A year ago, Ryan McDonagh attended his first NHL training camp after foregoing his senior year after he, Derek Stepan and the University of Wisconsin lost 5-0 in the NCAA title game to Boston College, led by Chris Kreider, considered by many to be the New York Rangers top prospect.
McDonagh and Stepan didn’t know if they’d end up on Broadway or Asylum Street, and it proved to be Broadway for Stepan and Asylum for McDonagh, at least at the start of the season. A strong training camp earned Stepan a spot on the Rangers roster while McDonagh was among the final cuts.
McDonagh struggled for 15-20 pro games with the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale before veteran defenseman Wade Redden and assistant coach J.J. Daignault helped him rediscover his game. On Jan. 3, McDonagh switched places with Michael Del Zotto, who was having his own issues in his second season with the Rangers after being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team.
But while injuries gave Del Zotto a shot at a few more NHL games before returning to the Whale and sustaining a season-ending broken finger when hit by a shot in a game against Springfield on March 3, McDonagh never looked back and became a solid contributor on the Rangers’ second pairing with fellow rookie and former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer.
So after his first 45 NHL regular-season and playoff games, McDonagh is now more secure about his role.
“My main job is to shut the other team down,” said McDonagh, who made his preseason debut Friday night as the Rangers played the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. “If I’m not doing that then I’m not doing my job. Any kind of offense I can bring, at this point, is an added bonus. I just want to show that I learned from last year and have improved.”
McDonagh, who had one goal and seven assists in 38 games with the Whale and one goal and eight assists in 40 games with the Rangers, might have to contribute more offensively than originally expected since All-Star Marc Staal is being held out of scrimmages and at least the three preseason games in North America because of recurring post-concussion symptoms from being hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22. Marc missed three games after the hit because of a sore knee and two more in March, and Rangers coach John Tortorella said Staal passed baseline neurological tests before returning last season and again when he took his pre-camp physical last week.
But Tortorella is taking the better-safe-than-sorry approach with his No. 1 defenseman.
“Hopefully it’s progressing in the right direction,” Tortorella said. “We just want to be cautious with him to try to get him ready for the regular season (Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm, Sweden). This is a situation out there, it’s well chronicled, some of the stuff that goes on with this. We want to make sure. I can’t say, ‘Yeah, he’s playing.’ We want to be smart about this as we go through however long this camp is. My thoughts – and I’ve talked to Marc – is he won’t be playing any exhibition games early on. I’d like to get him a couple overseas.”
But that plan was put on hold Monday when Staal reported to camp not feeling well, causing Tortorella to send him home. Staal skated Tuesday and Wednesday and then visited a specialist Thursday.
“This is a fluid situation,” Tortorella said. “We’re erring on the side of caution.”
Tortorella said Staal didn’t necessarily have to play in any preseason games before the season opener, but that’s hardly an ideal situation. With their top defenseman questionable, the Rangers are looking for a veteran who might be brought in on a tryout. Former Rangers Bryan McCabe and Paul Mara are still looking for jobs, but they aren’t likely to excite Tortorella. So the Rangers could wait until closer to the season opener to see which veterans might lose their jobs with their current teams.
“Even prior to this with Marc being up and down, we were looking,” Tortorella said.
Those who could benefit most from Staal’s absence are Michael Del Zotto, Pavel Valentenko, one of the final cuts last year, and newly acquired Tim Erixon and Brendan Bell. Erixon, the son of former Rangers wing Jan Erixon and the Calgary Flames first-round pick (23rd) overall in 2009 acquired for two second-rounders and Roman Horek on June 1, is almost certain to stick with the Rangers if Staal is out long term.
PARLETT BACK ON ICE BUT NOT IN LINEUP
Defenseman Blake Parlett, who excelled for the Whale after being called up from Greenville of the ECHL on Feb. 17, returned to the ice Thursday for the first time since the Rangers lost the prospects tournament final 5-2 to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres on Sept. 14 in Traverse City, Mich. He sustained a sprained knee in a 6-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 2, sat out a 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 3 and then played in the title game before being held out of practice and scrimmages for a week.
