Nehring Expands his Role for Wolf Pack

November 19, 2015

Here’s a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack centerman Chad Nehring:

Center Chad Nehring entered the third week of November as the Wolf Pack’s leading scorer.

Last year at this time, he had yet to play his first AHL game.

Despite three solid and productive seasons in the ECHL and Central League, the former Lake Superior State Laker had never landed an AHL opportunity prior to getting the call last November 29 to join the Wolf Pack from the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors.  Once he got the chance, though, from Head Coach Ken Gernander & Co., who had just lost top-line pivot J.T. Miller to a recall to the parent New York Rangers, Nehring never looked back.  He immediately latched on to a spot centering the Wolf Pack’s fourth line, and proved himself to be a useful and reliable penalty-killer as well.

That’s the same role in which he started this 2015-16 season, but the 28-year-old Springside, Saskatchewan native almost immediately began stepping up his offensive contributions.  He scored the Wolf Pack’s only goal in their opening-night game against St. John’s October 10, had a personal AHL-best three-game point-scoring streak from October 17-23 and struck for his first career AHL three-point game Sunday, collecting a goal and two assists in the Wolf Pack’s wild, 7-6 overtime loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

To Nehring, any success he has had, whether it has been as a role player or as an offensive threat, has all been about a willingness to throw 100 percent of his energies into whatever the Wolf Pack has needed him to do.

Chad Nehring

Chad Nehring

“I think the biggest part of getting called up, when you join the next level you’ve got to find a role, just to be able to stay, to show yourself,” he said recently.  “A lot of guys, if they’re scorers in the league below, they think they can come up and be a scorer here.  There’s obviously bigger boys here and guys with more success, so when I came in last year, I tried to fit in, tried to fit my role, and whatever they asked upon me I would do.  And that bought me some time to show myself and show my game, and luckily enough I was able to sign here in the off-season and have some success this season, and play a little bit more of a role.”

Nehring spent all of last season on a tryout agreement, and his yeoman work with what turned out to be a very successful Wolf Pack team earned him an AHL contract offer from the Pack this summer.  Although the chance to show how solid a player he could be in the AHL was a long time coming, Nehring never doubted that it would present itself at some point.

“It’s about the time and the amount of work you put in,” he said.  “You’ve got to be patient, there’s a lot of prospects, (NHL) contract guys, that are at this level.  They (NHL teams) want to see their guys play and do well, and that’s why you’ve got to put in your time.  You’ve got to be patient, you’ve got to work hard every day and try to earn your spot.

“That’s the biggest thing, is getting that opportunity.  My mindset is, never give up, I work hard every day whether someone’s watching or not.  A big thanks, honestly, goes to my agent (Peter Cooney), he got me to the camp over here (last year’s Wolf Pack training camp), to kind of get my foot in the door and get more people to see me and take a look.  And I had a good start to the year, and luckily I got a chance to come up and prove myself enough to stay here and show myself.”

When asked if there is anything about the Wolf Pack situation that enabled Nehring to make such a good go of it, he said, “It’s all about the opportunity, it’s all about the fit.  A lot of teams, maybe they had a younger fourth-line center they were developing, but our team was going for the championship last year, so maybe they wanted a little more experience on the fourth (line), a guy that’s played, maybe not at this level but other levels.  It was the right fit, it worked out good and now here we are today.”

So the timing was right for Nehring to get a good break, and he certainly made the most of it.  And while names like Chris Bourque, Oscar Lindberg, Danny Kristo, et. al., were the headliners of last year’s division championship, and march to the Conference Finals, by the Wolf Pack, the contributions of less-heralded individuals like Nehring were arguably just as important.

“It’s understanding your surroundings,” he said.  “I mean, we had some really high-end skilled players, who are obviously having big years again this year.  So you’ve got to know where you fit in, what you can contribute and how you can help the team win.  And I feel like we all grabbed roles and accepted them, and played right through that, and that’s how we had so much success.”

Nehring started this 2015-16 season with exactly the same mindset, and his scoring exploits have pushed him up the Wolf Pack depth chart.  He played Sunday on the Wolf Pack’s second line between Travis Oleksuk and Ryan Bourque, and he and Bourque combined for three goals and five points in a five-goal Wolf Pack first period.

“Obviously you want to have success, and for most of this year I was with (Nick) Tarnasky and (Shawn) O’Donnell, guys that work hard, and that’s how we play.  We put some pucks in the back of the net and it worked out well, and now I got a little promotion  for a little more opportunity, and continue to work hard every day to make it the best.

“It’s kind of one of those things with us losing a bit lately, I think there’s some changes being made and trying to find the right fit for everyone, and trying to turn this back on to the right track for the team.”

No one who watches the Wolf Pack on a consistent basis should have been surprised that Nehring and Bourque were in sync immediately, as both are heart-and-soul, full-effort players.  According to Nehring, those are characteristics that typify the entire Wolf Pack team.

“Guys that work hard usually have the most success, and we clicked for a couple of nice plays,” he said of himself and Bourque.  “We got a couple of bounces to go our way and it seemed like everything was going in in that first period.

