Oleksuk Typifies Wolf Pack’s Depth

February 6, 2016

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack centerman Travis Oleksuk:

Unlike last year’s Wolf Pack squad, which featured high-end production like Chris Bourque’s 29 goals and Oscar Lindberg’s 28, this year’s Pack offense has been much less top-heavy.

In fact, if there has been one consistent offensive theme for the 2015-16 Wolf Pack, it has been steady production by club’s “bottom six” forwards.  Whether it has been Chad Nehring starting the season on the fourth line and jumping into the team leadership in scoring, Nick Tarnasky hitting double digits in goals, or a guy like fourth-year veteran Travis Oleksuk excelling as a key faceoff man and dependable penalty-killer, the Wolf Pack forward lineup has been one that has featured important contributions from every member.

According to Oleksuk, that is an element that has been a critical part of the Wolf Pack’s recent surge.Oleksuk Action Shot

“That’s definitely key for our lineup, (lines) one through four has been producing and that’s huge,” the former Worcester Shark said recently.  “I mean, we have Tarnasky on the fourth line who’s putting up ten, 11 goals.  That’s a heck of a year for a half year, never mind for a whole year, what he’s going to end up with.  So it’s important for us, we don’t have the guys who are throwing up huge points like some of the other teams.  So as long as everyone’s contributing and doing their part, that’s where we find success.”

The Wolf Pack’s third and fourth lines have been an ever-changing crew, as is typical for an AHL team, with constant roster changes being a fact of life, and Oleksuk has played alongside a variety of different linemates.  Those range from experienced veterans like Tarnasky and Luke Adam to young players just finding their way, like Chris McCarthy, speedsters like Tyler Brown and Brian Gibbons to diggers and grinders like Shawn O’Donnell.  No matter what the line chart has looked like, though, the pieces have seemed to fit together well.

“It’s interesting, you hope that every time you change linemates you get a few days of practice to actually work with them, try and get some chemistry, but sometimes that’s not the case,” Oleksuk said.  “That’s our sport, you’ve got to adapt to what’s going on around you.  So if they put you with new linemates you’ve got to jell as quickly as possible, and I think that’s what we’ve done so far.”

The lineup tinkering has included Oleksuk playing both center and wing, and he hopes that adaptability is something that has been of help to the coaching staff.

“I definitely feel most comfortable at center, but any time I’m on the wing it’s not like I’m not feeling confident at all, I feel strong there too,” said Oleksuk, who celebrated his 27th birthday over the AHL’s recent All-Star break.  “So hopefully that’s something we can use, just being versatile, playing wherever they need me.”

Oleksuk came into this season with over 200 games of AHL experience with the Sharks, with whose organization he signed as a free agent in March of 2012, after a four-year college career as a University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog.  This year marks his first experience of changing teams as a pro, but the Thunder Bay, Ontario native has played much the same role with the Wolf Pack as he did with Worcester.

“It’s been fairly similar,” Oleksuk said.  “I’m a guy who’s dependable on faceoffs late in the game and in important situations, play the PK (penalty kill) quite a lot, and those are the two areas that I really focus on.  And I guess I’m kind of looked at for that being part of my role.  I like doing it, I enjoy doing it and I’m happy with it.”

The transition to the Wolf Pack group has been a smooth one off the ice as well.

“It was easy,” Oleksuk confirmed.  “It seems like hockey guys are the easiest guys to get along with.  So once you come into a new room, you know someone who knows someone, and all of a sudden you’re good friends with all of them.  I’ve enjoyed my experience here, obviously this is a top-notch organization, just like San Jose was, and I’m just happy and enjoying every minute of it.”

On the offensive side, Oleksuk is a guy who had a 19-goal, 40-point season with Worcester two seasons ago and was the fourth-leading scorer among NCAA Division I players his Senior year at Minnesota-Duluth, with 21-32-53 in 41 games.  He went into the All-Star break on a personal season-best three-game point-scoring streak, and wants to push himself to continue to expand his offensive-zone output.

“I definitely do, because I know I have some offensive skill, and any time you can get on the board and help the team win with a few points, it’s big,” Oleksuk said.  “So it’s been nice to contribute a little more here, and obviously we’ve been doing pretty well.  We’re hoping we can just keep that streak going, and hopefully I can chip in a few points along the way.”

Regardless of what his points numbers have looked like, Oleksuk has been depended on by Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander for plenty of key minutes in important late-game situations, which Oleksuk has greatly appreciated

“It definitely gives you confidence,” he said.  “Honestly, any time you’re out there in those key situations you know that the coach has the confidence in you, which gives you more confidence in yourself.  So it’s a tremendous vote of confidence from him, and I like the role and I’m happy with it.”

