Wolf Pack Head into All-Star Break in High Gear

January 27, 2015

It’s a moot point because of All-Star break, but it would have been a tough call on Wolf Pack practice today if there actually had been one scheduled.

For those who don’t know, the Pack practice in the morning, usually starting at 10:30, and because of the snowstorm there was a travel ban on Connecticut roads until 2:00 this afternoon. After a loss in their last game and a day off Sunday, the Wolf Pack coaching staff, I’m sure, would have been chomping at the bit to get back on the practice ice, and when they woke up this morning and saw that the snow amounts weren’t as cataclysmic as feared, there probably would have been a severe temptation to say, “Aw, heck, we can go ahead and have practice.” The idea of asking their players to defy a state order, though, would probably have at least made them think twice.

Saturday night’s defeat in Syracuse notwithstanding, the Wolf Pack entered the All-Star break on a solid roll. The loss to the Crunch was the Pack’s first in regulation in a span of eight games (6-1-1-0), and just the fourth in the last 20 games (13-4-1-2), and prior to the setback Ken Gernander’s group had climbed to within three points of first place in the Northeast Division.

That’s a far cry from last season at this time, when the Pack were dead last in the AHL and desperately scratching to save their season.

Chris Mueller

Chris Mueller

It seems as though there are precious few one-sided games anywhere in hockey these days—most contests are decided by a goal or two—and a big key to the Wolf Pack’s success this year has been the fact that they have been particularly good in close games.

Thirty-four of the Pack’s 42 games on the year have been decided by margins of two goals or less, and the Wolf Pack is a combined 22-7-3-2 in games decided by two goals or fewer. What’s more, Hartford’s 15 one-goal wins—they are 15-3-3-2 in one-goal games—are only one behind Springfield and Syracuse for the most in the league.

It’s significant to consider, too, that several of the Wolf Pack’s high-end players have yet to match their usual levels of production. That’s not to say that anyone’s effort has been lacking, far from it, and All-Star representative Chris Bourque has certainly been as advertised as an AHL point producer, but history tells us that there have to be hot streaks on the horizon for some others.

Chris Mueller, for example, was a 25-goal-scorer and a Calder Cup champion with Texas last season, and had 18 and 32 goals, respectively, in his previous two AHL seasons, but has been held to four in 30 games thus far this year. Joey Crabb had 15 goals in 62 games with San Antonio in 2013-14, and had a 24-goal season with Chicago in 2009-10, and he has six so far in 34 games this year. And two young guys who were big keys for the Wolf Pack last season, Danny Kristo and Ryan Bourque, have yet to get in a real scoring groove. Kristo was the Pack’s goal-scoring leader last season with 25, and has nine in 39 games in his second pro year, and Bourque broke out for 21 tallies in 2013-14 and currently has eight this season.

I would think those guys all have some good breaks stored up, and could lift the Wolf Pack to even greater heights post-All-Star break.

Pack Begin Second Half Tonight in Norfolk

January 17, 2015

Hard to believe that the season is half over already, but that’s the reality, as tonight’s second of back-to-back games for the Wolf Pack in Norfolk is game #39 of the 76-game campaign.

After last night’s 3-2 overtime triumph over the Admirals at Scope, the Wolf Pack’s first-half record finished at 21-12-3-2 for 47 points, a high-water mark for the season of nine games above .500.  The Pack have at least a point in four straight games (3-0-1-0), one short of their season best, and have lost only three in regulation in their last 16 outings (10-3-1-2).

Of course, that recent slate could have looked a lot different, if it had not been for the Wolf Pack’s bountiful success in overtime.  Friday’s game was the team’s fourth straight trip to OT, tying a franchise record that was set March 10-18, 2001, and the Pack have won three of those four, giving them seven overtime victories on the season.  Only the Oklahoma City Barons, with ten, have more OT victories than do the Wolf Pack, and overall the Pack have been excellent in close games all year.  In the 31 of their games that have been decided by a margin of two goals or less, the Wolf Pack are 20-6-3-2, and their record in one-goal games is a terrific 13-2-3-2.

Action Shot for Blog - 01-17-15The Pack led for most of last night’s game, before seeing the Admirals tie it with their goaltender (old friend Jason LaBarbera) pulled for an extra attacker and only 1:20 left in the third.  It was a quick rebound for Ken Gernander’s club, though, and the Pack also shrugged off giving up a great chance to the Admirals’ Max Friberg just moments before Ryan Haggerty scored the winner.

“That’s kind of been a characteristic of this team,” Gernander told me this morning, “is that we’re pretty familiar with overtime, and we don’t let near misses really rattle us.  We’re able to bounce back quickly and get right back to work.”