“They switch up few things to see what’s going to work the best, because we have good players here, we have a good setup, and it’s just a matter of time before we start clicking in the right direction.”

Diaz Impressed with AHL’s Skill Level

November 12, 2015

Following is a feature I posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack defenseman Raphael Diaz:

At age 29, Wolf Pack defenseman Raphael Diaz is getting his first taste of American Hockey League action.

The Baar, Switzerland native has been a pro for 13 seasons now, but all of his previous experience has been either in the NHL, where he has played for Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and the New York Rangers, or in the Swiss Nationalliga A, the top circuit in his native country.

Diaz hardly feels as though he has been exiled to a dumping ground, though, as he has found the level of play exhibited by the AHL’s young prospects to be exciting.

“You can tell, a lot of young players here, a lot of young, really skilled players, and it’s fun to see the 20-year-olds out there and being really good players,” Diaz said recently.  “I think they have to keep working hard, and a lot of them are going to be in the NHL.”

One of the youngsters who has made a strong positive impression on Diaz is fellow Wolf Pack blueliner Brady Skjei, a rookie out of the University of Minnesota and a 2012 Ranger first-round draft pick.  Diaz and Skjei have been paired together for much of Diaz’ action with the Wolf Pack, and Diaz has enjoyed that experience.

“He’s really good, he’s really skilled,” Diaz said of the 21-year-old Skjei.  “He’s a big guy and he can play really, really well, you see that.  He’s patient with the puck, he plays a lot of PK (penalty-killing), he knows what he’s doing out there.”

Raphael Diaz

Raphael Diaz

The downside of playing with so many younger guys is that making a good first pass and moving the puck crisply, which are among Diaz’ greatest strengths, presumably are tougher at the AHL level, with teammates not always in the right position all the time.  According to Diaz, though, that has not been a hindrance to him.

“If you play in the NHL it’s more organized, and you have guys with a lot of experience, of course,” he said.  “But here, a lot of young guys, a lot of really good players.  Of course they have to learn a lot of things to play in the NHL, but so far it’s fun.”

The other big positive to Diaz’ tenure with the Wolf Pack has been the multifaceted role he has been called upon to play.  Coaches Ken Gernander, Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller have counted on Diaz to quarterback the power play, kill penalties and play on the top pair at even strength.  That kind of responsibility is sure to keep Diaz, a veteran of 201 career NHL games, sharp for a return to the Big Show.

“I think it’s always fun if you can play big minutes, a lot of minutes, and right now I’m playing a lot of minutes,”  Diaz said.

After playing last season with the Calgary Flames, Diaz signed with the Rangers on the first day of NHL free agency, July 1, this past summer.  That began a second tour of duty for the 5-11, 197-pound blueliner with the Ranger organization, after he had finished the 2013-14 campaign in New York.  Certainly finding himself in the AHL was not what Diaz had planned on when re-joined the Rangers, but he remains optimistic that it will turn out to be a good fit for him with the organization.

“Absolutely,” he affirmed, “let’s see what happens in the future.  I’m going to focus myself on what happens now, I think this (playing with the Wolf Pack) is really important, and the rest, we’ll see what happens.”

One thing Diaz is trying hard to do in the “here and now” is to help a Wolf Pack offense that has suffered through an ice-cold stretch get hot.  As a skilled puck-mover with an accurate shot, Diaz certainly has the tools to make a big impact on the attack, but he doesn’t want himself, or any of his fellow backliners, to get too carried away with a mania to create offense.

“It’s not a big secret how you can score goals,” Diaz said.  “I think it’s crashing the net, get some traffic in front of the net and shoot the puck.  I think that’s really important.”

Prior to this new experience in the AHL, the last big new horizon that Diaz broke through was when he came over to North America to join the Montreal Canadiens in 2011-12.  That was after eight successful years with Zug in the Swiss-A League, and it had to be a daunting step to make that foray into the unknown of North American hockey.  According to Diaz, however, he didn’t hesitate at all.

“I got the opportunity to play in the NHL when I was 25, and I thought it was going to be a good step for me,” he said.  “I think it’s been a great experience, what you learn over here.  Of course it’s different hockey, with the smaller ice, it’s faster, it’s more physical, but for myself, it was a good step doing that and I’ve learned a lot of things.”

The biggest part of the adjustment for Diaz was getting used to how fast things happen on the smaller North American ice, and being an effective defender as a smaller player.

“With my size, I think you have to move the puck, you have to make plays,” he said, “a first good play and then try to join the rush and get some shots through from the blue line.”

After being assigned to the Wolf Pack out of Ranger training camp, Diaz had a goal and an assist in the Pack’s first four games, and then took a deflected puck in the throat in a game in Syracuse October 23, an injury that caused him to miss six games.  The down time afforded him an opportunity for some exploration around Hartford, a city with which he had no experience prior to joining the Wolf Pack.

“No, I’d never been here, I’d heard some good things about Hartford,” Diaz said.  “It’s a nice city, they have nice parks around, and it’s good for walking around a bit and spending some time like that.”