But Parlett wasn’t in the prospects lineup Friday afternoon in a game against their Devils counterparts at the Prudential Center.
SEPERATING THE MEN FROM THE BOYS
The Rangers junior varsity came from behind and won an emotional 5-4 OT win on Jonathan Audy-Marchessault’s slapshot from just inside the blue line a mere 16 seconds into extra time Friday afternoon in the matinee battle before the two parent clubs battle it out in Newark at the Prudential Center. Ryan Bourque had two goals Christian Thomas and J.T. Miller had the others . The Baby Rangers erased a 3-1 deficit with three straight goals for the come from behind win. The youngsters gave up a Devils goal with just 25 seconds remaining in regulation to get the game to extra time. After the goal, tempers flared and a brawl broke out on the ice between the two teams.
After the two games Friday, the Rangers were to make their first cuts and send an expected 15-20 players to the Whale, who open camp Saturday at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell with physicals and testing. On Thursday, Rangers coach John Tortorella said his team would be taking 33 players, instead of 31, to Europe for the final four preseason games because one unnamed forward had earned a trip and an 11th defenseman would go because of Staal’s injury.
The Rangers cuts will join several players not invited to Rangers camp, including veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who has played 994 NHL games with the Ottawa Senators and Rangers and was an extremely positive influence on the Whale’s young players in his first time in the minors last season. Redden, 34, wasn’t invited to Rangers camp because his $6.5 million contract doesn’t fit under the salary cap, and it would count toward the cap if he was injured.
The Whale will have their first scrimmage open to the public Sunday from 10:40 to 11:40 a.m. before and after practice sessions. The Whale’s first preseason game is Tuesday at 7 p.m. against the Albany Devils at the Koeppel Community Sports Center on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford. The game benefits the Ryan Gordon/Connecticut Whale Community Scholars Fund, with donations accepted at the door in lieu of an admission charge. The fund memorializes longtime Wolf Pack fan Ryan Gordon, who died in 2006 from cancer and asked that the money set aside for his college education be donated to three charities, including the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.
The Whale also will play at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the Falcons and then host the Worcester Sharks at the TD Bank Sports Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden next Friday at 7 p.m. ($5 admission benefits Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford) and on Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. at Champions Skating Center ($5 admission benefits Junior Wolf Pack youth hockey). The entire AHL preseason schedule is available at www.theahl.com. … Being the third goalie with Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron on the Rangers’ overseas trip could be a double-edged sword. Wanting to spend a week in Europe with a NHL team might seem a no-brainer, but Tortorella had to give Chad Johnson, Cam Talbot and rookie Scott Stajcer a bit of a pause when he said, “There’s competition for the third goalie, but the guy who goes to back up the two regulars in Europe will not necessarily be the ‘third’ goalie in the organization. In other words, the team might want the true third goalie to be with the Whale and playing games.” … Goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, voted the Whale’s MVP last season by his teammates but not re-signed by the Rangers after a so-so playoffs, has signed a one-year deal with Lorenskog in the Norway Elite League. Grumet-Morris, 29, was 13-5-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average, .923 save percentage and one shutout in 22 games with the Whale after being 15-8-1, 2.32, .922 with three shutouts with Greenville on the way to being named to the ECHL’s second team.
TORTORELLA AS BLUNT AS EVER
Tortorella, as usual, didn’t mince words when asked if expectations for this season are – or should be – higher this year.
“That’s up to you guys,” Tortorella told the New York media. “You guys are the ones who plant the expectations. I’m not a forecaster. I’m not a big guy to talk about expectations. I just want us to grow in all areas. I think we’re in a different level of the process. We’ve kept our kids. (President and general manager) Glen (Sather) has done a great job keeping our nucleus and our core. I think they’ve grown. I think they need to continue to grow.
“We’ve added (Mike) Rupp, we’ve added (Brad) Richards, veteran guys, so that puts in the process of trying to be a better team. I think we’ve upped our talent level with Richie and helps us in a lot of areas with our club. Rupp’s going to help us in a lot of areas with our lines. So I’ll put it that way. I think we’re in the next step of the process of being the best we can be.”
Tortorella was also straightforward when asked if this season is different than two years ago when he openly said he’d live with the hiccups as he brought along a lot of young players.
