BY: Bruce Berlet
The Connecticut Whale had quite an addition at their pregame skate Friday morning, but unfortunately he isn’t likely to be playing any time soon.
New York Rangers All-Star defenseman Marc Staal worked out with the Whale at Champions Skating Center in Cromwell looking like a slimmed-down Santa Claus in his bright red “Please Do Not Touch” uniform.
“I’m the man in the big red suit,” the 6-foot-4, 203-pound Staal said with a chuckle.
Staal skated about 100 minutes before, during and after the Whale’s workout in preparation for Friday night’s preseason game against the Worcester Sharks at TD Bank Sports Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden. The Rangers’ first-round pick (12th overall) in 2005 and one of four brothers in pro hockey, started solo for a half-hour, joined the rest of the Whale for a 40-minute workout and ended with a half-hour of extra skating, shooting and 2-on-2 drills with those not playing Friday night.
It was the start of Staal’s latest bid to try to recover from lingering headaches from post-concussion syndrome from being hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22. Staal sustained a concussion but passed baseline neurological tests and missed only three games. But headaches manifested themselves in the summer and have forced Staal to miss most of training camp, including all of the Rangers’ preseason games.
“It all stems from the hit in February,” Staal said. “I never had any headache issues before that.”
The Rangers had hoped to have Staal on a flight to Czech Republic on Thursday so he could rejoin his teammates at the opener of a six-game European run capped by the first two regular-season starts Oct. 7-8 in Stockholm, Sweden. But instead of being on hand for the Rangers’ 2-0 victory over HC Sparta, Staal was prepping for a trip to suburban Hartford.
Staal, part of the Rangers’ top defensive pairing with former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi, had seen several specialists for the headaches last Thursday and Friday, had an MRI on Friday, skated with the Rangers on Sunday and then flew to Buffalo on Monday for a cortisone shot from a specialist treating pain in his neck. Staal then had to lay low for 48 hours because of the shot and joined the Whale in hopes of recovering in time to be ready for the Rangers’ season opener next Friday against the Los Angeles Kings.
“The specialists hoped to relieve some pressure and increase the blood flow and maybe try and help that way, so we took a shot at it and hopefully there’s some reaction and some help,” Staal said. “There never was any pain (in his neck), but when they did a MRI, the doc found there were some points where it was pressing up against some nerves and some anti-inflammatory stuff might help.”
That led to the cortisone shot, but Staal said he felt “pretty crappy” after his first workout with a minor-league team since he joined the Wolf Pack for the playoffs in 2006. But he quickly added that was because he hadn’t skated since Sunday, hasn’t been able to participate in contact drills – the red uniform making sure that wouldn’t occur Friday – and isn’t in game shape, though in good condition.
Staal said how he feels if he’s able to skate Saturday would be good indicator of any progress. When asked how long he planned to stay with the Whale, he said, “It’s kind of up in the air, a day-by-day kind of thing. I’ll see how I feel and go from there.”
When asked if he thought he could get in game shape in time for the Rangers’ opener in a week, Staal said, “I don’t know. I’ve been skating quite a bit and feel pretty good, and once I’m cleared to start taking hits and battling guys down low, I can better gauge.”
As of late Friday morning, Staal didn’t have a ticket for Europe but said it might be possible depending on how he felt after skating Saturday.
“A lot of conversations will have to take place before that happens,” Staal said.
Staal and Whale trainer Damien Hess were to confer and then relate information to Rangers trainer Jim Ramsey and Rangers officials in Europe. Regardless of that outcome, the entire ordeal has become more than a bit tedious for Staal.
“It (stinks),” Staal said. “It has been a pretty brutal summer in that regard. I never had this type of injury before, so it’s frustrating but hopefully we’re on the right track.”
While trainers and officials try to help Staal improve his mind and body, youngsters Michael Del Zotto and Tim Erixon are virtually assured of being on the Rangers’ opening-day roster. Del Zotto, 21, who split last season between New York and Hartford before a broken finger sustained in a game against Springfield on March 3, and Erixon, a first-round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2009 acquired on June 1, might have to carry more of a load for the Rangers if Staal and former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer aren’t recovered for the opener. Sauer will miss the four preseason games in Europe after sustaining a sprained right shoulder in a 4-3 loss in Philadelphia on Monday.