The Swiss-born Diaz is part of a fairly large European contingent in the Wolf Pack locker room.  That includes Czechs Richard Nejezchleb and Petr Zamorsky, Swedes Calle Andersson and Magnus Hellberg and Slovak Marek Hrivik.  Diaz dismisses the notion, though, that there is any special camaraderie among the cadre of players from across the Atlantic, saluting the togetherness of the entire roster.

“Everybody is really nice, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” he said.  “I think we have a good team here, really good character, and it’s fun to be part of this group here.”

Wolf Pack’s Tarnasky Looks to Show the Right Way

October 30, 2015

Here is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on veteran Wolf Pack forward Nick Tarnasky:

Wolf Pack forward Nick Tarnasky has certainly faced his share of challenges during his time with the Pack.

The 30-year-old 12th-year pro has been caught in a numbers game at forward practically since the first day he pulled on a Wolf Pack jersey.  An overabundance of veterans on the Wolf Pack roster limited Tarnasky to 26 games last season, and the Pack’s depth at forward kept him out of the lineup for the first five games of this year.

Once Tarnasky finally got into the 2015-16 lineup, though, he surely made the most of it.  The Rocky Mountain House, Alberta native had an assist in his season debut Saturday night in Hershey, setting up a key third-period goal by linemate Shawn O’Donnell, and then Tarnasky scored both Wolf Pack goals in a 3-2 shootout win over the Bears on Sunday, his first multiple-point performance in a Wolf Pack uniform.

Nick Tarnasky

Nick Tarnasky

In Tarnasky’s view, his offensive success was the result of the Wolf Pack’s team approach.

“It’s a tribute to the team concept of working hard and playing the right way,” he said.  “Good heads-up play by the defense we were out there with at the time, and we were able to bang a couple home.”

The reason why Tarnasky was able to benefit on his goals from good work by Pack rookie defensemen Brady Skjei and Ryan Graves was that Tarnasky had gotten himself right to the front of the Hershey net.  Once there, he was able to bury a cross-slot pass from Skjei on the first goal and backhand in a Graves rebound on the second.

“As far as I know, you score goals from being in front of the net,” Tarnasky said.  “That’s a thing I’ve always prided myself on.  It’s a little thing, but you work on it day in and day out, and you get an opportunity like that that comes, and more often than not you’re going to get one home, from six inches away from the crease.”

Tarnasky and O’Donnell played the two games in Hershey with Chad Nehring as their centerman, and that line generated nearly all the Wolf Pack’s offense in the back-to-back road tilts.  On the depth chart, that threesome is the Wolf Pack’s fourth line, but according to Tarnasky, that is not how they think of themselves.

“Our team concept is four lines, and I don’t think anybody in the room is really concerned about one, two, three or four,” he said.  “If we go out there as a group and we bring whatever element we bring each shift, if it’s going to be chipping in one night with goals or hits or momentum swings, that’s kind of what each line’s here to do, and I think we’re all buying into it here as we go.”

That said, Tarnasky, Nehring and O’Donnell share a special brand of lunch bucket-type chemistry when they are on the ice together, or hanging out in the locker room.

“We’re all really good friends and close off the ice as well, so that helps,” Tarnasky said of him and his linemates.  We talk about things, we sort things out, and the main thing is we stick together.  Nobody points fingers, we talk about our problems and sort them out, and when we get into the game then we’re all on the same page and we’re all ready to go.”

Nehring has been a revelation for the Wolf Pack since being summoned from the Pack’s ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Road Warriors, on Thanksgiving weekend of last season.  Unlike Tarnasky, who brought nearly 250 games of NHL experience, and close to 400 AHL games, to the organization when he signed in July of 2014, Nehring had never played above the ECHL level in his three years of pro before last year.  He immediately grabbed hold of the fourth-line center role, though, and never let go, and after assisting on both of Tarnasky’s goals in Hershey, came out of that weekend tied for the Wolf Pack team points lead with seven.

“He plays the right way, he’s reliable and he’s accountable,” Tarnasky said of his pivot man.  “So to play with him is great.  We talk it out, we work on things together, and that’s a good person to play with, for me especially.  He’s a smart player, and we keep things simple and when there’s an opportunity, we take advantage of it.”

Tarnasky has certainly seized on his latest Wolf Pack opportunity, but even when he was one of the odd-men-out in the Pack’s playing roster, he still saw that situation as a chance to model a good sense of work ethic and determination for the club’s younger players.

“I’ve always prided myself on never giving up and coming to the rink every day with my hard hat on,” Tarnasky said.  “As far as looking up and down our lineup, I think that’s a pretty good pattern.  I think us older guys have tried to provide the best example for the young kids, Tambo (Adam Tambellini) and Gravesie (Graves) and the young kids coming up, that need to have some shoulders to lean on and learn a little bit from.  I think we have a great mix, good young kids, good older guys, good middle-age kids on our team, and we’re coming along really good so far.”

The veterans’ leadership job has been made easier, too, by the fact that the Wolf Pack’s youngsters, like Tambellini, Graves, et. al., have come to the pros with a good foundation for approaching things the right way.

