Fogarty Looks to Expand on Shootout Success

December 1, 2016

Following is a feature on Steven Fogarty that I just posted to the Wolf Pack website:

The Wolf Pack won both of their first two shootouts this season, and the man who scored the shootout-ending goals both times was a bit of an unlikely hero.

Rookie forward Steven Fogarty was chosen as the Wolf Pack’s shootout “anchorman”, sent out as the team’s third shooter, despite his having scored only one non-shootout goal, and both times he delivered, earning the Wolf Pack a pair of much-needed standings points.

According to Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, Fogarty’s number being called in the shootout was as a result of acumen he had showed on the practice ice.fogarty-action-shot

“It was something we had practiced after one day, Patty (Assistant coach/Assistant GM Pat Boller) had stayed out extra with the goalies,” Gernander said.  “The goalies themselves wanted to work on the shootout, and oftentimes you take a younger kid to get them some shots, and he (Fogarty) was really good.  So it was brought to our attention and we said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’”

Fogarty himself was pleasantly surprised to be chosen in that big spot.

“I didn’t really play in the overtime at all,” the former University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish said.  “It’s funny, because the day before the first one, Patty stayed on the ice and we were doing shootouts, and I was doing pretty well.  So I had a thing in the back of my mind, maybe I’ll get a chance, but it was nice.”

Once he got the call, Fogarty relished the pressure of having the game on his stick, despite never before having taken part in a high-level shootout in his hockey career.

“You don’t really want it any other way,” he said.  “To have a chance to win a game for your team is huge at any level, and it’s just nice to have that opportunity.

“We work on them (shootouts) after practice and whatnot, and the goalies like to do it too.  So I’ve been practicing on them, and once I got that first one, I just kind of stuck with it, did the same move, and it was nice to help the team get two wins.”

His solid finishes in the shootout certainly indicate that Fogarty, who has served the Wolf Pack as the team’s fourth-line center, possesses significantly more offensive skill than his early numbers would indicate.  Gernander is far less concerned about that, though, than he is impressed with how well Fogarty’s overall game is coming along.

“It’s not always about offensive production,” the Wolf Pack bench boss said.  “I look at the growth he’s shown, even just one-fourth of the way into the season.  We’re starting to use him on five-on-three (penalty) kills, taking big draws, blocking shots, he’s played a little bit more physical lately.  He’s taken great steps in a lot of areas, and sometimes the offensive part is the last to come around.

“Even if you go back to his amateur numbers, that isn’t necessarily where his bread was buttered, on the offensive side of things.   But I think he’s got more offense than he’s showed, in his past history, because he’s got a real good shot, he’s got good hockey sense from the defensive side of the puck.  So it should translate on the offensive side as well.  I like what I’ve seen so far.”

And regardless of how much Fogarty does, or doesn’t, score, a big (6-3, 215) centerman who can win faceoffs and play well in his own zone is an important commodity in the NHL ranks.

“That’s a great jumping-off point,” Gernander said, “and given his shot and his hockey sense, I think there are some offensive numbers there, just waiting to come to the forefront.”

Fogarty seems to be thinking along the same lines.

“Just stick with it, stay patient,” he said, when asked about his offensive mindset.  “I’m getting chances and shots, so hopefully one day it’ll start going in.  I’m sticking with it, just playing my role and helping the team do whatever I can.”

And if he feels frustration setting in, Fogarty hearkens back to the guidance he received from his college coach, Jeff Jackson, during his four seasons in South Bend.

“I still keep in touch with him, and he always says, ‘Offense gets you there, but defense keeps you there,’” Fogarty said of Jackson.  “And that’s something I’ve taken pride in.  I‘ve been put in a defensive role at Notre Dame, and here a little bit too, but I was drafted as an offensive player and I have that ability in me.  It’s just a matter of getting that out and helping the team, contribute a little bit more offensively.  It’s nice to be able to know that I can play defense and know what to do in my own zone, but the best defense is a good offense.  So I just want to stick to that motto and just keep getting better.

“Despite our tough stretch there, I think we’re playing some pretty good hockey right now.  I’ve been fairly happy with the way I’ve been playing.  I’d like to contribute a little bit more offensively, but I think I’ve adapted well.  Just the speed and strength of everyone is definitely an adjustment, but I feel like every day I’m getting better.  The coaches have been doing well working with me and the older guys have been great.  It’s been a great experience, and hopefully we’re on the rise as far as winning some more games.”