And they will need another big effort tonight, facing the difficult task of trying to beat the same team on back-to-back nights.  The Pack have almost always played two-game sets when they have traveled down here to Hampton Roads, and only once, in 2007-08, have they managed to sweep a pair from the Admirals.

“It’s always kind of hard to come in and win two,” Gernander said.  “We got off on the right foot yesterday, but we certainly don’t want to let our guard down.  They had some pretty good opportunities to cash in and maybe win that game, as did we, so I think we have to come with that same spirit and fight.  I think we had pretty good jump in our legs yesterday, and we need to again bring our best game.”

The desperation level will no doubt increase for the Admirals, who despite having standings points in six of their last seven games (3-1-2-1) are last in the Eastern Conference, and nine points out of a playoff spot.  On the other side of that equation, there is no room for complacency for the Wolf Pack, either.  The Pack currently sit in fifth in the conference and are only four points out of fourth, but they are also only six points out of ninth.  Should be an entertaining second half.

Wolf Pack’s McIlrath Rounding out his Game

January 17, 2015

Here’s a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website, on defenseman Dylan McIlrath’s recent goal-scoring prowess:

Despite having been the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft by the New York Rangers, the Hartford Wolf Pack’s Dylan McIlrath harbors no illusions about making his way to the NHL as an offensive defenseman. The 6-5, 230-pound McIlrath’s calling card is physical play and hard-battling defense.

Still, every hockey player loves to score goals, and after a 2013-14 season that saw him light the lamp six times in 62 AHL games, tied for second-most among Wolf Pack defensemen, McIlrath could not buy a goal for much of this year’s first half. The first 32 games of his season, in fact, went without McIlrath getting off of the zero in the goal column.

That changed in a significant way this past Friday night, though, as McIlrath broke his drought with a flourish, scoring his first career pro overtime goal to give the Wolf Pack a 3-2 win over the team directly ahead of them in the standings, the Syracuse Crunch. Then, as if to prove that huge tally was no fluke, McIlrath connected again the very next night in Springfield, helping the Pack to a 4-3 victory, also in overtime, over the Northeast Division-leading Falcons.

McIlrath Action Shot 7McIlrath had hardly been sitting around fretting about his dearth of goals, but he admits that banging the puck into the back of the Syracuse net in overtime sent him to a certain level of euphoria, even though it appeared that a Marek Hrivik try seconds before had actually found its way over the goal line.

“It felt really good,” McIlrath said of the OT winner. “I think it (the puck) might have squeaked in before, but I was definitely making sure it was getting to the back of the net. I usually don’t celebrate that hard, but it was a long time coming and it felt good.

“It’s funny, I started gripping the stick a little tight. I don’t usually think about that (not scoring goals), but when it’s that big of a drought, I really wanted to get one, and then came that big OT one and then another big goal in Springfield. It feels nice.”

The goal against Syracuse came as a result of McIlrath’s moving down deep in the offensive zone, crashing right down the middle and pouncing on a loose puck, after Syracuse goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gloved Hrivik’s bid right out into the slot.

“I’m not one for jumping in like that usually,” McIlrath said with a chuckle. “I saw the green light, saw a lane right down the middle, so I thought I’d take it.”

That play is typical of what McIlrath sees as the key to the Wolf Pack’s overtime success. The victory over the Crunch was Hartford’s sixth extra-time triumph of the season, and McIlrath points to a “go for broke” mentality as having been the most contributing factor.

“Honestly, I think it’s just taking some chances,” he said. “In those types of situations, it’s just kind of run-and-gun, so you’re going to have to take advantage of the time in-zone (in the offensive zone) and just hope you don’t get caught coming back. We’ve got some skilled players that have stepped up for us in those situations.”

McIlrath’s goal the next night was less dramatic, but still important, coming past the halfway point of the second period in a game in which the Wolf Pack had been blanked up to that point by Springfield goaltender Oscar Dansk. This one was off of a rush, as McIlrath took a back-diagonal pass from Ryan Haggerty and found Dansk’s five-hole, threading the puck through some net-front traffic on the way.

There is no real art, according to McIlrath, to getting the puck past sticks and bodies in that situation. The most important thing is to get it towards the net, and try to set your teammates up to help.

“You’ve just got to get it through, if you can find a way,” he said. “I think that’s a good team goal. We got a good net-front drive, a good post-up by Haggs (Haggerty), so if I just hit the net good things will happen, usually, when the goalie’s screened.”

