Archive for February, 2014

Comeback Kids

February 25, 2014

The Wolf Pack are acquiring quite the comeback personality all of a sudden, after pulling out their second straight come-from-behind win Tuesday night, beating Portland 4-3 in Lewiston, Maine after trailing 3-0 coming out of the first period.

That was after the Pack wiped out a 3-1 third-period deficit in Saturday’s visit to Springfield, which also ended as a 4-3 triumph.

In an interesting statistical tidbit, a full one-third of the Wolf Pack’s victories on the year, seven out of 21 total, have come in games that they trailed after two periods.  And the Pack played with a short roster in Tuesday’s win, after J.T. Miller was recalled to New York late in the afternoon.  That left Ken Gernander & Co. with only 17 available skaters, as they could not dress Arron Asham due to the AHL’s veteran restriction.

Andrew Yogan

Andrew Yogan

The Pack are doing a nice job of spreading out the offense in a recent run that has seen them pick up at least a standings point in nine of their last 13 games (8-4-0-1).  Conor Allen chipped in a goal and an assist for the blue line on Tuesday, Andrew Yogan scored for a second straight game and both Kyle Beach and Justin Vaive extended their first Wolf Pack point-scoring streaks to three straight games.  Darroll Powe also scored a huge goal for the Pack Tuesday, as Marek Hrivik did in Saturday’s win, for his fourth tally in a span of six games.

Meanwhile, the two-headed veteran goaltending monster, so to speak, of Dov Grumet-Morris and David LeNeveu is combining to ensure that the team has confidence that enough big saves are coming at big times.  LeNeveu got the win in his old stomping grounds in Springfield on Saturday, and then Grumet-Morris came on in relief Tuesday night and shut the door for the final two periods, after a wretched first in which LeNeveu could have sued for non-support.

Tuesday’s game finished a stretch in which the Pack played six out of eight games on the road, and their road record recently has been eye-opening.  With Tuesday’s win, the club now has points in five straight away games and seven of its last nine (6-2-0-1).

Stamler a Gritty Worker on the Ice, Serious Student off of it

February 25, 2014

This is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com, on defenseman Bretton Stamler’s post-hockey aspirations:

Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Bretton Stamler is a hard-edged type of player, the kind of guy who consistently brings a “lunch bucket” mentality to his on-ice work.

Off the ice, however, the 26-year-old Edmonton, Alberta native, who joined the Wolf Pack on a Professional Tryout January 4th from its ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Road Warriors, is of a distinctly intellectual bent.

Stamler already has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of New Brunswick, and his ambition is to attend law school, with the goal of becoming a player agent when his own playing career is done.

When asked recently what motivated him to consider that path, Stamler responded, “Following the (NHL) lockouts, in particular the one (in 2004-05) with (then-NHL Players Association head) Bob Goodenow, and then reading up on some of the resumes of (former NHL GM) Brian Burke, (GM Peter) Chiarelli in Boston, and then also following the careers of (Detroit Red Wings head coach) Mike Babcock and (former Tampa Bay Lightning head coach) Guy Boucher, both educated guys, made me think that once I got my BBA from UNB., pursuing something beyond that when my career’s over and allowing me to transition into something different.”

Stamler played four seasons of Canadian University hockey at UNB while getting his bachelor’s, after a five-year Major Junior career in the Western Hockey League with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Edmonton Oil Kings and Swift Current Broncos.  Throughout all those years of hard-battling hockey, he always strove to keep academics and intellectual pursuits a priority.

“I think my parents instilled that in me when I was in grade school, that followed up through high school,” Stamler said.  “I didn’t take a ton of classes in Junior, and then going into college, I had good grades and had a high GPA, and that academic environment is something I really enjoyed, especially in my third and fourth years.  And I looked at a lot of different avenues beyond hockey, as far as doing a Masters in Finance or an MBA or going into law school, and those are all things that I’m still interested in, but I’ve narrowed my focus more so towards law school once I’m done playing.”Action Shot for Blog - 02-25-14

Academic interests and intellectual stimulation are obviously a big part of the university experience, but Stamler has found that he has been able to broaden his non-athletic interests in all of his various playing situations.

“It’s more difficult, in Major Junior and in pro, because the focus isn’t based upon your grades or that’s really not part of it whatsoever,” he said.  “In saying that, there’s definitely guys, on all teams that I’ve played on, that you can have conversations with them beyond hockey, or even on the business aspect of hockey, and that’s refreshing too.  It’s always nice to find a guy or two on each team that shares the same interests or is willing to talk about things other than X’s and O’s on the ice.”