Two of those “older players” are Fogarty’s recent wingers on the fourth line, seventh-year pro Philip McRae and third-year man Matt Carey.  Like Fogarty, those are two bigger players who work well down low in the offensive zone, and Fogarty likes the chemistry on the line.

“I think we’ve been doing well, I think we work off each other,” he said.  “And Mac (McRae), he’s been playing center all season and just switched to wing, I think he’s done a great job.  We’ve been doing well, having a lot of O-zone (offensive zone) time, and that’s what you want out of your fourth line, just to get energy and play with the puck.  Hopefully we’ll get rewarded a little bit more here.

“Any time you’re playing with older guys, and they both played in the NHL at one point, it’s helpful, and if you have any questions you feel free to ask them, and they’ll say a few pointers every now and again.  They’ve been great.”

Playing the middle is a big responsibility in all three zones, and the faceoff aspect is another consistent challenge.  Fogarty played center in college as well, but has found it a different ballgame to be going against pro players in the faceoff circle.

“Faceoffs are definitely harder, guys are so strong and so good at them,” the Edina, Minnesota-bred Fogarty said.  “It’s something I take pride in, it’s fun to get thrown out there for a D-zone (defensive zone) draw and realize that they’re relying on you to win that draw.  It’s something that I take pride in, and faceoffs are something you can always work on.  We do a lot of work after practice and before games, so as long as we keep doing that, we should have success.”

Faceoffs are only one element of making the leap from Hockey East to the pros, and Fogarty has found that transition to be a big jump.

“The guys are so much more talented and smarter,” he said.  “In college hockey there’s a lot of dumping it in, and it’s just kind of run-and-gun, but here guys are making plays and you’ve got to be aware out there.  It’s been a good adjustment, Hockey East definitely helped with everything, and my coaching staff at Notre Dame too.  I just look to get better every day.”

It has been five years since Fogarty’s draft day back in 2011, when he was chosen in the third round by the Wolf Pack’s parent club, the New York Rangers.  He was still a year away from starting his college career then, but the long road to starting his pro career has made the experience that much sweeter.

“It’s been a long time, definitely,” Fogarty acknowledged.  “I still remember that (draft) day pretty clearly, but I played a year in Juniors and four years in college.  It’s been a while, but the organization’s been great, going to development camps every summer and finally turning pro.  It’s been a great experience for me, a dream come true, and I’m just riding with it right now.”

Wolf Pack’s Paliotta Hoping to Bring Some Cleveland Magic back to his Home State

November 9, 2016

Here’s a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack website on Connecticut-born Pack defenseman Michael Paliotta.

For Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Mike Paliotta, a native of Westport, CT, signing this summer with the New York Rangers, the team he rooted for as a kid, was pretty exciting, and it came right on the heels of another huge thrill.

Paliotta’s signing, on the first day of NHL free agency, July 1, came less than three weeks after his last year’s team, the Lake Erie Monsters, defeated the Hershey Bears in Game Four of the Calder Cup Finals, completing a sweep of the Bears and locking up the AHL championship.  Plus, while celebrating their own title, Paliotta and his Monsters teammates got to watch their fellow Quicken Loans Arena occupants, the Cleveland Cavaliers, capture the NBA championship.paliotta-action-shot-4

Even for a guy like Paliotta, who had no previous connection to the city of Cleveland, that was something pretty electrifying to be a part of.

“It was awesome to see a city that’s struggled sports-wise for a while to all come together, and see the support,” the Wolf Pack blueliner said recently. “It really is a sports city, any time fans can get behind a team they do, and the teams obviously appreciate it.  The way they support the Cavs, and then the Indians in the World Series this year…cool to watch, and they did the same with us.”

One Ohio native who was front-and-center as a fan at the Indians’ World Series games was Cavs superstar LeBron James, so one wonders, even though he was a little busy with his own job during the Calder Cup playoffs, was he also all over the Monsters’ games?

“I’m not sure,” was Paliotta’s chuckling response to that. “I think he’s been to one or two, that’s what I’ve heard.  We had a couple of cool guest appearances, 50 Cent dropped the puck at one of our games, but it was cool to be in the same city, same arena as those guys, obviously unbelievable athletes.  Just a year that I’ll never forget, for sure.

