Archive for February, 2016

McCarthy Thriving in fourth-line Role

February 25, 2016

Here is a feature I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website, on Pack forward Chris McCarthy:

When the New York Rangers signed forward Chris McCarthy out of the University of Vermont in March of 2014, the Collegeville, PA native was fresh off of an 18-goal, 42-point Senior season with the Catamounts, and seemed poised to be an offensive force in the AHL.  He got his feet wet with eight games in the Wolf Pack lineup after the conclusion of his college season, and was primed to recreate his Hockey East offensive exploits right from the start of the following AHL campaign.

As it turned out, though, McCarthy barely managed to get into the Wolf Pack mix in 2014-15.  A spare part coming out of training camp, he was assigned to Greenville of the ECHL in mid-October and spent the bulk of the season with the Road Warriors, logging only five games with the Wolf Pack all season.

This year, however, not only has the 24-year-old McCarthy solidified a roster spot with the Pack, he has been a key contributor.  Playing mostly on the fourth line, McCarthy has turned in quality minutes on a nightly basis and has begun to show the offensive touch that made him a Second Team Hockey East All-Star as a senior.McCarthy Action Shot 2

When asked recently what the key has been to his turnaround this year, McCarthy responded, “I think just my mindset overall.  I came in this year just trying to get in the lineup and work my way in, and really just put my best foot forward, and whatever they (the Wolf Pack coaches) asked of me, just do for them.  We’ve kind of found some success, and I’ve just been trying to be positive all the way throughout, no matter what the ups and downs may be through the season.  It’s a long season, I learned that last year and I think that’s really helped me.

“Controlling what you can control, I think that’s where my mind’s been at this year, and that’s all that you can do, with this long season, going out and working hard every shift, every minute that you’re out there.  That’s really all you can do.”

Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander’s comment about what has made the difference for McCarthy was, “Probably opportunity, and some of it’s learning or growth, or getting acclimated at this (the AHL) level.  But he’s certainly battled his way up the ranks, played a lot of fourth-line minutes while he was getting that experience, and he’s been deserving of all the ice time he’s been given lately.  The more responsibility he’s had lately, he’s been equal to the challenge.”

McCarthy has played all three forward positions for the Wolf Pack this season, and has been joined on the fourth line for most of the campaign by 12th-year pro Nick Tarnasky.  McCarthy’s and Tarnasky’s backgrounds could hardly be more different–McCarthy an American college product who grew up near Philadelphia and Tarnasky a grizzled veteran out of the Western Junior ranks who hails from rural Alberta–but the duo have found plenty of commonality on the ice.

“Nick’s awesome,” McCarthy said of Tarnasky.  “He and I have really been a package deal this whole year, and I think we’ve found great chemistry there.  He’s a big guy, he works hard, he gives you everything he’s got every night.  And he’s got great mitts around the net, so I just try to find him in open areas, and he’s found the back of the net quite a good amount this year.

“He definitely has some offensive skill, but I think he opens up the ice for us, with forechecking and his hard-nosed mentality.  I’ve enjoyed playing with him a lot this year, and we’ve found some good chemistry there.”

Tarnasky’s calling card is physical play and getting in on the forecheck, and he has been impressed with how effective McCarthy has been in those elements of the game.

“I think he actually does a decent job of finishing hits and being F-1 (the first forward in on the forecheck) as well,” Tarnasky analyzed.  “And whether he or I, or whoever the third person is that we’re with, is the F-1, I think he’s really good at reading and being able to find those loose pucks, once the turnovers are created.  He’s a good, big body, good balance, he’s able to kind of turn his back and protect pucks.  And then I think he’s got a pretty good skill level, where once he’s got the puck, he can turn his back and look to make a play, or look to release it to where me or our other linemate will be.

“I think we’ve become pretty understanding of where one another’s going to be, and supporting each other on the wall, whether he’s on the right side or up the middle.  Just being able to have the confidence to chip the puck or throw it cross-ice, I think we have a pretty good understanding that I’ll be going on my side or coming across, at the same time when I know he’ll be doing the same.”