“When you’re grooming a team and building a team you’re looking to chip out some of those hiccups, as this might be the third year for some of those guys,” Tortorella said. “Certainly we want to kick out some of those hiccups and be a better team. I thought we were a pretty good team last year. I thought we did a really good job of identifying who we want to be, who we are, and playing to it.
“We’re going to have to be better in all areas if we want to get out of that seventh, eighth, ninth (place) fight that we’re in every year. Whether that’s expectations, I’m just being honest. That’s where we are in our process of trying to get there, into another spot.”
SHANAHAN RIGHTFULLY LETS SHELLEY HAVE IT
Former Hartford Whalers captain Brendan Shanahan made his first major disciplinarian decision as the new NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety a good one.
Shanahan suspended Philadelphia Flyers forward Jody Shelley for 10 games, the remaining games of the preseason and the first five games of the regular season, for a boarding penalty on Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darryl Boyce in Wednesday night’s game. Shelley, assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for boarding Boyce at 12:34 of the second period, also will forfeit $67,073.15 in salary, with the money going to the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund. The suspension began Thursday night, and Shelley will be eligible to return Oct. 20, when the Flyers host the Washington Capitals.
Since Shelley is considered a repeat offender under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (he was suspended twice last season for four games), he has to forfeit his salary based on the number of games in the season (82) instead of the number of days in the season (185).
The NHL changed the boarding rule in the offseason to put the onus on the player making the hit to avoid or minimize the contact against a defenseless player. The focus is also on the violent and potentially dangerous contact with the boards rather than the actual point of contact.
“Shelley hit Boyce squarely from behind into the glass,” Shanahan said. “Boyce’s back was turned toward Shelley well before the contact, requiring that Shelley avoid or minimize the check. He did neither. In addition, Shelley’s two suspensions last season weighed heavily in this decision.”
Shelley is the second player suspended for violating the boarding rule this week. Calgary Flames forward Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond was suspended for the remaining four preseason games and one regular-season game for hitting Vancouver Canucks forward Matt Clackson from behind in Tuesday’s game. … Former Whalers general manager Jim Rutherford was given a four-year extension through the 2015-16 season to be the president and GM of the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Jim is one of the premier general managers in all of sports,” Hurricanes CEO Peter Karmanos said in a statement. “In the 14 years since the Hurricanes arrived in North Carolina, his leadership has allowed our franchise to host two Stanley Cup finals, the NHL All-Star Game and the NHL draft, bringing tremendously positive attention to the team and the area.”
Rutherford is entering his 18th NHL season, the second-longest tenured active GM in the NHL, and helped shepherd the team from Hartford to North Carolina in 1997. Lou Lamoriello, entering his 25th season, has been the New Jersey Devils GM since 1987.
Under the 62-year-old Rutherford, the Hurricanes have won three Southeast Division titles and appeared in two Stanley Cup finals, winning in 2006.
MODANO RETIRES AS A STAR
The Dallas Stars signed Mike Modano to a one-day contract so he could retire as a member of the team. The deal was worth $999,999, based on his jersey No. 9. Modano won’t collect the money, but once he put his name on the contract, he retired.
“You wonder what this day would be like and it feels pretty overwhelming,” Modano said, fighting back tears. “I look back at 21 years with one franchise and I think that’s what made me the most proud of anything.”
Modano spent 20 of those 21 seasons with the Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars franchise. The first pick in the 1988 draft, his name is all over the Stars’ record book. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in a number of categories, including games played (1,459), goals (557), assists (802) and points (1,359). He’s also the all-time leading playoff scorer with 145 points in a club-high 174 games. And he’s the all-time leader among U.S.-born players in goals (561) and points (1,374).
“Mike Modano will always be the face of this franchise,” said Stars GM and Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendy, a former teammate. “He means so much to our organization and all of our fans. We wanted to give him the opportunity to retire as a Dallas Star. Mike has given his heart and soul to this game for over 30 years. On behalf of the entire organization and the National Hockey League, we would like to thank him for his dedication.”
