Several “Re-acquaintances” Highlight Pack Schedule

August 31, 2015

Yes, Wolf Pack fans, the Rochester Americans are still in the AHL.

I know that is easy to forget, as it’s been more than 13 years since the Pack and Amerks have seen each other, and since meeting in the 2000 Calder Cup Finals the two clubs have played only four times in 15 seasons, but the renewal of acquaintances between Hartford and Rochester is one of the interesting aspects of this year’s Wolf Pack schedule, which was officially released on Thursday.

It was sad to see good markets like Manchester, Glens Falls, Worcester, Norfolk, Hamilton and Oklahoma City leave the league, but the re-jiggering of the AHL map that was required by the westward move of five franchises caused Rochester, Toronto and Utica to be shifted to the Eastern Conference.  That ensures that Wolf Pack fans will get a look at crops of prospects that they have basically never seen before.  Rochester’s affiliate is Buffalo, and it’s been since 2010-11, when the Sabres were aligned with Portland, that the Wolf Pack has played a Buffalo affiliate.  The Pack also last saw the Maple Leaf-affiliated Marlies in 2010-11, and haven’t gone up against prospects from Vancouver, which is Utica’s NHL parent, since playing a four-game series against the Manitoba Moose in 2008-09.

The Wolf Pack's Tony Tuzzolino, in 1999-00 action against the Rochester Americans.

The Wolf Pack’s Tony Tuzzolino, in 1999-00 action against the Rochester Americans.

In addition to the long-standing rivalries with close neighbors like Springfield and Bridgeport, the realignment, and the schedule, will bring the Wolf Pack some new divisional rivalries too.

In their 18 seasons in the AHL, the Wolf Pack have never been in the same division with the storied Hershey Bears, alongside whom they will reside in the Atlantic Division.  Same story with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who will be playing their 17th AHL season in 2015-16.  And despite never having been in the same division with Hartford, those are two teams with whom the Pack have had some thrilling playoff series, including this past spring’s nip-and-tuck, six-game battle with the Bears.

Ken Gernander’s club will also be re-kindling some old animosities with the Providence Bruins, who were at one time the Wolf Pack’s biggest rival.  The Pack and Bruins have played out of different divisions for the past four years, and were down to a four-game season series last year, after regularly duking it out at least eight times a year through the Wolf Pack’s first 14 seasons of play.  It will again be an eight-game Hartford-Providence season series in 2015-16, and the Pack will be seeing a lot more of the Portland Pirates as well.  Portland and Bridgeport will be the two most familiar opponents on the Wolf Pack schedule, with both season series’ featuring ten games each.

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms will also be a divisional opponent this year, as the Phantom franchise was for the last three seasons of its run in Glens Falls, and the Pack will face Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton six times each, while seeing the other Keystone State club, the Bears, four times.

Aside from that relatively short season series with Hershey, the schedule is heavily weighted towards divisional competition.  With ten games against Bridgeport and eight against Springfield added to the rest of its Atlantic Division slate, the Pack will play 52 of their 76 games against divisional rivals.  And with the return of playoff qualification being determined by division, as opposed to conference, standings, key points will be on the line in all of those division games.

One fairly familiar foe from the past several seasons, the Albany Devils, have been moved out of the Pack’s division, but the two clubs will still meet six times during the season.  That is good from a travel perspective, as Hartford and Albany are an easy day trip from one another, less than two hours apart.  As far as the rest of the Devils’ North Division, the Wolf Pack play the Americans, Utica and St. John’s four times each and Binghamton, Syracuse and Toronto twice each.

Ah, the Crunch, we hardly knew ye’.  Eight-game division series last season, after not playing one another at all the previous season, and having met only 18 times in the Pack’s first 17 years, and now back to separate divisions and only two meetings.