“Just like any team, we had our ups and downs throughout the regular season, but we came together at the right time in the playoffs and we really hit our stride. We ended up going 15-2 in the playoffs, which is pretty special.  We had a really good group of guys, a good mix of young and veteran players, and we just jelled at the right time and were able to win a lot of close games.  It was really cool to be a part of, something I’ll always cherish.”

The Monsters swept three of their four playoff series’ last spring, and never were even tied in a single series after its start, which is a level of playoff dominance rarely seen in pro sports nowadays.

“Now that we look back on it, it’s pretty crazy,” Paliotta said of Lake Erie’s run to the Cup. “Any time you’re watching playoffs, it’s usually Game Six, Game Seven to close out series’.  But we had a ton of chemistry, guys were playing with a ton of confidence and it really showed.  Those tight games early on in the series’ we were able to win, and I think that’s what made our team so special, we were a really resilient group.  It was a really special team to be a part of.”

After that triumph it had to have been somewhat difficult for Paliotta to leave the Columbus organization, having just been acquired by the Blue Jackets the previous June, but the opportunity with the Rangers was a dream come true.

“I was thrilled,” said Paliotta of being inked to a Ranger contract. “It’s the team I’ve followed my entire life, being from Connecticut, and I’ve really enjoyed the transition so far.  I think we have a really good team here, we’ve got a lot of young guys and some really good quality veteran leadership as well.  So I’ve been really excited about it, I’m just hoping that we can continue to find our stride and our game and continue to develop as a really solid team.”

In addition to rooting for the Rangers as a youngster, Paliotta was also keenly aware of the fortunes of his home state’s two AHL entries, the Wolf Pack and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

“Honestly I’m closer to Bridgeport, I’m only about five or ten minutes away from Webster Bank Arena,” he said.  “So as a kid we would watch those games.  And then, being a Rangers fan, I would always keep close tabs on the Wolf Pack as well.  So now to see it come full circle is pretty cool, and have the opportunity to play for the Wolf Pack and be a part of the Ranger organization is really special to me.”

Although Paliotta is only 23, and last season was officially his rookie year as a pro, the Rangers are already the third NHL organization to hold his rights.  He was originally drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, and played one NHL game with Chicago in April of 2015, following his Senior season at the University of Vermont, and then was traded to Columbus in the Draft-Day deal that saw Brandon Saad go from the Blackhawks to Columbus in 2015.

“It’s crazy that I’ve now been through all that, it’s only really my second full year pro,” Paliotta mused. “But I’ve obviously taken a little bit from every place I’ve been, and hopefully I can continue to grow as a player and as a person.  I’ve learned a lot everywhere I’ve been, now I’m just focused on being with the Rangers and helping this team win, and helping the organization.”

Paliotta had been away from Connecticut since 2009, when he left home to play two seasons with the U.S. National Development Team in Ann Arbor, MI.  Prior to that, he went to Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, CT, and played two years in that school’s fine hockey program.  On behalf of chilled-to-the-bone youth hockey parents, Paliotta was asked if he agreed that Choate’s campus rink is truly the coldest in hockey.

“Yeah, hands down,” he laughed in response. “It’s definitely the coldest, I think my parents would attest to that as well.  They’ve seen a lot of games there during my high school years.  Any time anyone asks where I went to high school and I say Choate, they always say, ‘OK, that’s the coldest rink out there.’  So that’s definitely what it’s known for, but I really enjoyed my time there as well.”

Now, after seven years hanging his skates in different locales from Michigan, to Burlington, VT, to Chicago, to Columbus and Cleveland, Paliotta is finding life to be distinctly pleasant back in his old stomping grounds.

“Yeah, it’s cool,” he said. “It’s my first experience playing back on the East Coast.  I’ve had a lot of fun with it, it’s been nice to have family and friends able to come to games and support me.  All in all, it’s been a good experience so far.”

Puck Drops in Traverse City on Friday

September 15, 2016

The first phase of the run-up to the Wolf Pack’s 2016-17 season gets going Friday.  That is when the Ranger prospect team, helmed by Pack coaches Ken Gernander, Pat Boller and Keith McCambridge, begins play in the annual Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Michigan.

The Ranger team will meet the Carolina Hurricanes prospects in a 4:00 game on Friday and then will battle the Dallas Stars prospect team at 3:30 on Saturday.  Sunday is a day off for the tournament, after which it will be the Rangers taking on the Minnesota Wild prospects on Monday at 3:00.  The action concludes Tuesday with placement games at 3:00, 3:30 and 6:30 and the championship game at 7:00.

