BY: Bruce Berlet

On paper, the Connecticut Whale appears as if they’ll start the season strong in goal and on defense but could be offensively challenged after the loss of at least three of their top six scorers.

But as New York Rangers assistant general manager/assistant coach and Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld likes to say, “That’s why they have training camp.”

Schoenfeld believes six or seven forwards – “I don’t want to miss anybody,” he said in not naming names – will vie for the last one or two spots on Broadway starting Friday at the Madison Square Garden training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. And he said some decisions won’t be finalized until after the Rangers play two of their four exhibition games in Europe before opening the season in Stockholm, Sweden, against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 7 and 8.

“We expect New York’s camp to be pretty competitive,” Schoenfeld said. “There might be six or seven guys who could be challenging for the last few spots so that should give a real good push to some players who were in New York. Somebody might move by somebody, but if not, it makes the overall organization pretty strong.”

Forwards most likely to be doing the hardest pushing are centers Kris Newbury and John Mitchell and wings Mats Zuccarello, Dale Weise, Chad Kolarik, newcomer Andreas Thuresson and rookies Carl Hagelin and Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. Hagelin and Bourque performed well in the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., where the Rangers lost the final 5-2 to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night.

Newbury, the Whale’s leading scorer last season (61 points), Zuccarello, Weise and Kolarik made their Rangers debuts in 2010-11. Mitchell was arguably the Whale’s best forward after being acquired on Feb. 28 from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a seventh-round pick in 2012. Hagelin performed well in five playoff games after the Whale after co-captaining the University of Michigan to the NCAA championship game, and Thuresson was acquired July 2 from the Nashville Predators for Brodie Dupont, the Whale’s third-leading scorer (career-high 45 points). The gritty Bourque had 59 points in 49 games with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and won a bronze medal with Team USA in the World Junior Championships.

But the Whale won’t have All-Star right wing Jeremy Williams, who led the team in goals (32) and was second in points (55) but wasn’t re-signed and is now playing for EC Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Elite League, and forward Evgeny Grachev, who tied for sixth in scoring (38 points) and was traded to the St. Louis Blues on draft day for a third-round pick, which became center Steven Fogarty. So besides Newbury, the Whale’s top returning scorers are veteran defenseman Wade Redden (42 points), who will report to Whale camp in Hartford so his $6.5 million contract won’t count against the salary cap if he was injured in Rangers camp, Kolarik (41), Weise (41) and Zuccarello (29), who split his rookie season in North America between Hartford and New York before being knocked out of the AHL playoffs by a broken hand but can play only 18 games with the Rangers before he’s not exempt from waivers. Kolarik, Weise and Zuccarello are all right wings, so at least two should end up in Hartford. Hagelin and Bourque are left wings, with Hagelin given the best shot at making the Rangers because of his age (23) and four years of collegiate experience at Michigan.

“We’re pretty set at center in New York, but we have some versatile wingers and Newbury came in last year and did a good job in a fourth-line role with some added toughness while playing a high-energy game,” Schoenfeld said. “Mitchell was probably one of our better forwards (in Hartford) as the season wore on, and I think he has committed himself this summer to a real good conditioning program. He’s a big, skilled center, so he might afford us some more options in New York.

“But as I say every year, it depends on what they do in training camp, and we’ll be giving all the guys a real good look. If you’re in great shape, you put yourself pretty well even with the rest of the guys in the NHL, so you give yourself a chance. If you don’t come to camp in great shape, I think you put yourself a step behind everybody.”

A good camp could enable Newbury, Mitchell, Zuccarello, Weise, Kolarik, Thuresson, Hagelin and/or Bourque to replace Erik Christensen, Wojtek Wolski, Sean Avery or Derek Boogaard, who tragically died on May 13 from an accidental overdose of alcohol and the painkillers.

Meanwhile, youngsters who got a look with the Whale late last season are goalie Jason Missiaen, defenseman Dylan McIlrath and forwards Hagelin, Tommy Grant, Kale Kerbashian and Andrew Yogan, who will miss the first 7-to-10 days of camp because of a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the prospects tournament final. McIlrath, high-scoring right wing Christian Thomas and the Rangers’ six draft picks in June can’t play with the Whale this season because they’re under 20, so it’s New York or back to juniors. Young players who aren’t going to camp are wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009 and considered their top prospect by many people who returned to Boston College for his junior year, wing Jesper Fasth, who stayed with HV71 in the Swedish Elite League, and center Oscar Lindberg, acquired for Ethan Werek on May 8, who remained with Skelleftea AIK in Sweden.