With his bachelor’s work complete, the next step for Stamler will be to take the LSAT, the universal “entrance exam” for law school, which he hopes to do this June.  If he scores well enough, he will be qualified to begin law studies any time in the following five years.

“I don’t have a timeline where I want to go to law school specifically,” Stamler said, “but I do know hypothetically, worst case, say I was to sustain an injury and couldn’t play hockey, without the LSAT I still can’t apply to law school.  So if I get the exam out of the way, I can still continue to play hockey, but at some point if I want to return to law school, I can submit my application without having to wait a full year to write the exam and then get all my marks in.”

Once he accomplishes passing the LSAT, Stamler does not have a specific law school targeted as his top choice.

“Most likely it would be in Canada, because in the U.S. I’d be considered an international student,” he said.  “I’d like to go back to the west, maybe the U of C (Calgary), a lot of good contacts out there and it’s a good school too.  U of A (Alberta), back to UNB, U of T (University of Toronto) is the top school in Canada, but tuition is extremely high, so that one I would have to wrestle with a little bit.  And Dalhousie, in Halifax (Nova Scotia), is another strong school and I really like the Maritimes.”

Throughout his hockey career Stamler seems never to have been intimidated by anything that happens on the rink, despite his fairly rough-and-tumble playing style.  One might well wonder, though, is the prospect of three years of challenging law school work intimidating?  According to Stamler, there is not an intimidation factor to the coursework itself, but there definitely is to another element.

“More so the financial commitment,” he chuckled, “because there’s a lot of outflow and not much inflow, but I’ve lived on a student budget for a while.  And I’ve actually tried to do that even in pro, because it helps you save money for later on.  So the financial commitment is probably the biggest deterrent to going back.”

The time commitment is huge as well, making it unlikely that Stamler will attempt to duplicate the feat of Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, who completed much of his law school work while simultaneously tending goal for the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the early 1970s.  That is not to say, though, that Stamler might not try to mix some academic work into his pro hockey routine.

“If my career were to be prolonged, I would definitely welcome the opportunity to take classes while playing,” he said, “because, as busy as we may tell people we are, we’re great at wasting time sometimes.  So I think I could fit some time into my day to take a few classes every semester.”

Assuming that Stamler does get through all the rigors of attaining a law degree, he would be excited to bring his varied experience into the field of player representation.

“In my opinion, and obviously I’m just a player at this point, in comparing the resumes of agents who are NHLPA certified, with a lot of them, there’s either agents that have the academic background, or there’s agents that have the playing background but don’t have the academic background,” Stamler said.  “So I think it would be a nice mix to be able to have some playing experience as well as having some academic background, meaning my law degree, because then I could relate to the player, obviously to their on-ice experiences, but could also serve them well with regards to contract negotiations and understanding the CBA and best representing my clients that way.”

It’s not hard to imagine that many high-level athletes would be eager for their agent to have that sort of nuanced perspective, and to have an individual like Bretton Stamler bring the same kind of battle level that he now shows on the ice, to the negotiating-table scrums at contract time.

And…some additional quotes that I did not use in the story:

On his parents, who encouraged him to prioritize academics:

“My mom is a speech and language pathologist, and she works in Edmonton, and my dad is a retail manager.  So he works with a lot of corporate properties and essentially fills them with tenants, and does some real estate and developing.”

On whether he has an agent:

“I’m working with a young man right now, we haven’t signed anything yet, but when you’re playing in the [ECHL] or coming out of school, you don’t really necessarily need an agent, just because you’re making so little.  If an agent’s only making three percent (commission), and if you’re making less than $20,000 a year in the East Coast Hockey League, they’re not exactly getting a huge cut,
so the incentive for them to work hard for you is pretty slim.  So you have to find a pretty loyal person to be able to help you out at that level.”

On whether he has done any internships, or other summer work, in the legal or business world:

“Not a ton, just because of where I live.  I live in the Maritimes in the summer, so they’re smaller centers.  This past summer I lived in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, which is a lobster-fishing town, so my BBA’s not going to go too far in Yarmouth.  But if I were to go back to a bigger center, like Edmonton or Calgary out west, then I would definitely look at doing something like that, potentially with a firm that’s representing pro athletes.”

