Dale Purinton and Richard Scott early on and Justin Soryal and Devin DiDiomete lately have been energetic instigators/enforcers who earned the respect of teammates and love from fans in the 14-year history of the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale.
Jason Wilson might soon join those ranks.
“Wilson is a baby gorilla,” The Prospect Park’s Jess Rubenstein, a highly regarded follower and analyst of junior and college player, said of the 6-foot-3, 208-pound left wing. “Niagara played him with Ryan Strome, the fifth pick by the New York Islanders (on June 24), using him as a power forward/enforcer. He’s a real likeable person who wants to improve his game. He should do well with the Whale.”
Wilson chuckled when told of Rubenstein’s “baby gorilla” description but didn’t mince words about his style.
“I play a pretty simple game and keep saying that Brandon Prust is somebody that I’d like to try to mold my game after,” Wilson said, alluding to the New York Rangers’ feisty left wing who earned the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award last season via a vote of the fans. “I like to protect guys on the ice and also try to contribute offensively and, of course, defensively. So I just try to keep it simple, and I think things happen off of that.”
Wilson, 21, previously attended the Boston Bruins’ rookie camp in 2008 after his first season in the Ontario Hockey League and then was invited to the Rangers’ prospects camp, prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., and the main camp in 2010.
“Coming into the rookie camp last year was a bit of a battle not knowing what to expect,” he said. “But it was a great learning experience, and I knew what to work for for main camp and was well prepared and had a good showing.”
It started in Traverse City, where another good showing earned him a trip to the Rangers’ training camp. Then playing alongside Strome and right wing Freddie Hamilton helped Wilson set career highs in juniors for goals (18), assists (25), points (43), games (64) and plus/minus (plus-20) with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs. His 93 penalty minutes tied for the team lead, and he also tied for the lead in points with eight (three goals, five assists) in leading Niagara to a 4-1 series victory over Oshawa in their OHL Eastern Conference semifinal. Mississauga swept the IceDogs in the finals, but Wilson finished with career playoff highs in goals (five), assists (seven) and points (12) in 14 games.
“It was a great line, and I was really able to play my role, something that I think I would do at the next level,” Wilson said. “Strome did well in the draft, and I can see him doing really well (in the NHL) in the next couple of years. I thought it was just perfect for me because it gave me an opportunity to play with two talented guys. It made my role really limited where I gave the puck to them and drove the net, and I think that’s something that I’ll do at the next level.”
Then again, Wilson has been around terrific talent since growing up in Aurora, Ontario, where he played two years and attended sixth through eighth grade at St. Andrew’s College with defenseman Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2008 who was on the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2009-10 before splitting last season between the Rangers and Whale.
“He probably lived about 20 minutes from me, and we became good friends,” Wilson said. “Small world, isn’t it?”
Both went on to play with the Richmond Hill Stars and the Markham Waxers in the Ontario Major Hockey Association’s Eastern AAA League, but their career paths then headed in different directions. While Del Zotto was the 20th player selected in his first year of eligibility, Wilson went undrafted and wasn’t picked until last year.
“I had a little stall in the OHL draft, and it took a couple of years to make it,” Wilson said. “I finally did and think I proved myself. So I’ve been taking little steps, and it’s finally starting to pay off.”
Wilson’s goals, assists and points improved in his three OHL seasons with the London Knights, Owen Sound Attack and Niagara. He wasn’t drafted until he was 20 in 2010, when the Rangers made him their fifth-round pick (130th overall), and then came his breakout season alongside Strome and Hamilton, who was drafted one spot ahead of Wilson by the San Jose Sharks.
“I was eligible to play in the AHL last season,” Wilson said, “but it was good that New York sent me back to give me another year of junior and some preparation.”
Good indeed, as the late-blooming Wilson was signed on May 13.
“I couldn’t be more excited just for the opportunity that they’ve given me,” said Wilson, the excitement oozing in his voice. “I was really stressed out, but everything seems to be working out. Getting drafted was a step. Signing was a step. So making the team will be another step.”
Wilson will start to get that chance again at the developmental tournament that begins Sept. 10 in Traverse City. The Rangers’ camp opens Sept. 15 at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburg, N.Y.