Gernander and Boller have experienced this tournament multiple times, and the Wolf Pack’s head man said earlier this week that the assignment is a big positive for him and his staff.

Ranger team prospect action at 2015 Traverse City Tournament (courtesy of BlueshirtsUnited.com)

Ranger team prospect action at 2015 Traverse City Tournament (courtesy of BlueshirtsUnited.com)

“It’s an excellent opportunity to get to see the guys, what they’re capable of on the ice, kind of get a preview, and then learn the new faces and get to know them on kind of a personal level,” Gernander elaborated.  “Everything’s kind of jammed into a five-day period there where you’ve got those four games, but it’s a pretty fun environment and for us as coaches it’s an enjoyable experience because you get to meet some of these guys for the first time first-hand, and get to see some of the characteristics and some of the traits that they have, and the talent that you’ll be working with going forward.”

Gernander and his assistants will have a roster of 25 players at their disposal for the tournament, a group that includes 15 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders.  Of those 25, 12 are Ranger draft picks, five of whom are still underage Junior players and thus ineligible to play for the Wolf Pack.  Four of the prospects, forwards Jimmy Vesey, Malte Stromwall and Adam Chapie and defenseman John Gilmour, are NHL free-agent signees, forward Michael Joly is on an AHL contract with the Wolf Pack and the other eight players on the roster are on tryouts.

The only individual on the prospect team who is not a pro rookie is 22-year-old defenseman Calle Andersson, who spent all of last season with the Wolf Pack, contributing five goals and four assists for nine points in 43 games.

Given Andersson’s one year of pro experience, Gernander is expecting him to be an important cog in Traverse City.

“I think he’s a good offensive defenseman, moves the puck well, sees the ice well, skates well,” the Wolf Pack bench boss said of the Swedish-born Andersson.  “I’m led to believe that he’s committed himself to fitness this summer, and that too will help enhance his game.  So he should be one of the guys who can take a pretty prominent role and kind of set the tone for our team.”

In addition to Andersson, Gernander’s prospect team features two players, forwards Boo Nieves and Steven Fogarty, who saw some action with the Wolf Pack this past spring at the end of their respective college seasons, and Chapie also came to Hartford and the end of his year, but was unable to play due to an injury.  According to Gernander, the action in Traverse City will give a good indication of how well this trio used their summers to build on their AHL “cups of coffee” from last season.

“It’ll be a pretty good measuring stick, just to kind of see how they fit in with their graduating class or their group of peers,” he said.  “With everybody kind of being on equal footing–you don’t have too many grizzled vets in this tournament—it’s their pool, kind of their graduating class, so it’s a good measuring stick.”

The most ballyhooed names on the prospect team list are those of Vesey, who won the Hobey Baker Award last season with Harvard University, and Pavel Buchnevich, a third-round Ranger pick in 2013.  The Rangers prevailed over several other free-agent suitors to land Vesey, and Buchnevich finally signed with the organization in May after staying in his native Russia for his first three post-draft seasons.   Both of those guys are generally expected to find their way on to the Ranger roster, and their quest to do that will begin in Traverse City.

“They’re certainly two real good prospects,” said Gernander of Vesey and Buchnevich.  “They’re getting a lot of ink, so there’s a lot of anticipation to see what they can bring to the table.  But just like everybody there, for the most part we’re getting a first look at them and it’s a little bit of an evaluation, but for coaches, generally, I think there’s a little bit of excitement or anticipation. ‘Here’s your new crop and here’s some real good things that they bring to the table,’ and it’s going to be a lot of fun to work with them.”

All of this year’s Prospect Tournament action will be streamed live on FOX Sports Go and DetroitRedWings.com.

McCambridge Brings Wealth of Experience to Pack Staff

August 3, 2016

The average height of the Wolf Pack coaching staff went down slightly when the 6-2 Keith McCambridge took over the 6-5 Jeff Beukeboom’s assistant coaching post, but the Pack also gained a bevy of AHL head coaching experience.