One of those key responsibilities that Oleksuk has grabbed hold of is taking many defensive-zone faceoffs when the Wolf Pack are protecting a lead.  When asked what his mindset is in that situation, Oleksuk responded, “The number-one thing you don’t want to do is, you just don’t want to lose it clean.  You want to at least create a battle in there, where you tell one of your guys to come help you out or not.  You’re trying to win it, but the number-one thing is don’t lose it clean and don’t let them get a faceoff play off right away.”

Oleksuk won two WCHA titles in his four years with Minnesota-Duluth, and captured an NCAA championship in 2010-11, his Junior season.  Oleksuk did not get his first taste of pro postseason action until last year, though, as the Sharks were shut out of playoff action his first two seasons.  Last year’s four-game Worcester run left Oleksuk hungry for more.

“I enjoyed it, I love the playoff atmosphere of hockey,” he said.  “Obviously the tempo is picked up a bunch, the pace is quicker, everyone’s going a lot harder, it’s a great style of hockey.  It’s physical, not as many penalties called, from what I experienced at least.  So it’s fun, I enjoyed it a lot, and hopefully we can make a little longer playoff run this year.”

The Wolf Pack’s chances of securing a postseason berth improved significantly with the team’s recent eight-game winning streak, the second-longest in franchise history.  When pressed, Oleksuk finds it hard to identify a single key to that turnaround.

“I’m not sure exactly, but I know everyone’s definitely buying in now to our system,” is how he analyzed it.  “Everyone is on the same page, and everyone’s goals, it seems, are going towards the same way.  Everyone wants to make those playoffs and make a long run.  And I think with the team we have in this locker room right now, we have just as good a chance as anyone to make that run.  So I’m really happy with where we’re at, and hopefully we can keep trending up.”

 

Jensen has Helped Pack Get on Track

February 5, 2016

Following is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack winger Nicklas Jensen:

When winger Nicklas Jensen joined the Wolf Pack lineup January 9, after his trade acquisition the day before by the parent New York Rangers from the Vancouver Canucks organization, the Wolf Pack was five games below .500 and in last place in the Atlantic Division, and had lost three straight games.

Jensen’s debut that night, a 5-4 victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at the XL Center, started a seven-game Wolf Pack winning streak, the club’s longest in nearly two years, a run that has lifted the Pack into fifth place in the Atlantic and to within three points of a playoff spot.

“I won’t say it’s singlehandedly, it’s a team effort for sure,” said Jensen with a smile Tuesday, when asked about the tonic his presence has been to the Wolf Pack’s record.  “The guys in there (the Wolf Pack locker room) have been great, and the staff and everybody around the team has been great to me, and it’s been a very easy transfer.  We’ve been on a roll here, so hopefully we can keep it up.”

As to what he feels he has added to the Wolf Pack team in the seven consecutive wins, Jensen said, “I’ve just tried to play my game as I know I can, try to produce offensively and be good all around the ice and in my own zone too, be good defensively and try to give our team a couple of goals.  And so far it’s been working, but the whole team has been playing great since I’ve been here.  So it’s been fun so far, and it looks like we have a good future here.”Jensen Action Shot

Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander had this to say about Jensen’s contributions, “I think he’s brought a lot of depth, and he’s pretty proficient in just about all areas of the game.  So he’s a pretty good complement.  Right now he’s been playing with (Marek) Hrivik since he got here, and they’ve been a pretty good tandem, and (Jack) Combs has played well alongside them.  It’s been a strong line for us.

“I think they’re pretty sound in all areas, I think they have a pretty good understanding of the game.  So they can read off of one another, or kind of anticipate and work together very well.”

The left-handed-shooting Jensen, a 22-year-old native of Herning, Denmark, feels that his role on the right flank of the Slovakian-born Hrivik clicked right from the start.

“He’s a great player, a hard worker, and has got some good skill, so he’s an easy guy to come in and play with,” Jensen said of his centerman.  “And Combs, the last couple of games we’ve had the chance to play together, he’s new (to the Wolf Pack) too.  It’s just been one of those things where it clicks right away and you kind of find each other.  Sometimes it takes some time, and sometimes it happens right away.  We had [Tyler Brown] for our first game, before he got hurt for one game, and it clicked too, and we had (Matt) Lindblad and that worked too.  So far it’s been working, whoever we’ve gotten there on the wing, and Combs right now is on our wing and it’s been great.  We enjoy playing with each other.”

“I think our line has good chemistry,” Hrivik agreed.  “We hold on to pucks, usually, down low, make plays, and it’s been paying off so far.

“It’s good when you play with the smart guys, that hold on to the pucks and try to make plays.  Obviously, he’s European too and we were trying to make plays out there.  It’s a good thing, and he’s got that scoring touch, I try and set him up a little bit.  So that’s kind of working for both of us.”

The 6-3, 202-pound Jensen has the size to be a force on the forecheck, and Hrivik has been impressed by how well his big linemate gets around the rink.

“That’s what this league is about, you have to have speed in order to be successful,” Hrivik said.  “We can both use it and get to those pucks first and make plays.  That’s the key, have speed and make plays while you are using that speed.”