The Pack begin the 2015-16 season with four straight home games, then play seven of their next 11 on the road.  By the time they get to December 27, they will have played only 14 home games out of 31 total outings, and then, from December 29 through January 10, they have six straight at home, their longest homestand of the campaign.  The longest stretch of consecutive road games is five, which occurs twice, and the Pack finish with four straight on the road, including their only Canadian road trip of the year, with a morning-start game in Toronto and a season-concluding pair of games in St. John’s.

So the IceCaps, a team the Wolf Pack have played each year of IceCaps’ existence but who also will showcase an unfamiliar roster, due to an affiliation change from Winnipeg to Montreal, bookend the Pack’s schedule, as a Hartford-St. John’s matchup will kick off the Wolf Pack’s docket October 10 at the XL Center.

Finishing the regular season in Newfoundland, as the Pack did two seasons ago, is seemingly a good deal, as the chances of weather-related travel problems, the one negative to what is always a fun time in North America’s easternmost locale, are considerably less in mid-April than they would be in the dead of winter.  Taking points out of Mile One Centre is no easy task no matter what the calendar says, though, and could be especially tough if playoff spots, or positioning, are on the line when the Wolf Pack and IceCaps bring down the curtain on the regular year April 15 and 16.

Mid-summer Free Agent/Roster Update

August 31, 2015

As the calendar careens past the first of August, and training camps loom only a little more than a month away, following is an update on the contract statuses of the crew of players who finished the 2014-15 season with the Wolf Pack.

Contract info. has been lifted from eliteprospects.com, generalfanager.com and spotrac.com.

Pack second-leading scorer Oscar Lindberg has re-signed, reportedly on a two-year, one-way deal.  After his 28-goal season, and strong playoff performance, though, he stands a good chance of graduating to the Ranger roster.

In addition to Lindberg, prospects Marek Hrivik, Mat Bodie, Dylan McIlrath and newly –acquired goaltender Magnus Hellberg have all been signed to new contracts, Hellberg to a two-year, two-way deal, McIlrath a one-year one-way, and the other two on one-year two-ways.  On the AHL side, the Wolf Pack has re-upped Shawn O’Donnell, whose seven major penalties were third-most on the 2014-15 Wolf Pack club behind McIlrath’s 13 and Nehring’s eight.

Ryan Bourque is under contract for the coming season, entering the second year of a two-year, two-way ticket, and Nick Tarnasky also has a year left on his two-year deal, but fellow veteran forward Joey Crabb, who was the Wolf Pack’s top goal-scorer, and third-leading point-getter, in the postseason with 6-4-10, remains an unrestricted free agent.  Also still unsigned are Tyler Brown and Chad Nehring, who both did some very nice work for the Pack this past year on callups from ECHL Greenville.

Joey Crabb

Joey Crabb

Steve Spinell has landed an AHL deal with Grand Rapids, and Dallas Jackson, who got into 44 games for Ken Gernander & Co. in 2014-15, signed with Hudiksvalls HC of Sweden’s Division 1, but goalies Jeff Malcolm and Jason Missiaen remain available.  Among depth players who spent most of last year in the ECHL, Josh Nicholls, Chris McCarthy, Sam Noreau and Michael St. Croix all have one year remaining on their respective Ranger contracts, and injury-plagued Michael Kantor, who has only been able to get into 33 total games between the Wolf Pack and Greenville in his first two pro years, also has one year left on his deal.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have nearly completed the business of getting all of their contractual ducks in a row, with the biggest triumph being the conclusion of a six-year deal with top centerman Derek Stepan.  Other restricted free agents getting new deals included J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Emerson Etem, leaving James Sheppard as the only unsigned member of the roster with which New York finished the playoffs.