Keith McCambridge (moosehockey.com)

Keith McCambridge (moosehockey.com)

In fact, McCambridge has been an AHL head man for the last five seasons, all with the Winnipeg Jets’ top affiliates, four years with the St. John’s IceCaps and last season with the Manitoba Moose.  Despite a tough campaign with the Moose last year, in which a very young club finished 26-41-9, McCambridge’s overall AHL head-coaching record is 21 games over .500, 179-158-23-20.  He also took the IceCaps on two deep playoff runs, getting as far as the Conference Finals in the franchise’s first year, 2011-12, and then going all the way to the Calder Cup Finals in 2013-14.  McCambridge’s club lost that Final series to the Texas Stars in five games, but it easily could have gone the other way, as each of the IceCaps’ last three losses was in OT.

Like Beukeboom, McCambridge was a rough-and-tumble defenseman as a player, and he logged nearly 400 games on various AHL blue lines. That included stints with the Saint John Flames and Providence Bruins, time during which McCambridge would have done battle with his new boss, current Wolf Pack head coach, and then-Pack captain, Ken Gernander.

The Thompson, Manitoba-born McCambridge also has previous AHL assistant-coaching experience, having spent two years as an assistant on the Moose staff before that franchise was moved to St. John’s to become the IceCaps. His head man during the first of those two seasons was Scott Arniel, currently the parent New York Rangers’ associate coach.  McCambridge has also been a head coach and an assistant in the ECHL, where he helmed the Alaska Aces to the third round in 2007-08, as a rookie head coach, and to the finals the next year.

Bringing McCambridge in represents a bit of a new direction for the organization, as his addition represents the first time the Wolf Pack have had an assistant coach hired with previous AHL head coaching experience. Nick Fotiu had been a head man in the ECHL previous to joining the Wolf Pack as an assistant in 2002, but had never run an AHL bench.

Bolstering the Defense

July 8, 2016

The Wolf Pack’s potential defensive depth certainly got a boost with the July 1 start of NHL free agency, with the parent New York Rangers doing some significant shoring-up of the organization’s blueline manpower.

After re-signing veteran stalwart Chris Summers just before the free-agent floodgates opened, the Rangers added fellow defenders Adam Clendening and Michael Paliotta to the fold on July 1, traded for Nick Holden, and then announced the re-signing of Wolf Pack captain, and restricted free agent, Mat Bodie four days later.

No defensemen were lost, either, so right now it’s a net gain of three bodies on the blueline.  Up front, by contrast, the organization is down two at this point, having lost Wolf Pack leading scorer Chad Nehring (Ottawa) and Jayson Megna (Vancouver) off the AHL roster and Eric Staal (Minnesota) and Viktor Stalberg (Carolina) from the Ranger group and having signed Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe.

Michael Paliotta (bluejackets.nhl.com)

Michael Paliotta (bluejackets.nhl.com)

The obvious assumption would be that Holden, an eight-year vet who has spent the whole of the last three seasons in the NHL with Colorado, will be with the Rangers, but there seems a good chance that both Clendening and Paliotta will see time with the Pack.

Clendening played only six AHL games this past season, during which he was traded from Pittsburgh to Anaheim (in the deal via which the Penguins acquired Carl Hagelin) and then snagged on waivers by Edmonton from the Ducks, but spent nearly 200 games in the AHL his first three years.  That included a First-Team All-Star campaign in 2013-14 with Rockford, a season that saw the former B.U. Terrier rack up 12 goals and 59 points (second-most among league D-men) in 74 games.  He also helped Utica to the Calder Cup Finals in 2014-15, after a January trade from Chicago to Vancouver.

Paliotta, meanwhile, is coming off of a rookie season that earned him a Calder Cup ring with the Lake Erie Monsters.  It’s also a bit of a homecoming for the 6-4, 212-pounder, whether he plays for the Rangers or the Wolf Pack, as Paliotta was born in Westport, CT and played at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford for two years.  He ran into some injury problems in this spring’s playoffs and saw action in only eight of the Monsters’ 17 postseason matches, but had a fine regular season, leading Lake Erie defensemen in goals with eight and totaling 23 points in 68 games.  The 23-year-old was a third-round pick by Chicago in 2011 out of the U.S. National Development Team program before playing four years at the University of Vermont.

Bodie will presumably resume his wearing the captain’s “C” for the Pack, and if his current development track continues as it has, he should be a lock to see some NHL action in year three of his pro career.  After a five-goal, 32-point rookie year, the ex-Union College Dutchman bumped his numbers to 7-29-36 in 2015-16, good for the team leadership among defensemen in points and assists and for a tie for tops overall on the team in helpers.  Perhaps even more impressively, Bodie, who is slightly built by today’s hockey standards at 6 feet and 175 pounds but plays an admirably gritty and abrasive style, has missed only one game in two pro years.