Jensen and Hrivik are both European natives who came over to North America to play Canadian Junior hockey, Jensen with the Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League and Hrivik with the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec League.  According to Jensen, that helped his assimilation into the Wolf Pack group somewhat.

“Normally it’s more Scandinavian, like Sweden, Denmark and Norway, we kind of speak the same language,” he said.  “But I do think when you go in the dressing room and it’s all new faces, coming in as a European too, you look for the other Europeans.  You kind of have the same background, coming from far away from home and everything.  But I don’t think that has anything to do with it.  I think it’s just he’s (Hrivik) a great hockey player and easy to play with.”

Jensen was a first-round pick by the Canucks, chosen 29th overall in 2011, and had gotten into 24 NHL games in his first four pro years.  He had plenty of good times in the Vancouver organization and was not expecting to get traded, but was not completely blindsided by the deal either.

“Obviously it’s (being traded) nothing you walk around and expect that it could happen all the time,” Jensen said.  “I knew there was rumors about it, but it was definitely not something I saw coming right there.  Especially, we’re (the Canucks’ Utica AHL affiliate) on the road, it happened so quick.  I knew it could happen, everybody kind of knows that, but it came a little bit as a surprise when it happened.  But right now I’m happy to be part of the Rangers organization, this is a great opportunity for me and I’m so excited to be here.”

Most of Jensen’s time as Canuck property had been spent with Utica, and he and the Comets had a tremendous season last year, finishing with a Western Conference-best 103 points and advancing all the way to the Calder Cup Finals, where they eventually fell in five games to the Manchester Monarchs.  Having enjoyed that kind of success with Utica made it difficult for Jensen to leave.

“I’ve been there for two-and-a-half years, have some of my best buddies there and great, great friends,” Jensen said.  “Every single team we’ve had there has been great, and the staff, the coaching, and the whole organization treated me really well.  So obviously when I heard it my heart dropped right away, just thinking about the friendships and everything you had to leave.  The hockey was obviously going to be the same coming here, it’s still the same sport, but you lose seeing a lot of good friends every day and that was probably the hardest part.  But the group here is great, and already now I’ve been here for two weeks, and it’s a great group of guys and friendships build quick here, and I’m very happy about being here too.”

Jensen is part of a growing crop of Danish hockey products who are raising their country’s profile higher and higher on the international hockey scene.  Denmark has traditionally taken a back seat to the likes of Sweden and Finland when it comes to producing Scandinavian hockey talent, but Jensen sees his home country as being a definite up-and-comer.

“I think it’s getting better,” he said.  “We have a lot of good imports in the league too, so the Danish pro league is still pretty competitive.  And a lot of young guys, you saw even the World Juniors this year, all the young guys did so well in that tournament, went the quarterfinals, almost beat Russia, which is amazing for us, we almost couldn’t believe that that happened.  So for sure, the last five, ten years the hockey’s really developed, and I think it comes from just support of the sport now.

“It’s gotten more popular and more kids grow up playing hockey, compared to everybody used to play soccer all the time.   It’s still like that, but more and more people want to try hockey out, and I think it’s also because you see Frans Nielsen, Mikkel Boedker, Lars Eller, all those guys, we have Frederik Andersen in the NHL right now, and Nikolaj Ehlers.  There’s more and more that you see on TV back home, small kids want to play it now too, and the coaching and everything’s gotten better.  It’s developing, for sure, in the right direction and hopefully it’ll keep that way.  It’s a small country and we don’t have the amount of money to put into hockey like they have over here, but for sure it’s going in the right direction.”

As a small nation, and thus an underdog in the European hockey world, Jensen’s home country takes intense pride in its hockey achievements, such as that good run by the Danish squad in this year’s World Junior Championships.

“Going into a tournament like that, we know for sure we don’t have the biggest chances of winning it or going far,” Jensen said.  “So even just avoiding the relegation, too, is a big thing for us.  But this year was pretty amazing, going to the quarterfinals.  My dad was assistant coach of the team, and even my younger brother played on the team, and I was trying to watch every game I could over here.  We stayed after practice, pretty much our whole team, when I played in Utica, and watched the Russia-Denmark game.  And everybody was cheering for Denmark, so it was a pretty cool experience.”

Jensen’s achievement of being selected in the first round of the NHL draft was another boon for Danish hockey progress, and an unforgettable delight for Jensen and those close to him.

“Just getting drafted, I think, was special, and obviously going in the first round was unique,” he mused.  “I had my family there, my mom, my dad and my brother and my one uncle, and it was a special moment.  It was something I’ll never forget.  It’s something you dream about when you’re a little kid, and when it happens it’s pretty special and it’s definitely something I’ll always remember.”