On doing what Ken Dryden did, going to law school while playing pro hockey:

“I’ve heard of it actually once recently.  I teammate of mine was from the Czech Republic and his dad did that when he played in the
Czech.  But currently I don’t know.  There was a player, I think one of the Sweatt brothers, they were both in the American League, and I read that the younger one, Bill, he was working on his MBA while he was also playing.  I’ve looked at something like that, but you typically have to have quite a bit of work experience, at least in Canada, before you can undertake a program such as that.  And I haven’t been working for five years for a large corporation in a management position, so I probably wouldn’t fit the criteria.  So I think that avenue’s closed for now.”

Wolf Pack in Lewiston Tonight

The Wolf Pack play the first of four games in six days tonight in Lewiston, Maine, the temporary home of the Portland Pirates while the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland is being renovated.

The Pack come into the game only a point behind the Pirates and Adirondack in the Eastern Conference standings, so a regulation win would leapfrog Hartford past both of those teams.  Portland has lost three straight and five of its last seven, and, while they are .500 on the road, the Pirates have the worst home record in the league, at 7-12-0-6, as they battle the challenge of shuttling the nearly 40 miles north from Portland to Lewiston for each home game.  Still, the Pirates have an excellent power play, clicking at better than 21% on the year, and a host of dynamic young offensive players, led by the likes of Andy Miele, Chris Brown, Tobias Rieder and Lucas Lessio.  So the Wolf Pack’s attention to their two-way game is going to have to be thoroughgoing tonight.

Michael St. Croix will go in for the injured Ryan Bourque, and it sounds like St. Croix will get an opportunity to show what he can do in a top-six role 16 points in 11 games with Greenville vaulted him up into second place in ECHL rookie scoring.  David LeNeveu gets his second straight start in net.

Cesari Helps Strengthen Wolf Pack

February 19, 2014

Here’s a feature I posted today on the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com, on Wolf Pack strength and conditioning coach Mark Cesari:

Not long ago, it was relatively rare for an NHL team to have a full-time strength and conditioning coach, and it was virtually unheard of in the AHL.  Nowadays, however, virtually every NHL team has a staff position dedicated to strength and conditioning, and Hartford Wolf Pack strength and conditioning coach Mark Cesari is an example of the extension of that trend to the AHL level.

Now in his third season with the Wolf Pack, Cesari also has experience as a strength and conditioning maven at the Division I college level, at RIT, and in the WNBA and ECHL.  Since getting into the field in the early 2000s, the Montreal native has seen the attitude of professional and college athletes toward conditioning and strength training undergo a sea change.

Cesari Headshot

Mark Cesari

“When I started at the college level, we tried to do whatever we could to make sure that the players were stronger and faster than the opponents,” Cesari said last week.  “And that’s changing every day, players are taking it upon themselves to make sure that they’re in the best physical condition, and they’re always looking for an edge.  They’re approaching me, asking me questions about how to get to the next level, and not me necessarily imposing these demands on them, which is, first of all, the sign of a great athlete, someone who wants to try to get better.  And second of all, that keeps me on my toes, to make sure that I’m up to speed with what they’re asking.”

That process of keeping abreast of the latest trends and knowledge in his line of work is a big challenge, according to Cesari.

“It’s hard enough to try and stay ahead with the research in strength and conditioning, and then you have to worry about other aspects, like nutrition and supplementation,” he said.  “Fortunately enough, I have kind of a long-standing drive to always want to learn.  In order to do that, I completed my first Master’s in 2006 and I’m currently doing a second one, to really try to stay up with that research and make sure that I’m staying with the times.”

One of the biggest areas of progress that Cesari has seen in his experience working with athletes is in the area of nutrition.  With so much money to be made in pro sports, and the competition ever more intense, players have become much more attuned to the value of eating right.

“In the last ten years it’s changed dramatically, especially when it comes to learning how to eat, and the players’ awareness of learning how to eat,” Cesari said.  “In the old days it wasn’t necessarily an issue, but today that’s certainly not the case.  Guys are trying to get every edge possible over the competition, and to do that, nutrition is a big part.  That being said, the influx of organic supplements and organic food has really changed the way that we approach our nutrition plans.  Whole Foods and those types of places are really places that our players tend to migrate to a little bit.  That’s where the organic foods are, it’s a little healthier, a little more natural.  Our nutritionist with the New York Rangers, Cynthia Sass, she does a really great job with our athletes, making sure that they know what to take in and what not to take in.”

