And then there were four…

May 19, 2016

The Calder Cup playoffs are headed into their “final four”, which starts Friday.

Three of the four division winners are still alive through two rounds, along with one second-place team, the Lake Erie Monsters.

The Monsters take on the defending-champion Ontario Reign (who were still the Manchester Monarchs when they took last season’s title) in the Western Conference Finals, while division champs Toronto (North) and Hershey (Atlantic) do battle in the Eastern Finals.

Survival was not easy for those two Eastern Conference division winners, as both had to withstand seven-game wars in the Division Final round.  The Marlies, who ran away with the regular-season points leadership with a .750 points percentage, better than half a percentage point ahead of the Reign, who had the next best mark at .684, fell behind 1-0 and 2-1 in their second-round battle with Albany.  Toronto then had to squeak out a 4-3, come-from-behind win in Game Seven of that series, after losing Game Six at home with a chance to oust the Devils.

The Bears, meanwhile, were extended all the way to overtime of Game Seven by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, before the Bears finally vanquished their in-state rivals with a 3-2 victory.

“I think we gave it our best,” Penguin head coach Clark Donatelli told the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice. “It wasn’t like we were outplayed. We just ran out of time and they got a couple bounces, and that’s just how it went.”

Game Seven in Hershey was the fifth of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s ten playoff games to go to OT, and they had won the previous four, including a 2-1 victory in Game Four against the Bears after Hershey had taken two of the first three games of the series.

Rookie Travis Boyd scored the series-winner just under 11 minutes into the overtime for the Bears, who had lost 1-0 and 2-1 leads in regulation of Game Seven.  Boyd, a sixth-round pick by the parent Washington Capitals in 2011, had an excellent regular season for Hershey, with 21 goals and 53 points, but had scored only once in the Bears’ previous 11 playoff games.

Justin Peters continued to carry the load in net for the Bears, playing the entirety of the series except for the last two periods of Game Six, and he commented to  the Harrisburg Patriot-News after the Game Seven Win, “It’s such a fine line between winning and losing and we’re just excited to have an opportunity to keep playing.”

Travis Boyd (pennlive.com)

Travis Boyd (pennlive.com)

The leading scorer in the series was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 37-year-old, 17th-year veteran captain, Tom Kostopoulos, who struck for four goals and five assists in the seven games.

Albany also came agonizingly close to pulling an upset, one which would have been a bigger one than if the Penguins had beaten the Bears.  The Devils finished 12 points behind the Marlies in the North, but never blinked once in the seven-game series against the Maple Leaf farmhands, outshooting the stacked Toronto club in four of the seven contests.

The Devils actually took a 2-1 lead early in the third period of Game Seven, but the Marlies would go on to score three goals of their own in the third, including the game-winner by Richard Clune with 2:30 to play.

It sounded like an extremely gallant effort by the Albany side, which was missing the likes of Mike Sislo, Brian O’Neill, Reid Boucher, Jim O’Brien and Pavel Zacha for at least parts of the series, due to injuries, and lost veteran defenseman Dan Kelly for the last three games, after the AHL suspended him for his elbow to the head of Marlie forward Andreas Johnson in Game Four.

“I would have liked to have seen it with some of the key guys we were missing in the lineup, I think it could have been a different series,” Devil head coach Rick Kowalsky said after Game Seven.  “But that’s part of playoffs, that’s why you’ve got to rely on your depth.  There’s no question this was a good series, and I think a lot of people in the hockey world weren’t expecting us to have this type of series with this team, and I think we opened up a lot of eyes.”

With all of the firepower Toronto has up front, by far their most productive player in the postseason has been defenseman Connor Carrick, a trade-deadline acquisition by the Leafs from Washington.  He has 6-8-14 thus far in playoff action, six points more than the next highest-scoring Marlie.

Having survived a stern test, first-year Marlie bench boss Sheldon Keefe is confident that his group will be stronger going forward.

“This will do wonders for us in the next round,” Keefe commented to the media after the Albany series. “These type of experiences stay with you a long time, the positives and the negatives, going through the emotions, having to bounce back with big plays in pressure situations, those are terrific. You stand a little taller. Here we are May 16, not only playing a Game 7, but going onwards. That’s going to serve the group very well.”

On the western side of the league, the Reign seem to be picking up right where the Monarchs left off last season.  Coach Mike Stothers’ club has won seven of its nine postseason games through the first two rounds, after knocking off San Diego in five games in the Pacific Division Finals.

Manchester’s team last year was so dominant it didn’t need that much from its goaltender, and J.F. Berube’s postseason numbers were rather pedestrian.  Berube, who saw action in 17 of the Monarchs’ 19 playoff games in 2015, had an 89.8% save percentage and a 2.30 goals-against average in those contests, but still went 13-3.  For Ontario this year, though, the goaltender has been the most statistically dominant postseason performer, as 14th-year pro Peter Budaj has carried his stellar regular-season play over into the playoffs.

Budaj, who won this year’s Baz Bastien Memorial Award by leading the AHL in wins (42), goals-against average (1.75), save percentage (93.2) and shutouts (9), has a 1.73 GAA and a 91.8 save percentage mark in playoff action.  On the other side of the puck, the Monarchs averaged nearly 3.6 goals-per-game in the 2015 playoffs, and their top line of Jordan Weal (pictured, in action against the Wolf Pack in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals) between Brian O’Neill and Michael Mersch all scored at better than a point-per-game clip.  The Reign, by contrast, do not have anyone averaging a point-per-game, and as a team they are only averaging 2.67 goals per playoff contest.

When asked to compare the two squads, Stothers was quoted by LA Kings Insider as saying, ”I think last year’s team, we had more offense. Like, naturally gifted scorers and playmakers with O’Neill, Weal and (Nick) Shore. From the back end, we had (Colin) Miller with 20 goals – 19, to be exact, but we round up to 20. We had (Andrew) Bodnarchuk. But there’s enough guys remaining from the organization that knew what it took to win, and the sacrifices you’ve got to make. You’ve got to believe in our system, and that’s throughout our whole organization. It starts with the coaching staff up top with the Kings, and we try to follow suit, and it helps when our guys get called up that they can step in and play. It’s very successful. But everybody has to do it. We had some great success when we can get every single guy, all five guys on the ice doing the same thing, whether it’s through the neutral zone or in the defensive zone coverage, or trying to get things going in the offensive zone. It’s a hard way to play, it’s a physical way to play, it’s very demanding, but we try to mix it in with some good work days and some recovery days and some maintenance days.”

The Reign will have had a full week of recovery time by the Saturday start of their series with the Monsters, who got a bit of a scare in their second-round series with Grand Rapids after winning the first three games.  The Griffins recovered to take Games Four and Five, and then had a 3-1 lead in the second period in Game Six, before Lake Erie came back to tie that contest and eventually won in overtime.

The Monsters were a darned good team in the regular season, finishing with 43 wins and 97 points, but it looks like a late-season addition from the college ranks may have put them over the top.  Defenseman Zach Werenski, who doesn’t turn 19 until July 10, and joined Lake Erie March 29 after finishing his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, had the OT goal that finished the Griffins in Game Six and is the Monsters’ leading playoff scorer, with 4-6-10 in nine games.

While the Eastern Conference foes, the Bears and Marlies, played twice in the regular season, Game One of the Western Finals will be the first meeting of the year between the Reign and Monsters.  The two clubs should not be totally unfamiliar with each other, though, as a significant contingent of the Lake Erie roster was with Springfield last year, before Columbus moved its affiliation to Cleveland, and the Falcons and Monarchs were frequent foes.

Contract Statuses of this Year’s Roster

May 13, 2016

The AHL postseason is still going strong, but it’s never too early to start cooking up the “hot stove” of off-season roster construction.

The rubber won’t really hit the road on that until July 1, when the NHL free agency period begins, but as some food for thought, following is a rundown of where the contract statuses stand of players who spent more than a few games with this season’s Wolf Pack club.  NHL contract information comes from capfriendly.com.