Kelsey Tessier, who received the Unsung Hero/Seventh Player Award from the media last season, is the Whale’s lone holdover at forward besides Newbury, Mitchell, Zuccarello, Weise and Kolarik. Others who could be in the Whale mix are veteran Andre Deveaux, a free-agent signee on Aug. 16, and youngsters Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Tayler Jordan and rugged Jason Wilson and Randy McNaught, who played only eight games last season because of an ankle injury and had to be signed after playing in the prospects tournament. Audy-Marchessault was a major bonus in Traverse City with good skating and adept passing that led to two goals and three assists. His five points tied for fourth in tournament scoring with six other players, including teammate Blake Parlett, a defenseman who had five assists, including team record-tying three in one game, despite missing one game with an ailing knee.

Redden, a 14-year veteran who has played in 994 NHL games and was a positive influence and leader in his first minor-league stint last season, will head a defensive corps that also could include Parlett, tough guys Jared Nightingale and Stu Bickel, Jyri Niemi and/or Lee Baldwin, who spent most of an injury-plagued 2010-11 seasons with Greenville of the ECHL. Michael Del Zotto, Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko are leading contenders to crack the Rangers lineup while battling Tim Erixon, the Calgary Flames’ first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2009 who was acquired for two second-rounders and forward Roman Horak on June 1 and was the Rangers best player in the prospects tournament, and Brendan Bell, who has played 101 NHL games with Ottawa, Phoenix and Toronto and signed a free-agent contract on Aug. 9. Mikhail Pashnin, 22, won’t be in the running because he re-signed with CSKA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.

When contacted last week, Redden said he wasn’t surprised he wasn’t invited to Rangers camp despite being the Whale’s best player and a key reason the team put together a 14-4-0-1 run from early February to late March that assured they wouldn’t miss the playoffs for a second straight year. But Redden preferred to report to Hartford rather than try to play in Europe, especially after his wife, Danica, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Leni, last Sept. 22.

“I only talked to (Rangers coach John) Tortorella, and I didn’t seem to fit into their plans,” Redden said. “But I hope to get another job in the NHL, so I’m going to work and play as hard as I can and hope for the best.”

Redden said he didn’t even know the Rangers had acquired Erixon, which added to the long odds of him returning to the Rangers. The almost certain locks on defense in New York are former Wolf Packers Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh, along with re-signed veteran Steve Eminger. But nothing is etched in stone.

“I wouldn’t assume anything with the young defensemen,” Schoenfeld said. “Sauer and McDonagh had really good first years (in the NHL), but now it’s the second year and we’ll have to see how they play, along with Erixon, Bell, Del Zotto and Eminger. We all assume we know who the top four are, but again, that’s why you have training camp. Who thought Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh would be in your top four last year? You never know because too many things can happen that you don’t expect.”

Schoenfeld said the fact Del Zotto has only 33 NHL games left before he is no longer exempt from waivers won’t influence what the Rangers do with the young defenseman who struggled much of last season after being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team in 2009-10. Del Zotto started 2010-11 with the Rangers but switched places on Jan. 3 with McDonagh, who also started slowly but picked it up after about 20 games thanks to help from Redden and assistant coach J.J. Daigneault and then remained in New York the rest of the season. Del Zotto made a brief return to the Rangers and then returned to the Whale before being sidelined for the season when he sustained a broken finger when hit by a shot in a game against Springfield on March 3. The Rangers’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2008 then had successful surgery to repair a sports hernia on May 3.

“The influence on who is up and who is down is who can best help the Rangers,” Schoenfeld said in addressing the Del Zotto and Zuccarello waiver situation. “Michael is a young guy, and if he doesn’t quite look like he’s ready, the best way to develop is to play rather than sitting around (as an extra).”

If Del Zotto plays 33 more NHL games, he can no longer be sent to the Whale without being subjected to waivers unless it’s a conditioning assignment. Del Zotto is penciled in to the third pairing with Erixon or Eminger, so any more struggles likely will force the Rangers’ hand and put Del Zotto in Hartford. It’s certain he would be claimed on waivers, so once 33 games hits, demotion is no longer an option. In that case, Bell could be an insurance policy while Del Zotto and/or Erixon straighten out any problems. Or Kundratek or Valentenko could have good camps and make the Rangers roster, as Sauer did last year, and make Eminger the spare.

In any scenario, it does no good to have youngsters such as Del Zotto, Erixon, Kundratek or Valentenko being a seventh defenseman, as Schoenfeld pointed out. But even if a hungry Del Zotto appears ready for Broadway again, he could benefit from more time with the Whale and avoid the waiver issue early in the season. But if Tortorella’s track record says anything, it’s that he will give the youngsters every opportunity to play their way on to the major-league roster.

What is a mortal lock is Henrik Lundqvist will do the bulk of the goaltending for the Rangers and likely will be backed up by Martin Biron, who missed the last six weeks of last season with a fractured collarbone sustained when hit by a shot in practice on Feb. 28. He was replaced by Chad Johnson, who struggled much of last season and played only 20 minutes in relief of Lundqvist while with the Rangers through the playoffs.