McIlrath’s two-game goal streak actually gave him points in a pro career-high three straight games, as the Winnipeg native had registered an assist the previous Saturday against St. John’s. That was on a nifty setup to Chris Mueller, and was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary 7-3 loss. It was also significant in that it came on the power play, after the Wolf Pack coaching staff had installed McIlrath in the net-front spot in which the injured Justin Vaive had excelled.

“I think I’m getting put in some different positions and getting some opportunity to kind of play in that (offensive) role,” McIlrath said. “I’m trying to do as much as I can, still knowing my bread and butter is my defense but trying to round out my whole game.”

Assistant coach, and former long-time NHL defenseman, Jeff Beukeboom, who runs the Wolf Pack defense, said of installing McIlrath net-front on the power play, “We needed someone who was going to play that role. Everyone knows that since Vaive’s been out, it’s hurt us. He’s been such a good presence there, whether it’s power play or five-on-five, so we looked around to see what we had, and we said, ‘Well, there’s a situation where maybe we could use him (McIlrath), and he might be effective.’ And to his credit, he’s worked hard at it, and hopefully Vaive’s back sooner rather than later, but at the same time, we’ll try anything to make the team better and to make the player better.”

Beukeboom, who was a big, bruising, shutdown-type of defenseman, like McIlrath, in his playing days, encourages McIlrath and his other more defensive-minded pupils, like Tommy Hughes, not to neglect the offensive side of the game.

“It’s not so much taking chances, as much as developing that part of the game,” Beukeboom said. “Even the guys who are so-called offensive guys, we don’t want taking chances. We want them recognizing situations, jumping in and being part of things. That’s been the focus all along, and especially a guy like Mac (McIlrath), and Tommy Hughes, that’s what it’s all about.

“You see the game, that’s what it’s all about, it’s got to be a four-man, five-man rush, consistently, and I think they recognize that. It’s not so much that you’re going to get offense out of it—you’re going to maybe contribute some offensively—but it’s going to create better defense, with gap control and getting up on the rush.”

Offensive production isn’t a must for a guy like McIlrath to establish himself in the NHL, says Beukeboom, but he can help himself by, in a way, using offensive pressure to set up defense.

“In his situation, it’s going to be more of being a sound, strong defenseman who wins his battles and who’s tough to play against.” Beukeboom said, “But if he can contribute a little bit offensively here and there and have good gap control, and get up on the rush so he does have good gap control, that’s going to pay dividends.”

For McIlrath, it’s all about proving that he can contribute in all areas of the game.

“You’ve got to just sometimes play your game, just play the way you grew up, like you can’t be too single-minded, just focusing on defense,” he explained. “Making plays on the blue line, that’s going to make or break your career, so you’ve got to keep the pucks in, and also when you’ve got good opportunities to shoot, you want to make sure they count.”

And as far as the goals go, the big fella won’t lose sleep thinking about them, but will enjoy them when they come.

“It’s going to feel good while it lasts, but I don’t know how long it will,” he said of his recent goal-tucking prowess. “I’m just trying to make the most of it, it’s always fun to score goals.”

 

 

Plenty of Roster Shuffling Still to Go

October 3, 2014

The parent New York Rangers wrap up their preseason tonight at home against Chicago and tomorrow night at New Jersey, and the big club is still carrying 33 players on its roster.

That is 10 more than the NHL regular-season roster limit of 23, so the Wolf Pack will likely see another significant infusion of close-to-major-league talent before Tuesday, when the NHL clubs have to submit their rosters, and be under this season’s salary cap of $69 million.

One of the 33 players still in camp with the Rangers is winger Anthony Duclair, who, at 19, is too young to play in the AHL.  If his strong bid to make the NHL roster does not ultimately succeed, he will have to go back to his Junior team, the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL.  Another of the 33 is goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, and he was at Wolf Pack practice the last two days, so one can reasonably assume he will soon be assigned to Hartford.

Anthony Duclair (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Anthony Duclair (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

That still leaves eight players who must be moved from the Ranger roster, from a group that includes 19 forwards and ten defensemen, and that’s assuming the parent club will carry 23 players.  To increase cap flexibility, they might decide to keep only 22, which would mean that nine guys would have to be deleted from the roster.

The battle for the seventh defense spot seems to be ongoing, with Dylan McIlrath being the lone prospect still up and presumably jostling with Mike Kostka, Matt Hunwick and Steven Kampfer for the last spot.  Up front, veterans Matthew Lombardi and Ryan Malone have both missed time due to injury, and Lombardi has yet to see action in a preseason game.  It seems almost certain that J.T. Miller, who has a goal and two assists in three Ranger preseason appearances, will make the team, and it sounds like Chris Mueller is also pushing hard to be a guy who helps fill the void at center left by the injury to Derek Stepan.  Mueller also has 1-2-3 in three exhibition games.