Players under contract for 2016-17 include goaltenders Magnus Hellberg and Mackenzie Skapski, along with forwards Chris Brown, Adam Tambellini, Boo Nieves and Steven Fogarty, plus defensemen Brady Skjei, Ryan Graves and Calle Andersson.

Among those who are restricted free agents are captain Mat Bodie, plus fellow defenseman Tommy Hughes and forwards Marek Hrivik, Nicklas Jensen, Luke Adam and Chris McCarthy.

Magnus Hellberg

Magnus Hellberg

Quick math then indicates that the majority of this past season’s regulars are unrestricted free agents.  That group includes Chad Nehring (AHL contract), Raphael Diaz, Jayson Megna, Chris Summers, Nick Tarnasky, Brian Gibbons, Travis Oleksuk (AHL contract)¸Tyler Brown (AHL contract), Shawn O’Donnell (AHL contract), Jeff Malcolm (AHL contract), Daniel Paille, Jack Combs (AHL contract), Kodie Curran (AHL contract) and Matt Lindblad.

So, obviously, whether it is re-signing the free agents from this year’s club or shopping for new blood, looks like a busy summer for Jim Schoenfeld, Ken Gernander & Co.

Here is a list running down the above information, with players in alphabetical order:

 

Signed for 2016-17:
Calle Andersson
Chris Brown
Steven Fogarty
Ryan Graves
Magnus Hellberg
Boo Nieves
Brady Skjei
Adam Tambellini
Mackenzie Skapski
Restricted Free Agents:
Luke Adam
Mat Bodie
Marek Hrivik
Tommy Hughes
Nicklas Jensen
Chris McCarthy
Unrestricted Free Agents:
Tyler Brown (AHL)
Jack Combs (AHL)
Kodie Curran (AHL)
Raphael Diaz
Brian Gibbons
Matt Lindblad
Jeff Malcolm (AHL)
Jayson Megna
Chad Nehring (AHL)
Shawn O’Donnell (AHL)
Travis Oleksuk (AHL)
Daniel Paille
Chris Summers
Nick Tarnasky

Calder Cup Playoff Action into second Round

May 5, 2016

Round One of the Calder Cup tournament is history, and form pretty much held in the first-round series’ in the Eastern Conference, with only one mild upset.  That was Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the third-place finishers in the Atlantic Division, ousting second-place Providence in a three-game sweep.

That was an impressive accomplishment for the Penguins, on whom the parent Pittsburgh club has leaned heavily to provide reinforcements for their own playoff run.  Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been missing offensive kingpins Conor Sheary, Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl, as well as defenseman Derrick Pouliot and goaltender Matt Murray, for the better part of the last two months, and more recently lost centerman Oskar Sundqvist to the big club.  Within the last week, winger Tom Sestito and defenseman Steve Oleksy were also called up.

The AHL Penguins had struggled down the stretch, going 2-5-0-1 in their last eight regular-season games, and the P-Bruins had finished strongly, with five straight wins to end the regular year and an 11-3-0-1 record in their last 15, and the margin of victory in the series between the two clubs was razor-thin, with all three games going to overtime, but Wilkes-Barre/Scranton got the final word in all three.

Providence came back to tie all three contests in the third period, but had no luck in overtime, and two recent prospect additions to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton roster both struck for OT goals.  Daniel Sprong, a 2015 second-round pick by Pittsburgh who spent most of this year in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, ended Game Two 5:13 into overtime and Jake Guentzel, a 2013 third-rounder who is fresh out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, had the double-overtime series-winner in Game Three.  That came after the Penguins had blown a 4-1 third-period lead.

Also notable in that Wilkes-Barre/Scranton-Providence series was that Casey DeSmith (pictured, courtesy of wbspenguins.com), who spent most of this season in the ECHL, played all three games in goal for the Penguins and delivered a 93.0% save percentage, including a 59-save performance in the clincher, in which Providence had a 63-37 shots edge.

DeSmith, Sprong and the Penguins served notice that their first-round sweep was no fluke, with a 4-0 shutout of Hershey Wednesday, in Game One of the two Keystone State rivals’ second-round matchup.  DeSmith stopped 33 Bear shots in his first pro whitewash, and Sprong scored twice, including a goal only 45 seconds into the game.

Casey DeSmith (courtesy of wbspenguins.com)

Casey DeSmith (courtesy of wbspenguins.com)

There was another Division Final-round series opener Wednesday night, and that saw the Albany Devils hand the regular-season league-champion Toronto Marlies a 2-1 defeat at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto.  That was the first postseason loss for the Marlies, after a first-round sweep of Bridgeport, who had nosed out the Wolf Pack for fifth place in the Atlantic Division and the right to cross over into the North Division draw.

Only one first-round series went the full five-game route, and that was the Atlantic Division-champion Bears’ struggle with the fourth-place Portland Pirates, who failed in two chances to eliminate Hershey after a 2-1, triple-overtime Pirate win in Game Three of the series.  Justin Peters made 19 saves to blank Portland 2-0 in Game Four, and then the Bears advanced with a 2-1 victory in Game Five on Sunday, only to have to jump right back into action against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton two days later.

The Pirates’ heartbreaking loss, meanwhile, was followed by the stunning news that the franchise had been sold to interests in Springfield, who were moving the team to the MassMutual Center to replace the recently-departed Falcons.  Wow.

The other Eastern Conference first-round matchup was the 2-3 series in the North Division, which Albany won in four games over Utica, with Scott Wedgewood allowing a total of only eight goals in the Devil net in the four contests.

Over in the Western Conference, the higher seeds also won three of the four series, but the one who didn’t was the regular-season conference champion, the Milwaukee Admirals.  The Admirals, who finished with 48 wins and 101 points in the regular season to win the Central Division, were bounced in a sweep by the fourth-place finishers, the Grand Rapids Griffins, a 90-point team in the regular season.  Grand Rapids had stumbled to the finish line, losing their last five and ten of their last 13, and scored a total of only nine goals in the three-game series, but goaltender Tom McCollum was a wall.  The seventh-year pro allowed the Admirals only one goal in each of the three Griffin wins, stopping a total of 91 out of 94 shots.

The other Central Division series was also a sweep, with second-place Lake Erie downing third-place Rockford, for the Monsters’ first-ever playoff series win.  In the Pacific Division both series’ went four games, with division-champion Ontario prevailing over San Jose to begin the Reign’s defense of the championship the team won last season as the Manchester Monarchs, and second-place San Diego beating third-place Texas.

Wolf Pack’s Newfoundland Journey a Trip Home for Luke Adam

April 15, 2016

Here’s a piece I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack forward Luke Adam:

It took until the very end of the Wolf Pack’s regular season for Wolf Pack forward, and St. John’s, Newfoundland native, Luke Adam to get a trip back to his hometown, but that only made the return sweeter for the sixth-year pro.

“It’s awesome, I couldn’t be happier to be at home,” Adam said Thursday, as the Wolf Pack prepared for playing their final two regular-season games at Mile One Centre in St. John’s Friday and Saturday.  “You get to see a lot of friends, a lot of family, a lot of people around the rink that it wasn’t too long ago that I was coming down watching the games here.  It’s great to be back.”

Not only did the 25-year-old Adam grow up in St. John’s, he also spent a big chunk of his formative years knocking around the Mile One Centre, tagging along with his father Russ.  The elder Adam, himself a former pro player, was an assistant coach with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, the first AHL franchise to call Newfoundland home, for their last four seasons of existence.

“My dad was coaching here when I was ages 10-15,” Adam said.  “So I was the rug rat running around the dressing room, and it’s definitely cool to be back and to be able to take advantage of playing here in front of the hometown.”Adam Action Shot

A decade has gone by since Adam shared those times with his dad around the Leafs’ locker room, and pondering all that has happened since then gives him a chuckle.

“It’s crazy, the amount of things that have happened throughout my career, especially in this building,” Adam said.  “Being the kid running around the dressing room and then that team ended up leaving, and I ended up playing Major Junior hockey here for two seasons in this rink.  And then that team (the St. John’s Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) ended up leaving, and now I’m back as a visiting player.  So it’s been a full circle, that’s for sure, but it’s definitely neat.”