Modano, 41, decided it was time to end his playing career after 21 years in the NHL, making the announcement on his Facebook page Wednesday, saying, “I’ve come to the decision that it’s time to retire as a player from the NHL.”
“I think I knew in my heart I was done after last season,” Modano told ESPNDallas.com. “I had a harder time coming to grips with it than I thought I would. Part of me wanted to play it out and see if anybody had called in July. When that didn’t happen, I figured that’s pretty much it.”
Modano, a future Hall of Famer, is a Michigan native drafted first overall in 1988 by the North Stars and became the face of hockey in Dallas when the organization moved to Texas in 1993. He played his final home game with the Stars on April 8, 2010, scoring the tying and winning goals in an emotional game. He considers it one of his greatest memories of his career.
EMOTIONAL NIGHT FOR WHEAT KINGS
As pointed out by Jess Rubenstein, the astute assessor of junior and college talent at The Prospect Park, it was a difficult opening night in the Western Hockey League on Thursday night. Former WHL players Derek Boogaard, Ryan Rypien, Wade Belak and Brad McCrimmon, all from the province of Saskatchewan, were among the losses this summer.
Boogaard (Rangers), Rypien (Winnipeg Jets) and Belak (retired) were found dead from various causes, while McCrimmon, a former Whalers defenseman, was one of 44 people killed in a plane crash before he could coach his first game for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Boogaard and Rypien played for the Regina Pats, while McCrimmon and Belak were with the Saskatoon Blades.
There was a moment of silence for the four before the Brandon Wheat Kings helped the Moose Jaw Warriors christen their new arena. The Wheat Kings are coached by Kelly McCrimmon, Brad’s brother, who must have had all kinds of emotions running through him, especially with everyone in the arena and a national Canadian TV audience eying him.
The Wheat Kings responded with a 4-1 victory thanks to a hat trick by 5-foot-8 rookie Alessio Bertaggia of Lugano, Switzerland, in his WHL debut. Moose Jaw was missing key defensemen Dylan McIlrath and Collin Bowman, who were still with the Rangers.
SICKO ON PARADE
While it was an emotional night in Western Canada, it was night of insensitive stupidity in the eastern part of the country, London, Ontario.
A banana was thrown at Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, an African-American, as he participated in a shootout to decide a preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings at the John Labatt Centre.
“I don’t know if it had anything to do with the fact I’m black,” Simmonds, 23, told reporters. “I certainly hope not. When you’re black, you kind of expect (racist) things. You learn to deal with it.”
Not surprisingly, others were not as understanding.
NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, whose career as a NHL goalie included a stint with the Rangers, condemned the incident through his Twitter feed (@KevinWeekes).
“For those that asked: I’m extremely disappointed with what happened to Wayne Simmonds tonight in London Ont,” he posted. “We’ve taken HUGE steps to grow the game of hockey, as I speak Willie O’Ree and I are in D.C. attending the Black Congressional Caucus on behalf of the NHL & ironically this takes place.”
O’Ree, the NHL’s first black player, and Weekes are among a contingent of hockey ambassadors attending the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 41st annual legislative conference, marking the first time the hockey community has had a formal presence at the annual public-policy gathering.
In a statement released Friday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said: “We have millions of great fans who show tremendous respect for our players and for the game. The obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario.”
In a smart move, London Mayor Joe Fontana issued an apology to Simmonds on behalf of his town: “As Mayor, and on behalf of Londoners, I am sending an apology to Wayne Simmonds and the Philadelphia Flyers organization regarding the incident at last night’s exhibition game. It was a stupid and mindless act by a single individual, however it reflects badly on our entire community. London is a diverse and welcoming city and we like it that way.”
Several current NHL players used Twitter to show support for Simmonds, who joined the Flyers in a June trade with the Los Angeles Kings. San Jose Sharks forward Logan Courture (@Logancouture) grew up just outside of London and also was horrified by the incident.
“Wayne Simmonds is a good friend of mine,” he tweeted. “To hear what happened to him in my hometown is awful. No need for this in sports or life.”
Amen to that, Logan. Couldn’t have said it better myself, though my wife, Nancy, had the perfect response when I told her about the incident: “That’s disgusting.”