Dylan McIlrath

Dylan McIlrath

There doesn’t seem to be an obvious slot for Jesper Fast, unless Martin St. Louis is moved from wing to center, as is now being contemplated, until Stepan comes back.  Fast is making it very hard on the Rangers to think about sending him down, though, having scored three times on five shots in only two preseason opportunities.  Same goes for fellow right-winger Ryan Haggerty, the Stamford, CT native, who has 2-1-3 in three games.

Duclair, meanwhile, has been a sensation so far, leading the team in preseason points with 3-2-5 in in three games.  The 2013 third-round pick was limited by injury to 59 games with the Remparts last season, but scored 50 goals and had 99 points in those 59 contests.  One wrinkle with him is, the Rangers are currently right at the limit of 50 active NHL contracts, so if they want to activate Duclair’s deal, they will have to off-load another contract.  That could have an interesting effect on the organizational depth chart.

Meanwhile, back in the Nutmeg State, the Wolf Pack today pared their roster down to 29 players from 39, moving out eight forwards, as well as defenseman Nick Crawford and goaltender Mackenzie Skapski.  All those moved were tryout players, including center Nick Latta, who played 11 games with the Wolf Pack at the end of last season, except for Skapski and winger Josh Nicholls.  Both of those guys are on NHL contracts and were reassigned to Greenville of the ECHL.

Stepan Injury Impacts Depth Chart

September 24, 2014

Difficult day at New York Ranger training camp today, as Derek Stepan, the big club’s top center, suffered a fractured fibula in an on-ice testing drill.

In the course of pushing off to gain speed in a rink-length sprint, Stepan fell to the ice and had to be helped off.  Shortly thereafter, the fracture was diagnosed, and all of a sudden the organizational depth chart was thrown for somewhat of a loop.

(Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

(Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

Stepan and Derick Brassard had been expected to be the Rangers’ top two pivots, but now Brassard will have to be counted on for even a bigger role, and Dominic Moore is likely to pick up more important minutes in the middle as well.  The loss of Stepan also seems to raise the profiles of center candidates J.T. Miller, who has already been drawing significant praise for his performance thus far in camp and in the Rangers’ first preseason game, and of Kevin Hayes, the rookie out of Boston College who played mostly wing for the Eagles for the bulk of his college career.

“It’s going to give, obviously, a longer look to J.T. or Hayes or (Oscar) Lindberg or (Matthew) Lombardi, (Chris) Mueller,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said to the New York media after today’s practice.  “It’s going to give some of those guys probably a longer look in exhibition, and then depending on how these guys play, we’ll sort it out.

“We’ve got to see how some of these young guys do and how they can play, and how certain guys can play with more skilled players, and see what they can do.”

This certainly will have a trickle-down effect on the Wolf Pack roster, in the ultra-important center spot.  Miller seemed to have a real good chance of making the Ranger team anyway, and Hayes is a prospect who has certainly come in with a lot of upside, but players like Lindberg and Mueller are guys who certainly figured to be likely candidates for the top end of the Wolf Pack lineup.

Regardless of all that, the good news all around is that the Rangers announced later on in the afternoon that Stepan is expected to miss four-to-six weeks, which certainly doesn’t seem too bad compared to what goes through the mind when you hear “broken leg.”

The Rangers are expected to announce their first roster cuts later on today, and Vigneault also said in his media conference today that the plan is for the camp roster to be pared to six lines and nine or ten defensemen after the Blueshirts’ preseason home-and-home with Philadelphia Monday and Tuesday.

Bourque Brothers Relish the Chance to be Teammates

September 23, 2014

Here’s a feature I just posted on the Wolf Pack’s official website, on brothers Ryan and Chris Bourque:

With Ryan Bourque, a three-year Wolf Pack mainstay, being five years younger than his brother Chris, a veteran of nine seasons of pro hockey, the opportunities for the two siblings ever to play together have been limited.

“Just in summer leagues,” Ryan said recently about his and Chris’ experience wearing the same jersey.  “Me and Chris played together with a bunch of our buddies, and actually the old man (Ryan and Chris’ father, Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque) was on our team too, but he’s had to limit his playing the past few years.”

With Chris signing a free-agent contract with the New York Rangers July 2, though, there is every chance that the two Bourques will spend this year on the same team, either in the NHL with the Rangers or in the AHL as members of the Wolf Pack.

Ryan Bourque

Ryan Bourque

That possibility has both of the brothers extremely pumped up.