And even as young as he was when his dad was on the Maple Leaf staff, Adam feels that what his behind-the-scenes access allowed him to absorb has played a major role in his subsequent success as a player.

“Just being able to watch hockey as much as I did, and even having him at home, seeing his coaching preparation and teaching and that kind of stuff, it definitely helped a lot,” Adam said.  “Him and my mom have both been such big influences in my career, and it’s definitely helped to be around the game as much as I was.”

As he referenced, Adam got an up-close perspective on two different teams closing up shop at the Mile One Centre, but he sees the AHL as now being on solid footing, in its second go-round in his home city.

“I think they get great support,” Adam said of the St. John’s IceCaps, who are in their fifth season of AHL play and whose average attendance  this season is roughly 500 short of the Mile One Centre’s 6,287 capacity. “I know people love watching hockey, people are passionate about hockey around here, that’s for sure, and it shows in how well they support the team here.  It might be a bit of a distance (for visiting teams) to travel and whatnot, but at the end of the day, it’s definitely a place in the league that loves the team and loves hockey.”

After four years as a Winnipeg Jets affiliate, the IceCaps acquired a new NHL partner, the Montreal Canadiens, this offseason, a change that Adam sees as another positive for the future of pro hockey on “The Rock”, as his home province is affectionately known.

“All my buddies are either Montreal or Toronto fans, and most everyone around here is the same way,” he said.  “So I knew when the Habs decided to move their farm team here that it was going to be well supported.  It’s definitely a team that people are loyal and passionate about, which is nice and definitely helps.”

The Wolf Pack’s junket to St. John’s is actually the second leg of a longer trip, which saw them start out in Portland Sunday and then head to Toronto on Monday.  Before jetting to St. John’s, the Wolf Pack pulled off a season-saving, 3-2 victory over the league-leading Toronto Marlies in a school-day, morning-start game on Wednesday, with Adam’s 12th goal of the year midway through the second period ending up as the game-winner.  He scored that marker while centering the Wolf Pack’s fourth line between Nick Tarnasky and Tyler Brown, after several games playing either left-wing or center on the second line, alongside Nicklas Jensen and, when he wasn’t on recall to the parent New York Rangers, Marek Hrivik.

“It’s nice to be able to have four lines on any team and to be able to roll them over, like we’ve had some success doing,” Adam said.  “It’s definitely a nice feeling to be able to chip in offensively and get that goal in a do-or-die-type game.  Hopefully we can continue to do that.”

Adam has been all over the Wolf Pack’s depth chart this season, and has honed his versatility while finding himself in a number of different roles for Head Coach Ken Gernander and his staff.

“It’s definitely been a different year for me,” Adam admitted.  “I’ve been put in situations that maybe I’ve never been in before, I think I’ve played all three positions, on all four lines.  It’s been different, but whatever Ken sees me helping the team best.  He’s obviously making decisions trying to win games and put us in the best position to win.”

And wherever he is situated in the Wolf Pack’s forward group, and with whomever he is playing, Adam has tried not to change his approach.

“Obviously some little tendencies are going to change in your game, but for the most part I try to bring the same sort of energy, same sort of game,” he elaborated.  “Maybe a little bit more of a grind game with Nick and [Brown], but those guys are good players and they’re going to make plays, and they’ve shown that all year.  You just try and keep the game as simple as possible, and the same level, playing on all four lines.  That’s what we’ve had success doing, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

Wolf Pack’s Nieves a Man of Many Talents

April 7, 2016

Following is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on newly-added Pack centerman Boo Nieves:

Like most hockey players who advance as far as the pro level, the Wolf Pack’s Cristoval “Boo” Nieves was thoroughly wrapped up in the game from a very early age, and was blessed with extremely supportive parents who went out of their way to help him chase his dream.

That is not to say, however, that Nieves, or his mom Joanne or dad Rafael, had such tunnel vision that they were consumed by hockey and thought of little else.

In fact, the Nieves family has another passion that Boo finds nearly as rewarding as the game that earned him a college scholarship to the University of Michigan and is his chosen profession.

“Music means a lot to me,” Nieves, who majored in Music at Michigan, said in a conversation after a recent Wolf Pack practice.  “Music’s a huge part of my family, my dad’s really into music, my mom’s really into music.  I picked up the guitar when I was about 12 or 13 and then drums after that, and then piano in college, so it’s definitely something that is a passion of mine.  It’s been really fun at Michigan because it’s kind of an escape from hockey.  I kind of get two different worlds.  It’s nice to get away from hockey, go up to North Campus and play some instruments, and I’m glad I took the music route.”

That path started from an early age for Nieves, who was surrounded by an eclectic mix of musical influences at home.Nieves Action Shot

“My mom, she’s just a huge music fan,” Nieves said.  “She was always playing like Elton John and people like Boston, The Who.  It was always kind of like bumping in the kitchen in the summertime, and my dad was actually a DJ when he was younger.  So he was kind of more in the, like, electronic music.  He would make some music and mash-up songs, and I kind of grew up around that.  I started picking up some instruments, and just kind of never looked back.”

Nieves’ musical talents and level of interest are such that he has entertained thoughts of trying the music business as a second career, but not until after what he hopes will be a long and successful run as a pro hockey player

“It’s definitely something I’ve put a little bit of thought into, maybe after hockey’s done, maybe down the road take a stab at some musicianship,” Nieves said.  “But I haven’t really thought too far into it, more focused on hockey right now.”

That focus has led to the Syracuse, NY-born Nieves playing four successful years at U. Michigan, and being selected by the Wolf Pack’s parent club, the New York Rangers, in the second round of the 2012 NHL Draft.  That was after two seasons at Kent School in western Connecticut, playing for coach Matt Herr, a former Michigan Wolverine and NHL and AHL player.

“It’s nice to be back in a familiar state,” Nieves said with a smile, of his return to the Nutmeg State to join the Wolf Pack.  “Kent was awesome.  Matt Herr was a huge influence on me going to Michigan, and he helped me to get there.  I speak to him every once in a while.  It’s been a really good experience ever since I went to Kent.  I’m really happy I did, it really helped set up my future at Michigan, the little things, like time management and being on your own and playing hockey.  I’m glad I started at Kent.”

After finishing at prep school, Nieves could have tried the Major Junior route, and possibly navigated a shorter route to pro hockey, but four years of playing in Ann Arbor for legendary Wolverines coach Red Berenson turned out to be a boon for Boo.

“I’m very happy, it’s been a really good experience at Michigan,” he said.  “Everything that I did there, and everybody that was there, the coaches, the staff, they’ve all set me up to be successful and to come here (to the pros).  And school-wise, I’m going to graduate pretty soon, so it’ll be nice to have a degree under my belt, as well getting to the same place (pro hockey) as I would have anyway.”

Nieves feels, too, that the preparation for pro that he received playing in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) his freshman year, and the Big-10 thereafter, takes a back seat to no other.

“I think it helped a lot,” he asserted.  “There’s been a lot of guys who have come out of those two leagues, especially in the more recent years, that have played in the AHL and even broken into the NHL, guys that I played with, like (Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan) Larkin and (Toronto Maple Leafs forward Zach) Hyman and (Carolina Hurricanes winger Phil) Di Giuseppe.  Guys like that had put their time in there and had come out and had been successful.  So it’s definitely helped a lot to play against guys who were already ahead of me, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

Nieves’ arrival has enhanced what was already a strong U. Michigan presence in the Wolf Pack locker room.  In addition to Nieves, Hartford veterans Chris Summers and Chris Brown are both also former Wolverines.  Although both Brown and Nieves were gone from Ann Arbor by the time Nieves arrived in the fall of 2012, he still feels a connection with his two new Wolf Pack teammates.

“It’s pretty cool to have two other guys who attended Michigan here with me,” Nieves said.  “We’ve had some good laughs about stuff we’ve done together there, and things that all the guys do when they’re at Michigan.  It’s been good to have them there, it’s nice to have some familiar faces, and it helps my transition even more.”