It has been somewhat of a rotating cast of characters at the other forward spot on the fourth line, and recently the likes of Luke Adam and Brian Gibbons, two players who have a significant level of NHL experience, have spent some time skating with McCarthy and Tarnasky.  That has helped McCarthy to a bit of a statistical breakout, with a three-point game in a 7-2 Wolf Pack win in Springfield February 20 and a personal AHL-best three-game point-scoring streak from February 17-21.

“It just gives us confidence,” McCarthy said of the offensive rewards.  “We’ve been playing some great hockey as of late and seeing pucks start to go in for us is obviously a good sign.  And being marked as a fourth line, you might say, ‘We don’t need to be doing that, we just need to go out and create energy,’ and everything else.  And whatever way we can help, it’s great.

“We think that we can help this team out as much as the next guy, and whatever the role of the night may be, we’re just going to go out there and do it.

“Especially the past month or so, we’ve finally been really clicking and finding ways to help the team out the best we can.”

Tarnasky added, “We’ve probably played 35 or so games together, and we’re having fun together.  And I played with Luke in Rochester, and I think the games that the three of us played together were pretty good to watch and we had a lot of fun.  Same with Gibby (Gibbons), he’s a good player, and seemingly whoever gets mixed in with us, I think we’re doing a good job as far as offensive-zone pressure, and creating quite a bit of offense.”

That offensive contribution by the McCarthy-Tarnasky-et. al. combination is greatly valued by Gernander, who is not a coach who expects any of his players to limit their contributions to rigidly defined roles.

“We don’t try and pigeonhole anybody fourth line per se, because I think over the last little stretch here, they’ve been pretty good, contributing offensively,” the Wolf Pack head man said.  “And certainly when you go on the road, you don’t always get the (line) matches you want, so they’ve got to be able to play against anybody, really.

“They’re (McCarthy and Tarnasky) both guys who have kind of fought their way up the ranks this season, so there’s a little bit of camaraderie there, and I think they have a pretty good friendship off the ice as well.  So it’s been a bit of chemistry, too.”

The versatility that McCarthy has shown in moving back and forth among center and both wings has improved his value as well, and his willing acceptance of the positional juggling goes back to the positive mindset that has keyed his progress here in year two of his pro career.

“Like I said, controlling what you can control, and that’s going out wherever they say to play, you go out there and put your best foot forward and give them everything you can,” McCarthy expanded.  “And switching back and forth hasn’t really been an issue for me, it’s fine.

“I’ve played center enough in college that when they asked me to play center here it hasn’t been too much of a change for me.  It’s obviously a little bit different in the D zone, but for the most part it’s been pretty easy for me.”

The defensive-zone aspect, playing the “200-foot game” is often an issue for players who were big point producers at other levels of hockey before reaching the pros, and McCarthy considers his play away from the puck still to be a work in progress.

“I think it’s been getting better as the season’s gone on,” he said.  “I think our line, what we’re asked of is energy and forechecking and being sound defensively, and I think we’ve been doing a good job of that lately.  And the defensive game is a huge part here at the pro level, and I just try to really improve that.”

After his goal-and-two-assists outburst in Springfield, McCarthy found the net again the next day at home against Binghamton, for his first AHL goal-scoring streak.  That tally against the Senators, on which McCarthy stepped across the blue line and unloaded a long shot that squeaked its way through the pads of Binghamton goaltender Matt O’Connor, was the kind that goal-scorers playing with confidence tend to get, but McCarthy was hardly ready to declare himself red-hot.

“Some of the ones that you don’t expect to go in end up finding their way in, and vice versa,” he chuckled philosophically.  “The good opportunities might not find their way in.  The confidence has been good for our line, and that confidence has helped improve our game.”