Rangers assistant coach/Whale general manager Jim Schoenfeld said Wilson has earned more looks as a possible replacement for DiDiomete and Soryal, the Whale’s top two enforcers and leaders in penalty minutes last season.
“He’s a hard-checking guy and a strong skater,” Schoenfeld said. “I thought he had a good prospects camp and tournament in Travers City last year. We have some youngsters who we feel are going to be ready for that (enforcer) role, but we might be looking for a heavyweight. But we have a character team in Hartford, a lot of team toughness, so we’ll look for some young guys to help in that department.”
Rugged defensemen Jared Nightingale and Stu Bickel could be leaders in that department after being re-signed, and feisty center Kris Newbury has another year on his contract. DiDiomete and Soryal, who eventually signed with Carolina, weren’t qualified, but Wilson could be aided by Randy McNaught, the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2010 who was limited to eight games last season because of ankle surgery and didn’t attend the prospects camp last week. But Schoenfeld said McNaught is expected to be in Travers City for the prospects tournament Sept. 10-14.
If Wilson ever approaches Prust’s play and contributions, it will be a nice fifth-round find and addition for the Rangers.
MCILRATH TRYING TO TAKE IT ALL IN
Defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010, could help Wilson in the physical department in 2012-13.
At 19, McIlrath, nicknamed “The Undertaker” for his fighting ability, can’t play in Hartford this season. It’s Broadway or back to Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League for a final season in juniors.
But McIlrath got a feel for the pros last season with the Whale after signing his first NHL contract and an amateur tryout deal on March 17. He was scoreless but had seven penalty minutes, including five for one fight, in two regular-season games. He then practiced and worked out with the team through a first-round playoff loss to the Portland Pirates in six games.
During his brief stay in Hartford, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound McIlrath said he talked as much as he could with assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, though the man who handles the defense didn’t have a lot of time because he and the rest of the Whale were getting ready for the playoffs or playing the Pirates. But McIlrath said Daigneault did have time to stress the importance of making good first passes and jumping into plays at the right time.
“I was trying to pick his brain as much as I could on different aspects of the pro level and what I could do in the summer,” McIlrath said at the prospects camp. “It was an invaluable experience because the pace of the play is so much higher and everyone is making good passes. The best advice was to try to work on my skills, even when I’m away from the rink.
“Not only from J.J., but from guys like (former Rangers wing) Adam Graves, they say to work on my hands and my skills. I’m a big guy with a physical skill set, but I have to have a game where I can move the puck well, too. That just makes me a more complete player, so I’m just trying to refine all skills as much as possible.”
At the prospects camp, McIlrath said he “just tried to pick the guys’ brains and see what they think I need to work on going into training camp when it really counts.” McIlrath said he’s now in a learning process on the ice and in the weight room and that he’s showing his skills and playing a lot better than last year.
McIlrath doesn’t feel he has to prove anything after being selected higher than a lot of people expected.
“When I get to thinking like that, I’m not playing my best hockey,” he said. “You just have to forget about all that and just play because when you’re thinking about too much stuff like that, it’s really distracting and you’re not really playing your game. So I don’t really think about. I put enough pressure on myself as it is so I really don’t put the draft status on it.”
McIlrath, who has 13 goals, 38 assists and 400 penalty minutes in 175 games with Moose Jaw in three seasons, has a realistic outlook with so many young defensemen on the Rangers. Former Wolf Pack defensemen Dan Girardi, All-Star Marc Staal, Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh, who was promoted to the Rangers on Jan. 3, formed the team’s top two pairings at the end of the season. The other pairing was usually veterans Steve Eminger and Bryan McCabe, obtained at the trade deadline from the Florida Panthers in a deal that include Whale center Tim Kennedy, with former Wolf Pack defenseman Matt Gilroy as the extra. Eminger and McCabe are still free agents, and Gilroy signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Del Zotto is back after changing places with McDonagh in early January and then having his season cut short when he sustained a broken hand when hit by a shot in a game against Springfield on March 5. Youngsters Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko also progressed nicely with the Whale last season, and the Rangers acquired Tim Erixon, a first-round pick (23rd overall) of the Calgary Flames in 2009 and son of former Rangers wing Jan Erixon, for two second-round picks and Roman Horak on June 1.