“We got Brady Skjei as well,” Tarnasky said, “another guy that was helping out the other guys, as far as being a first-year guy together, because he was with us through our (playoff) run last year.  All the young kids are buying in and they’re learning and they’re trying hard every day.  We don’t have any attitude problems, we don’t have anything like that floating around the room.  I’m pretty happy with the way we started, and I love the group of guys I look around and see every day, so it’s perfect.

“We have a lot of guys coming in and learning, and everybody’s got an open mind.  So as far as getting together and jelling, I think it’s been great so far.  We have good leadership, we have a really good core group of guys, and I think everybody’s buying in and we’re making strides here in this first month-and-a-half, getting some good points on the board and setting ourselves up for the stretch.”

Wolf Pack’s Tambellini Finally Catches up to Big Brother

October 21, 2015

Following is a feature I posted today to the Wolf Pack’s official website, on Pack rookie forward Adam Tambellini:

The Wolf Pack’s Adam Tambellini got his first chance to play against his brother Jeff Sunday, when Adam’s Wolf Pack knocked off Jeff’s Syracuse Crunch by a score of 5-2 at the XL Center.  For Adam, who is more than a decade younger than Jeff, it was more than his first crack at competing against his brother, it was more like a chance to go up against one of his heroes.

“He was the guy for me,” said Adam of Jeff, after the Wolf Pack’s practice Tuesday.  “I always idolized him, watching him through juniors and college and on to pro as well, just someone I could always talk to and look up to.  So that was pretty cool, to see him out there.

“It’s something that me and him have been looking forward to for a long time.  Obviously with the big age gap, we never really got to play against each other competitively.  So it was a really cool experience for me and him, and my family as well.”

Adam Tambellini

Adam Tambellini

The Tambellini family is one that has enjoyed two generations of hockey success, as Adam and Jeff’s father, Steve Tambellini, spent nine seasons as a player in the NHL, logging nearly 600 games with the Islanders, the Colorado Rockies/New Jersey Devils, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks.  After his playing days, Steve carved out a solid run as an NHL executive as well, including five years as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers.

For Adam Tambellini, being able to benefit from both his dad’s and his big brother’s experiences has been invaluable, and he revels in the fact that, despite often finding themselves in very different areas of the globe , the three Tambellini men remain very close, particularly Adam and Jeff.

“We’re not always together,” Adam said of him and his older brother, who spent the last four seasons playing in Europe before signing with Tampa Bay, Syracuse’s parent club, this summer, “but we’re always in contact with each other, and I go down to Vancouver with him and skate quite a bit with him in the summer, with his hockey program there.  And we have fun, we do a lot of hockey stuff, but we do a lot of other stuff as a family too.”

Adam was barely school age when Jeff left home to play Junior hockey in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League in 2000, and Jeff continued from there to spend three years at the University of Michigan before turning pro.  Even while far away from his kid brother, though, Jeff always made sure to make Adam feel as though he was thinking about him.

“He’s been really good with that,” Adam said, “always making time to make sure he’s checking in with me and telling me how he’s doing with his game and stuff.  And we’ve had some good opportunities to get together throughout his career so I could see him play.”

Seeing Jeff’s games was only one of the advantages that Adam drew off of Jeff’s career as Adam was growing up.  Jeff also brought his little brother to the rink with him, letting him tag along to Jeff’s various locker rooms and absorb all that went on around teams at older age levels.

“I was the little kid running around the rooms, chasing after Jeff’s teammates and that kind of stuff when I was younger,” Adam said.  “So just to see us at the same level is pretty cool, and I think he was pretty excited about it as well.

“He was probably my biggest idol growing up, and to be around the room, going with him in Junior and getting to go see him play in Michigan and with Vancouver and with the Islanders as well, it’s something that not a lot of people get to do and I was pretty thankful for it.”

In addition to the big age difference, Adam and Jeff are physically dissimilar as well.  Adam is a tall, lanky 6-3 and 185 pounds, while Jeff has more of a “fireplug” physique, at 5-11 and 190.  One thing they have in common is excellent scoring totals throughout their hockey careers, so one might think they are the same type of player, but Adam doesn’t think so.

“I don’t know if we’re actually similar players,” he said.  “Obviously he’s a lot smaller, but really strong, a very strong skater with a terrific shot as well.  Being a little taller, I think I have a little more reach, but I can try and take things from his game, like the way he shoots the puck and the way that he is on and off the ice, in the weight room and stuff, good little things that I can hopefully bring to my game.”

After an excellent season-and-a-half with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, in which Adam struck for 64 goals and 125 points in only 102 career games, he has enjoyed a solid start in the AHL as well.  Adam scored in back-to-back games after being held without a point in the Wolf Pack’s opener, and added an assist in the Wolf Pack’s home win over the Crunch.  It has become obvious to him, though, that scoring chances and offense are significantly harder to come by at the pro level, something that Jeff warned him about.

“I think that’s the first thing he noticed jumping into pro as well, just older, bigger guys, that there’s not much of a gap between the mismatches like there is in Junior,” Adam said.  “For me, skating with him in the summer’s been great, he’s given me a little bit of an idea of what it’s going to be like coming into the season, and I’m just trying to bring that into the season so far.”