“It’s real exciting, obviously,” Ryan said last week, after a Ranger training camp practice.  “Growing up, as kids, just battling in the back yards and being able to become really close friends over the years, we always talked about how it would be pretty cool to be able to play with each other in the future, if we ever had an opportunity.  Just the opportunity to suit up, whether it’s in Hartford or in New York, with your big brother is a pretty cool experience, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Chris added, “It’s definitely an exciting opportunity for both of us.  It’s something that we’ve never had an opportunity to do, and you don’t know if a chance like this is going to come.  So when they (the Rangers) offered me a contract, it was a no-brainer to sign with them.  I think we’re both very excited, and we’ll enjoy it as long as it lasts.  Hopefully it’s in New York, but if it’s in Hartford, then that’s great too.  It’s something that doesn’t come along too often, where brothers get to play in the same organization, so we’re going to cherish every moment that we get, and it’s just hopefully going to be a real exciting year.

For Chris Bourque, who won three Calder Cups during his six seasons with the Hershey Bears, and an AHL scoring title in 2011-12, the chance to play with Ryan was a big factor in his signing with the Ranger organization, but it was not the only attraction.

“It’s such a historic franchise,” the 28-year-old Boston native said.  “I was always a Boston Bruins fan growing up, but the Rangers were right up there.  And to get a chance to put this jersey on is an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, and having my brother in the organization is just that added extra motivation to sign here.  We’ll go to (training) camp here, see how it goes, and then I think we’re both really looking forward to the season.”

The 2014-15 campaign marks a return to North America for Chris, who spent last season overseas.  He started 2013-14 in Russia’s KHL with Ak-Bars Kazan, and then moved on to Biel of the Swiss A League in late November.  For Bourque and his wife Kim, who have a young son, Kingston, the European sojourn was a mixed bag of enjoyment and challenges.

“It was all right, it was long,” he said of his year abroad.  “Bringing your family over there when you’ve got a small child, it’s always a little bit questionable, but overall it was a good experience.  It’s always good traveling the world and seeing different places and different cultures.  I really enjoyed my time in Switzerland last year.  It’s a beautiful country and a good hockey league.  I’ll just try and take the positives out of last year and move forward.”

There were definitely plenty of positives for the younger Bourque brother last season, and Chris, keeping track of it from the other side of the pond, was extremely excited to see the progress that Ryan was making with the Wolf Pack.

“I would always check the stat sheet after he played,” Chris said.  “He picked up 20 goals and had a decent amount of assists.  And I think everyone sees the effort’s always there with him, so the confidence that he can score at that level (the AHL), hopefully that gives him the confidence to come up here (the NHL) and show them that he is a good offensive player, because he really is.  I knew that all along, it’s just that sometimes you’ve got to be given the right opportunity to put up those numbers.  He had a heck of a year last year, and hopefully he can build off that.”

Ryan, who had scored six and eight goals, respectively, in his first two pro seasons, broke out for 21 in 2013-14, second only to Danny Kristo’s 25 among Wolf Pack skaters.  He also added 16 assists for 37 points, more than double his previous pro high of 15.  His heart and tenacity had always stood out since his arrival in Hartford, but his numbers last year made a clear statement that he can much more than just an “energy guy”.

“The second half of the season, I think it was a breakthrough,” Ryan said of last season.  “I just got an opportunity, and I definitely made the most of it.  I think it was the first time in my three seasons that I really jumped on an opportunity and really showed the things that I could do in an offensive way.  I don’t think the effort or the energy or anything like that’s ever going to change, but there’s another side of my game that I was yet to show in this organization.  I was just really grateful for the opportunity, and was able to capitalize on it, and I think just to keep growing on that would be a really big step for me, and that’s what I plan on doing.”

Also significant on Ryan’s stat line for the 2013-14 Wolf Pack was the fact that he had the top plus/minus figure on the club, with a +16, and that his power-play goal total of seven was tied for best on the team.  Clearly, his two-way game was becoming a strong calling card.

“I’ve always kind of prided myself on being able to play on both sides of the puck growing up,” Ryan said, “and I think the more versatile you can be as a player, and the more coachable that you can be, those are two aspects that really stand out and give you an aspect you can use in any situation.”

Ranger training camp brought the brothers Bourque to the MSG Training Center, the Rangers’ practice facility in Tarrytown, NY, and Ryan Bourque must have felt like he never left.

Ryan was a “Black Ace” this past spring for the parent club, part of the taxi squad that stayed in practice shape at the Training Center for the entire Ranger playoff run.  That was a nearly two-month engagement, as the big club went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before falling in five games to Los Angeles.  Despite the fact that it the assignment did not include any playing time with the Rangers, Ryan feels that simply being immersed in the playoff atmosphere helped him and his fellow Black Aces to grow significantly.