For anyone who watches Jensen play the game over a period of time, it’s definitely clear what attracted NHL scouts to him.  In addition to his size and speed, he thrives on the bumping and grinding in the hard areas of the rink, and he plays the kind of straight-line, “north-south” game that is the North American prototype

“That’s something I always wanted to have in my game,” Jensen said.  “We go from Europe and play different hockey, and come over here you’ve got to adapt.  I’ve played Juniors over here, it’s not my first year, I’ve played a lot of years over here now, and you come over here for a reason.  You want to keep some of the things you learn in Europe to bring into this game, but in the end it’s still North American hockey over here, and you’ve got to adapt.  So I try to play big, physical and use my size in front of the net and get those greasy little goals, but also try to use my skill.”

That skill seems particularly suited to playing the off-wing, where Jensen can come down the ice with his stick blade toward the middle and fire hard shots off his front foot.  That is reminiscent of one of the calling cards of a certain other guy who played in the Ranger organization, another big, fast, left-shooting forward who enjoyed a certain measure of success, although Jensen rejects the notion that he could be mentioned in the same breath with the guy who used to light up Madison Square Garden in a #11 jersey.

“I won’t compare myself to Mark Messier,” Jensen humbly stated.  “He’s a Hall of Famer, he’s a legend, he was unbelievable to watch play.  So I don’t even want my name compared to his.  But it’s true, you grow up and you look at YouTube, you look at games and you always look at the biggest names.  Those are the things when you grow up as a little kid, when you go on the ice before everybody, or by yourself, you try to do those things that the big guys do.  And sometimes you bring stuff like that with you, and that’s what you learn from too.

“I do like playing my off-wing, and I’ve played it my last five years almost, so I guess that’s where I’m most comfortable now.  Offensively I like using it, you can protect it (the puck) a little bit easier, but then again, if the coach wants me on the left side, I’ll happily play on the left side.  I’ve done that a lot of times before, and the last couple of years I’ve been on the left side a couple of times too.  It’s not too big of a difference.”

Wherever Jensen has played throughout his pro career, he has given his team quality minutes, but has never been a big point producer.  According to his new coach, however, it would be a mistake to assume that Jensen will never be a dynamic offensive threat.

“Sometimes, maybe not necessarily in his case, but you see kids coming out of Junior or coming out of college with big offensive numbers, and it’s kind of the last part of their game to come around,” Gernander analyzed.  “I think you have to do a little bit more, as you move up in level, to create offense.  You can’t always necessarily prey on mistakes by your opponent.  So maybe he’s going to be a late bloomer in that regard, but you see him when he does get opportunity, he’s pretty poised with the puck and has a bit of a nose for the net and knows how to finish plays.  So I think it’s something that’s well within him to kind of maximize.”

If his first couple of weeks in a Wolf Pack uniform are any indication, Jensen is well on his way to maximizing his pro skill package, and the Pack’s recent success with him in the lineup may only be the tip of the iceberg as far as what he can contribute, at the AHL level and beyond.

Nicholls Strives for Full-time AHL Duty

January 14, 2016

Here’s a piece I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website about Pack forward Josh Nicholls:

When winger Josh Nicholls was reassigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack from its ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, December 27, it was his fifth separate AHL recall in his two-plus pro seasons, since his free-agent signing with the New York Rangers organization March 5, 2013.

Never previously, though, had he managed to stick with the Wolf Pack for more than five games, or chip in more than one AHL assist.

This time around, Nicholls has already suited up for seven Wolf Pack games, and has three points in the last three, including his first career AHL goal, and first multiple-point game, this past Sunday against Albany.

When asked what has made the difference in his latest Wolf Pack incarnation, the 23-year-old Nicholls replied, “I think definitely third year around, you’re more comfortable with the situation and know what’s coming.  Just finding chemistry with linemates is huge in getting those short stints, and with Mac (Chris McCarthy) and Tarns (Nick Tarnasky), we’ve found something that’s been pretty good here the last little bit.  I’m taking it day by day and just trying to give my most to this team.”Nicholls Action Shot

Nicholls has been a big point producer at every other level he has played.  He was the Swamp Rabbits’ second-leading scorer at the time of his getting the call from the Wolf Pack, and had 111 goals and 240 points in 198 games in his last three Junior seasons with the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League.  Despite his recent offensive uptick in the AHL, though, Nicholls’ success is hardly all about production, according to Wolf Pack coach Ken Gernander.

“I think he’s doing some of the little things away from the puck a little bit better, getting his nose in there and competing a bit more,” Gernander said of Nicholls.  “Certainly we can continue to grow in that area, but he has shown progress.  And the fact that he can chip in a goal and he’s a good skater, can use that speed, are certainly two elements that help him as far as being able to participate here.”

Nicholls agrees with Gernander’s assessment, and is grateful that he, and the entire Ranger hockey staff, have given Nicholls ample tutelage about improving in his attention to those “little things”, which, of course, are really big things when one is looking to move up the ladder in pro hockey.