Nieves stands 6-3 and weighs 200 pounds, which qualifies as solid NHL size, but the attribute that has kept him among the ranks of elite prospects is his skating speed.

“I definitely feel like speed’s my best asset, especially because of my size,” Nieves said.  “Not many guys can move as quick as I can at my height.  So I definitely think that’s been a strength of my game, and growing up my coaches always would say, ‘Speed kills.  As long as you can stay ahead of the other guy, just make sure you’re doing everything at a higher pace than them, then you’ll be fine.’”

Through the first two games he has played with the Wolf Pack, Nieves has noticed a difference in the pace of play between the AHL and NCAA Division I, but it has not been as big of a jump as he thought it might be.

“It’s definitely a little faster, but I was more surprised with how strong other guys are,” Nieves said.  “You feel like you’re playing against men out there, and it’s been kind of tough at first, but I’m starting to catch on.”

In addition to foot speed, another calling card that Nieves has developed throughout his amateur career is acumen in the faceoff circle.  He credits that to the guidance of his venerable college coach, who has been helping collegians develop in Ann Arbor for three decades.

“After practice every day, Coach Berenson would make me do faceoffs,” Nieves said.  “And I’m glad he did because he would watch video on guys in the NHL and he would send them to me, guys like (Montreal Canadiens great Saku) Koivu, and he talked about just making sure you know what the other guy’s doing, more or less, and not worrying so much about where the ref’s hand is.  It’s just making sure that you’re beating the other guy.  I think the best tip he ever gave me was that I don’t necessarily have to win the faceoff, I just can’t lose it clean.”

All that work on faceoffs has already served Nieves well in AHL action, as one of two assists he picked up in his first two Wolf Pack games was as a result of winning a draw.  On that play, he set up a goal by Daniel Paille, who, along with Brown, has flanked Nieves in is first pair of pro outings.

“I think it’s gone pretty well so far,” Nieves said.  “It took me the first few periods of the first game to kind of get going and get up to speed, but Brown and Paille have been really good with me and they’ve really helped me out a lot.  They’ve made the transition definitely a lot smoother.”

For Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, Nieves’ arrival was timely, given his ability to play center and the fact that the Wolf Pack had lost veteran pivot man Travis Oleksuk to an injury.

“He’s (Nieves) given us a little bit of depth down the middle, and that was a big boost for us, given that Olie (Oleksuk) was out, gave us a little bit more flexibility,” Gernander said.  “You can certainly see that he skates well, and he picked up an assist his first night.  It’s been pretty good stuff.”

Gernander has been impressed by the 22-year-old Nieves’ approach as well, and by his ability to hit the ground running.

“He’s just joining us, so it’s not like he’s had all kinds of time to get acclimated to things,” Gernander said of Nieves.  “I’m sure there’s a little bit of adrenaline working in his favor, but a guy that’s doing things, making plays, being proactive, certainly that’s the mindset you want to have.”

Nieves and fellow recent Wolf Pack addition Steven Fogarty, a product of the University of Notre Dame and a third-round selection by the Rangers in 2011, are hoping to follow in the footsteps of defenseman Brady Skjei, who earned a callup to the Rangers April 5.  A year ago at this time, Skjei was in the same position as Nieves and Fogarty are in now, that is, a high-round Ranger draft pick right out of college, just getting his feet wet with the Wolf Pack.

“Brady’s a guy that we’ve known for a few years now and one of the first guys we said hi to when we got here, and it was definitely the most familiar face,” said Nieves.  “He was kind of helping us, guide us around here, making sure we know what we’re doing and making sure we know what’s going on.  I’m glad for him that he got called up, that’s really cool, and I wish him the best of luck.”

Chris Brown a Symbol of Hockey’s Expanding U.S. Roots

March 16, 2016

Here’s a piece I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website on recently-acquired winger Chris Brown:

A look at the “birthplace” column of the Wolf Pack’s roster would reveal many of the typical places of origin for hockey players.

One would see a number of different Canadian locales, a couple of Minnesotas, a Michigan, a Massachusetts and several European cities.

One hometown suffix stands out, though, and that is the “TX” that follows Chris Brown’s birthplace.

Brown, who hails from Flower Mound, Texas, located just northwest of Dallas, is one of the poster boys for how much the U.S. hockey footprint has expanded in recent years.  Gone are the days when, as was said of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team, hockey in this country was largely synonymous with “a bunch of guys from Minnesota and Boston.”

So how does a young player get from “deep in the heart of Texas” to the University of Michigan, as Brown did, and eventually to the highest levels of pro hockey?Action Shot for Blog - 03-17-16 - Chris Brown

“Obviously it’s non-traditional,” the 25-year-old right-winger said recently.  “I grew up playing in Dallas up until I was 14 years old, had a lot of good coaches that came through the Junior Stars organizations.  And then I moved away to Detroit to play for Detroit Honeybaked my midget year, which really kind of kicked off my hockey career.

“I never thought I’d make it out of Dallas, hockey was just sort of a fun thing for me.  I played other sports like football and baseball too.  So I kind of worked my way through a move when I was young, it was tough on my parents, obviously, it was tough on me, to let me go away when I was 14.  It’s been a different experience, being from a non-traditional state, but it’s got me to where I am now.”

Once he got to “Hockeytown”, as Detroit is often referred to, and enjoyed excellent success in one of the most traditional of hockey states, Brown was on the fast track to becoming an elite performer on the frozen pond.

“Playing in Detroit was kind of like playing football in Texas,” Brown remembered.  “It’s more of a religion there too.  It was a good experience, I had a lot of good friends on that team, a lot of guys that are playing in the NHL now, and in the AHL.  We had a great team, they were very welcoming as well, to allow a kid from Texas to come up and play in Detroit.”

After a fine midget season, in which he was the top goal-scorer on that stacked Detroit Honeybaked team, the then-16-year-old Texan landed a spot with the U.S. National Team Development Program.  That is USA Hockey’s elite training program for players under 18, which is meant to prepare them for playing on the country’s national teams.  In existence since 1996, the USNTDP has been a major factor in the blossoming of hockey talent further across the U.S..

Brown’s two years in the USNTDP, during which one of his teammates was Ryan Bourque, the man the Rangers organization traded to acquire Brown, were another key stepping stone.

“It gets you all the exposure you could ever ask for, internationally, playing against some of the best guys,” Brown said of the national program.  “Actually I played against Hriv (Slovakian-born Wolf Pack teammate Marek Hrivik) growing up, too, for a couple of years.  The hockey world’s very small.  And so, whenever you get a chance to represent your country, and get exposed to colleges your second year, and all that kind of stuff, it makes the transition a little easier going into pro hockey and into college hockey.”

At the time Brown was part of the USNTDP, it was based in Ann Arbor, MI, and that’s where Brown would stay for three subsequent years, skating for Coach Red Berenson’s University of Michigan Wolverines, with current fellow Wolf Pack veteran Chris Summers as one of his teammates.  During all that time up in the northern reaches of the country, though, Brown always stayed true to his Lone Star State roots

“I was born in Houston, raised in Dallas, so Texan through and through,” he said with a smile.  “It’s something that I really pride myself on.  Some guys probably get irritated hearing about it all the time, but I wear cowboy boots, I got all that stuff going on.  It’s not the hockey hotbed of the country, but there’s a lot of good players that are coming through there.”

The game of hockey continues to spread its sphere of influence in the U.S., as evidenced by the fact that this year’s USNTDP Under-18 Team roster includes a Californian, a Floridian, two players from St. Louis and one each from Idaho and Maryland.  High-level junior programs are proliferating virtually everywhere in the nation, and the NHL’s nationwide penetration helps spread interest, and spur the construction of rinks where there never before would have been enough interest to support them.  Still, Brown feels that the path to elite hockey success for young players in non-traditional hockey areas will remain a difficult one.