Winger Nicklas Jensen also was re-signed, and is another guy who should press for NHL time this season, after chalking up pro career highs of 19 goals, 18 assists and 37 points in 68 combined 2015-16 games between the Wolf Pack and Utica.  Jensen’s arrival via trade January 8 coincided exactly with the Pack’s surge from last place in the Atlantic Division to coming within two points of a playoff spot, and his combination of size, strength and speed made him look like a guy who would fit in very well at the NHL level.  His return is also key for organizational depth up front, after the departures of Nehring and Megna.

AHL Changes for 2016-17:  The AHL Board of Governors held its annual meeting this week, and, as they almost always do, made some interesting tweaks to how things will look in the league when play resumes in October.

It was nothing like last summer’s upheaval, when the westward move of five affiliations necessitated the creation of a new division and a radical league realignment, but the governors did have to change the alignment structure slightly.  With the Arizona Coyotes having purchased the Springfield Falcons franchise and moved it to Tucson, Arizona, the new Tucson Roadrunners had to go into the Pacific Division.  That created an imbalance in the two conferences, with 16 teams in the Western Conference and 14 in the Eastern (who would have thought that was possible just a few short years ago?), and I thought maybe the league might move the Charlotte Checkers into the Eastern Conference to even things out.  As it turns out, though, the Checkers were kept in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, which will have two eight-team divisions while the Eastern will have two seven-team groups.

With the divisions in both conferences now having equal numbers of teams, there is no longer any need for the “crossover” provision in playoff qualification—that provided for the fifth-place team in the eight-team division being able to make the playoffs if it had a better record than the fourth-place club in the seven-team division—and that was eliminated.

The Wolf Pack’s Atlantic Division stays the same, except for the fact that Portland, a great town to visit and a place that has a great history in the AHL, is sadly out of the league.  The Pirates franchise was bought by a group in Springfield, which moved it there to replace the departed Falcons.

The Roadrunners will join the cadre of Pacific Coast teams that will, as it did last year, play only 68 games while the rest of the league will have 76.  That less-busy group now numbers six teams, including Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego, San Jose and Stockton in addition to Tucson.

Icing the puck will become even more problematic, as a new rule will prohibit teams from using their timeout after having been called for icing, as is often done for a breather if a tired group of players is caught out on the ice.  Also, the “dry scrape” of the ice prior to overtime has been abolished, and teams will now wear their dark jerseys at home in the second half of the season, after wearing whites for the first 19 home contests.

The other new wrinkles involve further curtailment of fighting.

A scrap that erupts off of a faceoff, either right before or right after the drop of the puck, will earn both combatants game misconducts, and individual accumulation of fighting majors over the course of the season will now have consequences in terms of suspensions.  A player who hits ten fighting penalties will be suspended for one game, and each subsequent fighting major thereafter up to 13 will earn him a further one-game ban.  A 14th fight of the season means a two-game suspension, and every fighting penalty after that gets a player another two games out.  The only exception to these provisions is the case in which an instigator penalty is assessed for a fight.  In that scenario, the fight will only count against the accumulation for the player who was penalized as the instigator.

It will be interesting to see how much impact this has, as the Wolf Pack didn’t have anyone get to double digits in major penalties this past year.  The team leader was Nick Tarnasky with nine, and nobody else had more than four.

Free Agents around the AHL

June 25, 2016

The calendar says it’s officially summer, and the free agent solstice is nigh as well.  So, here is a look at some significant free agents from this past season’s AHL rosters.  Contract information comes from CapFriendly.com and eliteprospects.com, and please note, this is a purely subjective list, limited by the holes in my personal knowledge and judgement…

Albany:  Brandon Burlon (D), Yann Danis (G), Marc-Andre Gragnani (D), Dan Kelly (D), Matt Lorito (F, AHL contract), Corbin McPherson (D, AHL contract), Jim O’Brien (F), Brian O’Neill (F), Rod Pelley (F, AHL contract), Mike Sislo (F), David Warsofsky (D)

Bakersfield:  Matthew Ford (F, AHL contract), Ryan Hamilton (F), Brad Hunt (D), Rob Klinkhammer (F), Andrew Miller (F)

Binghamton:  Jason Akeson (F), Mark Fraser (D), Michael Kostka (D), Phil Varone (F)