Even before Adam turned pro, he drew on Jeff’s experience to make a major decision about his own hockey path.  After initially following in Jeff’s footsteps and taking the college route, Adam decided to leave the University of North Dakota 16 games into his freshman year and head to the WHL.

Adam’s explanation of how that shook out was, “I saw him (Jeff) go through what he did in Michigan and obviously had great success there.  Growing up, I never thought I could, at a young age, make a real strong impact in Major Junior hockey, so I took a little bit of a longer route.  And once I got there, I felt like my game was ready for maybe a shorter step pro hockey, which was Major Junior.  I made that jump to Calgary and never really looked back.  That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made, and I’m really thankful that I got a really good opportunity in Calgary with a great organization there.

“Me and him being ten years apart, it’s a lot different of a game now than when he came through the college ranks, and he was just kind of giving me advice on what was going on at college and what could be happening somewhere else.  And same with my dad, they were just kind of giving me information and letting me make my decision, and it worked out pretty well.”

With both Steve and Jeff Tambellini offering counsel and the benefit of their own experience, Adam was surrounded with good information with which to improve his own situation.  His dad, though, has always made sure to let his two sons blaze their own trails.

“He’s never been pressuring us into anything,” Adam said of Steve.  “He kind of wants us to sit back and really look at our options and I think he’s done a great job of that.  And I think me and Jeff are better for that.  For me and Jeff, it’s been a great opportunity to have him in the hockey business, to be able to go to practices in the morning and to be able to go to a lot of NHL games, and just be around the room and see guys and talk to guys and kind of make a relationship with them.  We’re really fortunate to have that.”

One might think that it might be hard for Steve Tambellini, given all of the player-development and management experience he has had, not to be whispering in his boys’ ears about what NHL teams are looking for or what kinds of players they need to make themselves into, but Adam says that is not the case.

“I don’t think he’s that kind of guy, he’s a pretty low-key guy, he’s pretty laid-back,” Adam elaborated.  “We talk some hockey, but we talk a lot of other things too, and we like to get away from it.

“I think he’s looking more at my game, and again, he’s never been the guy to put pressure on us, he’s just been really supportive in whatever we’re doing and whatever decisions we make, and me and Jeff are pretty thankful for that.”

After Adam and the Wolf Pack won the first battle of the Tambellini’s, the Pack and Crunch clash again this Friday night, this time in Syracuse.  That will be it for a quick two-game season series between the two clubs, who are no longer in the same division, after they met eight times as Northeast Division rivals last season.

“It would have been cool to play him those eight times, it would be awesome, but the way the schedule works it doesn’t set up that way,” Adam said.  “But it’s pretty cool it’s back to back, we get a lot of face time here.”


Pack’s European Presence Comes up Big in Allentown

October 3, 2015

Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander was in a bit of joking mood after the Wolf Pack’s 3-1 preseason win at Lehigh Valley on Saturday, having seen his team control play in the third period to the tune of an 11-3 shots advantage and score a pair of third-period goals.

Of Slovakian-born Marek Hrivik (goal and two assists) and Czechs Peter Zamorsky (goal and an assist) and Richard Nejezchleb (two helpouts), who combined for seven points in the victory, the Wolf Pack bench boss quipped, “I guess those Eastern-Bloc countries mesh pretty well. I mean, when you add Zamorsky and Nejezchleb and Hrivik, they all had strong games.”

Staying with the European angle, North American pro newbie defensemen Zamorsky and Swedish import Calle Andersson manned the points on a Wolf Pack power play that was 2/6, and both scored.

Richard Nejezchleb (left) and Chris McCarthy (center) in preseason action for the Wolf Pack at Lehigh Valley (photo courtesy of JustSports Photography)

Richard Nejezchleb (left) and Chris McCarthy (center) in preseason action for the Wolf Pack at Lehigh Valley (photo courtesy of JustSports Photography)

“I remember saying to Beuk (Assistant Coach Jeff Beukeboom) before the game, ‘I don’t know, two of your rookies out there, that might be tough,’” Gernander smiled, “and he said, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ And they proved me wrong, they really played well on the back end on the power play, made some nice plays.”

Third-year pro netminder Jeff Malcolm went the whole way in Saturday’s game and looked impressively sharp. The only puck to get by the former Yale Eli was a healthy deflection by Taylor Leier from right in front of Malcolm, and though he didn’t get tested much in the third, Malcolm faced several good chances in the first 40 minutes, during which time the Wolf Pack were outshot by a margin of 24-18.

“There were a couple of instances where it got a little bit scrambly,” Gernander said of the Pack’s play in the defensive zone. “He (Malcolm) made a big save right prior to the one goal there. We went back the other way and scored a goal, but he made a big save prior to that. I liked his game as well.”

The game seemed to have a much faster pace to it than the Pack’s first preseason contest, a 3-2 overtime win Thursday night over Bridgeport at Wonderland of Ice. That’s to be expected, as the Wolf Pack’s Thursday lineup was mostly comprised of tryout players and they had only two tryouts, winger Alex Krushelnyski and defenseman Justin DaSilva, play Saturday, but Gernander felt that being in a regular AHL building, the Phantoms’ PPL Center home ice, had just as much to do with it.