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Hellberg, Wolf Pack Feeding off of Each Other’s Confidence

February 19, 2016

Following is a feature I wrote for the Wolf Pack’s official website on goaltender Magnus Hellberg:

No team can ever be successful without solid goaltending, and if there is one individual whose play could be cited as being most key to the recent improvement in the Wolf Pack’s fortunes, it would be their number-one netminder, Magnus Hellberg.

The 6-5, 185-pound Swedish import was in goal for each of the Wolf Pack’s eight straight wins from January 9-27, the second-longest winning streak in franchise history, and in a 12-game stretch from January 15-February 17, Hellberg went 9-3-0 with a 1.66 goals-against average, a 94.4% save percentage and two shutouts.

It’s not like Hellberg was having a bad year before mid-January, but he has clearly turned a bit of a corner since then, and has helped bring the team right along with him.

It has not been a matter of changing anything technical, according to Hellberg, but more of a case of a different mind-set.

“I think I have a little bit more relaxed approach this last couple months,” he said, after a recent Wolf Pack practice.  “I just try to play the game they give me.  I can’t do anything else, I can’t control it.  And I think it’s been affecting the team a little bit, I hope, that they feel that I’m calm back there.”

In Head Coach Ken Gernander’s view, the squad has definitely picked up on Hellberg’s calm vibe and has drawn strength from it.Action Shot for Blog - 02-19-16

“I think when you look at a team sport, everybody’s interdependent upon one another,” is how Gernander put it.  “So if Magnus is playing well, I think the guys out front of him are a little bit more confident , and certainly when he’s in there battling and he makes a few big saves, I think it seems to energize guys and they want to battle for him in return.  So I think one feeds off of the other, and the whole thing is kind of co-dependent.”

Hellberg characterized his focus as simply, “I just try to do my job. “

“Obviously I’m the last guy they have to go through to score, and I try to be there for the guys,” he continued.  “I think they’ve minimized mistakes in front of me and I think everybody has been playing really well together.  It’s a team effort, they help me with rebounds, they help me see shots, and I think everybody’s just on the same page.

“We have a good flow right now, where everybody feels confidence that everybody’s doing their job, not only in the defensive zone, but offensively too.  We’ve been scoring a lot, and even though maybe we were down a goal, we’ve been better at not letting it affect us.  I think we still believe in what we’re doing, and we know that we can get back in a game, even though it may be late in a game.  There’s been a couple of games where they tie it up late in the third and we score right after, so I think that shows huge character from our team.”

The Wolf Pack have definitely picked up their offensive play during their run of success, hitting the five-goal mark twice and reaching four goals in a game four other times.  To Hellberg, that proves the maxim that good offensive play starts in the defensive zone.

“I think it goes hand in hand,” he said.  “If you’re solid defensively and you know what you’re doing, I think the guys jump up on rushes more, and they know that they have guys that back them up behind, which makes them do offensive plays.  Just the confidence of our team right now, it’s good.  Obviously we want to stay humble, and we know it’s going to be a race all the way to the end.  Every point is so important right now, but I think if we continue to play the way we are now, and take one game at a time and just fight hard every night, I think we have a really good chance to win a lot of hockey games.”

Gernander agreed, as most coaches would, with Hellberg’s assessment of the Wolf Pack’s progress in taking care of the defensive part of the game.

“I think it’s kind of a cornerstone of how we’ve been playing as of late,” the Pack bench boss said.  “Our penalty kill’s been very strong, we’ve limited the amount of chances we give up, our goals-against are down, and then we get some timely scoring.”

Hellberg came into this 2015-16 season as a fairly experienced hand at the AHL level, having played in 98 AHL games with the Milwaukee Admirals in his three seasons with the Nashville Predators organization, which drafted him in the second round in 2011.  He is only five games short of his career high in games-played, which is 39, set in his rookie year of 2012-13, but tries not to get caught up in thinking too much about where his role stands.