“I think that’s the biggest blessing that’s come out of the situation here with the Rangers organization, it’s kind of completed my game out,” Nicholls said.  “Every year I’ve come back and they’ve said, ‘keep working on this, and this,’ and over two years of telling me to work on different parts of my game, you start to round it out and complete your game.  I’m pretty happy with where my game’s come over the three years here, and I’m just looking to make the most of this opportunity and keep doing those little things.”

Nicholls has absorbed the message, too, about competing harder, and he acknowledges that intangible becomes ever more important the higher a player rises in the game.

“With my game, over my whole career, that’s been the biggest thing, the biggest knock, has been the compete (level),” Nicholls said.  “It doesn’t look like it’s there all the time, but I think coming from the ECHL to here, you’ve got to be competing every shift if you want to have any success, or you’ll get exposed.  So I think it’s been huge to come here and round out my game a bit and see that success for a bit.”

A significant contributing factor to that success has been playing the last three games with McCarthy as his centerman and the 12th-year pro Tarnasky on the left side, Nicholls being the most recent forward to find success on the Wolf Pack’s fourth line, a unit that has been a consistent strength for the team throughout the season.

It turns out, too, that threesome has some history to it.

“I think, honestly, a big part of that chemistry was last year ‘black-acing’ during playoffs,” Nicholls said with a chuckle.  “We played three-on-three (after practice), and we were always out there doing little skill stuff and just playing with each other.  So I think when that line was put together, it was kind of an instant laugh, at the three-on-three games last spring.  I think that’s the start that made it an easy transition for all of us, and once one goal gets in the first game, you’re feeling confidence with each other, and I think that’s all it’s been.

“We know our role and know we’ve got to create energy in the time that we have on the ice, and do positive things out there.  It puts an onus on every shift to be as good as we can, and we’ve had some success and we’re looking forward to keeping that.”

Knowing his role is important to a guy like Nicholls, who goes from being a featured offensive player in Greenville’s lineup to the Wolf Pack’s fourth line, much like the challenges faced when a top-six forward in the AHL is called up to the NHL, and finds his job description much different.

That can also be a plus, however, Nicholls asserts.

“Obviously you go from playing 20 minutes (per game) as a forward to around 10 to 12,” he said.  “But at the same time, I think you’ve got tons of energy when you’re playing here and you put a little less pressure on yourself, and you kind of simplify the game.”

There is indeed beauty in simplicity when you are looking to prove that you can be a good two-way player, and Nicholls has no illusions about what will be most important to extending his stay on the Wolf Pack roster.

“Just being good in my own zone, you don’t want to hurt the team at all, and just creating that energy and chipping in when I can,” is how the Richmond, B.C. native characterized it.  “I’ve been known to score goals and create offense, so I’m going to try and showcase that as much as I can while I’m here, and at the same time, keeping a strong defensive game and just rounding out my game.”

Of course, a well-rounded game includes offensive contributions, and that end of the ice presents bigger challenges at higher levels as well.

“You don’t get as many (offensive) chances, especially in this league, as you do in [the ECHL], so it’s just making the most of those chances when you do get them,” Nicholls said.  “My first couple games I had some good chances and missed them, but after seeing that first one go in last game, I think I kind of opened the door to all those goals kind of going in and getting that feeling.  It’s been a good learning experience for me, and hopefully that success can come.”

An important part of that learning experience has taken Nicholls back to that time-honored maxim of “taking one day at a time”.

“I think in the past I kind of looked at the bigger picture too much and was focused on other things that I couldn’t control,” he analyzed.  “And I think this year I just came in knowing the situation I was in, and especially getting called up now and seeing some spots open just because of injury, I just felt, might as well take it game by game, and take those opportunities and make the most of them.”

Traveling Man Combs Hopes to Make a Home with Wolf Pack

January 9, 2016

Following is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on Jack Combs

Veteran forward Jack Combs has already made a couple of trips back and forth this season between the Hartford Wolf Pack, with whom he signed an AHL contract August 5, and the Pack’s ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.  That’s nothing, however, compared to what his travelogue looked like last year.

Combs’ 2014-15 season, the sixth of his pro career, saw him play for no fewer than five teams, in three different countries, including three separate ECHL squads.

“Really racked up the air miles,” Combs joked about his Odyssey.  “I started in Russia and I was trying to find a good fit overseas, and that obviously wasn’t it, and I came back to North America for a bit, and I tried Sweden, and unfortunately that wasn’t a good fit either.  So it was tough.”

Combs played 11 games with Toros Neftekamsk in the VHL, Russia’s second-tier league, to start the year, then joined the Allen Americans, for whom he burnt up the ECHL, striking for 22 goals and 54 points in only 32 games.  He headed across the pond again in mid-January, joining IF Björklöven of Sweden’s Allsvenskan, but left that club after only three games.Combs Action Shot

In the course of returning to the ECHL, Combs was claimed off waivers by the Stockton Thunder, and piled up five goals and eight assists for 13 points in ten games in a Thunder uniform.  Another waiver transaction saw him go from Stockton to the Cincinnati Cyclones, with whom Combs completed the season with four goals and three assists for seven points in five games.