“I think the group of guys that we had there, the young core in the organization, with the guys that we played with in Hartford, we’re all so tight and so closely-knit that it was a blast for us,” he said.  “Just to be able to soak in the experience of being here (at the Training Center) and being able to go to the games and watch playoff hockey, that’s a pretty great experience. Obviously you’d like to be out on the ice, but that’s part of the process.  And you’ve got to learn from that and see the things that those guys are doing and obviously cheer for them.  And to be here for two months and be able to experience that and skate every day, and obviously keep working on your game and staying ready, it was a great experience for us.”

Chris Bourque’s resume already includes a wealth of postseason experience, as well as a total of 51 NHL games-played, with Washington, Pittsburgh and Boston.  With 433 points in 437 career AHL games-played, three AHL championships and a scoring title, he does not have much left to prove at the AHL level, but is eager to take on the next challenge, wherever that happens to be.

“It’s (the AHL) a heck of a league and I’ve enjoyed my time when I play in it, but at the same time, you always want to play in the NHL,” Chris said.  “I’ve never been able to stick up in the NHL, for whatever reason, but you always want to be knocking on that door.

Chris Bourque (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Chris Bourque (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

“If that (NHL) opportunity comes, hopefully I take full advantage of it, but at the same time, whatever I can do to help this organization, whether it’s help the younger guys develop in Hartford, or help them make it to the playoffs, the team looks good.  So you can’t ever rule out a good playoff run there (with the Wolf Pack).

“That would be nice for these guys to go through.  Whenever you win a Calder Cup, those guys that won, you see them sprinkled out through the NHL.  So that always helps the organization, when you can make a deep playoff run.  It just gives you the experience and the knowledge that you need to make that next step.  So if that’s what they need me for, then I’m all for it.  It seems like there’s a good group of young guys here, so I’m really excited to play with them.”

In addition to those young prospects that Chris Bourque references, he is not the only experienced veteran who has been added to the fold.  The Rangers organization this summer signed a strong group of older players, with Bourque being joined by the likes of forwards Chris Mueller, Ryan Potulny and Nick Tarnasky, defensemen Mike Kostka, Matt Hunwick and Steven Kampfer, and goaltender Cedrick Desjardins.  With these types of individuals to bolster the organizational roster, Ryan Bourque, who was one of the more experienced players on last year’s Wolf Pack team as a third-year pro, is enthusiastic about the depth from which this season’s Ranger and Wolf Pack clubs will have to draw.

“I think it’s going to be a much deeper group than we’ve had in the past several years,” Ryan said.  “I think there’s a good core in Hartford of young guys that really have developed into great players, and you saw it in the second half of last year with our first two lines, the youth movement that we had, and the success that we had in the second half.  So I think that with that group, if guys make it here (New York), then it’s awesome for them, but whether we have guys up here or down there (Hartford), there’s going to be a lot of depth.  And to bring in the veterans that we did and put them in place, it all depends where guys end up, but regardless we’re going to have a lot of depth in the organization, and we’re going to have an opportunity in Hartford to have a great team.  I think it’s just a matter of coming together and having chemistry.

“All of us, me included, want to be up here, but I think whether you end up here or down there, it’s going to be a great experience and it’s going to be a team that’s going to be able to develop and get better every day.”

If both Ryan and Chris Bourque are parts of the group that ends up with the Wolf Pack, they will be the first-ever pair of brothers to play together on the Wolf Pack team.  The club has had two other brother acts in its history, Peter (1997-98) and Chris (2006-07) Ferraro and Chris (2001-02) and Michael (2013-14) St. Croix, but neither of those duos was ever on the Pack roster at the same time.

 

Vigneault on Youth, J.T. Miller, Roster Size

September 18, 2014

As the New York Rangers’ training camp began today with player physicals, Blueshirt head coach Alain Vigneault conducted a media session.  He addressed a number of topics, but several of his comments (as taken from the reporting of Andrew Gross of the Bergen Record) had particular meaning for the Wolf Pack and the organization’s prospects and depth players.

On the topic of opportunities for young players, Vigneault said, “I think there’s going to be great some internal competition for spots. Up front we lost some very important players who had very important roles. I’m not saying we’re going to structure the team the same way, we’ve got to sort this out. We’ve got to figure out what’s best for this group, but there’s some great internal competition and at the end of the day if a young player and an older veteran are both playing the same, I would say to you most teams would go with the younger player, because he’s got a better chance to improve, whereas the older player sometimes can be a bit more challenging, but that’s why we have training camp. We’re going to let this unfold, the games, we’ve got a scrimmage on Sunday so I think everything is up in the right now. Everything is open.”

