relied on his heavy, albeit not-always-accurate, slapshot once he crossed the blue line.
Recently his approach has varied, and it has not been by accident.
“Since he’s come back, he’s really started to make plays,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “He works hard at practice, and I think that’s really the biggest difference — he’s out there working on things. Before he would put the puck on net and go get in line. Now he’s working on scoring goals and making plays, and I think it’s making a really big difference.”
The resultant evolution of his game has been apparent in those recent assists.
For the first, he carried the puck into the offensive end and continued deep, waited until the right time and fed a pass to Kevin Klein for an easy finish.
On Smithson’s overtime goal, he was positioned in the corner as the puck came toward him. Before it arrived, he snuck a peak to the slot area. Once he got the puck, he waited as Smithson wheeled off the wall, drew a defender to him and then fed Smithson in the area that the defender vacated.
“[In the past] he’s had games where you go, ‘wow,’” Trotz said. “But [in the Anaheim] series, he was really good. When he was Jordin Tootoo, he was hard and physical, and he added some other things.
“… When you have good clarity and you’re confident, you can do some of those things. He’s always had the skills. … I think that he has to feel very good about his life decision, and his life decision is making him a hell of a good hockey player.”