“It’s a little bit different atmosphere, bigger building, bigger crowd,” he said. “It felt more like a road game, where we were in a night early, staying at the hotel. The whole feel just felt a little bit closer to regular season.”

Diaz, Megna Last two on way from New York

October 3, 2015

The parent New York Rangers got down the 23-man NHL roster limit Saturday by assigning veteran defenseman Raphael Diaz and centerman Jayson Megna to the Wolf Pack, after the two had cleared NHL waivers.

Megna is a guy who has spent the bulk of his three-year pro career in the AHL, but this is the 29-year-old Diaz’ first minor pro experience, after 201 career NHL games with Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and the Rangers and nearly 400 games in the Swiss A League, the top circuit in his native country. The Rangers kept Dylan McIlrath over Diaz as their seventh defenseman, which helps the Blueshirts with their salary cap situation but only by a margin of $100,000, according to Cap Friendly.

After reassigning Megna, the Rangers are at 14 forwards, two more than would normally dress for a game, and they are very close to the cap, with only about $150,000 in flexibility. It is doubtful that the team would want to stay that close to the limit, so it is quite likely that there will be more moves made in the near future.

Jayson Megna (Elsa/Getty Images)

Jayson Megna (Elsa/Getty Images)

“The more (cap) room the better,” was Ranger general manager Jeff Gorton’s comment to the media Friday. “For now, will go with 23 guys under the cap. We’re talking to people every day to see the scenarios of who might be available and what we might do. Realistically, not a lot comes out of it. But it’s good to know who’s available and what scenarios might be available down the road.”

And it does not sound at all like Diaz, or Megna for that matter, are being buried in the AHL. It’s just a numbers game at this point.

“This gives us good depth as we move forward here,” Ranger coach Alain Vigneault was quoted as saying by “With Diaz, and even Megna who had a real camp, these are real good options for us.”

On the Wolf Pack side, the addition of two high-end AHL players is definitely a boost, and Coach Ken Gernander is excited to see what Diaz will add to what otherwise is a fairly young blue line corps.

“Certainly he’s a very good player, and he’s going to help our power play, he brings a lot to the table,” Gernander said before Saturday’s Wolf Pack preseason game at Lehigh Valley. “It’s going to make some decisions for us a little bit tougher, because this year we seem to have pretty good depth at the defense position.”

Megna, for his part, is coming off of a bit of a breakout year, a 26-goal AHL season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2014-15.

“He should help shore up things in the middle,” Gernander said of Megna, “center’s always a real important position, and I thought he did a good job with the big club in camp, so we’re looking forward to getting him here as well.”

On the other side of the coin, from a development perspective, Gernander expressed excitement and satisfaction about the steps forward taken by McIlrath and Oscar Lindberg (also kept on the Ranger roster), who were both mainstays for Gernander the last two seasons.

“I think it’s great, I’m really happy for the two of them,” he said. “We’ve worked closely with them the last couple years, and you see how much hard work they’ve put into their careers, and to see it get paid off here for the opening roster, I think that’s great.”

Saturday’s game in Allentown is the Wolf Pack’s second of three preseason games, after they opened their exhibition slate with a 3-2 overtime win at Bridgeport on Thursday night. The playing roster in that game was comprised mostly of tryout players, but since then the overall camp roster has been pared down to a much smaller number.

“I think we’re getting closer and closer to our opening-day roster as the weekend goes on,” Gernander said. “(Saturday’s game) will probably be about 50-50 and then tomorrow, the game in Cromwell (against Bridgeport at 3:00, the Wolf Pack’s only home preseason tilt), we should be pretty close to our opening-day roster, minus a couple players.

Wolf Pack Make First Cuts

October 2, 2015

The Wolf Pack are down from 44 players, nearly two full teams, in training camp to 32 bodies in camp and 29 officially on the roster.

The difference in the two numbers is because of the status of goaltenders Cedrick Desjardins and Mackenzie Skapski and forward Nick Tarnasky. Those players are physically with the Wolf Pack but still are technically on the Rangers’ injured reserve because they are injured, and an injured player cannot be sent to the AHL until he is healthy.

Noreau Action Shot

Sam Noreau

Twelve players were moved on Friday prior to the Wolf Pack leaving for Allentown, PA and their next preseason action Saturday against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. All of those players were tryouts, except for defensemen Sam Noreau and Troy Donnay, both of whom are NHL-contracted guys. Those two will head to ECHL Greenville, Noreau for his third season in a Swamp Rabbit (nee Road Warrior) uniform and Donnay for his rookie pro year after five seasons in the Ontario Hockey League.

All of the players reassigned or released played in the Wolf Pack’s preseason opener, a 3-2 overtime win at Bridgeport Thursday night, except for goaltender Alex Vazzano. One other tryout, forward Alex Krushelnyski, who had an assist and was, I thought, the Wolf Pack’s most noticeable player, was kept around and made the trip to Allentown.