Got all that?

It was certainly a whirlwind year, and, according to Combs, just a matter of running into different circumstances that kept necessitating a change of jerseys.

“There’s a couple of things that went wrong in each individual situation,” he elaborated.  “For Russia, it was really tough for me to adjust to the culture and the language.  There wasn’t much English over there, so it was tough after a couple of months and I decided to come back.  And then I was doing really well here (in North America) and I wanted to take an opportunity in Sweden.  Actually I really enjoyed Sweden, it’s a great country.  Unfortunately I wasn’t playing all that much, and so that’s the reason I came back from there.  It was just different reasons, but nothing against any organization.”

And all was well that ended well, as Combs’ outstanding ECHL numbers, which saw him finish ninth in the league in points, with a combined 31-45-76 in only 47 total games among his three teams, led to an AHL contract offer from the Ranger organization.

“I finished the year in Cincinnati, and this summer my agent and I were just looking for a good fit and the Rangers showed some interest,” Combs said.  “I couldn’t have been more excited to join the organization, and hopefully I can do really well here and contribute.”

One of the real attractions of the Ranger offer to Combs was the Rangers’ pattern of giving advancement opportunities to players who perform well with Greenville, like Chad Nehring, whose yeoman work in the ECHL early last season led to a full-time job with the Wolf Pack and a prime role this year.

“That’s what they (the Rangers) said this summer, that if I didn’t make the team out of camp, just go down (to Greenville) and tear it up, and that’s what I tried to do,” Combs said. “I think I did my part, and hopefully I can do it here.”

Combs was leading the Swamp Rabbits in points (31) and goals (15), and was tied for the ECHL goals lead and third in points, when he got the call to join the Wolf Pack December 27.   Many top-level AHL offensive players see their roles change significantly when they get chances at the NHL level, and Combs confirms that the same often happens to ECHL offensive stalwarts who move up to the AHL.

“It depends on the situation,” he said.  “Here I’m playing third or fourth line, so it’s obviously a little different that playing first line down in Greenville, but I play my game no matter what line I’m on.  I just try and produce and not be a liability defensively, and just help the team win.

“I just try to produce, whatever role I’m in and wherever I’m at, that’s my job.  I’ve been a lot of places, so I’ve learned to adapt quickly and hopefully I can start putting up some points here.  I know, deep down, I can play any line in this league, and whatever role I’m put in, I just want to do well and help the team win.”

There is a positive, too, to being asked to fill a third or fourth-line slot in the AHL, as it forces Combs to concentrate on playing away from the puck, playing a “200-foot game”, as coaches like to say.

“That’s something  that I’ve struggled with for my whole career,” Combs said, “so I’ve been trying to get better at it every year, and I think I’m on my way.  I know I still need to improve, and hopefully I can shore that up this year.”

Another opportunity for Combs to broaden his horizons with the Wolf Pack is through using his considerable experience to help steady the Pack locker room.  Although it is often difficult for players who join the team in mid-stream from a different league to exert leadership, Combs, at 27, is one of the more seasoned individuals on the Pack roster, and he is eager to do whatever he can to help the younger players progress.

“I think that’s something that older guys take pride in,” he said.  “You want to help the guy next to you out as much as you can, and share that knowledge and that experience with them.  Obviously this league’s a pretty young league now and I’ve had some years under my belt, so I relish that role.”

Lindblad Relieved to be back Playing

December 17, 2015

Here’s a feature I posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack forward Matt Lindblad:

Wolf Pack forward Matt Lindblad was changing organizations for the first time in his pro career this season, having signed with the New York Rangers after playing his first two years under the Boston Bruins’ banner, and the last thing he needed was to have to sit out the entire first quarter of the season.

That’s what happened to the Dartmouth College product, though, after he suffered a freak injury during his off-season workouts.  He had to stay off skates until well after the Wolf Pack season began, get himself back into playing shape after being cleared to practice, and then finally got to play his first games in a Pack uniform just this past weekend.

“It was definitely extremely tough,” Lindblad said before his third game of the season, which was in his old home rink, the Dunkin’ Donuts Center Providence, this past Sunday.  “You want to go into camp in the best shape possible and out to prove something to, especially, new management or new coaching staff, and all of a sudden you have a setback like this.  It was extremely frustrating, extremely tough, but fortunately I’m back on the ice now.”

It certainly is ironic that when Lindblad finally worked his way back off the injured list, it was for a weekend that saw the Wolf Pack make their first two visits of the season to Providence, where he played most of his first two pro campaigns, against a P-Bruin club that still features many of Lindblad’s former teammates.Lindblad Action Shot

“It’s kind of funny,” Lindblad chuckled.   “Guys were kind of joking with me all week, even in warmups, throwing pucks in my feet, just messing around with me, but whether it was Providence or any other team, I was just extremely excited, and eager to get back on the ice.”