“I’m really happy to be a part of the Rangers organization, and the Wolf Pack team,” Hellberg said.  “Obviously I want to play every game and I’ve been playing a lot, and I think I earned the coaches’ trust a little bit, which for me personally is awesome.  Malcs (Wolf Pack stablemate Jeff Malcolm) is a really good goalie, and we push each other every day to become better.  And I think he’s a really good friend and a great goalie.  So it doesn’t matter who plays, I think everybody has to contribute to the team.  If I get the chance to start, I’m going to try to do my best to help the team to win hockey games.  That’s all I can do.

“I have great communication with Benoit Allaire, the (Ranger) goalie coach, I like him a lot.  We talk about small details, but I think I have a pretty good foundation.  Obviously there are some things you want to tweak, and you can always do something better, every game.  I look at every (game) tape and see what I can do.”

This summer’s trade to the Rangers, who swapped a 2017 sixth-round draft pick to the Predators to obtain Hellberg, was his first experience with changing organizational addresses in North America, and he has been happy with the change.

“Nashville was a great place, I had three great years there,” Hellberg said.  “I’m so happy they believed in me in the first place and even drafted me.  That was huge, and now, Rangers is Rangers.  They’re a world-class organization, and they have so many assets.  It’s a classic team.

“It’s a dream come true, I watched the Rangers growing up, since (Ranger star backstop Henrik) Lundqvist has been, I would say, the best Swedish goaltender for a long time now, and the only one who’s been a starter in the NHL for a long time like that.  So obviously it’s special, and I think the most special thing is that you just feel that they believe in you.

“All the staff here is unbelievable, the strength coach Mark (Cesari), Brian (Fairbrother, the Wolf Pack’s athletic trainer), the coaches, everybody.  Their knowledge is so good, you just have to embrace it and try to put it in your game, to become a better hockey player.  I think this is a great place to develop.”

The chance to rub shoulders with Lundqvist, one of his heroes, has also been a boon for Hellberg.

“You’ve been looking up to him for a long time, but at the same time he’s a goalie too, we have the same job,” Hellberg said.  “I’ve learned a lot from him just being with him at camp.  He’s got so much experience, and he’s being playing at such a high level, and he’s been successful at the highest levels for a really long time span.  I mean, he’s doing something right, so you just have to look at him and embrace it.  It’s been cool.”

Hellberg was afforded the opportunity to suit up alongside Lundqvist for three Ranger games right before Christmas.  That was after Antti Raanta was injured in a game in Minnesota December 17, and Hellberg’s callup included his second career NHL appearance, one period of work in relief of Lundqvist in a Ranger home loss to Washington December 20.

“My dream is to play there (the NHL), and I did it first with Nashville, now I got to do it at Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty magical arena,” Hellberg mused.  “It’s one of the most famous in the world, the fans are great.  It was an experience, for sure.  It was a really cool memory, but I want to get up there and be there full-time, so that’s what I’m battling for.”

That goal of securing a full-time NHL job has certainly gotten a boost from Hellberg’s recent stingy play, and he feels that both he and the team as a group were made more resilient by the team’s difficulties earlier on in the season.

“During this year we started off really well and then we were on a tough stretch,” Hellberg said.  “And I think when we were down on that tough stretch, when you win, you appreciate it more.  Because you’ve been down that tough stretch, and you know how it’s not fun to be part of something like that.  But it feels way better when you have the strength to get out of it.

“I think that shows character for our group, and that we’ve got a strong core.  So now it feels really good, and I’m just happy to be part of it.”

Wolf Pack’s Megna: Raising the Ceiling

February 11, 2016

Here’s a feature that I just posted to the Wolf Pack’s official website, on Pack forward Jayson Megna:

Seeing the Wolf Pack’s Jayson Megna play now, at age 26, it’s hard to believe that back when he was NHL draft-age, no team saw fit to spend a pick on him.

Megna, who was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida but grew up in the Chicago area, is 6-1 and 195 pounds, is an explosive skater, and is possessed of enough hand skills to have scored 26 goals for a 97-point Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguin club last season, his third year as a pro.  Yet, he was almost completely overlooked by the hockey world as a teenager.