“I don’t think it’s going to be easy, I think there’s still going to be that challenge,” he said.  “I think there’s a lot of guys, including myself, that are trying to pave that path for other guys to make it a little easier, but the California kids, the Texas kids, the Floridas, those kids are still going to have a tough time.  Some of the other sports, like football and baseball, are still going to rule those states.  Personally, I played football to play with all my buddies, so it’s kind of one of those things, if you want to do it, you’ve got to really commit to it.  You don’t necessarily have to move, that’s just a decision that I made.  The programs are obviously getting better in those non-traditional markets.”

Drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009, following his second season in the National Team program, Brown signed with the Coyotes in March of 2012, after the conclusion of his junior year at Michigan.  His first year of pro was a rousing success, as he scored 29 goals, tops among 2012-13 AHL rookies, in 68 games with the Portland Pirates and earned five NHL games with Phoenix.

The next year he got six games with the Coyotes and had 14 goals and 35 points in 51 games with the Pirates, before being swapped to the Washington Capitals in a trade-deadline deal.  The 2014-15 season saw Brown score 17 goals in 64 AHL games with Hershey and get into five NHL contests with Washington, but this year’s campaign has been marked by little but frustration for the 6-2, 209-pounder.  He did get one game with the Capitals, but dressed for only 20 of the 34 for which he was on Hershey’s roster, and was held to 3-6-9 in his AHL action.

“This year’s been difficult,” Brown acknowledged.  “I started out with an injury and having to battle through that, that’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that, and then a tough situation in Hershey.  But at the same time, there’s a lot of similarities that I see in this organization that I saw with Portland.  So I’m looking to get that opportunity and looking to get that scoring touch back.”

The trade that swapped Brown for Bourque was completed February 28, less than 24 hours ahead of the NHL trade deadline, marking the second time in four pro years that Brown changed addresses virtually at the last possible moment.

“The first time was a bit of a shock, the second time I was kind of a little more ready for it,” Brown said of his two trade experiences.  “Every year the trade deadline comes, you get a little more prepared.  It’s a little chaotic for about 48 hours, but the guys have done a great job here of welcoming me, and the coaches too.  So it’s nice to be here.

“I was excited, it’s obviously a fresh start.  Kind of funny I got traded for [Bourque], since I played with him before.  I’m really excited to be here and to be a part of the organization.”

Making the move to the Wolf Pack even more enjoyable for Brown was the presence of his old college buddy Summers, with whom Brown also played for parts of two seasons in Portland.

“I played with [Bourque] when I was at USA for two years, so I got to know him, and then I played with [Summers], my freshman year he was a senior, he was the captain,” Brown said.  “So it was a little funny coming back to see him, but he’s one of my best friends.  He’s actually standing up in my wedding, so it was nice to see him and his family and kind of have that familiar face come into the locker room to show me around.”

Beyond the personal connection, Brown has another reason for being upbeat about the move to the Ranger organization.  That is the Rangers’ positive reputation, in players’ minds, for putting a premium on talent development.

“This organization’s done a really good job of developing players, there’s always been a lot of guys that have been here and then up in New York,” Brown said.  “So I’m looking forward to obviously continuing that and trying to get up there as well.

“I’ve had a lot of experience playing against the Wolf Pack, and you see a lot of guys that I’ve played against are now up with the Rangers.  So it’s pretty well known that this organization does a really good job and takes a lot of pride in developing their players.

Callup Gives Wolf Pack’s Hrivik Extra Spark

March 10, 2016

Following is a piece I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack forward Marek Hrivik:

The Wolf Pack’s Marek Hrivik had spent more than three-and-a-half seasons, and 246 games, in the AHL before receiving his first career NHL callup from the parent New York Rangers February 21.

Hrivik had done much quality work for the Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale since coming out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League at the end of March, 2012, notching 40 goals and 115 points in those 246 games and handling all three forward positions, but had never been in a position to have his name called for Ranger duty.

When the call finally came, and Hrivik stepped out on to the Madison Square Garden ice against the Detroit Red Wings that night, it made all of the waiting worth it.

“It felt really good, it couldn’t get any better, first NHL game for the Rangers, in the Garden and against Detroit,” Hrivik said recently.  “It was just an unbelievable feeling.”

There was no bitterness on Hrivik’s part, either, that it took so relatively long for his NHL chance to come.

“I just knew there was a really good team up there and that a lot of guys weren’t going to get injured,” the 24-year-old Zilina, Slovakia native said.  “No injuries and a great team up there, that’s a tough way to get a callup, but I just try to play well here and obviously I got rewarded.”Action Shot for Blog - 03-10-16 - Hrivik

Hrivik did well with the reward, too, registering one assist and a +2 while averaging 8:49 of ice time in four games.  He played mostly on a line with NHL veterans Dominic Moore and Tanner Glass.

In the view of Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, even though Hrivik is now back at the AHL level, getting that first callup is great for his development as a player.

“It gives him a chance to experience the NHL pace, and to see how he fares against NHL competition in real regular season games,” the Wolf Pack’s bench boss elaborated.  “I think he played well and acquitted himself well, so that should be a source of confidence coming back to us now, and I think it was a well-deserved callup on his part.”

“I felt good out there,” Hrivik added.  “I think I was making some plays, our line played really well.  We scored two goals in those four games I’d been up there, I think we played well.  Obviously I’m here (with the Wolf Pack) now, but I’ve just got to keep working hard and hope that I’ll get the chance again.”

Now that he has finally gotten an opportunity to experience the Big Show first-hand, Hrivik is convinced that the biggest challenge to playing at that level as opposed to the AHL is less about the skill level as about reading and reacting to the play.

“It was just the thinking and making the right plays at the right time, that’s the biggest difference, I find,” he said.  “The guys are not skating faster, they’re not bigger, they’re not stronger, it’s just the decision-making and the skilled plays that you have to make, especially on the blue lines.  I think that was the biggest difference, and just to execute.”

Hrivik’s contributions to the Rangers generated positive buzz in the New York market, and he feels as though the Ranger group appreciated how he was able to fit in.

“I was getting a lot of information from the guys during the games, in the meetings and the video,” Hrivik said.  “They were telling me what to do, they helped me a lot.  And they gave me feedback, the day I got sent down I got a call from the coaches, and they said they were happy with me and just be ready for the next opportunity.”

The way Gernander sees it, the timing was perfect for the big club to make good use of Hrivik’s best attributes.

“They were looking for someone that can kill penalties and be good, sound defensively on a fourth-line role, but also I think they were looking to spice it up offensively on that fourth line,” Gernander said.  “He seemed to fit the bill in all three categories, and as advertised, I think he did a good job.”

Hrivik can also take some solace in the fact that the main reason why he was returned to the Wolf Pack was a factor beyond his control, and had nothing to do with his play.  When the Rangers acquired Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes February 28, just ahead of the NHL trade deadline, and did not lose a roster player in the deal, they needed to clear a roster spot.

Hrivik was philosophical about being back with the Wolf Pack, and is determined not to over-think.

“I don’t really know what was the situation behind that, but it’s just the way it goes,” he said.  “It’s a hard business, and sometimes you’ve got to just swallow it and just go with it.  It’s just the way it is, and they do the best they can up there to help that team to win.”

Having had that first NHL “cup of coffee” has made Hrivik extra hungry for more, and determined to keep up the AHL level of play that put him in line for the first callup.

“That gives you kind of that extra push, when you know you’re playing for something and you want to get up there and you have the chance to do it,” he said.  “It gave me a taste, and I’m going to be buzzing and just trying to earn it again.”

If Hrivik needs to enhance the “carrot on the end of the stick”, so to speak, he can remind himself of the relative luxury of the NHL lifestyle.  Traveling on chartered planes, staying in four-star hotels and enjoying the best dining that the best cities have to offer makes for a pretty nice deal.

“It’s something that you can get used to easy,” Hrivik chuckled of the perks of NHL life.  It’s just something that those guys get rewarded for how good they play up there.”

Meanwhile, back in the AHL, Hrivik wasn’t away from the Wolf Pack that long, only a week, but came back to a locker room that had just undergone a major change.  That was with captain Ryan Bourque, who was basically a contemporary of Hrivik’s in terms of Wolf Pack experience, having just been traded to Washington for fellow veteran winger Chris Brown.

