FROM THE CREASE – SEASON IN REVIEW with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By Bruce Berlet

HARTFORD, CT – With the sting of another first-round playoff elimination fresh in everyone’s mind, it can be difficult to find positives in even the most trying of seasons.

But New York Rangers assistant coach/assistant general manager and Connecticut Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld found plenty to be thankful for from members of the parent club’s top affiliate that helped keep the “Black-and-Blueshirts,” as New York Post hockey writer Larry Brooks coined them, afloat when a plethora of injuries to key personnel hit in record numbers.

“From a Rangers perspective, with all the injuries we had, every player who came from Hartford did a real good job of enabling us to keep winning during a critical part of the season,” Schoenfeld said during the Whale exit meetings. “High marks to the players and certainly to the coaching staff for being efficient enough to have a positive influence on our team in New York.

“We went through a spell where he had a bunch of injuries, and whatever guy we called up did a real good job. And, really, that’s the best indication of the job they did in Hartford, the development of the players. And the second thing is the level of improvement for a lot of the kids in Hartford.”

The Rangers went long stretches without front-liners such as captain/Trumbull, CT native Chris Drury, Marion Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Vinny Prospal, Alex Frolov, Michael Del Zotto and backup goalie Martin Biron. Then there was the loss of depth players such as enforcer Derek Boogaard and Todd White, causing the Rangers brass to send out frequent SOSs to Hartford.

“In my office in New York, I have every lineup in the NHL,” Schoenfeld said. “If a guy is injured, I put a red dot. If it’s long-term, I put two red dots. I never had my board with more red on it than this season. It was like a sea of red.”

The plight of the Rangers and Whale closely mirrored each other as both teams had to battle to season’s end to secure a playoff berth, with the Rangers even needing help from Tampa Bay on the final day to prevent from missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

The Whale reclaimed postseason status after their first – and only – hiatus in their 14-year history with a 4-1victory over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in their 78th game in an 80-game season. And they reached the playoffs despite a record 350 man-games lost to injuries and call-ups, with as many as eight players being on Broadway or hurt, forcing coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller to often frantically mix and match to keep the Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale afloat.

Rookie wing Mats Zuccarello, the MVP of the Swedish Elite League last season, and rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a major cog in Wisconsin’s run to the NCAA title game in 2010, were what Schoenfeld called “two very bright highlights” after slow starts in Hartford.

“It was a big adjustment for Zuccarello,” Schoenfeld said. “Early on, he didn’t exactly light things up. It took him awhile to get acclimated to the (smaller) rinks and the North American game. Then he started to be a difference maker (in Hartford) and then became a difference maker in New York for awhile.”

“The Norwegian Hobbit” had only three goals and one assist in his first 14 games with the Wolf Pack before his first hat trick in North America in Game 15 started a run of 10 goals and 11 assists in his next 19 games, earning him his first shot in New York. The crafty 5-foot-7, 175-pound Zuccarello became an almost instant folk hero with the winning goal in his second start with the Rangers and several successful shootout goals, two of which won games.

Meanwhile, McDonagh struggled the first 20 games while feeling his way from being an elite collegiate player to a professional.

“There were some games where he was tentative physically and a little tentative with the puck,” Schoenfeld said. “Then every time I would come back and watch them (in Hartford), he would look a little better and a little more comfortable. Then two weeks later, he would be more assertive to the point where when we needed a defenseman, there wasn’t even a question.

“When he came up, he just continued his growth and was the biggest surprise of the season as far as where he ended up because defense is a very difficult position. Experience is a very valuable teacher for all players, but especially for defensemen, and he didn’t have the luxury of time to gain the experience. It was partway through the season that he was cast into a very important role in New York, and I thought he acquitted himself very well.”

McDonagh was called up Jan. 3, switching places with Del Zotto, who was sent to the Whale to try to rediscover the game that earned him a spot on the 2010 NHL All-Rookie Team. Once comfortable with the Rangers, McDonagh teamed with former Wolf Pack Michael Sauer to form what Schoenfeld called “the No. 1A” defensive pairing with two other former Wolf Pack players, All-Star Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.

“The (Whale) coaches did a real good job of getting McDonagh ready, and if you go back to last year, you had Michael Sauer, who comes to camp and earns a job,” Schoenfeld said. “We never thought Michael Sauer would be in New York, but he and McDonagh became a very important part of our team.”

McDonagh, rookie forward Derek Stepan and the Rangers’ No. 1 prospect, wing Chris Kreider who helped Boston College win the national title in 2010, were named to Team USA for the World Championships in Slovakia. They open play Saturday against Austria in Group C, playing round-robin games against Austria, Sweden and Norway, which will be without Zuccarello, who sustained a broken left hand in a freak accident in Game 5 of the playoffs against Portland when two fingers on his hand got caught in a cameraman’s hole. Stepan and McDonagh are making their first World Championship appearance, but they represented the U.S. at previous World Junior Championships. Stepan and Kreider, who just completed his sophomore year at BC and said he plans to return to the Eagles, were teammates on the gold medal-winning team. Gaborik will play in the World Championships for the host country, which faces Slovenia on Friday.