Lindblad had exerted an inordinate amount of effort and sweat to get back to playing, but there is no substitute for game shape.  And, sure enough, when he finally returns, it’s for a three-game weekend for which the Wolf Pack are short of extra bodies, so the team needs him to play all three games.  Lindblad reported no issues, though, and was grateful for the opportunity to jump in with both feet.

“I felt pretty good,” he said.  “I feel like the first night I was a little heavy, but (the second) night more so I had my legs, and I know they were trying to keep an eye on the minutes I’m playing and not to try to overdo it, but I never want to take a shift off.  I want to be out there as much as I can, and whether it’s a three-in-three or a four-in-four, whatever, I want to be out there as much as I can.”

Lindblad, a 25-year-old native of Evanston, IL, in the Chicago area, was nearly a point-per-game player in three seasons at Dartmouth, and earned four NHL games during his two seasons in the Bruin organization, which saw him contribute 18 goals and 51 points in 106 total games in a Providence uniform.

“I’d like to think of myself as a two-way forward who contributes on both sides of the ice,” Lindblad said.  “With that being said, I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily my entire mentality.  Just like any guy, they want to score, they want to contribute offensively as much as they can, too.  So I’d like to think of myself as a two-way forward with the mindset of maybe a little bit more offensive this year.”

After having passed up his Senior season with the Big Green to sign with the Bruins in April of 2013, Lindblad had a quick courtship with the Ranger organization this summer, inking his Ranger free-agent contract on the first day of NHL free agency, July 1.  It was hardly a rushed decision, though, on the part of Lindblad, for whom careful consideration determined that the Ranger offer was the most attractive of those he received.

“It just felt like a good opportunity in New York,” he said.  “They lost a couple of guys and I figured I could help out as much as possible.  I talked to my agent and my family, and ultimately it just seemed like the best fit for me.”

That fit was tested by Lindblad’s bad injury luck, which kept him somewhat on the outside looking in as the Rangers and Wolf Pack prepared for their new seasons, and as he went about weaving himself into a new group of teammates.  Right from the start he felt welcomed, however, as the Wolf Pack group went out of its way to help make Lindblad’s transition a smooth one.

“It’s challenging, but at the same time, they’ve done a really good job of helping me adapt,” he said.  “With Providence last year, I had a pretty good idea of the role they wanted me to play and the situations I was going to be in, where here, coming to a new organization with a new staff, you never really know where you fit in, especially being hurt and joining the team in mid-December.  But I feel like the coaching staff and the guys have been very vocal and helpful.”

Lindblad has benefitted, too, from the fact that hockey is such a small world.  He had several pre-existing connections within the Wolf Pack locker room, relationships that ensured a friendly welcome.

“I grew up with Jayson Megna,” Lindblad said, “we played seven or eight years together, and my best friend from home is (former Wolf Pack defenseman) Conor Allen, and he spent two years in this organization.  One of his roommates last year was Tommy Hughes, and we clicked right away.  So it’s been a very easy transition.”

Megna, Allen and Lindblad all grew up, and played their teenage hockey, in the Chicago area, which hasn’t always been known as a fertile source of pro puck talent.  The game continues to widen its scope with each passing year, though, and the Second City is among many locales that is sending more and more youngsters on to higher levels.

“The pool of players has really grown into the Chicago area,” Lindblad said.  “Obviously Minnesota has been a big leader in the Midwest, but I feel like Chicago as of late has made a good push.  And we’re secretly hoping that U. of I. (University of Illinois) or Northwestern will start up a Division I program and join the Big 10.  We have a big pool, and it’s great to see some of these guys come out and do so well.”

Lindblad is one of the role models that other young Chicago players can follow, as his path from Ivy League to AHL to NHL is one that most hopefuls would be eager to pursue.  The decision to leave Dartmouth a year early, though, and get a head start on his pro career, was hardly an easy one for Lindblad.

“It was extremely tough,” he said.  “My dad was a Dartmouth grad, and he obviously made sure that if I was going to leave, that I would finish up my degree.  And it was tough leaving all your good and close friends, whether it was hockey players, or with a school like Dartmouth, you have friends throughout the sporting pool.  It was definitely a really tough decision, forgoing your Senior season, and definitely here or there you’ll think about it, but I’m definitely happy with where I am right now.”

Consistency Earns Bodie Pack Leadership Position

December 17, 2015

Following is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on Pack blueliner Mat Bodie:

Wolf Pack defenseman Mat Bodie has always been a leader throughout his hockey career, including two seasons as the captain of a Union College squad that developed into an NCAA championship team.