“It’s going to a tough camp with all the young guys fighting for spots,” McIlrath said. “There’s a few spots open, but there’s a lot of guys fighting for them, so it’s going to be tough for sure.”
SAUER, ANISIMOV SIGN, AVOID ARBITRATION
It was a doubly “Thank Goodness It’s Friday” Friday for the Rangers as Sauer and Anisimov were the first of the Rangers’ five restricted free agents to sign new deals. Sauer also avoided sometimes nasty salary arbitration, which Anisimov wasn’t eligible for.
Sauer got a two-year, $2.5 million deal, which more than doubled his salary and is justly deserved after being the most pleasant surprise of the Rangers last season. Anisimov received a two-year, $3.75 million contract that more than doubled his $765,000 salary last season in what has to be considered a good deal for both parties since the Russian could have got offer sheets from other teams because he wasn’t arbitration eligible.
“It would be hard to imagine playing anywhere else,” Sauer told BlueshirtsUnited.com. “I love playing in New York, and I’m glad I’m going back to New York. I like the coaches, the system, the team, the city. It’s just a great place to play.”
Sauer is also happy to get the deal done early in the summer and avoid arbitration.
“It’s nice to not having that hanging over your head, to take the uncertainty out of it,” he said. “You know you’re going back, and you can just focus on training. Both sides are happy, which is good.”
Sauer, the Rangers’ second-round draft pick in 2005, played three games in March 2009 and then became a steady second-pair option last season with three goals with 12 assists in 76 games as he led the team with a plus-20 rating. He is the younger brother of Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Kurt Sauer and of former Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings linebacker Craig Sauer and was acquired via a draft pick from the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of the trade of Cheshire native and Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch just before the 2004 trade deadline.
Sauer’s played really improved after McDonagh was called up from the Whale, forming a tandem that belied the fact they were both rookies. Sauer even played two games on the right side of the Rangers’ top pairing, filling in Girardi alongside Staal, and he and McDonagh occasionally outplayed the more-ballyhooed duo.
Sauer, who turns 24 on Aug. 7, earned a league-minimum $500,000 last season, which was a last chance to make it with the team that drafted him. He was somewhat of a surprise inclusion on the opening-night roster, and after beginning the season as an occasional healthy scratch, seized his opportunity. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, especially after he fought through so many injuries while in Hartford.
The Rangers now have five defensemen with NHL experience under contract, as Sauer rejoins Staal, Girardi, McDonagh and Del Zotto. Erixon is expected to be a contributor as a rookie, with Valentenko, Kundratek, McIlrath and Mikhail Pashnin in the wings. Pashnin, 22, is a hard-hitter who has played the last two seasons with CSKA Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Anisimov, like Sauer a second-round pick (in 2006), will be entering his third NHL season after two with the Wolf Pack. He has played in all 164 games in his first two NHL seasons and had career highs in goals (18), assists (26) and points (44) in 2010-11. Anisimov had 12 goals and 16 assists as a rookie and then expanded his game immensely while playing mostly alongside former Wolf Pack forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, the Rangers’ top scorers last season. He also began to earn the trust of coach John Tortorella as he developed more defensive responsibility and often played on the penalty kill.
Now Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather can focus on trying to finalize deals with Callahan, Dubinsky and center Brian Boyle, who was working out with wing Mats Zuccarello after prospects camp practices and scrimmages ended last week. The Rangers have about $11 million left in the new $64.3 million salary cap and will get a buyout window for 48 hours after the final settlement or arbitration decision.
The NHL Players Association released the list of arbitration hearing dates, and Dubinsky is set for July 21, Boyle for July 25 and Callahan for July 28. Former Wolf Pack and Rangers forward Lauri Korpikoski starts the proceedings with the Phoenix Coyotes on July 20. Standout center Zach Parise and the New Jersey Devils are scheduled for Aug. 3, one day before the hearings end with former Bridgeport Sound Tigers forward Blake Comeau and the New York Islanders.