Whale coach Ken Gernander reiterated Staal’s situation is day-to-day.
“We’ll see how he feels and there will be a lot of conversations between the trainer,” Gernander said. “He’s going to skate and exercise and see where he’s at. He’ll skate tomorrow unless he feels unbelievable in the morning or New York wants to have him rejoin them. I don’t know.
“He skated today and didn’t have any (concussion) symptoms, but he has been off the ice for four days and just getting his feet under him.”
While Staal was understandably disappointed about his current state, it wasn’t as bad as what Whale right wing Chad Kolarik faces after a freak accident in Rangers training camp. Kolarik, acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets for then-Whale captain Dane Byers last Nov. 13, will miss most – if not all – of the season after he sustained a torn ACL in his left knee when he caught his skate in a rut on some choppy ice Sept. 20 in Greenburgh, N.Y. The tear wasn’t discovered until Kolarik had some discomfort as he prepared to play in the Rangers’ preseason game in Philadelphia on Monday night.
Kolarik, among the Rangers’ first 21 cuts Monday after starting training camp in line to battle for a job on Broadway, continues to work out to get his leg as strong as possible before having surgery in Hartford on Wednesday.
“It (stinks), but what are you going to do?” Kolarik said after his latest round of workouts.
Kolarik will be sidelined at least six weeks after battling hamstring issues last season, when he had 17 goals and 14 assists in 36 games with the Whale after getting four goals and six assists in 13 games with the Springfield Falcons. He also had one assist while earning high marks in four games with the Rangers.
“It’s terrible for our team, and it’s terrible for Chad to start the season that way,” Gernander said. “It prevented him from playing a preseason game with the Rangers and being able to show himself there. Had he been assigned to us, I’m sure he would have wanted to get off to a great start and prove that he’s someone worthy of NHL consideration. Nobody wants to start the season with an injury, let alone a long-term one.”
On the positive side, defenseman Pavel Valentenko skated for the first time since sustaining a groin injury Monday night. He hopes to be ready for the Whale’s opener against the Adirondack Phantoms on Oct. 8 in Glens Falls, N.Y.
“He was just testing it today,” Gernander said. “He just worked on his own to evaluate it and see where he’s at. It’s baby steps, and we have to let these things take care of themselves.”
Right wings Andre Deveaux and Andreas Thuresson, who were assigned by the Rangers on Monday night and cleared waivers Wednesday, made their Whale debuts Friday night. Veteran Wade Redden, who didn’t attend Rangers camp because of salary-cap issues with his $6.5 million contract, and Jared Nightingale also played their first game of the preseason as the Whale’s No. 1 defensive pairing.
The Rangers are scheduled to make their second round of cuts Saturday, and those players will join but not play in the Whale’s preseason finale against the Sharks on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Champions Skating Center ($5 admission benefits Junior Wolf Pack youth hockey). The Whale then will make their cuts so Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller have workable numbers to form their lines and defensive pairings in preparation for the season opener next Saturday. The Whale then plays at Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Oct. 9 and at Albany, N.Y., on Oct. 14 before their home opener Oct. 15 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who are not playing any preseason games.
EUROPEAN ADVENTURE TO FORGET
While lovely, bucolic Cromwell can’t compare with Prague, Gothenburg or Stockholm on a worldwide scale, Staal had to be happy not to be part of the Rangers’ European Adventure after their victory over HC Sparta on Thursday night. As if being thousands of miles from home and playing before chanting, drum-banging Czechs wasn’t enough to handle, the Rangers’ charter plane was grounded in Prague due to fog at their destination city of Gothenburg.
It caused a logistical nightmare for the Rangers and NHL people in charge of the trip, as the traveling party of about 80 players, coaches, executives and Blueshirts staff were transported back to their Prague hotel and rebooked for the night. While the unexpected delay was handled “seamlessly” according to BlueshirtsUnited.com writer Jim Cerny, the luggage for each member of the traveling party cleared customs and was placed on the plane during the game, meaning the clothes worn to the game were the only clothes you had.
“It’s part of the adventure, boys,” goalie Martin Biron said with a laugh.
The plane to Gothenburg took off for a 90-minute flight at 11:30 a.m. Friday, only 71/2 hours before the drop of the first puck against Frolunda, the former team of All-Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The most notable aspects of the opener were Biron’s 23 saves and the work of Del Zotto and Erixon.