(blueshirtsunited.com)

(blueshirtsunited.com)

And in the same vein, Vigneault had this to say about J.T. Miller: “I would say versatility for a player is a big big bonus. In J.T.’s case, (Kevin) Hayes’ case, we’re going to start those guys in the middle, then, as the camp unfolds, we’ll make the decisions that need to be made. But we’re definitely going to look, (Rick) Nash on the right side, Nasher on the left side. Things like that.”

Miller is clearly one of the favorites among the young players to grab a permanent spot in Gotham, and it certainly sounds as if Vigneault is talking about him as if he’s expected not only to make the team, but to be an important player.  And in terms of the young players in general, let’s face it, most teams in this salary cap era would love to have as many young guys, and their relatively inexpensive entry-level contracts, on the roster as possible.

On the other hand, on the issue of how many players he would prefer to carry on the NHL roster, the Ranger bench boss commented, “Ideally I would say 13 forwards and eight Ds if we can keep 23. But I don’t think budget wise, we’re going to be right there, so it’s probably going to be 13 and seven.”

That sounds like it’s going to mean a ton of back-and-forth between the Wolf Pack and Rangers, especially if there is only one extra forward on the New York roster.

And, further to that, Vigneault was asked to address the question of players “on the bubble” seeing heavy ice time with the Wolf Pack vs. learning on the fringes of the Ranger lineup.

“Young guys need to play to make the team,” he responded.  “I would say, each situation is different, younger players should play, if they’re not going to play on a regular basis here, it would probably be better to go to Hartford, but each situation is different. I will say to you Kreids (Chris Kreider) started last year, didn’t have a good camp, came back played regular was one of our very good players. Cam Talbot didn’t start here. If a player shows that he can play and help us win, he’ll be here.”

So, while a quick peek at the Ranger depth chart indicates that there are not many obvious holes for any individual to jump into, Vigneault’s words seem to offer encouragement to those that will be knocking on the big club’s door.  Knock hard enough, he would appear to be saying, and we’ll have to let you in, at least at some point.

If the players who will be making up the bulk of the Wolf Pack roster take that message to heart, then there should be plenty of electrifying nights for Pack fans throughout the 2014-15 season.

Rangers Report to Camp Today

September 18, 2014

A significant group of players has already been on hand for a while at the parent New York Rangers‘ practice facility in Tarrytown, NY, and the organization’s prospects were in action this past weekend at the NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, MI, but today marks the official opening of the Rangers’ training camp, as the 63 players on the big club’s training camp roster undergo their camp physicals.

Tomorrow will be the first day on ice, with the 63 campers divided up into three separate groups.

(blueshirtsunited.com)

(blueshirtsunited.com)

All 23 players from the Traverse City roster showed enough in the tournament to earn camp invites, and that includes six free-agent tryout invitees.  Those six are forwards Nick Latta, Nathan Burns, Paxton Leroux, Bryan Moore and Logan Nelson, and defenseman Dallas Valentine.  The camp roster also includes Wolf Pack AHL contract-signee Ryan Potulny.

Time is short before the Rangers launch into their preseason schedule, as the group will have only Friday, Saturday and Sunday for workouts before the preseason opener Monday, which is at Madison Square Garden against New Jersey.

Winger Ryan Haggerty and defenseman Sam Noreau were the top statistical performers for a Ranger Traverse City team that went 1-1-2 in its four games.  Haggerty had three goals and an assist for four points and led the team in shots with 14, and Noreau struck for two goals and an assist and was a team-best +3.  Also notching three points apiece for the prospects were Latta, who had a goal and two assists, and defenseman Mat Bodie, fresh off of an NCAA title with Union College, who chipped in three helpers.

Friday Start for Traverse City Tourney

September 10, 2014

The first sniff of 2014-14 game action for the Ranger organization comes Friday, when the Ranger prospect team, guided by Wolf Pack coaches Ken Gernander, Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller, takes the ice at 7:00 PM in Traverse City, Michigan, battling the Dallas Stars Stars’ prospects in the annual Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament.

The 23-man prospect team convenes for a practice Thursday morning at the Rangers’ MSG Training Center practice facility in Greenburgh, NY, then jets off to Traverse City, marking the Blueshirts’ eighth straight year of participation in the yearly pre-training camp showcase.  This year’s Ranger prospect team also has games scheduled Saturday at 7:00 vs. the Buffalo Sabres‘ prospects and Monday at 6:30 against the Carolina team, plus a “placement” game that will take place Tuesday at a time still TBD.