“I was a little surprised, but on the other hand I want to see Bourquie do well,” Hrivik said of his reaction to the change.  “We’ve been together here since my first year, four or five years.  We’re going to miss him, for sure, he was a great leader in the room and a great player.”

Still on hand with the Wolf Pack, though, is Hrivik’s linemate Nicklas Jensen, with whom Hrivik had enjoyed excellent chemistry since Jensen’s acquisition from Vancouver January 8.  Hrivik was happy to reunite with his Danish wingman, and hopefully pick right up where the two left off when Hrivik was called up.

“He’s a really skilled guy,” said Hrivik of Jensen.  “He shoots the puck, he scores goals, so I’m just trying to create some space out there for him.  And now we’ve got [Daniel Paille] on the line too, he’s got a lot of experience from the NHL.  So I hope we’ll do well.”

McCarthy Thriving in fourth-line Role

February 25, 2016

Here is a feature I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website, on Pack forward Chris McCarthy:

When the New York Rangers signed forward Chris McCarthy out of the University of Vermont in March of 2014, the Collegeville, PA native was fresh off of an 18-goal, 42-point Senior season with the Catamounts, and seemed poised to be an offensive force in the AHL.  He got his feet wet with eight games in the Wolf Pack lineup after the conclusion of his college season, and was primed to recreate his Hockey East offensive exploits right from the start of the following AHL campaign.

As it turned out, though, McCarthy barely managed to get into the Wolf Pack mix in 2014-15.  A spare part coming out of training camp, he was assigned to Greenville of the ECHL in mid-October and spent the bulk of the season with the Road Warriors, logging only five games with the Wolf Pack all season.

This year, however, not only has the 24-year-old McCarthy solidified a roster spot with the Pack, he has been a key contributor.  Playing mostly on the fourth line, McCarthy has turned in quality minutes on a nightly basis and has begun to show the offensive touch that made him a Second Team Hockey East All-Star as a senior.McCarthy Action Shot 2

When asked recently what the key has been to his turnaround this year, McCarthy responded, “I think just my mindset overall.  I came in this year just trying to get in the lineup and work my way in, and really just put my best foot forward, and whatever they (the Wolf Pack coaches) asked of me, just do for them.  We’ve kind of found some success, and I’ve just been trying to be positive all the way throughout, no matter what the ups and downs may be through the season.  It’s a long season, I learned that last year and I think that’s really helped me.

“Controlling what you can control, I think that’s where my mind’s been at this year, and that’s all that you can do, with this long season, going out and working hard every shift, every minute that you’re out there.  That’s really all you can do.”

Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander’s comment about what has made the difference for McCarthy was, “Probably opportunity, and some of it’s learning or growth, or getting acclimated at this (the AHL) level.  But he’s certainly battled his way up the ranks, played a lot of fourth-line minutes while he was getting that experience, and he’s been deserving of all the ice time he’s been given lately.  The more responsibility he’s had lately, he’s been equal to the challenge.”

McCarthy has played all three forward positions for the Wolf Pack this season, and has been joined on the fourth line for most of the campaign by 12th-year pro Nick Tarnasky.  McCarthy’s and Tarnasky’s backgrounds could hardly be more different–McCarthy an American college product who grew up near Philadelphia and Tarnasky a grizzled veteran out of the Western Junior ranks who hails from rural Alberta–but the duo have found plenty of commonality on the ice.

“Nick’s awesome,” McCarthy said of Tarnasky.  “He and I have really been a package deal this whole year, and I think we’ve found great chemistry there.  He’s a big guy, he works hard, he gives you everything he’s got every night.  And he’s got great mitts around the net, so I just try to find him in open areas, and he’s found the back of the net quite a good amount this year.

“He definitely has some offensive skill, but I think he opens up the ice for us, with forechecking and his hard-nosed mentality.  I’ve enjoyed playing with him a lot this year, and we’ve found some good chemistry there.”

Tarnasky’s calling card is physical play and getting in on the forecheck, and he has been impressed with how effective McCarthy has been in those elements of the game.

“I think he actually does a decent job of finishing hits and being F-1 (the first forward in on the forecheck) as well,” Tarnasky analyzed.  “And whether he or I, or whoever the third person is that we’re with, is the F-1, I think he’s really good at reading and being able to find those loose pucks, once the turnovers are created.  He’s a good, big body, good balance, he’s able to kind of turn his back and protect pucks.  And then I think he’s got a pretty good skill level, where once he’s got the puck, he can turn his back and look to make a play, or look to release it to where me or our other linemate will be.

“I think we’ve become pretty understanding of where one another’s going to be, and supporting each other on the wall, whether he’s on the right side or up the middle.  Just being able to have the confidence to chip the puck or throw it cross-ice, I think we have a pretty good understanding that I’ll be going on my side or coming across, at the same time when I know he’ll be doing the same.”

It has been somewhat of a rotating cast of characters at the other forward spot on the fourth line, and recently the likes of Luke Adam and Brian Gibbons, two players who have a significant level of NHL experience, have spent some time skating with McCarthy and Tarnasky.  That has helped McCarthy to a bit of a statistical breakout, with a three-point game in a 7-2 Wolf Pack win in Springfield February 20 and a personal AHL-best three-game point-scoring streak from February 17-21.

“It just gives us confidence,” McCarthy said of the offensive rewards.  “We’ve been playing some great hockey as of late and seeing pucks start to go in for us is obviously a good sign.  And being marked as a fourth line, you might say, ‘We don’t need to be doing that, we just need to go out and create energy,’ and everything else.  And whatever way we can help, it’s great.

“We think that we can help this team out as much as the next guy, and whatever the role of the night may be, we’re just going to go out there and do it.

“Especially the past month or so, we’ve finally been really clicking and finding ways to help the team out the best we can.”

Tarnasky added, “We’ve probably played 35 or so games together, and we’re having fun together.  And I played with Luke in Rochester, and I think the games that the three of us played together were pretty good to watch and we had a lot of fun.  Same with Gibby (Gibbons), he’s a good player, and seemingly whoever gets mixed in with us, I think we’re doing a good job as far as offensive-zone pressure, and creating quite a bit of offense.”

That offensive contribution by the McCarthy-Tarnasky-et. al. combination is greatly valued by Gernander, who is not a coach who expects any of his players to limit their contributions to rigidly defined roles.

“We don’t try and pigeonhole anybody fourth line per se, because I think over the last little stretch here, they’ve been pretty good, contributing offensively,” the Wolf Pack head man said.  “And certainly when you go on the road, you don’t always get the (line) matches you want, so they’ve got to be able to play against anybody, really.

“They’re (McCarthy and Tarnasky) both guys who have kind of fought their way up the ranks this season, so there’s a little bit of camaraderie there, and I think they have a pretty good friendship off the ice as well.  So it’s been a bit of chemistry, too.”

The versatility that McCarthy has shown in moving back and forth among center and both wings has improved his value as well, and his willing acceptance of the positional juggling goes back to the positive mindset that has keyed his progress here in year two of his pro career.

“Like I said, controlling what you can control, and that’s going out wherever they say to play, you go out there and put your best foot forward and give them everything you can,” McCarthy expanded.  “And switching back and forth hasn’t really been an issue for me, it’s fine.

“I’ve played center enough in college that when they asked me to play center here it hasn’t been too much of a change for me.  It’s obviously a little bit different in the D zone, but for the most part it’s been pretty easy for me.”

The defensive-zone aspect, playing the “200-foot game” is often an issue for players who were big point producers at other levels of hockey before reaching the pros, and McCarthy considers his play away from the puck still to be a work in progress.

“I think it’s been getting better as the season’s gone on,” he said.  “I think our line, what we’re asked of is energy and forechecking and being sound defensively, and I think we’ve been doing a good job of that lately.  And the defensive game is a huge part here at the pro level, and I just try to really improve that.”