Center Kris Newbury earned frequent kudos from Rangers coach John Tortorella for his grit and tenacity during his five call-ups and still finished as the Whale’s leading scorer (61 points in 69 games). Schoenfeld also felt Evgeny Grachev, who played all three forward positions in Hartford, showed steady improvement in his overall game.

“We asked him to focus on becoming a complete player to the point where the coaching staff felt comfortable enough to use him killing penalties, and he became a pretty darn good penalty killer,” Schoenfeld said. “So now he’s a big guy (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) who can protect the puck and go to the net who’s also a pretty important part of the defensive scheme, too. So that’s growth for a guy who just turned 21 and was plus-21 (tied with defenseman Pavel Valentenko for the team lead).

“Some people expected him to be a more explosive offensive player, but I think the best focus of his development has to be to become a complete player. Even if he one day becomes ‘a NHL goal scorer,’ until such time he’s going to have to do all the other things well. If he ends up not being a high-end scorer, he can still be a very valuable player because he has learned to do the other things. So I’m happy with the progress of his game because of the things we asked him to focus on, which was to become a more complete and physical player. There’s still room for growth, just as there’s room for growth in every player, but when I see him become an important part of the penalty-killing team and as a high plus-minus, I think that’s a major step in the right direction for him.”

Other Whale players to make varying degrees of contributions to the Rangers were forwards Dale Weise, Chad Kolarik, Jeremy Williams and Brodie Dupont and goalie Chad Johnson, who played one period in relief of Henrik Lundqvist after being called up March 2 after Martin Biron sustained a fractured collarbone when hit by a shot in practice.

Center John Mitchell played 23 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs before being slowed by a knee injury and then acquired by the Rangers on Feb. 28 for a seventh-round pick in 2012. He never got a call-up but was a terrific addition to the Whale after being acquired two days after the Rangers traded center Tim Kennedy and a third-round pick in June to the Florida Panthers for defenseman Bryan McCabe. Mitchell had seven goals and five assists in 14 games in the regular season before his three goals and three assists tied defenseman Wade Redden for the team scoring lead in the playoffs.

Mitchell is a restricted free agent, but Schoenfeld said he would be qualified and given a chance to make the Rangers in training camp.

“I was really happy with him,” Schoenfeld said. “Here’s a guy that had a knee injury and missed seven weeks and then broke his foot (in Hartford), so one thing that was hurt was his conditioning. And yet he’s a big body (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) with skill, and he’s competitive and intelligent. So this is a very important summer for him in terms of his commitment to conditioning. He’ll get a real good look as far as becoming a Ranger.”

The Rangers will have organizational meetings in mid-May in LaQuinta, Calif., and some difficult decisions will include whether to qualify restricted free agents such as Johnson, forwards Weise, Dupont, Justin Soryal, Devin DiDiomete and defenseman Stu Bickel.

The Rangers also have to decide if they want to offer contracts to unrestricted free agents such as goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, voted team MVP by his teammates and Fan Favorite, defensemen Jared Nightingale and Blake Parlett and forwards Kolarik, Ryan Garlock and Kelsey Tessier, named the team’s Unsung Hero by the media.

Whale newcomers next season could include left wings Carl Hagelin, who performed well after joining the team after co-captaining Michigan to the NCAA title game; Ryan Bourque, the son of Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and a gritty, hard-working speedster who has played well for Team USA on the international stage and the Quebec Remparts, who are in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League semifinals; and Tommy Grant, a steady contributor in 13 games with the Whale after being one of seven college/junior players to sign an amateur tryout contract.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Kreider, the Rangers’ No. 1 prospect said he plans to return to the Eagles, but Schoenfeld said the Rangers still hope to sign the team’s first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009. This season was cut short when he sustained a broken jaw when hit by teammate Brian Gibbons’ clearing attempt midway through the second period of a 4-0 victory over New Hampshire on March 4.

“We don’t have a definitive answer on what he’s going to do, but we’ll respect whatever decision he makes,” Schoenfeld said. “I think he’s ready to turn pro, and he’s done just about everything he can do (at Boston College).”

Other top prospects who could be signed by the Rangers and join the Whale include goalie Scott Stajcer and forwards Ethan Werek, Roman Horak and Jason Wilson. Like the Whale and Rangers, Stajcer and Werek battled injuries this season.