Stepan’s cap hit more than doubled, from $3.075 million to $6.5 million, with his new pact, and the Rangers currently are within $400,000 or so of the 2015-16 salary cap of $71.4 million.  That is with 12 forwards, including Jayson Megna’s cap hit of $600,000, and eight defensemen, including McIlrath’s $600,000, plus goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta.  That relative lack of wiggle room continues to make it look like the big club might look to move a defenseman at some point before the start of the season and, very possibly, add some more Hartford-ticketed depth players with low NHL cap cost.  As of right now, the organization has 48 players under NHL contract, two under the limit of 50, and one of those 48 is goaltender Brandon Halverson, who would go back to the Ontario Hockey League unless he pulled a major surprise and won the Ranger backup job.

In case you missed it earlier in the summer, departures from last year’s Wolf Pack group of mainstays include Chris Bourque (free agent, to Washington), Danny Kristo (free agent, to St. Louis), Chris Mueller (free agent, to Anaheim), Conor Allen (free agent, to Nashville), Ryan Haggerty (traded to Chicago), Michael Kostka (free agent, to Ottawa), Carl Klingberg (KHL), Yann Danis (free agent, to New Jersey), Justin Vaive (free agent, to Islanders) and Ryan Potulny (Finland).

Ranger Draftees Eligible to Join Pack

August 31, 2015

An always-fun summer exercise is to speculate about which of the players the Rangers have picked in the last few NHL drafts might end up seeing action with the Wolf Pack in the upcoming season.

The most obvious one is Brady Skjei, whom Wolf Pack fans got an eyeful of at the end of this past regular season and in the playoffs.  Skjei, the Rangers’ first-round pick in 2012, came out of the University of Minnesota and fit in seamlessly with the Pack, even working his way on to what amounted to the team’s top defensive pairing (with vet Michael Kostka) by the start of the postseason.  There is more than a slight chance, though, that the steady Skjei might latch on to a spot with the big club, especially if salary cap concerns force the Rangers to deal a defenseman.  Dylan McIlrath is subject to waivers this season, so the parent club might elect to keep him, if they need an extra D-man, over Skjei, who doesn’t have to be waived, just so they don’t risk losing McIlrath for nothing.

Brady Skjei

Brady Skjei

Another blueliner who is age-eligible to graduate to the AHL this year, and whom I’m hearing some good things about, is 2013 fourth-round pick Ryan Graves.  Similar in size to McIlrath at 6-4 and 220 pounds, Graves played only 50 games in 2014-15 with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL but scored 15 goals, third-best among league defensemen.  He also added 24 assists for 39 points, and helped lead the Remparts to the Memorial Cup, where he earned tournament All-Star honors.  At the Rangers’ recent prospects camp, Graves told Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com, that he still considers himself “A defense-first kind of defenseman,” but that work on his shot with his Remparts head coach, Philippe Boucher, who was an NHL defenseman that could really bring it from the blue line, helped him take his offensive production to a new level.

The Wolf Pack defense is looking extremely young at this point, with Kostka and Conor Allen having left the organization, and Chris Summers probably in the running for a seventh-defenseman spot with the Rangers.  So I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the organization was still shopping for a veteran backliner in the same mold as Kostka, to help solidify the defense in Hartford and act as an insurance policy for the Rangers.

Up front, Wolf Pack fans may get a look at Adam Tambellini in a 2015-16 Pack jersey.  Tambellini, who has great bloodlines as the son of former long-time NHLer Steve Tambellini and the younger brother of Jeff Tambellini, a veteran of 242 NHL games and a very successful player in the AHL and in Europe, was a third-round selection by the Rangers in 2013.  He started the next season at the University of North Dakota, playing 16 games for the Fighting Sioux before leaving for the WHL and the Calgary Hitmen.  Tambellini is tall, 6-2 and 195 pounds, and had excellent offensive totals with Calgary, rolling up 64 career goals and 125 points in only 102 WHL games and finishing fourth in the league in goals this past season, with 47 in 71 games.