T.J. Brennan (thestar.com)

T.J. Brennan (thestar.com)

Bridgeport:  Marc-Andre Cliché (F), Kevin Czuczman (D), Justin Florek (F), Mike Halmo (F), Joe Whitney (F)

Charlotte:  T.J. Hensick

Chicago:  Chris Butler (D), Pat Cannone (F), Peter Harrold (D), Zach O’Brien (F, AHL contract), Scooter Vaughn (D), Jeremy Welsh (F)

Grand Rapids:  Tom McCollum (G), Andy Miele (F), Nathan Paetsch (D, AHL contract)

Hershey:  Eric Burgdoerfer (D, AHL contract), Carter Camper (F), Sean Collins (F), Mark Dekanich (G, AHL contract), Dustin Gazley (F, AHL contract), Justin Peters (G), Zach Sill (F)

Iowa:  Tyson Strachan (D)

Lake Erie:  Justin Falk (D), Brad Thiessen (G, AHL contract)

Lehigh Valley:  Adam Comrie (D, AHL contract), Phil DeSimone (F, AHL contract), Davis Drewiske (D)

Manitoba:  John Albert (F, AHL contract), Patrice Cormier (F), Matt Halischuk

Milwaukee:  Patrick Mullen (D), Corey Potter (D)

Ontario:  Sean Backman (F, AHL contract), Kris Newbury (F, AHL contract), Jordan Samuels-Thomas (F, AHL contract), Jeff Schultz (D), Brett Sutter (F)

Portland:  Sena Acolatse (D), Rob Flick (F), Cameron Gaunce (D), Wade Megan (F, AHL contract), Brett Olson (F), Wayne Simpson (F, AHL contract), Garrett Wilson (F)

Providence:  Tommy Cross (D), Brandon DeFazio (F), Matt Irwin (D), Joonas Kemppainen (F), Jeremy Smith (G), Ben Youds (D, AHL contract)

Rockford:  Kyle Cumiskey (D), Pierre-Cedric Labrie (F, AHL contract)

Rochester:  Jerry D’Amigo (F), Matt Donovan (D), Patrick Kaleta (F, AHL contract), Eric O’Dell (F), Colby Robak (D, AHL contract), Chad Ruhwedel (D), Bobby Sanguinetti (D), Tim Schaller (F), Cole Schneider (F)

San Antonio:  Andrew Agozzino (F), Andrew  Bodnarchuk (D), Nick Drazenovic (F, AHL contract), Maxim Noreau (D), Zach Redmond (D), Ben Street (F)

San Jose:  Mark Cundari (D), John McCarthy (F), Trevor Parkes (F, AHL contract), Karl Stollery (D), Matt Tennyson (D), Scott Timmins (F, AHL contract), Gus Young (D, AHL contract)

San Diego:  Korbinian Holzer (D), Anton Khudobin (G), Antoine Langaniere (F, AHL contract), Kyle MacKinnon (F, AHL contract), Chris Mueller (F), Shane O’Brien (D), Joe Piskula (D), Harry Zolnierczyk (F)

St. John’s:  Victor Bartley (D), Gabriel Dumont (F), Bud Holloway (F), Ben Scrivens (G)

Springfield:  Greg Carey (F, AHL contract), Alex Grant (D), Dylan Reese (D), Eric Selleck (F), Brendan Shinnimin (F), Derek Smith (D), Jordan Szwarz (F)

Stockton:  Derek Grant (F), Aaron Johnson (D), Jakub Nakladal (D), Blair Riley (F, AHL contract)

Syracuse:  Mike Angelidis (F), Mike Blunden (F), Jonathan Marchessault (F), Philippe Paradis (F), Jeff Tambellini (F), Matt Taormina (D)

Texas:  Jesse Blacker (D, AHL contract), Brennan Evans (D, AHL contract), Greg Rallo (F, AHL contract)

Toronto:  Mark Arcobello (F), T.J. Brennan (D), Richard Clune (F), Matt Frattin (F), Justin Holl (D, AHL contract), David Kolomatis (D, AHL contract), Ben Smith (F)

Utica:  Darren Archibald (F, AHL contract), Taylor Fedun (D), Alex Friesen (F), Blair Jones (F), Ronalds Kenins (F), Jon Landry (D, AHL contract), John Negrin (D, AHL contract), Danny Syvret (played most of season in Germany, spent time with Comets on PTO)

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton:  Niclas Andersen (D), Casey DeSmith (G, played on a PTO), Dustin Jeffrey (F), Kael Mouillierat (F), Steve Oleksy (D), Will O’Neill (D), Tom Sestito (F)

A Monster Postseason

June 13, 2016

The AHL has a first-time champion for a sixth straight year, after the Lake Erie Monsters completed a four-game Finals sweep of the Hershey Bears Saturday night, for the Monster franchise’s first Calder Cup title.