After his goal-and-two-assists outburst in Springfield, McCarthy found the net again the next day at home against Binghamton, for his first AHL goal-scoring streak.  That tally against the Senators, on which McCarthy stepped across the blue line and unloaded a long shot that squeaked its way through the pads of Binghamton goaltender Matt O’Connor, was the kind that goal-scorers playing with confidence tend to get, but McCarthy was hardly ready to declare himself red-hot.

“Some of the ones that you don’t expect to go in end up finding their way in, and vice versa,” he chuckled philosophically.  “The good opportunities might not find their way in.  The confidence has been good for our line, and that confidence has helped improve our game.”

Hellberg, Wolf Pack Feeding off of Each Other’s Confidence

February 19, 2016

Following is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on goaltender Magnus Hellberg:

No team can ever be successful without solid goaltending, and if there is one individual whose play could be cited as being most key to the recent improvement in the Wolf Pack’s fortunes, it would be their number-one netminder, Magnus Hellberg.

The 6-5, 185-pound Swedish import was in goal for each of the Wolf Pack’s eight straight wins from January 9-27, the second-longest winning streak in franchise history, and in a 12-game stretch from January 15-February 17, Hellberg went 9-3-0 with a 1.66 goals-against average, a 94.4% save percentage and two shutouts.

It’s not like Hellberg was having a bad year before mid-January, but he has clearly turned a bit of a corner since then, and has helped bring the team right along with him.

It has not been a matter of changing anything technical, according to Hellberg, but more of a case of a different mind-set.

“I think I have a little bit more relaxed approach this last couple months,” he said, after a recent Wolf Pack practice.  “I just try to play the game they give me.  I can’t do anything else, I can’t control it.  And I think it’s been affecting the team a little bit, I hope, that they feel that I’m calm back there.”

In Head Coach Ken Gernander’s view, the squad has definitely picked up on Hellberg’s calm vibe and has drawn strength from it.Action Shot for Blog - 02-19-16

“I think when you look at a team sport, everybody’s interdependent upon one another,” is how Gernander put it.  “So if Magnus is playing well, I think the guys out front of him are a little bit more confident , and certainly when he’s in there battling and he makes a few big saves, I think it seems to energize guys and they want to battle for him in return.  So I think one feeds off of the other, and the whole thing is kind of co-dependent.”

Hellberg characterized his focus as simply, “I just try to do my job. “

“Obviously I’m the last guy they have to go through to score, and I try to be there for the guys,” he continued.  “I think they’ve minimized mistakes in front of me and I think everybody has been playing really well together.  It’s a team effort, they help me with rebounds, they help me see shots, and I think everybody’s just on the same page.

“We have a good flow right now, where everybody feels confidence that everybody’s doing their job, not only in the defensive zone, but offensively too.  We’ve been scoring a lot, and even though maybe we were down a goal, we’ve been better at not letting it affect us.  I think we still believe in what we’re doing, and we know that we can get back in a game, even though it may be late in a game.  There’s been a couple of games where they tie it up late in the third and we score right after, so I think that shows huge character from our team.”

The Wolf Pack have definitely picked up their offensive play during their run of success, hitting the five-goal mark twice and reaching four goals in a game four other times.  To Hellberg, that proves the maxim that good offensive play starts in the defensive zone.

“I think it goes hand in hand,” he said.  “If you’re solid defensively and you know what you’re doing, I think the guys jump up on rushes more, and they know that they have guys that back them up behind, which makes them do offensive plays.  Just the confidence of our team right now, it’s good.  Obviously we want to stay humble, and we know it’s going to be a race all the way to the end.  Every point is so important right now, but I think if we continue to play the way we are now, and take one game at a time and just fight hard every night, I think we have a really good chance to win a lot of hockey games.”

Gernander agreed, as most coaches would, with Hellberg’s assessment of the Wolf Pack’s progress in taking care of the defensive part of the game.

“I think it’s kind of a cornerstone of how we’ve been playing as of late,” the Pack bench boss said.  “Our penalty kill’s been very strong, we’ve limited the amount of chances we give up, our goals-against are down, and then we get some timely scoring.”

Hellberg came into this 2015-16 season as a fairly experienced hand at the AHL level, having played in 98 AHL games with the Milwaukee Admirals in his three seasons with the Nashville Predators organization, which drafted him in the second round in 2011.  He is only five games short of his career high in games-played, which is 39, set in his rookie year of 2012-13, but tries not to get caught up in thinking too much about where his role stands.

“I’m really happy to be a part of the Rangers organization, and the Wolf Pack team,” Hellberg said.  “Obviously I want to play every game and I’ve been playing a lot, and I think I earned the coaches’ trust a little bit, which for me personally is awesome.  Malcs (Wolf Pack stablemate Jeff Malcolm) is a really good goalie, and we push each other every day to become better.  And I think he’s a really good friend and a great goalie.  So it doesn’t matter who plays, I think everybody has to contribute to the team.  If I get the chance to start, I’m going to try to do my best to help the team to win hockey games.  That’s all I can do.

“I have great communication with Benoit Allaire, the (Ranger) goalie coach, I like him a lot.  We talk about small details, but I think I have a pretty good foundation.  Obviously there are some things you want to tweak, and you can always do something better, every game.  I look at every (game) tape and see what I can do.”

This summer’s trade to the Rangers, who swapped a 2017 sixth-round draft pick to the Predators to obtain Hellberg, was his first experience with changing organizational addresses in North America, and he has been happy with the change.

“Nashville was a great place, I had three great years there,” Hellberg said.  “I’m so happy they believed in me in the first place and even drafted me.  That was huge, and now, Rangers is Rangers.  They’re a world-class organization, and they have so many assets.  It’s a classic team.

“It’s a dream come true, I watched the Rangers growing up, since (Ranger star backstop Henrik) Lundqvist has been, I would say, the best Swedish goaltender for a long time now, and the only one who’s been a starter in the NHL for a long time like that.  So obviously it’s special, and I think the most special thing is that you just feel that they believe in you.

“All the staff here is unbelievable, the strength coach Mark (Cesari), Brian (Fairbrother, the Wolf Pack’s athletic trainer), the coaches, everybody.  Their knowledge is so good, you just have to embrace it and try to put it in your game, to become a better hockey player.  I think this is a great place to develop.”

The chance to rub shoulders with Lundqvist, one of his heroes, has also been a boon for Hellberg.

“You’ve been looking up to him for a long time, but at the same time he’s a goalie too, we have the same job,” Hellberg said.  “I’ve learned a lot from him just being with him at camp.  He’s got so much experience, and he’s being playing at such a high level, and he’s been successful at the highest levels for a really long time span.  I mean, he’s doing something right, so you just have to look at him and embrace it.  It’s been cool.”

Hellberg was afforded the opportunity to suit up alongside Lundqvist for three Ranger games right before Christmas.  That was after Antti Raanta was injured in a game in Minnesota December 17, and Hellberg’s callup included his second career NHL appearance, one period of work in relief of Lundqvist in a Ranger home loss to Washington December 20.

“My dream is to play there (the NHL), and I did it first with Nashville, now I got to do it at Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty magical arena,” Hellberg mused.  “It’s one of the most famous in the world, the fans are great.  It was an experience, for sure.  It was a really cool memory, but I want to get up there and be there full-time, so that’s what I’m battling for.”

That goal of securing a full-time NHL job has certainly gotten a boost from Hellberg’s recent stingy play, and he feels that both he and the team as a group were made more resilient by the team’s difficulties earlier on in the season.

“During this year we started off really well and then we were on a tough stretch,” Hellberg said.  “And I think when we were down on that tough stretch, when you win, you appreciate it more.  Because you’ve been down that tough stretch, and you know how it’s not fun to be part of something like that.  But it feels way better when you have the strength to get out of it.

“I think that shows character for our group, and that we’ve got a strong core.  So now it feels really good, and I’m just happy to be part of it.”

Wolf Pack’s Megna: Raising the Ceiling

February 11, 2016

Here’s a feature that I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website, on Pack forward Jayson Megna:

Seeing the Wolf Pack’s Jayson Megna play now, at age 26, it’s hard to believe that back when he was NHL draft-age, no team saw fit to spend a pick on him.