“I couldn’t even get a college scholarship until I was 21 years old,” Megna said after a recent Wolf Pack practice.  “I was a late bloomer, I suppose.  I didn’t really know about the benefits of weight training, I didn’t really experience that.  I was always a smaller guy, on my driver’s license I was, like, 5-8, 135 pounds when I was 16.  So during the time when guys were starting to get ranked in the (NHL) Central Scouting and stuff like that, I was playing Illinois high school hockey.  Wasn’t the biggest prospect out there, for sure. “

Things started to change for Megna when he headed out East to prep school as a 17-year-old in 2007, spending two seasons at Tabor Academy in Massachusetts.Action Shot for Blog - 02-11-16 - Megna

“I had a couple of good coaches, at Tabor Academy and then Cedar Rapids in the USHL, and I think my career just made leaps and bounds, in the USHL especially,” Megna said.  “I was able to get exposure in front of college scouts and NHL scouts alike, and ended up going to [University of Nebraska-Omaha].  It’s funny how things work, there’s no conventional path, really, there’s so many guys that have similar stories as I do.  I just wasn’t on the draft radar at the time, and that’s OK, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Indeed, matters have worked out just fine for Megna’s hockey career, and things happened fast for him once he got that opportunity to play in the WCHA for Nebraska-Omaha.  After one season with the Mavericks, Megna was inked to a free-agent contract by the Pittsburgh Penguins and by the following year, was spending over half the season in the NHL.

“It’s crazy,” Megna laughed about the trajectory his fortunes took, which very nearly brought him to Hartford six years prior to his joining the Wolf Pack.  “It’s obviously a dream come true to be able to play in the NHL.  And you look back on it, I was actually supposed to go to Trinity College, which is funny enough, that we’ve been practicing there a couple of times.  At the last second I pulled out of Trinity and went to the USHL.  So thinking back on it now, it’s crazy to think about where I could have been and where I’m at now, and I’m very thankful and fortunate to be able to do what I do.”

What Megna is doing now is riding a bit of a shuttle between the Wolf Pack and the parent New York Rangers, who signed Megna on the first day of NHL free agency this past July 1.  He has received three separate recalls to the big club, including two since the First of the Year, and had a huge game in his Ranger debut, contributing a goal and an assist to a 6-2 New York home win over the Dallas Stars January 5.

“I feel like the fit’s been good,” Megna said of his first pro experience with changing organizations.  “Obviously it’s a very good team up top, and it’s tough to crack that roster any given night.  At this point it hasn’t been any different than the rest of my career, just trying to get better every day and just keep working on things.  And hopefully my time will come soon.”

When questioned on what he is most focused on improving in order to make a permanent jump to the NHL, Megna responded, “I think just working on consistency, more than anything.   I think that’s the biggest thing, trying to continue to play at your highest level and then bust through and make another ceiling for yourself, another point in your game that you can reach, and just kind of building on your game, obviously working on little things, whether it be faceoffs or wall plays.  Whatever position you get put into, I think it’s important to look at the minor details of the game and control what you can control.”

Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander said of Megna’s game, “Obviously he’s been one of our key players and he’s playing well, that’s why he gets his recall.  I think with his speed, if he wants to get in on the forecheck and kind of agitate and track pucks down, he can be very effective.”

Gernander used Megna almost exclusively at center prior to his longest Ranger stint, which spanned from January 4-21.  Since then, though, the Wolf Pack head man has used the right-handed-shooting Megna on both the right and left wings, which suits him just fine.

“I’m most comfortable at center, but I definitely like to be able to be a versatile player, because you don‘t know what position you can be placed in up top (the NHL),” Megna said.  “And I think it raises your value if you can play all three (forward) positions, so I pride myself on that.  I’ve worked at all three positions in the past.  Predominantly at center this year, but have played right wing and left wing now here, and I’ve played right wing and left wing up top too.  You’ve just got to keep working on things.  It’s a little bit different on each side of the wing, so working on rims or breakouts, you’ve got to make sure that you’re sharp on those.”

