Archive for November, 2015

Nehring Expands his Role for Wolf Pack

November 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chad Nehring

Chad Nehring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diaz Impressed with AHL’s Skill Level

November 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raphael Diaz

Raphael Diaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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