“He made some good plays, “ Rangers coach John Tortorella said of third-year pro Del Zotto, 21, who made a quick and nifty pass to Ruslan Fedotenko in front for a power-play goal after former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov scored earlier in the second period. “He’s trying to improve his game. He’s listening, and trying to get better.”
On Swede Erixon, 20, who assisted on both Rangers goals, Tortorella said, “I can say he’s improving. He’s playing a system he’s never played before, and we’ve asked him to do things he’s not comfortable with. But he’s improving along the way here.”
The Rangers improved to 2-0 in Europe and 3-1-1 overall as Lundqvist backstopped a 4-2 victory over Frolunda, whose captain is Henrik’s brother, Joel, who took the opening faceoff against Erik Christensen. The elder Lundqvist, wearing an A as an alternate captain, received a hero’s welcome in a pregame ceremony in which he received trophies and awards as a sellout crowd chanted, “Hen-ke, Hen-ke, Hen-ke.” Lundqvist spent seven years playing for Frolunda, the first three as a member of its junior team, the last four backstopping its team in the Swedish Elite League. He won two SEL titles and is forever beloved in the city of Gothenburg.
“That team means a lot to me,” Lundqvist told the media before the game. “Growing up it was the team I wanted to play for, and I was able to play there seven years. So I have a lot of memories. The challenge for me will be to stay focused on my job, which is a good thing because I need a good test like that going into the season.”
Kris Newbury, the Whale’s leading scorer last season, scored the first goal only 2:24 into the game off an assist from rookie Ryan Bourque, son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. After Frolunda tied it and the Rangers killed three power plays, including two 5-on-3s, Del Zotto scored at 5:24 of the second period. Christensen then got the winner off Mats Zuccarello’s second assist.
Early in the third period, Lundqvist saluted the raucous fans during a TV timeout and then allowed a rebound goal on a power play that made it 3-2. But the Rangers made sure their best player would have a triumphant return with 3:12 left thanks to two newcomers, defenseman Brendan Bell setting up rugged left wing Mike Rupp with a deft pass off the boards.
“It’s been hard not to think about it the past few days,” Lundqvist said before the game. “It seems like 80 percent of the time I am thinking about going back home and playing there. I want to focus and work on my game, but at the same time enjoy the moment here and have a great time. It’s going to be a special day for my family and me.”
A win made it that much more special.
BYERS BACK IN SPRINGFIELD
While Kolarik preps for surgery, Byers is back in Springfield with the Falcons after being sent down by the Blue Jackets. Byers, who had asked the Rangers to trade him, left the Falcons on Feb. 28, when he and Rostislav Klesla were traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for Scottie Upshall and Sami Lepisto. As a result of the trades, Byers set an AHL record for most games played in a season, 85.
On July 11, Byers was re-signed by Columbus and is now stationed 25 miles from where his pro career started in Hartford in the playoffs in 2006.
“I played well in the Columbus camp,” Byers told Garry Brown of the Springfield Union-News. “I think I showed them what I can do, and hopefully, at some point, that will lead to another chance in the NHL. Right now, my focus is on keeping it going and doing what I can to help this team.”
Byers, 25, has 84 goals and 115 assists in 407 AHL games with the Wolf Pack, Falcons and San Antonio Rampage. He also had one goal in six games with the Rangers and will add leadership to the Falcons.
“I need to improve my foot speed a little,” said Byers, who will make his second “debut” with the Falcons on Saturday night when they host the Providence Bruins. “But basically I still have to be the physical kind of forward that I’ve always been.”
As for possibility being a captain again, Byers said, “There are a lot of players in the organization who can be leaders here. I’m excited to be part of this because I think Columbus has signed some proven scorers, guy who have been there, guys who have won the Calder Cup.”
One is Andrew Joudrey, who played for the Hershey Bears on back-to-back Calder Cup winners in 2009 and 2010. Another is former Wolf Pack left wing Alexander Giroux, the AHL’s MVP in 2009 when he had 60 goals and 37 assists in 69 games, who is still with the Blue Jackets. … The Los Angeles Kings signed former Bridgeport Sound Tigers and New York Islanders right wing Trent Hunter to a one-year contract on Friday. Last season, he had one goal and three assists in 17 games with the Islanders, missing most of the season with a lower body injury.