In last September’s tournament, a large part of what would become the core of last year’s Wolf Pack roster was on display.  Oscar Lindberg and Danny Kristo would preview what would turn out to be strong AHL contributions by leading the prospect team in scoring, with seven points apiece, before Kristo went on to pace the Pack in goals (25) and Lindberg to finish second on the club in points (44).  Jesper Fast also had a strong start in Traverse City, on the way to making the Rangers’ opening-night roster.  On the blue line, Conor Allen played in all four of the prospect team’s games and Tommy Hughes saw action in three of the four.

Chris McCarthy

Chris McCarthy

This year’s prospect roster shows fewer guys who figure to be counted on as much at the start, but prized rookie free-agent signee Kevin Hayes, out of Boston College, will be on hand, and he is a guy who is expected at least to challenge for a job in New York, as is former RPI stalwart Ryan Haggerty.  If those two don’t make the Rangers, they should certainly be big parts of the mix in Hartford, and several others on the Traverse City roster should be as well.  That group includes guys like Chris McCarthy, Michael Kantor, Mat Bodie and goaltender Mackenzie Skapski, who should have a pretty good shot at one of the Wolf Pack netminding spots.

Last September, forward J.T. Barnett was the only free-agent invitee to Traverse City who ended up in Wolf Pack training camp, but fellow forward Klarc Wilson, along with defensemen Ben Fanelli and Jimmy Oligny, all earned invites to Ranger training camp from Traverse City.  Among the tryouts who will be looking to duplicate that feat this year are forwards Paxton Leroux, who also played for the Ranger prospect team in last fall’s tournament, Nick Latta, who showed well in an 11-game audition with the Wolf Pack at the end of last season, Bryan Moore and Logan Nelson, as well as defenseman Dallas Valentine.

For the latest up-to-date coverage of the Rangers’ Traverse City action, keep an eye on BlueshirtsUnited.com.

Kevin Hayes is Latest New Name in Ranger Fold

August 21, 2014

The parent New York Rangers continued an active summer of player acquisition this week with the signing of college free-agent winger Kevin Hayes out of Boston College.

A former first-round pick (24th overall in 2010) by the Chicago Blackhawks, Hayes did not sign with Chicago within the requisite period of time after being drafted, and thus was declared a free agent August 15.

Hayes is a real big guy, at 6-5 and 225 pounds, and he had a terrific year this past year as a senior, scoring 27 goals and adding 38 assists for 65 points in 40 games.  That was good for second overall in NCAA Division I in points, and only Hayes’ linemate, Johnny Gaudreau, had more, with an incredible 80 points (36-44-80) in the same 40 games.

Kevin Hayes (uscho.com)

Kevin Hayes (uscho.com)

It’s not entirely clear whether it was a matter of money that prevented Hayes from coming to terms with Chicago, or of NHL opportunity.  According to capgeek.com, the 22-year-old Dorchester, MA native certainly did very well for himself financially, with a signing bonus of $180,000 and performance bonuses of nearly $6 million over the two-year life of the contract.  I haven’t seen anything that indicates the Blackhawks weren’t willing to make that type of financial commitment, but there certainly seem to have been several teams interested in Hayes’ services, once he did become a free agent.  As far as opportunity goes, the Chicago lineup is certainly a tough one to crack, and nobody knows that better than Hayes’ older brother Jimmy, who was up and down between Chicago and the AHL during his two-plus years in the organization before being traded to Florida last November.

The Stanley Cup-finalist Ranger roster isn’t exactly chopped liver either, though, although Hayes may have looked at the wingers the Blueshirts lost this summer in Benoit Pouliot, Derek Dorsett and, presumably, Dan Carcillo, and figured that there might be a slot or two available for a big wingman.  Hayes played right wing in college but is a left shot, and Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News speculated that he might fit well into the spot vacated by Pouliot, which is on the left side on a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.  That would certainly be a premier opportunity, but on the other hand, Brian Costello of The Hockey News wrote that scouts have told him that Hayes is likely to need some AHL seasoning before he is ready to play at the speed required in the NHL.

The Rangers’ current depth chart shows 11 forwards who spent the majority of last season in the NHL, so there should be at least a couple or three spots up for grabs.  J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast will certainly be in the mix for those, and surely the arrival of Hayes will ratchet up the pressure on those guys, as well as on Danny Kristo, who has re-signed with the Rangers for one year and will be a Group 6 unrestricted free agent next summer, unless he plays in 80 NHL games this season.

With the Rangers’ salary-cap situation, they certainly need to get some mileage out of those young players with cap-friendly contracts, and it will be very interesting to see if the Millers, Fasts, Kristos, etc., who have been in the organization for a year or more, can hold off Hayes, after he scored nearly as many points last season as he did his first three college years combined, and will be looking to ride that momentum to even greater heights as he hits Ranger training camp in September.


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