Another WHL-produced forward who may find his way on to the Wolf Pack roster this season is 2014 Ranger draftee Richard Nejezchleb.  A native of the Czech Republic, Nejezchleb was picked as a 20-year-old in the fifth round last summer, after a 32-goal, 57-point year in the Western League with the Brandon Wheat Kings.  He came to training camp with the Wolf Pack last season, but an injury prevented him from showing what he could do on the ice and when he was ready to play in late October, the organization returned him to Brandon, which traded him to Tri-City.  The 6-2, 203-pound Nejezchleb continued to struggle to stay healthy, but still managed better than a point per game with the Americans, logging 19-30-49 in 47 games.  One other pick from the 2014 draft who is old enough to play in the AHL, defenseman Daniel Walcott (fifth round), who played one game for the Wolf Pack this spring after his QMJHL season was over, was traded to Tampa Bay June 1.

The other Ranger-drafted defenseman who sounds like he might be in the mix for a spot with the Pack is Swedish import Calle Andersson, a fourth-round selection by the Blueshirts in 2012.  The Rangers signed Andersson to an NHL deal last June and then loaned him to Zug of the Swiss League.  He was later transferred to another Swiss club, Lugano, and had a fine run with them, chalking up five goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 30 games.  He doesn’t have much in the way of penalty minutes, so you wouldn’t think he is an overly physical player, but he’s a good-sized guy at 6-2 and 211 pounds.  His father is former Ranger defenseman Peter Andersson, and his brother Rasmus was a second-round pick by the Calgary Flames this June.

Rangers’ Opening Free Agency Moves

July 3, 2015

Last July 1, upon the opening of the NHL free agency period, the parent New York Rangers announced no fewer than eight signings, and then added two more in the following two days.  That flurry turned out to have a major impact on the Wolf Pack roster, as half of those ten new additions, forwards Chris Bourque, Chris Mueller and Nick Tarnasky, defenseman Michael Kostka and goaltender Cedrick Desjardins, spent most, if not all, of the 2014-15 season with the Pack.

The first day of signing season was not quite as busy this year, but the big club did add six new names Wednesday, five through free agency and one, goaltender Magnus Hellberg, via trade, and all but one of those six spent at least part of 2014-15 in the AHL.  Defenseman Raphael Diaz, late of the Calgary Flames, has been an NHLer for the entirety of his North American pro career, but Hellberg and forwards Jayson Megna (pictured, courtesy of pittsburghsportingnews.com), Matt Lindblad, Viktor Stalberg and Brian Gibbons all are still looking to establish, or re-establish, themselves as full-time NHL guys.

Then, on Friday, forward Luke Adam joined the Ranger organization, a free-agent signee from Columbus, as was Gibbons.

Jayson Megna (pittsburghsportingnews.com)

Jayson Megna (pittsburghsportingnews.com)

Stalberg has by far the most NHL experience of group of early additions, having logged 338 career games in the Big Show in his six pro seasons, and as recently as 2011-12, had a 22-goal, 43-point year with Chicago.  The big (6-3, 210) Swede also won a Stanley Cup with the 2012-13 Blackhawks, before signing with Nashville in July of that year.  He had 2-8-10 in 25 games with the Predators last season and 11 goals and 17 points in 20 AHL games with Milwaukee, his first career AHL stint.

Stalberg’s deal is reportedly a one-year contract, as is Megna’s, while Gibbons and Lindblad signed two-way deals.  There may be significant opportunity for all three, as well as Adam to push NHL spots, as the Rangers, as of right now, have only eight forwards on their NHL roster under contract, according to generalfanager.com.  That does not include restricted free agents Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and newly-acquired Emerson Etem, who will almost certainly all be re-signed.

Megna’s deal is his first one-way ticket, after he had a breakout year this season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, leading the AHL Penguins in goals with 26, and totaling 39 points, in 63 games.  Originally signed by Pittsburgh as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Nebraska-Omaha in August of 2012, Megna got into 12 NHL games in 2014-15, chipping in one assist, after playing 36 games with Pittsburgh the year before.  He has AHL career totals of 40-26-66 in 144 games.