Megna was razor-sharp in his first Madison Square Garden outing as a Ranger.  He was given the opportunity to play on a line with offensive stalwarts Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, and Megna made the most of it.

“That was a really neat experience to be able to do, that was a fun night,” Megna said of his second career NHL multiple-point outing.  “I had a lot of fun playing with those guys, obviously a couple of really good players.  And it was special to be able to play a regular-season game in there.  I played two preseason games in there, but it was a whole different animal being able to play in there in the regular season against a good Dallas team, and it was great to be able to help the team get two points.”

In addition to that chance to skate alongside Nash and Stepan, Megna’s confidence also received a boost from some quality Ranger power-play time.  That was particularly prominent in the one game he played during his last callup, a 4-2 home win over Minnesota February 4.

“I think I played three minutes on the power play (in that game) and six minutes were even strength,” Megna said.  “So a good chunk of the time I was on the power play, which is different than I’m used to.  But absolutely it gives you confidence, when you get to touch the puck and feel the puck, and you’ve got a little bit of extra space and time.  It definitely helps your confidence level.”

For whatever time he is back with the Wolf Pack, Megna hungers to help inject some oomph into a Wolf Pack offense that has generally had a hard time finishing chances.  Despite having missed eight Pack games during his various recalls, Megna has the second-most shots on goal on the team, and the most among players who started the year with the club.  He is hoping that if he continues to get plenty of pucks at the net, more of his 26-goal finishing touch from last year will resurface.  For Megna, that goes back again to the consistency factor.

“I think it’s just a matter of time for me, I’m hoping so, anyways,” is how he characterized it.  “I think that if you shoot the puck on net, good things are going to happen.  And goals come in bunches, too, there’s peaks and valleys of the year.  I’ve shown that I can be scoring a lot of goals on a weekend, or it can go a couple of weekends.  I just hope to continue to get a lot of pucks on net, and good things will start happening.”

Gernander agreed, saying, “It’s been a little bit different in that he’s been up and down (from the NHL) lately, but early on in the season he was a guy that was getting a lot of shots and a lot of good looks at the net, and things just weren’t going his way offensively.  I’m guessing that he’s a guy that if he gets on a bit of a roll and starts to feel things, he could start to put up some numbers.”

The 2014-15 campaign was a big breakout year for Megna in terms of production, as his previous pro career high in goals, between the NHL and AHL, had been 14.  He finds it hard to pinpoint exactly what made the difference for him in Year Three with the Penguins, but makes it sound as though he had achieved a desirable comfort level in both Wilkes-Barre and Pittsburgh.

“I think I just was very confident in that organization, having played three years under the same head coach (former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head man, and now New Jersey Devils bench  boss, John Hynes), and just being around pretty much the same guys through all three years, too,” Megna said.  “We had a good group of guys, good core, and we knew where each other were going to be.  We played together consistently throughout the year, and we finished when we had our chances, I suppose.  It’s not like I’m not getting the chances here, it’s just that I was good last year in taking advantage of the opportunities.”

Another thing that his tenure in the Pittsburgh organization afforded Megna was the chance to gain a solid measure of AHL playoff experience.  He saw action in 33 Calder Cup playoff contests during his three postseasons with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and his knowledge thus gained of what makes teams successful in the spring has him optimistic about this year’s Wolf Pack club.

“We’ve proven, especially over the last ten, 11 games, that we’re a good team,” Megna said.  “I think we’re heating up at the right time.  Obviously we went through a little stretch where we weren’t very good, and we were down at the bottom of the standings, so I think we need to continue to push.  You can’t let off the pedal at all right now, especially coming down the stretch, teams are going to be fighting for their lives.  And we’re one of those teams, we’ve got to play like that, with desperation, every night, and I think we have a good shot.”

Oleksuk Typifies Wolf Pack’s Depth

February 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jensen has Helped Pack Get on Track

February 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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