Johnson, Cam Talbot and rookie Scott Stajcer apparently will vie for the two spots in Hartford after Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark said during the prospects tournament that the 6-foot-8 Missiaen would be going to Greenville to see how he develops. Clark and Schoenfeld also have said Stajcer is scheduled to return to the Ontario Hockey League as an overage junior after missing much of last season because of hip surgery in November. But a strong first game in the prospects tournament and an impressive camp could put Stajcer in position to end up in Hartford and make Johnson or Talbot trade bait.

“Stajcer had a tough year last year (injury-wise),” Schoenfeld said, “so we want to see him really have a successful season and play a lot, and we think he will. But you never know what can happen (in training camp).”

Schoenfeld said the Rangers plan to take 30-32 players to Europe and hope to be down to the 23-player maximum for the regular season after preseason games in the United States on Sept. 21, 23 and 26 and their second game in Europe on Sept. 30 in Gothenburg, Sweden, which will be six days after about 30 players, including the first cuts of the Rangers, will report to Whale camp at the XL Center in Hartford. The Whale’s preseason games are against Albany on Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College in Hartford, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. at the MassMutual Center in Springfield and against Worcester on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. at the TD Bank Sports Center at Quinnipiac University in Hamden and Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. at the Champions Skating Center in Cromwell. They start their 15th season Oct. 8 against the Adirondack Phantoms in Glens Falls, N.Y., and their home opener is Oct. 15 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

So coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller might not have as many as nine of their best players for exhibition games and won’t be able to form lines and defensive pairings in practice until a few days before the season opener. They also will be working with an undetermined number of players signed by Greenville, the Whale’s ECHL affiliate, who will be trying to make a good impression. Goalie Dov Grumet-Morris was one of those players a year ago, and he ended up being voted the Whale MVP by his teammates.

“It’s part of the process,” Gernander said. “They might not make our club coming out of training camp, but if we run into injury problems or a need arises during the season, we’ve seen these players and know who best will fit that spot on our roster. They also have to playing well in the ECHL at the time, but we’d have knowledge of how they would fit in the framework of our team. If we confer with the Greenville coach (Dean Stork) and he says he’s playing the way he should be, then that’s what our recalls are based on.”

Gernander said he wasn’t going to start the season with any excuses over possible jetlag or so many late arrivals and actually tried to find a silver lining.

“The last guys to be returned to us from the Rangers are going to be our better players, which is always the case as things filter down,” Gernander said. “But this maybe gives us a longer look at guys who would be on the bubble and normally get in only one or two (exhibition) games. Instead of a real brief look, it might give us an opportunity to look at some of these guys for longer periods of time. It might give them more ice time before the season starts to better prepare themselves.

“Why start the season with excuses? We’re going to start the season running, and the systems that we’re going to be using are probably going to be close to those of the parent club, so that’s not going to be a big adjustment for anybody. They’re going to be practicing under the same type of conditions in Europe.”

Gernander acknowledged the Whale might be a bit lacking offensively at the start of the season but is hopeful some of the newcomers can make an immediate impact or the Whale “can create offense by committee and maybe be a little more balanced.”

“I’m certainly going to put an emphasis on being more disciplined,” Gernander said, alluding to the Whale’s 1,749 penalty minutes last season being second most to the 1,927 of Albany, which finished last in the 30-team AHL. “We also have to improve our penalty killing, but before that, we can’t give as many shorthanded opportunities. So with strong defense and strong goaltending, maybe we’ll be a little bit more defensive-oriented team. Not necessarily by design where we’re going to play real close to the vest but out of necessity.

“If we’re a team that only scores two or three goals, let’s really be disciplined and make sure we’re sound defensively. And maybe throughout the course of the season when some of these guys get more acclimated to pro hockey, some of their offensive abilities will shine through and we’ll be a stronger team at the end of the year.”

One thing that Gernander isn’t certain of is whether the Whale will have their first captain since Dane Byers was traded for Kolarik on Nov. 13. The Whale used a handful of alternate captains the remainder of the season, and Gernander said the nine players who will be returning late likely would be “pretty good candidates,” along with Redden, a 14-year veteran who was one of the alternate captains last season. Others included Newbury, Weise, Mitchell, Nightingdale and forwards Tim Kennedy and Brodie Dupont, who were traded.

“We’re just going to see how things transpire in training camp and work accordingly,” Gernander said. “Redden obviously showed a lot positive traits last year. I thought he was a consummate professional, was prepared, took care of himself and was a good role model for the young kids by far as being very good and active in working with them. So he displayed a number of very positive attributes and would be one who is in strong consideration.”

One response to “FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

  1. Bruce, did they finally sign McNaught? I didn’t see it listed anywhere…but I wondered if they finally signed him after the Traverse City Tourney.
    I had thought they wanted to make sure he was healthy…which he certainly showed in the tournament. BIG kid…and certainly tough!