Megna, who was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida but grew up in the Chicago area, is 6-1 and 195 pounds, is an explosive skater, and is possessed of enough hand skills to have scored 26 goals for a 97-point Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin club last season, his third year as a pro.  Yet, he was almost completely overlooked by the hockey world as a teenager.

“I couldn’t even get a college scholarship until I was 21 years old,” Megna said after a recent Wolf Pack practice.  “I was a late bloomer, I suppose.  I didn’t really know about the benefits of weight training, I didn’t really experience that.  I was always a smaller guy, on my driver’s license I was, like, 5-8, 135 pounds when I was 16.  So during the time when guys were starting to get ranked in the (NHL) Central Scouting and stuff like that, I was playing Illinois high school hockey.  Wasn’t the biggest prospect out there, for sure. “

Things started to change for Megna when he headed out East to prep school as a 17-year-old in 2007, spending two seasons at Tabor Academy in Massachusetts.Action Shot for Blog - 02-11-16 - Megna

“I had a couple of good coaches, at Tabor Academy and then Cedar Rapids in the USHL, and I think my career just made leaps and bounds, in the USHL especially,” Megna said.  “I was able to get exposure in front of college scouts and NHL scouts alike, and ended up going to [University of Nebraska-Omaha].  It’s funny how things work, there’s no conventional path, really, there’s so many guys that have similar stories as I do.  I just wasn’t on the draft radar at the time, and that’s OK, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Indeed, matters have worked out just fine for Megna’s hockey career, and things happened fast for him once he got that opportunity to play in the WCHA for Nebraska-Omaha.  After one season with the Mavericks, Megna was inked to a free-agent contract by the Pittsburgh Penguins and by the following year, was spending over half the season in the NHL.

“It’s crazy,” Megna laughed about the trajectory his fortunes took, which very nearly brought him to Hartford six years prior to his joining the Wolf Pack.  “It’s obviously a dream come true to be able to play in the NHL.  And you look back on it, I was actually supposed to go to Trinity College, which is funny enough, that we’ve been practicing there a couple of times.  At the last second I pulled out of Trinity and went to the USHL.  So thinking back on it now, it’s crazy to think about where I could have been and where I’m at now, and I’m very thankful and fortunate to be able to do what I do.”

What Megna is doing now is riding a bit of a shuttle between the Wolf Pack and the parent New York Rangers, who signed Megna on the first day of NHL free agency this past July 1.  He has received three separate recalls to the big club, including two since the First of the Year, and had a huge game in his Ranger debut, contributing a goal and an assist to a 6-2 New York home win over the Dallas Stars January 5.

“I feel like the fit’s been good,” Megna said of his first pro experience with changing organizations.  “Obviously it’s a very good team up top, and it’s tough to crack that roster any given night.  At this point it hasn’t been any different than the rest of my career, just trying to get better every day and just keep working on things.  And hopefully my time will come soon.”

When questioned on what he is most focused on improving in order to make a permanent jump to the NHL, Megna responded, “I think just working on consistency, more than anything.   I think that’s the biggest thing, trying to continue to play at your highest level and then bust through and make another ceiling for yourself, another point in your game that you can reach, and just kind of building on your game, obviously working on little things, whether it be faceoffs or wall plays.  Whatever position you get put into, I think it’s important to look at the minor details of the game and control what you can control.”

Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander said of Megna’s game, “Obviously he’s been one of our key players and he’s playing well, that’s why he gets his recall.  I think with his speed, if he wants to get in on the forecheck and kind of agitate and track pucks down, he can be very effective.”

Gernander used Megna almost exclusively at center prior to his longest Ranger stint, which spanned from January 4-21.  Since then, though, the Wolf Pack head man has used the right-handed-shooting Megna on both the right and left wings, which suits him just fine.

“I’m most comfortable at center, but I definitely like to be able to be a versatile player, because you don‘t know what position you can be placed in up top (the NHL),” Megna said.  “And I think it raises your value if you can play all three (forward) positions, so I pride myself on that.  I’ve worked at all three positions in the past.  Predominantly at center this year, but have played right wing and left wing now here, and I’ve played right wing and left wing up top too.  You’ve just got to keep working on things.  It’s a little bit different on each side of the wing, so working on rims or breakouts, you’ve got to make sure that you’re sharp on those.”

Megna was razor-sharp in his first Madison Square Garden outing as a Ranger.  He was given the opportunity to play on a line with offensive stalwarts Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, and Megna made the most of it.

“That was a really neat experience to be able to do, that was a fun night,” Megna said of his second career NHL multiple-point outing.  “I had a lot of fun playing with those guys, obviously a couple of really good players.  And it was special to be able to play a regular-season game in there.  I played two preseason games in there, but it was a whole different animal being able to play in there in the regular season against a good Dallas team, and it was great to be able to help the team get two points.”

In addition to that chance to skate alongside Nash and Stepan, Megna’s confidence also received a boost from some quality Ranger power-play time.  That was particularly prominent in the one game he played during his last callup, a 4-2 home win over Minnesota February 4.

“I think I played three minutes on the power play (in that game) and six minutes were even strength,” Megna said.  “So a good chunk of the time I was on the power play, which is different than I’m used to.  But absolutely it gives you confidence, when you get to touch the puck and feel the puck, and you’ve got a little bit of extra space and time.  It definitely helps your confidence level.”

For whatever time he is back with the Wolf Pack, Megna hungers to help inject some oomph into a Wolf Pack offense that has generally had a hard time finishing chances.  Despite having missed eight Pack games during his various recalls, Megna has the second-most shots on goal on the team, and the most among players who started the year with the club.  He is hoping that if he continues to get plenty of pucks at the net, more of his 26-goal finishing touch from last year will resurface.  For Megna, that goes back again to the consistency factor.

“I think it’s just a matter of time for me, I’m hoping so, anyways,” is how he characterized it.  “I think that if you shoot the puck on net, good things are going to happen.  And goals come in bunches, too, there’s peaks and valleys of the year.  I’ve shown that I can be scoring a lot of goals on a weekend, or it can go a couple of weekends.  I just hope to continue to get a lot of pucks on net, and good things will start happening.”

Gernander agreed, saying, “It’s been a little bit different in that he’s been up and down (from the NHL) lately, but early on in the season he was a guy that was getting a lot of shots and a lot of good looks at the net, and things just weren’t going his way offensively.  I’m guessing that he’s a guy that if he gets on a bit of a roll and starts to feel things, he could start to put up some numbers.”

The 2014-15 campaign was a big breakout year for Megna in terms of production, as his previous pro career high in goals, between the NHL and AHL, had been 14.  He finds it hard to pinpoint exactly what made the difference for him in Year Three with the Penguins, but makes it sound as though he had achieved a desirable comfort level in both Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh.

“I think I just was very confident in that organization, having played three years under the same head coach (former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head man, and now New Jersey Devils bench  boss, John Hynes), and just being around pretty much the same guys through all three years, too,” Megna said.  “We had a good group of guys, good core, and we knew where each other were going to be.  We played together consistently throughout the year, and we finished when we had our chances, I suppose.  It’s not like I’m not getting the chances here, it’s just that I was good last year in taking advantage of the opportunities.”

Another thing that his tenure in the Pittsburgh organization afforded Megna was the chance to gain a solid measure of AHL playoff experience.  He saw action in 33 Calder Cup playoff contests during his three postseasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and his knowledge thus gained of what makes teams successful in the spring has him optimistic about this year’s Wolf Pack club.

“We’ve proven, especially over the last ten, 11 games, that we’re a good team,” Megna said.  “I think we’re heating up at the right time.  Obviously we went through a little stretch where we weren’t very good, and we were down at the bottom of the standings, so I think we need to continue to push.  You can’t let off the pedal at all right now, especially coming down the stretch, teams are going to be fighting for their lives.  And we’re one of those teams, we’ve got to play like that, with desperation, every night, and I think we have a good shot.”


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