Meanwhile, the Rangers trimmed their roster down to the regular-season limit of 23 by placing forward Jayson Megna and veteran defenseman Rafael Diaz on waivers. That means that Wolf Pack products Oscar Lindberg and Dylan McIlrath have made the opening NHL roster, a big thrill for a pair of real solid guys.

“I’m obviously really excited,” McIlrath said to the New York media after Ranger practice Friday. “It’s been a pretty long road to get to this point, so it’s even more gratifying when you reach this point having faced some adversity. I couldn’t be happier to be here now. It definitely doesn’t stop now, it’s just starting, and I have a lot of work to do.”

Rangers down to 25 Players

September 28, 2015

Most years in the recent past, the parent New York Rangers have waited until nearly the start of the NHL season to pare their roster down to regular-season size.

This fall, however, after having sent a total of 13 players to the Wolf Pack Friday and Saturday, the Rangers have their roster is down to 25 players, just two over the regular-season roster limit of 23.

The current Ranger group includes eight defensemen, and New York head coach Alain Vigneault is on record as saying he would like to keep eight, but that salary cap concerns will likely make that unworkable. So barring a trade, at least one blueliner is likely still to come down to the Pack, and the Rangers still have 15 forwards, at least one more than they would probably carry to start the regular year.

The Wolf Pack, meanwhile, have 44 players on their current roster, enough to split into two separate groups for their training camp practices. This is the first time in recent memory that coach Ken Gernander has had virtually his entire team in camp ahead of the preseason, but the Pack head man says that doesn’t change much as far as how he and his staff will approach things.

“The American League a lot of times is all about adapting to different things,” Gernander said after Monday’s practice. “It’ll be nice for us in that I think the guys that were in New York showed themselves well, so I like the talent that we have coming back (from the Rangers), and they all seem like character guys, I think they’ll get to know each other a little bit better in the intimate setting here at the XL Center. So there should be a lot of positives to the situation.”

The big challenge that the Pack braintrust faces, with so many players in camp, is parsing out action in the team’s three preseason games between the individuals who are certain to be regulars with the team and those who are relatively unknown and are looking to make an impression.

Magnus Hellberg (Elsa/Getty Images)

Magnus Hellberg (Elsa/Getty Images)

“That is the balancing act,” Gernander said. “We want to make sure that, first and foremost, the guys that are going to be on our team to start the season get the proper amount of work so that they’re ready for the season opener. We certainly have to give some looks and some consideration to guys that are battling for those last few roster spots, and as evidenced by last year, we’re going to need some depth and some callups, so have to get a good peek at all of them. Hopefully a good week of practice can be a bit of an indicator for us, and then we’re going to have to spread the games out as best we can.”

The Pack start the preseason Thursday night, traveling to the Wonderland of Ice in Bridgeport to battle the Sound Tigers, then play Saturday night at Lehigh Valley and host the Sound Tigers Sunday afternoon at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell.

One of the players assigned to the Wolf Pack in the last round of cuts is goaltender Magnus Hellberg, so it looks as though Antti Raanta has won the battle to be Henrik Lundqvist’s backup in New York. Hellberg is one of no fewer than six netminders on the Hartford roster, although two of those, Cedrick Desjardins and Mackenzie Skapski, are injured. Former Yale Eli Jeff Malcolm is back for his third year in the organization and has the inside track to start the season on the Wolf Pack roster alongside Hellberg, and Trumbull, CT native Alex Vazzano, who played the last two years at Sacred Heart, and Josh Robinson, who split last season between Austria and the ECHL, are the other two in camp, both tryout players.

Bodie is Latest Hopeful to Make an Impact

September 23, 2015

After Brian Gibbons (goal, two assists) and Jayson Megna (two goals), two forwards pushing for spots with the parent New York Rangers, had big nights Monday in New York’s preseason-opening, 6-3 win over New Jersey, it was a defenseman, second-year pro Mat Bodie, who stood out on the scoresheet Tuesday evening, in a 5-3 loss at Philadelphia.

Bodie, the second-leading point-scorer among Wolf Pack blueliners as a rookie last year, with five goals and 32 points in 75 games, scored two of the Rangers’ three goals against the Flyers. It was a big night for former Union College d-men at the Wells Fargo Center, as Bodie’s former Dutchmen teammate Shayne Gostisbehere scored twice for the Flyers.

Pack head coach Ken Gernander, who was back at the XL Center Wednesday after his contributions in Traverse City, coaching the Ranger team in the NHL Prospects Tournament, and at Ranger training camp, was excited to see one of his key guys from 2014-15 have such a strong night Tuesday.

Mat Bodie

Mat Bodie

“We really appreciated what he (Bodie) did for us last year, it’s excellent to see guys get an opportunity and have some success there (at the NHL level),” Gernander said. “So we were real pleased for Matt.”

Gernander’s Ranger counterpart, Alain Vigneault, said this about Bodie to the media after the Philadelphia game, “I remember him a little bit from last year and there’s no doubt that there’s some progression on his part. You guys asked me a lot about (Dylan) McIlrath, but one of the guys that (the Wolf Pack) coaches said that during their playoff run last year was so good, and played with Dylan, was Bodie and tonight I could see why.  He’s got a little big stick and knows how to put it defensively, and when he’s got the puck on his stick most of the time he makes the right plays with the puck.  He had a strong game for us tonight and that was good for us to see.”