The Monsters, who had never won even a playoff series in seven years of existence before this spring, followed the time-honored championship script of getting hot down the stretch of the regular season and carrying that momentum through a dominant playoff run.  Lake Erie went 9-1-1-0 in its last 11 regular-season games and then was 15-2 in the postseason, with their two defeats coming in back-to-back games in the second round against Grand Rapids, after the Monsters had charged to a three-games-to-none lead in that series.  In addition to the sweep in the Finals vs. the Bears, who had ousted the regular-season champion Toronto Marlies in the Eastern Conference Finals, Lake Erie also swept the defending-champion Ontario Reign in the Western Finals and the Rockford IceHogs in the first round.

(Photo Courtesy of lakeeriemonsters.com)

(Photo Courtesy of lakeeriemonsters.com)

Head Coach Jared Bednar’s Monsters capped the triumph in thrilling fashion, winning the decisive Game Four over Hershey on an overtime goal by forward Oliver Bjorkstrand with 1.9 seconds left in the extra session, in front of a sellout crowd at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena of 19,665, the second-largest attendance ever recorded at an AHL postseason game.  The game-winner was Bjorkstrand’s sixth of the playoffs, which tied a league record, and an all-time Calder Cup best third overtime goal of the rookie’s postseason.

“The way this team came together, the selflessness, we got so tight,” Lake Erie captain Ryan Craig said to the media after the Cup-winning victory.  “We knew we had a talented group right from the start, but you don’t know how long it’s going to take to come together. This group committed, and so many guys played a part of this.”

Indeed, the parent Columbus Blue Jackets have to be ecstatic about how thoroughly their multiple young prospects stepped up to carry the Monsters to their championship.  In addition to Bjorkstrand, whose league-leading ten playoff goals, and penchant for getting them at the most important times, earned him the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the AHL’s playoff MVP, fellow rookies Zach Werenski (an 18-year-old who only joined Lake Erie after the conclusion of his Sophomore season at the University of Michigan), Markus Hannikainen and Sonny Milano all played big postseason roles for the Monsters, and except for the 34-year-old Craig, none of Lake Erie’s top ten playoff scorers is older than 23.

The Monsters were also young in goal, with 22-year-old Swedish import Anton Forsberg and 21-year-old Finnish native Joonas Korpisalo, and an interesting story line played out in that aspect as well.  Korpisalo got the call in Lake Erie’s first eight playoff outings, but after he was pulled late in a 6-1 loss to Grand Rapids in Game Five of the second round, Forsberg took over and went 9-0 the rest of the way, with a microscopic 1.34 goals-against average and a 94.9% save percentage.

It was almost as if the Monsters, collectively, could do no wrong.  They were a good defensive team all year, giving up the third-fewest regular-season goals in the league, but their offense was fair-to-middling until the postseason, when players like Bjorkstrand, Craig (3-10-13) and Lukas Sedlak (9-7-16) took their games to new levels to lead Lake Erie to a league-best 3.47 goals-per-game.

If a number of these Monster names sound familiar to Wolf Pack fans, that is because the seeds of this playoff triumph were largely sown in Springfield, where the Blue Jackets’ affiliation resided for five years before moving to Cleveland this past season.  Ironically, the previous year’s Springfield club, also coached by Bednar, followed an almost completely opposite trajectory from that of the Lake Erie champion.  The 2014-15 Falcons were one of the better teams in the league in the first half and were sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings in mid-January, before losing Forsberg to an injury and stumbling down the stretch, ultimately missing out on the playoffs by a margin of one point.

There was one Wolf Pack connection to the Calder Cup-champion squad, albeit a tenuous one.  Thirteenth-year pro defenseman Steve Eminger, who had 1-7-8 in 13 postseason games for Lake Erie, played four games for the Connecticut Whale in 2012-13, his last of three seasons in the New York Ranger organization.

So congratulations to the Monsters, and to the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, as we flip the switch into full off-season mode.

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.