BARNABY GETS 500 HOURS OF COMMUNITY SERVICE
Former Rangers feisty wing Matthew Barnaby will have to complete 500 hours of community service to have charges dropped stemming from an argument with his estranged wife May 13.
Barnaby, 38, an analyst at ESPN, pleaded not guilty to five charges after being arrested at his suburban Buffalo home where his wife and two children live. As part of a plea agreement, misdemeanor charges of criminal mischief and aggravated harassment will be dropped if he fulfills the order within a year. Barnaby lives in Buffalo, where he and former Buffalo Sabres teammate Rob Ray own a construction company.
Barnaby had 113 goals, 187 assists and 2,562 penalty minutes in 834 NHL games with six teams, including with the Rangers in 2001-04. Barnaby was a fan favorite in New York and played 196 games before being traded to the playoff-bound Colorado Avalanche for former Wolf Pack defenseman Dave Liffiton and Chris McAllister on March 8, 2004. He then played for the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars before sustaining a season-ending concussion in a game against the Phoenix Coyotes on Jan. 9, 2007. Struggling with the effects of the concussion Barnaby retired in July 2007 and joined The Worldwide Leader in Sports in late 2008. … The Detroit Red Wings hired Bill Peters as an assistant coach for three years after he had been head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs since 2008. Peters coached with Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock when the two were in Spokane of the Western Hockey League. Peters was a midseason replacement on Babcock’s staff during the 1996-97 season and returned to the same post in 1999, Babcock’s final season with the Chiefs, where he stayed until 2002.
SHANNON SIGNS WITH LIGHTNING
Nice to see Darien native Ryan Shannon sign a one-year, $625 million contract with Tampa Bay as the Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman continues to restock depth at forward after several key losses.
Though only 5 feet 9, 175 pounds, Shannon has always been a gritty guy who far surpassed former Darien teammate Hugh Jessiman, the Rangers’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2003 who didn’t play in an NHL game until Feb. 27 and went scoreless in two with the Florida Panthers. He was the last first-round pick in his draft class to finally make it to the highest level.
Meanwhile, Shannon, 28, had 11 goals and 16 assists in 79 games for the Ottawa Senators last season. He has 31 goals and 56 assists in 260 NHL games with Ottawa, Vancouver and Anaheim. He also appeared in 11 playoff games in Anaheim’s Stanley Cup run in 2007.
Shannon was an undrafted free agent in 2005 after four years at Boston College. He has represented the United States at the 2003 World Junior Championships and at the World Championships in 2009 and 2011.
The Lightning made a surprising run to within one victory of the Stanley Cup finals last season but lost postseason hero Sean Bergenheim and leading forward Simon Gagne via free agency. On July 1, they signed free agent right wing Michel Ouellet, who last played regularly in the NHL for the Lightning in 2007-08 and spent last season in Germany.
The Lightning still has two key restricted free agent forwards, Steven Stamkos and Teddy Purcell, who are without contracts for next season. … The Ottawa Senators signed veteran forward Mark Parrish to a one-year, two-way contract on Friday after he had 17 goals and 34 assists in 56 games with the Pirates and was scoreless in two games with the Buffalo Sabres last season. Parrish, 34, has 216 goals and 171 assists in 722 NHL games with six teams, including the Islanders. … Other free agents still available include forwards Vinny Prospal (Rangers), former Rangers Alex Kovalev (Pittsburgh) and Nicolay Zherdev (Philadelphia), Teemu Selanne (Anaheim), Cory Stillman (Carolina), Sergei Samsonov (Florida), Kris Draper (Detroit) and John Madden (Minnesota), defensemen Bryan McCabe and Steve Eminger (Rangers), Nick Boynton (Philadelphia), Steve Staios (Calgary), Brent Sopel (Montreal), Shane O’Brien (Nashville) and Craig Rivet (Columbus) and goalies Marty Turco (Chicago), Ray Emery (Anaheim), Pascal Leclaire (Ottawa), Joey McDonald (Detroit) and former Wolf Pack Ty Conklin (St. Louis).