Many, if not most, hockey fans have seen an on-ice practice and have an idea of what kind of drills and workouts are involved in that framework.  Almost all of Cesari’s work, though, is done out of sight, in the environs of the Wolf Pack weight room.  Though an off-ice workout obviously looks significantly different than an off-ice practice, it takes no measure of a back seat in terms of importance.

“On a daily basis, the gym is usually the first place the guys go,” Cesari said.  “A lot of them will use that time to get warm and to get prepped for on-ice.  So a lot of the time before practice is what I call activation.  I use that time to make sure that the players are ready to get on to the ice, their muscles are ready to get on the ice, and they’re ready to work.  Some guys will even do a workout before, and that’s a really good time to get a really solid workout in.  Most guys, once they leave my weight room before practice, they’re already sweating and they’re ready for practice.  Once practice is over, then they’ll come back up, depending on the day, we always have some kind of workout or recovery workout.  They spend a lot of hours around the rink, whether it’s on the ice or in the weight room.

“They’re working so hard on the ice, day in and day out, so for me it’s more of a recovery tool, using those workouts, some people will call it ‘prehab’, really making sure that we’re maintaining the gains that they made in the offseason and the gains that they’ve made through this point, and just try to keep them injury free.”

To hear Cesari tell it, his job is as much about injury prevention as it is about improving in-game performance.  In addition to his strength and conditioning background, he is certified as an athletic trainer, and works closely with Wolf Pack athletic trainer Damien Hess on tailoring workout programs to minimize injury risk.

“We’ve changed our approach a little bit, but the percentage of weight training that we perform in the season, it’s really dependent on the strength and conditioning coach, and how well he knows his players and how well he feels he can push his players,” Cesari said.  “My approach really hasn’t changed all that much.  Obviously there’s a huge emphasis on maintaining and rehabilitation and prehab.  Being an athletic trainer, I really take pride in that side of my game, but I think the biggest thing is just to really understand what is going on at the physiological level.  And if we can understand physiologically what’s happening with the body, we can adjust to that throughout the season, weight training, conditioning, whatever the case may be.

“I go to Damo (Hess) several times (daily), just to make sure that we’re on the same page when it comes to players and where they’re at physically, so that when I do push my athletes, I know where their end-point is.”

In addition to pushing, it is just as important for Cesari to know when to back off, to emphasize to the players the necessity of allowing their bodies sufficient time to rest and recharge.  A prime example of that was his message to the team going into the recent AHL All-Star break, during which the players had four days completely off from any team practice activity.

“When you’ve got four days to really get away from hockey, the biggest thing, with the long season, is to make sure that they take the rest and they use the time to recover,” Cesari said.  “So that was my advice to them, take some time, go home, enjoy those four days.  Nutrition is a key part of that, making sure that they’re not getting out of their usual routine, but other than that, rest and recovery.”

Cesari had few worries about this year’s crop of Wolf Pack players ever neglecting the necessary commitment to taking care of themselves.  The man responsible for ensuring that they maximize their conditioning has been impressed with their self-motivation.

“We’ve got a really good group, a young group, which makes it easy for me to push them,” Cesari said.  “They all know what it takes to get to the next level, and they’ve seen it from the older players that we have.  That makes it easy for me to know that these players understand the intensity level that needs to be in the gym.  There’s one thing about coming in and going through the movements, and there’s another about actually coming in and training and getting prepped for the next day.  These guys, as a group, have really done a great job with that.”

Skills Testing Day for Wolf Pack

Cesari and the Pack coaches put the Wolf Pack players through a bevy of fairly sophisticated skills tests today, skating at Trinity College’s Koeppel Community Sports Center.  The roster was divided into three groups for the testing, with each group on the ice for roughly an hour.

Michael Kantor remained off skates, as did Stu Bickel, who has undergone the same sports hernia surgery that Micheal Haley had, and Danny Kristo.  Also out was defenseman Brendon Nash, who suffered a wrist injury in Sunday’s 3-2 shootout loss in Providence.

Wolf Pack Take Positive Vibe into All-Star Break

February 8, 2014

It’s still an awfully steep hill to climb, but the Wolf Pack went into the All-Star break definitely headed in a positive direction, winners of three out of four games, five out of seven and seven out of 11.