Still, it’s unusual that a player who is only in his second year of pro hockey would be tabbed to wear one of the assistant captains’ “A”s on his jersey, and that is the designation the Wolf Pack coaches have bestowed upon Bodie.  He is among a group of four players, joined by Chris Summers, Marek Hrivik and Jayson Megna, who have rotated wearing the A’s this season, and Bodie is grateful for the nod.

“It’s an honor to be recognized by the coaching staff,” he said recently.  “We’ve got a pretty good leadership group here and there’s a few more guys who could be wearing letters.  So you don’t go about changing your game, just go out and play hard.”

That steadiness factor extends to Bodie’s interaction with his fellow Wolf Pack players.  Being only a second-year pro and a titled leader of more experienced teammates might seem to be somewhat of an uncomfortable position, but for Bodie, it’s just a matter of being the same guy he always has been.

“I don’t think you change much,” he said.  “We’ve got a good group of guys, so it’s not like you have to keep guys in check.  It’s just a matter of carrying yourself the right way and hoping guys will follow.Bodie Action Shot

“Regardless of where you are, you shouldn’t be changing the way you play, or the way you act, just because you have a letter, or not, on your jersey.  And I don’t think any of the guys here that are wearing letters have changed at all.”

A 25-year-old native of East St. Paul, Manitoba, Bodie is an intelligent, articulate individual, as one might expect of a guy with a degree from a school like Union.  He is not a loud, aggressive personality, and it’s hard to picture him giving many rah-rah speeches in the locker room, but that hardly hampers him from being a factor in the team’s leadership group.

“There’s times for that (raising one’s voice), but if you’re doing it all the time, guys are going to start to tune you out,” Bodie said.  “So you’ve just got to pick your spots, and if something needs to be said, you step up and say it, but other than that you just go about your business.”

That businesslike approach allowed Bodie to make a smooth transition from the ECAC to the AHL last season, as he tied for the Wolf Pack team plus/minus lead, with a +11, and chalked up five goals and 32 points in 75 games.  That was after a Senior season at Union that saw him lead all NCAA blueliners in points, with 8-31-39 in 40 games.  The offensive numbers have not flowed as freely for Bodie so far this year, but that is not a big concern to him.

“You need to take care of your own end first, play a 200-foot game,” Bodie said.  “A lot of times when you’re playing smart defensively, the offensive side just kind of falls into place.  And it’s not something that I’m too worried about, offensively, but just making sure you’re keeping pucks out of your own end, because that’s your job first.”

The task of defending down low in the zone is not made any easier by Bodie’s relatively small and slight stature, which sees him check in at six feet and 170 pounds.  That means that his effort level and smarts become his most important assets.

“You’ve got to kind of pick your battles,” Bodie said, “and just make sure you have good body position, not trying to necessarily out-muscle guys, but just keeping them to the outside, getting good stick on puck as well, and win the battles any way you can.”

Bodie’s game also has a distinct edge to it, as many opposing forwards who have wrestled him for position in the hard areas of the Wolf Pack zone can attest.

“A guy challenges you and you’ve got to step up to the plate, whether that be fighting or just kind of stepping up for teammates, or whatever it may be,” Bodie said.  “But you definitely don’t let anyone push you around, and just play hard.”

The second-year pro Bodie has actually been the veteran on his defensive pairing for most of the season, as he has most often skated with one of two rookies, either Brady Skjei or Ryan Graves.  Bodie has played his off-hand side, the right side, in both of those tandems, but has felt comfortable alongside both first-year pros.

“I think it’s gone pretty good,” he said.  “We feed off each other pretty well, and the communication is starting to really help us, I think.  But as far as being a leader on the back end, just go out and do your job, and some of the younger guys are going to look up to that and just follow suit.”

Playing with the former first-round pick Skjei, in particular, was quite a bit different than Bodie’s experience last year, when he spent much of the season paired with another ex-first rounder, Dylan McIlrath, whose calling cards are rugged physical play and intimidation.

“More puck-possession (with Skjei), there seem to be a little more D-to-D passes, and trying to play in the offensive zone as much as possible,” Bodie said.  “But any time we are in the D-zone, he does a good job hitting stick, and hopefully get that puck out of our end as soon as possible.

“He’s a great-skating defenseman, that’s the thing you’re going to notice first if you come watch him.  Big guy, uses his body well, and I think the offensive side for him is starting to come as well.”

In addition to his regular duties, one of Bodie’s major roles is helping to quarterback the Wolf Pack power play.  That has been the source of some frustration, as the man-advantage unit has struggled for much of the season, and Bodie feels that the key to improving its success is not all that complex.

“First and foremost, just outworking the opponent,” is how he put it.  “Especially on special teams, that’s going to be the first cause for success.  Secondly, we need to start sending more pucks towards the net and more traffic in front of the net.

“Don’t try and complicate things when it’s not going your way, just simplify as much as you can, and outwork the other team.”

Words to live by, to be sure, in all aspects of the game, and those of a leader.

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.”

 


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