Gibbons also has a Penguin pedigree, having spent the first three years of his pro career in the Pittsburgh organization, including 41 games with the NHL club in 2013-14, before splitting last season almost equally between NHL Columbus (five assists in 25 games) and Springfield (3-8-11 in 26 games).  He is small, only 5-8 and 170 pounds, but plays hard, and won a pair of NCAA championships as a collegian at Boston College, sharing the second one, in 2009-10, with Chris Kreider.

Adam, a teammate of Gibbons in Springfield last year after Adam was traded to Columbus by Buffalo, is a good-sized centerman at 6-2 and 206 pounds, and has knocked on the door of 30 goals twice in the AHL, scoring 29 in 57 games with Portland his rookie year, 2010-11, and again hitting 29 with Rochester, in 59 games, in 2013-14.  He totaled 16-26-42 in 73 AHL games this past season, between the Falcons and Amerks, and also got into three NHL tilts with the Blue Jackets.

Lindblad is a third-year pro out of Dartmouth College, originally signed as a free agent by Boston in April of 2013.  His calling card is two-way play, and he was a solid contributor to a strong playoff run by Providence two springs ago, notching 3-4-7 in 12 games as the Bruins got to Game Seven of the second round, before bowing out to a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton club for whom Megna and Gibbons were key pieces.

As for Hellberg, brought in for Nashville in exchange for a 2017 sixth-round draft pick, he becomes another aspirant to the Ranger backup job made vacant by the trade of Cam Talbot to Edmonton.  Hellberg will most likely be battling fellow trade acquisition Antti Raanta for that role, as both Mackenzie Skapski and Cedrick Desjardins are expected to miss the start of the season while rehabbing from injuries.  2014 second-round pick Brandon Halverson was signed to an NHL contract Thursday, but he is only 19 and is likely to go back to the OHL for another year of Junior.

Hellberg, physically similar to now ex-Predator organization mate Pekka Rinne at 6-6 and 198 pounds, has spent three seasons with the Preds’ AHL affiliate in Milwaukee, going 42-36-7 in 98 games, with a 2.36 goals-against average, a 91.7% save percentage and ten shutouts.  With him in the fold, once Desjardins and Skapski are back ready for action, the organization should be as deep in net as it has been in a long time.

On the exit-door side, it turns out that Chris Bourque’s Ranger organization tenure is going to end after one year, as the Washington organization announced Thursday that it has signed the Wolf Pack’s 2014-15 scoring leader to a two-year contract.  Also now ex-Wolf Pack are Kostka, who signed with Ottawa, Danny Kristo, to St. Louis, Mueller, now with Anaheim, Conor Allen, inked by Nashville, Ryan Haggerty, traded to Chicago for Raanta, Justin Vaive, signed by the Islanders, Carl Klingberg, off to the Russian KHL, and Ryan Potulny, who is headed to Finland.

And heartiest congratulations to Jim Schoenfeld, for whom the 2015-16 season will be his 13th as Wolf Pack general manager, on his promotion to Ranger senior vice-president, to Glen Sather on a tremendous run as Ranger GM and to Jeff Gorton on his well-deserved elevation to the general manager’s chair.

Wolf Pack Head into All-Star Break in High Gear

January 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

Chris Mueller

Chris Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

Pack Begin Second Half Tonight in Norfolk

January 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolf Pack’s McIlrath Rounding out his Game

January 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Plenty of Roster Shuffling Still to Go

October 3, 2014

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

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

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

Anthony Duclair (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Anthony Duclair (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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

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

Dylan McIlrath

Dylan McIlrath

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

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

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

Stepan Injury Impacts Depth Chart

September 24, 2014

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

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

(Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

(Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bourque Brothers Relish the Chance to be Teammates

September 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

Ryan Bourque

Ryan Bourque

That possibility has both of the brothers extremely pumped up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bourque (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Chris Bourque (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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