That was after a 3-1 win in Norfolk Saturday evening gave the Pack a split of a two-game series against the Admirals, who eked out a 1-0 shutout victory over Hartford on Friday night.  The Wolf Pack could have easily had four points on the weekend, having outshot Norfolk 25-14 in Friday’s loss, but Admiral rookie goaltender John Gibson was not to be beaten.  The Pack turned the tables on Gibson Saturday, chasing him from the game by just past the midway point of regulation with three goals on 16 shots.

It was the Pack’s goaltender, Dov Grumet-Morris, who held sway in Saturday’s game, taking a shutout into the third period and allowing only a power-play goal to Kevin Gagne on 22 Norfolk shots.  Grumet-Morris has now won his last four decisions, and is 6-4-3 since joining the Wolf Pack.

“The first couple of shifts, I thought they had some pretty good pressure, he made some good saves,” Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander said of Grumet-Morris after Saturday’s game.  “And then again late in the game, when they started to mount their comeback, I thought he made some timely saves as well.”

T.J. Hensick

T.J. Hensick

In addition to Grumet-Morris’ work, T.J. Hensick had easily his best game in a Wolf Pack uniform Saturday.  Hensick had a nifty assist on a Marek Hrivik goal, and had a good finish of his own off a beautiful, behind-the-back pass from Jesper Fast.  Hensick now has four goals and 14 points in 13 Pack games.

The Wolf Pack as a team are now off until Thursday, when they will return to practice for a Friday-night resumption of action in Springfield.  The Pack’s 41 points had them still 16 points out of a playoff spot coming out of Saturday’s action, but the recent results had the group in an upbeat mood as the team bus began its long ride back from Virginia.

“I hope we’ve started to swing the pendulum the other way,” Gernander said, in reference to the team’s play going into the break.  “It was a rough first half, but I think we’re kind of coming together right now, and it’s been some pretty good hockey, especially this weekend.”

Wolf Pack Play Well Enough to Win, but…

February 7, 2014

It was a classic good news/bad news situation for the Wolf Pack tonight in Norfolk.

The bad news first…the game ended in a 1-0 loss to the Admirals, a team that is now only three points off the lead in the East Division and has lost only three times in regulation in 18 games (12-3-0-3) since December 21.  The good news is, the Wolf Pack continued to play well, allowed a season-low 14 shots on goal to a very successful team on the road, including a 5-2 advantage in the third period.

David LeNeveu

David LeNeveu

I spoke briefly with Pack goaltender David LeNeveu in the locker room after the game, and despite the loss, his overall outlook on the evening was positive.

“If we play like that on a consistent basis all year long, you’ve got to be happy with the result,” the veteran netminder said.  “You’re not happy with the result tonight, but you’ll be happy with the overall performance of the team.  And that’s what it comes down to.  I know we need wins, we all recognize that, but just getting to play on a consistent basis at a high level is a big step forward for this team, and wins will come along with that.”

LeNeveu matched Norfolk rookie sensation John Gibson nearly save for save, beaten only by a Chris Wagner redirection with 6:29 left in the third period.  Wagner lost the puck in the left-wing circle, but then headed to the front of the net and had Kevin Gagne’s heave from the left point go off of him and get by LeNeveu.  An ugly, greasy goal, to be sure, but it ends up making the difference.

“I think it hit him in the side of the pants, or in the back of the pants,” LeNeveu said.  “I’m not exactly sure, but it hit him somewhere and changed direction.  The puck was going to miss the net.”

Seems like, for a lot of this year, if it weren’t for bad luck, the Wolf Pack would have no luck at all, as the old saying goes.  A strong effort went for naught tonight, so it will be very interesting to see how the group responds in tomorrow night’s rematch with the Admirals at Scope, before they get four days off for the AHL All-Star break.

Lindberg Coming into his Own

February 7, 2014

Posted a feature today on the Wolf Pack’s Oscar Lindberg on the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com.

The Hartford Wolf Pack certainly didn’t coddle Swedish centerman Oscar Lindberg in his first North American pro hockey experience.

The 22-year-old Lindberg was installed as the Wolf Pack’s number-one pivot from the first drop of the puck this season, and the Pack coaching staff continued to count on him in that spot throughout the club’s first-half struggles.