Stajcer, the Rangers’ fifth-round pick in 2009, has recovered from hip surgery in December and is 8-1 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in the playoffs while leading eighth-seeded Owen Sound to its first Ontario Hockey League championship series with a 10-4 victory over Windsor on Wednesday night. The win in the Western Conference finals also advanced the Attack to the four-team Memorial Cup on May 19-29 as the OHL’s Mississauga St. Michaels Majors will host the most prestigious junior tournament in Canada. The Attack plays Mississauga in the OHL finals.

One of the Attack’s owners and its alternate governor is former Whalers right wing Paul MacDermid, and the assistant coach is former Wolf Pack standout defenseman Terry Virtue, who has received a lot of credit for the team’s improved defense and will be part of a championship series for the second season in a row after doing to with the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans in 2010. Virtue helped effect change that saw the Attack allow 61 fewer goals in the regular season than a year ago despite a changing cast in goal and facing more short-handed situations (390) than 18 of the other 19 OHL teams.

Stajcer and Bourque are the only Rangers prospects still playing in North America. The last time anyone on the Rangers won a Memorial Cup was Girardi in 2005 with the OHL’s London Knights, but he wasn’t Rangers property at the time. Sauer was the last draft choice to play in the Memorial Cup, losing in the finals in 2007 with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers.

Despite a torn ligament in his left wrist, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Werek, the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2010, had 24 goals and 28 assists in 47 games with Kingston, which lost in the first round of the OHL playoffs. The 6-1, 160-pound Horan, a fifth-round pick in 2009, had 26 goals and 52 assists in 64 games for Chilliwack, which lost in the first round of the WHL playoffs. The 6-2, 205-pound Wilson, a fifth-round pick in 2010, had 18 goals and 25 assists in 64 games with Niagara, which lost in the second round of the OHL playoffs. Wilson has to get an offer or the Rangers will have to let him go.

As for coaches Gernander, Daigneault and Boller returning, Schoenfeld left little doubt as to who would be running the Whale ship next season.

“We don’t talk contracts, but they’ll be taken care of after what they went through this season,” Schoenfeld said. “It’s easy to forget when you lose out of the playoffs because everybody is disappointed. But two weeks before that, we were thrilled the team got in the playoffs after all the players the Rangers had called up. Then we sent Zuccarello down and he gets hurt, and Weise gets run from behind and is out with shoulder injury. At the same time, Portland picks up (defenseman Dennis) Persson and (All-AHL right wing) Mark Mancari (from the parent Buffalo Sabres). Mancari gets two goals and an assist, and the other guy gets three assists and is plus-5 (in Game 6). So it’s like a four-player swing, and that’s the balance of the AHL and the difference.

“I thought the coaches did a whale of a job to get in (no pun intended), and it’s easy to forget that with the disappointment of losing in the first round. But the biggest criteria of measuring is the job the players do when they get called up. That’s how you know they are progressing, and everyone stepped in and knew how to play and knew where to go and knew how to contribute. You didn’t have to worry about them not knowing what to do away from the puck, and they were all very well conditioned.

“There wasn’t one guy we called up that didn’t do the job when we needed it. They all played different amounts, but they all played and they all contributed and we kept winning. I don’t know how, but we kept winning. And when you get in by one point in the 82nd game plus, every win is an important win. It’s really a pretty good compliment to both teams to have made the playoffs, especially with the imbalance in the AHL where the fifth-place team in the East Division got in before the fourth-place team in the Atlantic Division.”

Schoenfeld pledged ill-timed penalties, the Whale’s biggest bugaboo right to the season-ending playoff loss to the Portland Pirates, would not be part of the equation in 2011-12.

“Taking bad penalties can get out of hand if you let it, but not if you nip it in the bud,” Schoenfeld said. “And discipline comes in many forms. It’s just not penalties. It’s coming back in the zone to pick up your man or going all the way to the goal line to help your goalie. Certainly penalties were a problem at times for us during the season and playoffs. It’s something we will address and correct for next season.”

WHALE’S ECHL AFFILIATE GREENVILLE OUSTED IN OVERTIME

Chris Kushneriuk scored at 8:23 of overtime to give the Wheeling Nailers a 4-3 victory over the Greenville Road Warriors in Game 7 of their ECHL Eastern Conference semifinal Wednesday night in Greenville, S.C. The Road Warriors’ inaugural season ended when a turnover led to a 2-on-1 break that Kushneriuk, who assisted on the Nailers’ first three goals, finished off on a pass from Joey Haddad for his third goal of the playoffs.

Haddad had two goals and two assists, and former Wolf Pack forward Paul Crowder had a goal and three assists as the line combined for all the goals and eight assists for the Nailers, who will play the Kalamazoo Wings in the best-of-seven conference finals starting Friday night in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Brendan Connolly scored a 6-on-4 goal with 23 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime. He also assisted on Andrew Rowe’s goal that got Greenville to 3-2 late in the second period. Marc-Olivier Vallerand, who also was in Whale camp in September, and Andrew Rowe also scored for Greenville, the ECHL affiliate of the Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers who won the South Division and finished second overall to Alaska Aces in the regular season with a 46-22-3-1 record.

