Bolstering the Defense

The Wolf Pack’s potential defensive depth certainly got a boost with the July 1 start of NHL free agency, with the parent New York Rangers doing some significant shoring-up of the organization’s blueline manpower.

After re-signing veteran stalwart Chris Summers just before the free-agent floodgates opened, the Rangers added fellow defenders Adam Clendening and Michael Paliotta to the fold on July 1, traded for Nick Holden, and then announced the re-signing of Wolf Pack captain, and restricted free agent, Mat Bodie four days later.

No defensemen were lost, either, so right now it’s a net gain of three bodies on the blueline.  Up front, by contrast, the organization is down two at this point, having lost Wolf Pack leading scorer Chad Nehring (Ottawa) and Jayson Megna (Vancouver) off the AHL roster and Eric Staal (Minnesota) and Viktor Stalberg (Carolina) from the Ranger group and having signed Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe.

Michael Paliotta (bluejackets.nhl.com)

Michael Paliotta (bluejackets.nhl.com)

The obvious assumption would be that Holden, an eight-year vet who has spent the whole of the last three seasons in the NHL with Colorado, will be with the Rangers, but there seems a good chance that both Clendening and Paliotta will see time with the Pack.

Clendening played only six AHL games this past season, during which he was traded from Pittsburgh to Anaheim (in the deal via which the Penguins acquired Carl Hagelin) and then snagged on waivers by Edmonton from the Ducks, but spent nearly 200 games in the AHL his first three years.  That included a First-Team All-Star campaign in 2013-14 with Rockford, a season that saw the former B.U. Terrier rack up 12 goals and 59 points (second-most among league D-men) in 74 games.  He also helped Utica to the Calder Cup Finals in 2014-15, after a January trade from Chicago to Vancouver.

Paliotta, meanwhile, is coming off of a rookie season that earned him a Calder Cup ring with the Lake Erie Monsters.  It’s also a bit of a homecoming for the 6-4, 212-pounder, whether he plays for the Rangers or the Wolf Pack, as Paliotta was born in Westport, CT and played at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford for two years.  He ran into some injury problems in this spring’s playoffs and saw action in only eight of the Monsters’ 17 postseason matches, but had a fine regular season, leading Lake Erie defensemen in goals with eight and totaling 23 points in 68 games.  The 23-year-old was a third-round pick by Chicago in 2011 out of the U.S. National Development Team program before playing four years at the University of Vermont.

Bodie will presumably resume his wearing the captain’s “C” for the Pack, and if his current development track continues as it has, he should be a lock to see some NHL action in year three of his pro career.  After a five-goal, 32-point rookie year, the ex-Union College Dutchman bumped his numbers to 7-29-36 in 2015-16, good for the team leadership among defensemen in points and assists and for a tie for tops overall on the team in helpers.  Perhaps even more impressively, Bodie, who is slightly built by today’s hockey standards at 6 feet and 175 pounds but plays an admirably gritty and abrasive style, has missed only one game in two pro years.

Winger Nicklas Jensen also was re-signed, and is another guy who should press for NHL time this season, after chalking up pro career highs of 19 goals, 18 assists and 37 points in 68 combined 2015-16 games between the Wolf Pack and Utica.  Jensen’s arrival via trade January 8 coincided exactly with the Pack’s surge from last place in the Atlantic Division to coming within two points of a playoff spot, and his combination of size, strength and speed made him look like a guy who would fit in very well at the NHL level.  His return is also key for organizational depth up front, after the departures of Nehring and Megna.

AHL Changes for 2016-17:  The AHL Board of Governors held its annual meeting this week, and, as they almost always do, made some interesting tweaks to how things will look in the league when play resumes in October.

It was nothing like last summer’s upheaval, when the westward move of five affiliations necessitated the creation of a new division and a radical league realignment, but the governors did have to change the alignment structure slightly.  With the Arizona Coyotes having purchased the Springfield Falcons franchise and moved it to Tucson, Arizona, the new Tucson Roadrunners had to go into the Pacific Division.  That created an imbalance in the two conferences, with 16 teams in the Western Conference and 14 in the Eastern (who would have thought that was possible just a few short years ago?), and I thought maybe the league might move the Charlotte Checkers into the Eastern Conference to even things out.  As it turns out, though, the Checkers were kept in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, which will have two eight-team divisions while the Eastern will have two seven-team groups.

With the divisions in both conferences now having equal numbers of teams, there is no longer any need for the “crossover” provision in playoff qualification—that provided for the fifth-place team in the eight-team division being able to make the playoffs if it had a better record than the fourth-place club in the seven-team division—and that was eliminated.

The Wolf Pack’s Atlantic Division stays the same, except for the fact that Portland, a great town to visit and a place that has a great history in the AHL, is sadly out of the league.  The Pirates franchise was bought by a group in Springfield, which moved it there to replace the departed Falcons.

The Roadrunners will join the cadre of Pacific Coast teams that will, as it did last year, play only 68 games while the rest of the league will have 76.  That less-busy group now numbers six teams, including Bakersfield, Ontario, San Diego, San Jose and Stockton in addition to Tucson.

Icing the puck will become even more problematic, as a new rule will prohibit teams from using their timeout after having been called for icing, as is often done for a breather if a tired group of players is caught out on the ice.  Also, the “dry scrape” of the ice prior to overtime has been abolished, and teams will now wear their dark jerseys at home in the second half of the season, after wearing whites for the first 19 home contests.

The other new wrinkles involve further curtailment of fighting.

A scrap that erupts off of a faceoff, either right before or right after the drop of the puck, will earn both combatants game misconducts, and individual accumulation of fighting majors over the course of the season will now have consequences in terms of suspensions.  A player who hits ten fighting penalties will be suspended for one game, and each subsequent fighting major thereafter up to 13 will earn him a further one-game ban.  A 14th fight of the season means a two-game suspension, and every fighting penalty after that gets a player another two games out.  The only exception to these provisions is the case in which an instigator penalty is assessed for a fight.  In that scenario, the fight will only count against the accumulation for the player who was penalized as the instigator.

It will be interesting to see how much impact this has, as the Wolf Pack didn’t have anyone get to double digits in major penalties this past year.  The team leader was Nick Tarnasky with nine, and nobody else had more than four.

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