Lindberg, who came to the AHL this year with 178 games of experience in Sweden’s top league over four seasons certainly did not wilt under the responsibility of that assignment.  He displayed a strong and consistent work ethic, and showed flashes of explosiveness offensively, scoring seven goals and adding ten assists for 17 points in the season’s first 35 games.Action Shot for Blog - 02-07-14

Since mid-January, however, when the Ranger organization acquired veteran center T.J. Hensick off of AHL waivers and top-drawer prospect J.T. Miller, also a centerman, returned from a stint in the NHL, Lindberg’s offensive production has taken off.  Starting January 12, Lindberg reeled off a run in which he had at least a point in eight out of ten games, totaling six goals and seven assists for 13 points, including a five-game point-scoring streak that featured five goals and nine points.

According to Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander, the Wolf Pack’s newfound depth in the middle was a key to Lindberg’s unlocking his offensive potential.

“It’s a pretty important position, and for a large part of the season he was our really only one bona fide center,” Gernander said this week.  “And now that we have three, you can spread the workload around a little bit, it doesn’t enable the opposition to check his line on such a regular basis.  And with a couple of extra players, we now have a full complement of lines we’re comfortable with, and everybody can kind of complement one another.”

“I think we’ve got four good centers,” Lindberg said, “but two top guys who can produce take a little pressure from me.  It’s nice to get some guys to produce, not just have the pressure on me to do it.”

Being able to get into a rhythm with a steady set of linemates is something that Lindberg identified as making life easier for him.

“I think we play with more consistency with the lines, having the same lines for a couple of weeks,” he said.  “And I feel more and more comfortable too.  It’s just been happening, and I’m trying not to think about it too much.”

Lindberg’s improved offensive stats have largely coincided with his being put on a line with veteran banger Micheal Haley as his left-winger.  Kyle Beach occupied the right side on that line for several games, giving Lindberg a strong physical presence on both wings, and Danny Kristo slid into that spot in the Wolf Pack’s last game.  That was a 4-1 home win over Adirondack on Tuesday, in which the Haley-Lindberg-Kristo created two first-period goals.

“I think he’s intuitive enough to read off them,” Gernander said of Lindberg and his recent linemates.  “They create turnovers, can make space for him to make plays in behind them, those types of things.  And it just seems to complement his game.

“Danny’s an offensive player, and Lindberg’s a little bit of each (offensive and defensive), but if he can get some guys who think along the same lines, and he can maybe play some give-and-go hockey with, it should help his overall game.”

For Lindberg’s part, it’s not so much whom he is on the ice with, but rather being together long enough to get used to each other.

“I think as long as we keep the lines and not change too much, it’s easy to find chemistry,” he said.  “It doesn’t matter who you play with, as long as you’ve got some consistency.  And I think I’ve been doing that lately, and we’ve been getting a lot of wins too, so that’s been nice.

“Haley, he’s an aggressive guy who wins a lot of battles in the corners, and now playing with Kristo, he’s a playmaker.  So I think we complete each other in a good way.”

Lindberg enters the weekend only one point behind Kristo for the team leadership in points, with Lindberg having 13-17-30 in 45 games and Kristo 17-14-31 in 42 outings.  Clearly Lindberg’s confidence is on a high, and it seems likely that the tougher times earlier in the year made him grow and mature as a player.

“I think the experience was good for him,” Gernander said.  “I think he now has a good understanding of how competitive the American Hockey League is, how hard you’re going to have to work to create your offense and to get your opportunities.  It was a little bit of trial by fire for him, but I think the overall experience will help expedite his career.”

It may be, too, that the full adjustment from the bigger rinks of European hockey, and the different style of play in Sweden, took half of an AHL season to complete.

“The ice surface is a lot different,” Lindberg said.  “It’s more stop-and-start (in North America), not just swinging around, and not a lot of dumping (the puck) and stuff like that.  But I’m learning, and I think it’s been better the last couple of weeks, for sure.”

That better stretch for Lindberg has mirrored the Wolf Pack’s improvement as a team, and it is quite likely that the young Swede’s play will be a key indicator of how far the Pack can climb before the AHL season draws to a close.

Wolf Pack Back in Action Tonight

The Pack begin a two-game series in Norfolk this evening, against an Admiral club that has been among the hottest in the league since the Christmas holiday.

Norfolk lost its last game, 3-1 in Hershey Super Bowl Sunday, but that was the Admirals’ first regulation loss in nine games (5-1-0-3) and only their third in 17 games (11-3-0-3) since December 21.  Head Coach Trent Yawney’s club had its co-leading point-scorer Emerson Etem (11-17-28 in 25 GP) recalled by their Anaheim Duck parent club on Wednesday, but received center Dave Steckel and his 425 games of NHL experience in return.  Also, word is that Swedish-born rookie Rickard Rakell, who is tied with Etem for the team points lead with 10-18-28 in 32 games, is ready to return from an eight-game injury absence.

