Nickles fills Ams' need for speed

January 23, 2014 

lucas nickles americans tri-city whl hockey

Lucas Nickles' speed has been an asset to the Tri-City Americans this season, especially on penalty kills and short-hand breakaways.

KAI-HUEI YAU — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Lucas Nickles is not faster than the speed of light — though he can put cameras to the test — but when it comes to the Western Hockey League, there are few who can keep pace with him on a breakaway.

The Tri-City Americans forward has used his speed to create offense and wreak havoc this season, making him a valuable asset.

“Speed kills. Knowing that keeps you on your toes if you are on the opposing team,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. “Even the times he doesn’t go and score, as a player on the opposing team you have to beware and respect that at all times. Even when he isn’t directly involved in the play, you have to keep an eye on him. There are advantages and benefits with players who can skate like that, that don’t show up on the game sheet.”

The 6-foot, 190-pound Nickles will put his craft to work tonight against the Seattle Thunderbirds as the Americans host their fifth annual Nuclear Night Game to benefit the players’ education fund.

In keeping with the spirit of the game, in nuclear terms, Nickles would be classified as an atomic nuclei, fusing with other nuclei at a high speed to create energy.

“It’s exciting,” Hiller said of watching Nickles take off with the puck. “You see the players and the fans go crazy — score or not — when you generate those chances. Any positive vibe during the game for your bench is good.”

A native of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, Nickles, 19, was a multi-sport athlete growing up, playing basketball, hockey and running cross country and track and field.

“Up to Grade 9, I did sprints and relays, and grade 10 it was the 800 and 1,600,” said Nickles, who was listed by the Americans in 2009 and signed with the team in 2011. “I was big into track through Grade 9 and 10, but after that hockey took over and I didn’t have time for it. It was an easy choice. What I did then has benefited me here.”

And just because he chose hockey over running doesn’t mean he tossed his running shoes to the back of the closet.

“I do take (running) pretty seriously in the summer,” Nickles said. “I do a lot of feet work — quick feet work and sprint work. That is a big part of that. A lot of sprinting.”

Nickles skates on the energy line, mostly against other team’s top lines, and plays point on the penalty kill. He uses his speed to disrupt opposing offenses and diffuse power plays.

“Power-play players like to score,” Hiller said. “When you have a player on the penalty kill who can attack short-handed, that helps keep them on their toes and you can catch them sleeping a bit. I think the combination of those makes him a good penalty killer.”

His hard work on the penalty kill has resulted in three goals and two short-handed assists.

“It’s a good feeling, putting the puck around somebody or driving them wide,” Nickles said of his catch-me-if-you-can speed. “Knowing I have a couple seconds on them, and to be able to get a shot off, is a lot of fun.”

Fun for him, but opposing goalies never look comfortable when Nickles turns on the jets and starts flying down the ice.

“I don’t look at their faces,” Nickles said. “I may have to start. I’m looking for a pass or a hole in the net.”

But it’s not only on the penalty kill that opposing teams have to know where he is.

“Sometimes I can say I cheat a little bit when I come across to support my winger,” Nickles said. “I will cheat a little above where I’m meant to be in case I get a lucky bounce past the D-man and I can swoop through the middle and be ahead of the D-man instead of beside him. I feel my speed is my best asset. I do like a good foot race.”

Nickles has been finding the net a lot more this season than he did as a rookie three years ago when he had one goal and one assist. He scored 10 goals with 17 assists last year, and has 14 goals — three short-handed — and 16 assists this season. He also has gone from a minus-17 rating last year to a plus-14 this season.

“When you look at the numbers, you can see steady improvement,” Hiller said. “There have been some spikes, positive and negative in that. The biggest thing for me, is he can skate and shoot. When he sticks with his strength, that’s what makes him most dangerous. He has done a better job of that, understanding and going out and executing. Stick handle and weave, no. Skate and shoot, yes. When he gets into a foot race with people, he doesn’t have beat them with his hands.”

Americans goalie Eric Comrie came into the WHL at the same time as Nickles and has seen the improvement of his teammate, albeit from the backside.

“I was 16 and he was 17,” Comrie said. “Just since then you can see the growth in him. He wants to get better. I trust him to go out there and block shots. He’s fast and he’s got a great shot. I remember my 16 year, no one scored on me more in practice, no matter if it was (Brendan) Shinnimin, (Adam) Hughesman or (Patrick) Holland. Nickles always scored the most. He’s got a really good shot and he’s learned how to use it.”

And while Nickles has Comrie’s back, it works both ways.

“I have had friends on other WHL teams ask what Comrie’s weakness is,” Nickles said. “I tell them there isn’t one. You have to outwork him.”

The same theory applies to Nickles, but you have to catch him first.

Annie Fowler: 582-1574; afowler@tricityherald.com; Twitter: tchicequeen

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