Defenseman Sam Klassen, who was scoreless in three games with the Whale this season, had the primary assist on Vallerand’s goal. Former Quinnipiac University standout Brandon Wong, who played six games with the Whale early in the season, failed to get a point after scoring the winner in Game 5. Peter Delmas had 25 saves for the Nailers, and Nic Riopel, who is Flyers property, stopped 21 shots for Greenville. … Brian Swanson, whose first four games in a 12-year pro career were with the Wolf Pack in 1999, scored with nine seconds left in regulation to give the Aces a 2-1 victory over the visiting Victoria Salmon Kings in the opener of the Western Conference finals on Wednesday night. Swanson spent the last six seasons playing for three teams in the German Elite League. Derek Couture, who rejoined the Salmon Kings after the Whale was eliminated, had two shots but no points. Game 2 was Thursday night in Anchorage, Alaska, where former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson coaches the Aces. …

… Kaspars Daugavins scored twice, the second into empty net with four seconds left, and Zach Smith and Bob Raymond each had a goal and an assist in the Senators’ 5-3 victory over the Portland Pirates on Thursday night and a 2-0 lead in the Atlantic Division finals. Derek Whitmore and Mark Mancari gave the Pirates a 2-0 lead early in the second period before Daugavins started a Senators comeback with a shorthanded goal. Raymond scored the winner with 3:51 left on what the Pirates thought was an offsides play, then Daugavins netted the insurance goal to assure the Senators would win their fifth consecutive game and fourth on the road behind Robin Lehner’s 43 saves. Mancari had two goals, captain Matt Ellis chipped in two assists and Jason Enroth made 21 saves in his first postseason start after backing up Ryan Miller in Buffalo. In the opener, Smith scored his first goal since Jan. 13 at 7:35 of the third period to give the Senators a 3-2 victory Wednesday night. Smith, who played 55 games with the Ottawa Senators, had three assists but didn’t score in an opening-round win over Manchester. Captain Ryan Keller and rookie Bobby Butler, who played in Ottawa this season, also scored, and former Wolf Pack center Corey Locke, the AHL’s MVP, had an assist in his postseason debut after missing the first round with a shoulder injury. Lehner had 33 saves as the Senators won their first postseason game in regulation. Maxime Legault and Colin Stuart scored for the Pirates, who lost on home ice for the first time in the playoffs after winning three times in the first round against the Whale. The Pirates were reinforced by the return of Mancari, Persson, Ellis and Enroth after the Sabres were eliminated from the NHL playoffs by the Flyers on Tuesday. Marc-Andre Gragnani, winner of the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman, also was expected to rejoin the Pirates but instead joined Team Canada for the World Championships, which begin Friday in Slovakia. To rejoin the Pirates, Gragnani would have had to get through waivers, which was highly unlikely after he led all AHL defensemen in scoring in the regular season (12 goals, 48 assists) and the Sabres in the playoffs (one goal, six assists in seven games). “If you play a certain number of games, he would have to pass through waivers to come down, and obviously, with his play in Buffalo, it certainly is a well-deserved honor to represent his country in the World Championships,” Pirates coach Kevin Dineen said. The next three games, if necessary, will be in Binghamton, N.Y.

CONTRACT STATUS OF WHALE PLAYERS FOR 2011-12 SEASON

Signed: D Lee Baldwin, LW Chris Chappell, D Michael Del Zotto, F Evgeny Grachev, LW Tommy Grant, LW Carl Hagelin, D Sam Klassen, D Tomas Kundratek, D Ryan McDonagh, G Jason Missiaen, C Kris Newbury, D Jyri Niemi, D Wade Redden, G Cam Talbot, D Pavel Valentenko, W Mats Zuccarello

Restricted: D Stu Bickel, LW Devin DiDiomete, D Tysen Dowzak, F Brodie Dupont, G Chad Johnson, F Matt McCue, C John Mitchell, LW Justin Soryal, RW Dale Weise

Unrestricted: RW Derek Couture, C Ryan Garlock, G Dov Grumet-Morris, LW Kyle Kerbashian, W Chad Kolarik, C Francis Lemieux, LW Chris McKelvie, D Jared Nightingale, D Blake Parlett, F Kelsey Tessier, RW Marc-Oliver Vallerand, C Mark Voakes, C Todd White, C Shayne Wiebe, RW Jeremy Williams, F Brandon Wong, LW Andrew Yogan

Note: The Whale has an option on Nightingale for next season; D Dylan McIlrath signed an entry-level contract but will be too young (19) to play for the Whale next season, so he has to make the Rangers or return to his junior team, Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League; LW Ryan Bourque signed an entry-level deal and could play with the Whale next season.

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