On the Wolf Pack side, it looks like Shawn O’Donnell is set to return to action, after missing 13 games with an upper-body injury.  If he is back in, the Pack will have to change the lineup that beat Adirondack 4-1 Tuesday night at the XL Center.  Seven defensemen dressed in that game, so Ken Gernander & Co. could simply take a blueliner out and go back to four full lines, but according to the depth chart the obvious candidate to come out would be Bretton Stamler.  All he’s done is go +5 in his ten games since joining the Wolf Pack, and he scored his first career AHL goal in Tuesday’s game.

All indications are that David LeNeveu will get his third straight start in goal.

Bourque Thriving in Offensive Role

February 5, 2014

Here’s a feature on Ryan Bourque that I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website, www.hartfordwolfpack.com:

Ryan Bourque’s work ethic, effort and tenacity have stood out from day one of his career with the Hartford Wolf Pack, but until recently he has never been looked to as a source of consistent offense.

Bourque contributed six goals and 14 points in 69 games his rookie year of 2011-12 and then had eight goals and 15 points in 53 games last season.  This year the son of Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque has already fired home ten goals and added seven assists for 17 points, with the season only just past the halfway point.  His newfound offensive production began to blossom around the turn of the New Year, and recently he has thrived playing left wing on a line with J.T. Miller at center and Jesper Fast on the right side.  That has been the Wolf Pack’s top offensive line as of late, and being expected to fill a major offensive role has made all the difference for Bourque.Action Shot for Blog - 02-05-14

“Going through the first half of the season, it was kind of a defensive role, and PK (penalty-killing), and still getting an opportunity here and there in an offensive role, but I think as it’s progressed, it’s quickly developed into kind of a two-way role,” Bourque said this week.  “And I’m definitely relishing it, and trying to make everything of the opportunity I’ve been given.”

His two linemates, both of whom have been more well-known for their offensive potency throughout their development than has Bourque, have relished having his brand of hustle and desire on their left flank.

“His work ethic shows the most,” Miller said of Bourque.  “He provides energy for our line, and there’s always kind of a positive vibe when he’s around.  He’s pretty even-keeled, and obviously he’s been putting the puck in the net lately.  He’s doing it all, really.”

“It’s been awesome,” Bourque said.  “When you have the opportunity to play with two guys like that, it’s pretty simple out there.  You’ve just got to get in on the forecheck, hustle and try and get in the right areas, because they’ll find you.  Both of them have played in the NHL for long periods of time this season, and I think J.T., if he were in a lot of different areas in the league, he’d be in the NHL, he’s definitely that caliber of a player, and (Fast) is the same way.  He’s just so quick, and he gets in there and he gets the puck and he wins his one-on-one battles in the corner.  And he’s got the skill and the playmaking abilities to find you out there.  When you’re playing with guys like that, you’ve just got to go in and work hard and you’ll have success, night in and night out.”

Gernander added, “He (Bourque) forechecks, so he gets in and creates turnovers, and puck recovery he’s been very good at.  He just enables that line to have more puck possession, and allows them to use their skills more offensively.”

That element of forechecking is an interesting calling card for Bourque, as his small stature (5-9, 178 pounds) does not put him in the category of a typical crashing, banging power forward.  Bourque is truly relentless on the forecheck, though, and tirelessly works the hard areas of the ice, often turning the tables on bigger defenders.

“I think that a guy his size can be extremely effective against bigger players, if he uses his quickness and he’s willing to get in underneath those players,” Gernander asserted.  “If you stay on the perimeter, it often allows those bigger players to use their reach and their size to their advantage, but if you get right in their kitchen and you’ve got body position and leverage and you’re using your quickness, I think you can be even more effective.”

Bourque feels that both he and Fast, who is only slightly bigger than Bourque at six feet and 185 pounds, have been consistent in causing problems for bigger opponents.