With Bodie’s output Tuesday night, Gibbons’ and Megna’s contributions to Monday’s win, and Oscar Lindberg scoring in both games, Gernander feels that the players who are hoping to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL are making strong statements.

“By and large, it looks like there is going to be considerable depth and there’s going to be a lot of competition for some spots” the Wolf Pack bench boss said. “We were proud of the group the way they played last year down the stretch into the playoffs, and to see them get rewarded with some success here in the preseason–it’s just a real likeable group and you’re always pulling hard for them–it’s good to see them have some success.”

Meanwhile, the Ranger organization Wednesday made its first roster cuts, sending a dozen players to the Wolf Pack, returning six underage players to their respective Junior clubs and releasing one goaltender, Jake Smith, outright from his tryout. Many, if not most, of the first Wolf Pack assignees will be on the bubble between Hartford and its ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, and Gernander is expecting the same battle level for roster spots in his camp as has been on display at Ranger training camp.

“If our guys are pushing for opportunities at the NHL level, there’s a strong amount of depth,” he said, “and it’s going to be even more competitive here as we try to fill out our roster.”

Players will report to Hartford Friday for Wolf Pack camp, with the first practice slated for Sunday morning at the XL Center.

Gibbons, Megna Make Strong first Ranger Impressions

September 22, 2015

Brian Gibbons and Jayson Megna, two veteran forwards who can reasonably be said to be “on the bubble” between grabbing one of the last couple of forward spots on the Ranger roster and being top-six forwards with the Wolf Pack, had big nights Monday in the big club’s preseason opener, a 6-3 win over New Jersey at Madison Square Garden. Gibbons had a goal and two assists and Megna scored twice.

Megna and Gibbons were both July 1 free-agent signings by the Rangers, Gibbons from the Columbus organization and Megna late of the Pittsburgh/Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Both spent some quality time in the NHL last year, Gibbons getting into 25 games with the Blue Jackets and Megna 12 with Pittsburgh, both are relatively young but with solid pro experience (Gibbons four years and Megna three), and neither was getting too carried away about what Monday night’s performances might mean in their quests to make the Rangers.

Jayson Megna (23), Brian Gibbons (24), and others, celebrate a Ranger goal in New York's preseason opener win over New Jersey (MSG Photos)

Jayson Megna (23), Brian Gibbons (14), and others, celebrate a Ranger goal in New York’s preseason opener win over New Jersey (MSG Photos)

“You control what you can control,” Megna told the media after the game. “You can drive yourself nuts looking at the lineups, who’s playing who’s not, every night. For me, I’ve been on two pretty good teams–fortunate to be in two great organizations like this one and Pittsburgh–where the lineups are stacked. So you just have to leave it all out on the ice and prove to the coaches you can help the team win.”

Gibbons expressed similar sentiments, saying, “I think every time you get a chance to show the coaches that you can play at this level and they can trust you on the ice in different situations, I think that’s all I’m trying to do.”

Gibbons has played in 66 NHL games the past two years, having gotten into 41 with Pittsburgh in 2013-14 before signing with Columbus last summer. He has 5-17-22 in those 66 contests, and 101 points (33-68) in 194 career AHL games. Good numbers, but, according to his former Boston College teammate, and now fellow Ranger organization member, Chris Kreider, they do not do justice to Gibbons’ skill level.

“In college in particular, (Gibbons) was) the best player I played with,” Kreider said after last night’s game. “You see the poise, and he’s so fun to watch. He’s electrifying, high in skill, he’s dynamic. He’s a game changer and he sees things other people don’t.”

For Kreider to say that Gibbons was the best player he played with at B.C. is eye-openingly high praise, as Kreider’s other college teammates included the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Cam Atkinson, and Kevin and Jimmy Hayes.

Also in Monday night’s preseason opener, Oscar Lindberg scored, Ryan Bourque had an assist and Brady Skjei was +3 with an assist.

And, the Rangers go back-to-back with their first two exhibition contests, visiting Philadelphia tonight. Megna, Lindberg, Bourque and Dylan McIlrath were all announced as remaining in the projected lineup for the second game, and Mat Bodie is scheduled to dress as well.

Four tryout players are also slated to play in Philly: veteran defenseman Brett Bellemore, a veteran of 121 NHL games with Carolina and 300 AHL contests with Charlotte and Albany, former New York Islanders third-round pick Kirill Kabanov and rookies Richard Nejezchleb and Jayden Hart. Nejezchleb was a fifth-round selection by the Rangers as a 20-year-old in 2014 and actually started last season on the Wolf Pack roster while rehabbing an injury, before heading back to the Western Hockey League, where he was a better than a point-per-game guy (20-31-51 in 49 GP) with Brandon and Tri-City. Hart, meanwhile, is even more of a Cinderella story out of the WHL (Prince Albert), having been a tryout invite to the Rangers’ Traverse City Prospects Tournament team and having impressed enough not only to earn a spot at Ranger training camp, but to get tabbed for a preseason game as well. Hearing some real good things about him.


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