“It’s definitely just trying to make the most with what you have,” Bourque said.  “We’re both smaller guys, but we both have the assets of quickness.  And we’re short in stature, but it’s not like we’re small in strength or anything like that.  I think we have the strength that you need to play in this league at a smaller size, but with that quickness you need to go in the corners and enjoy winning those battles, and not be afraid to mix it up.  And fortunately for me and Jesper, we share that quality, and if you can use your size to your advantage, it helps out a lot.  You have the ability to be a little more slippery out there, and also to get lower on guys, and it almost makes it harder for them to be able to move you.  So as long as you’re doing the right things and making the most with what you have, then I think that’s why we can have the success we have.”

Bourque’s success has always gone back to his consistent effort.  He never takes a shift off on the ice, and, according to Gernander, his energy level is the same in practice as well.

“He tries to win every drill,” the Wolf Pack bench boss said, “or he’s first in line, usually one beat before the whistle blows.  But that’s part of his makeup or part of his character, one of his assets that he can draw upon.”

For Bourque, that is a way to motivate both himself and his teammates.

“It’s not only the games that you’re competing in,” he said.  “If you have a competitive attitude, you definitely want to make the players around you, and your teammates, the best that they can be too.  And it’s not only that, it’s trying to be the best that you can be on a daily basis.  I hate losing to those guys.  Obviously I hate losing more in the real competition, but in practice if you can try and set those things in place, day in and day out, it’s not only going to make you better, but it’s going to make everyone around you better.”

Now that Bourque has latched on to a spot among the Wolf Pack’s top six forwards, the challenge now is to hang on to that role, and solidify the notion that he has turned a corner in his career.

“At this level, I definitely think it’s just that once you get that opportunity, once you get comfortable and are doing it on a daily basis, if you have the right attitude and work ethic with it, you can definitely fit in and make the most of it,” he said.  “I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with it.  At first it was kind of newer to me because I was doing things that I really haven’t done since Junior, but it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had as a pro, and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”

As far as those things that hadn’t been part of his role since his Junior days in the Quebec League, Bourque elaborated, “In some situations in the past, you’re always thinking defense first, but while still having that responsible attitude, and definitely that responsibility in your game, you can still try to take a few more chances because you know you’re going to have that leeway offensively.  And sometimes when you make a read or two offensively it can definitely go in your favor, and if you have the hustle and the work ethic to get back if you do make a mistake, then that makes up for it a lot too.”

Furthermore, it’s not a situation of leaving one identity behind and assuming another.  Bourque is acutely aware that being a diligent defensive player and a source of energy is what got him to where he is, and he has no intention of forgetting that, no matter how many offensive numbers he manages to put up.

“That’s something definitely that I’ll always carry with me, and I know I won’t ever leave that side of my game behind,” he said.  “I think I’ve grown up being responsible defensively, with that work ethic, and I know that if I’m going to have the opportunity to play at the next level, it’s definitely going to be with those assets, with penalty-killing and the energy that I provide, and being responsible in both zones.  And although I can chip in offensively, it’s definitely with the responsibility of being a very good defensive forward, but also having that offensive capability as well.”

That, clearly, is just what Gernander has in mind, as the organization continues to foster Bourque’s rapidly accelerating development.

“The offensive play is always a benefit, regardless of who the player is,” Gernander said.  “We have to have some minimum requirements as far as forechecking, defensive responsibility, those types of things, but some excel at it, and I think he’s one that leads the way in those areas, as far as defensively responsible, penalty-killing, provide some energy, provide some forecheck.  And now, I think with just a change of linemates or a little bit more offensive opportunity, you’re starting to see more output from him.”

“I still think his future as far as an NHL career will be more of a third, fourth-line guy, penalty-killer, and he still has to be diligent in all those tasks, but any time you can get someone from that portion of your lineup that can score goals when the opportunity presents itself, that makes him that much more valuable of a tool.  He’s proving that, given the opportunity, he can be a significant part of our offense, and I think it’s been a great progression for him.”

Wolf Pack off to Norfolk

Today’s snowstorm wiped out Wolf Pack practice, and accelerated the team’s departure for its trip to Norfolk.  The Pack, as they have done the last few years, are splitting the long ride up on the way down, going as far as Voorhees, NJ, just outside of Philadelphia, today, staying overnight and skating at the Flyers’ practice facility tomorrow morning, and then riding the rest of the way to Virginia after that.

Michael Kantor, who has been out the last three games with an upper-body injury, is on the trip, as is Shawn O’Donnell, who had now been on the shelf for 13 games, also with an upper-body issue.  Stu Bickel, out with a lower-body injury, did not make the trip.