BY: Bruce Berlet
With All-Star defenseman Marc Staal put on injured reserve Wednesday and out for at least the Rangers’ first two games Friday and Saturday in Stockholm, Sweden, Tim Erixon flew to his native land after practicing with the Whale at the Champions Skating Center in Cromwell.
Erixon was one of seven players assigned to the Whale on Saturday, but management decided to recall the 20-year-old Swedish rookie. Erixon and Blake Parlett were the last two defensemen sent down.
After working out with the Whale for an hour, Erixon showered and headed to New York for a direct flight to Stockholm that was scheduled to arrive at 7 a.m., giving him a chance to catch a nap before practicing with the Rangers one more time before they open the season Friday at 1 p.m. (EST, MSG Network) against the Los Angeles Kings.
As Erixon took off for New York, left wing Sean Avery and defensemen Stu Bickel, who played with the Whale last season, and newcomer Brendan Bell cleared waivers. The Rangers later announced that Avery had been assigned to the Whale.
So Erixon should make his NHL debut about a 10-hour drive from where he grew up in Sweden after being born in Port Chester, N.Y., while his father, Jan, was playing wing for the Rangers. Tim learned of his promotion Tuesday in a call from Whale assistant coach Pat Boller and soon informed his family six time zones away that he was headed “home” to Skelleftea, where he had 14 goals and 30 assists in 140 games in three seasons in the Swedish Elite League before coming to North America.
“It’s really exciting, very special,” said Erixon, the Calgary Flames’ first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2009 who was acquired June 1 with a fifth-round pick for two second-rounders and Roman Horak. “My parents already had tickets for the game in case I was going to play, so it’ll be fun. It’s great.”
Erixon, who helped Sweden win the silver medal in the 2011 World Championships, wasn’t sure how many family and friends would be on hand. Regardless, it would be especially special debuting with the NHL team for which his father played for 10 seasons (1983-93) after being the Rangers’ second-round pick in 1981.
“It’s neat playing for the Rangers because it’s a great organization,” Erixon said as he hastily packed for the drive to New York and flight to Stockholm. “The team is very professional, and I like that. (Dad) had a lot of good things to say about the Rangers when I was growing up, so this is great.”
In Stockholm, Rangers coach John Tortorella told reporters, “(Erixon) is a smart player. He’s going to be a good NHL player.”
Staal will be out a minimum of seven days on regular IR and would have to wait 10 games or 24 days to come off long-term IR, with the team able to claim a cap exemption if he’s on the latter. Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather told Larry Brooks of the New York Post that there was no timetable on Staal, the team’s top defenseman who has been suffering from intermittent post-concussion headaches. Staal, initially injured when hit by his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 22, skated with the Whale Friday and Saturday before returning to New York for treatment from specialists.
“Doctors have said that it could be a week, but it could also be a month,” Sather said of his top defenseman. “I wish we had something absolute, but we don’t. If Marc’s out for a substantial length of time, it’s going to have an impact on our club, no doubt about that. He’s our top defenseman, one of our top players, gets the most ice time and is always on against the other team’s top players. But it’s something we’ll just have to deal with.”
Erixon played in the Rangers’ final two preseason games before being dispatched to the Whale with Parlett and forwards Kris Newbury, John Mitchell, Ryan Bourque, Carl Hagelin and Dale Weise, who was claimed off waivers by the Stanley Cup runner-up Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday. NHL rosters with a maximum of 23 players have to be set by Thursday at 3 p.m.
Erixon is expected to play with Steve Eminger as the Rangers’ third pairing. Former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi, who is usually alongside Staal, could remain on the No. 1 pairing with Ryan McDonagh.
But matters are more uncertain with Avery, whose $1.9 million salary cap hit for the Rangers was eliminated when he cleared waivers. If the Rangers recall Avery, he could be claimed for 25 percent of the price, with the Rangers paying 25 percent and the Dallas Stars 50 percent according to a recent ruling by the NHL.
Avery was assigned to the Whale on Wednesday afternoon, but Bell and Bickel have remained with the Rangers for now. The Rangers need spare defensemen in case of injuries, while the Whale doesn’t need Bell or Bickel for their first two games Saturday and Sunday at Adirondack and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton because they had nine healthy defensemen at practice Wednesday.
The Whale have only 12 forwards, including tryouts Scott Tanski and Jordan Owens, who is attempting to rejoin the team after being traded to the Detroit Red Wings for Whale center Kris Newbury on March 3, 2010. Tanski led the Whale with three goals in four preseason games, and he and his teammates were watched in practice Wednesday by Hall of Famer Mark Messier, special assistant to Sather.
Avery’s agent said Tuesday that he was negotiating with teams in Europe if his client cleared waivers.
“I don’t know. I depends on what transpires,” Gernander said when asked about Tanski and Owens. “There’s lots of things that can happen. One day you have (Chad) Kolarik, the next day he’s injured. One day you have Weise, the next day he’s in Vancouver. I can’t say anything with any certainly. Our roster isn’t quite as rigid as the Rangers.”
Newbury, John Mitchell, Kelsey Tessier and Tommy Grant are the only four forwards who were with the Whale at the end of last season, and Grant played only seven regular-season games and six playoff games after signing an amateur tryout contract.
“You’re always trying to find some kind of chemistry and a mix that can create offense, but you want to be strong from top to bottom,” Gernander said. “We’re going to try to avoid front-loading a line, and I think we have a lot of depth. There’s not a huge disparity between this player and that player, so we can maybe create more even lines and should be able to use some team speed and tenacity in that regard to create some offense.”
The Whale has much more experience in goal with Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot and on defense with the likes of Wade Redden, Jared Nightingale, Pavel Valentenko, Parlett, Jyri Niemi and Tomas Kundratek. Other defensemen at practice Wednesday were Erixon, T.J. Fast and Collin Bowman.
Gernander wouldn’t say who will start in goal but did say the Whale probably wouldn’t have a captain before their opener. The Whale hasn’t had a captain since left wing Dane Byers was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets last Nov. 13 for right wing Chad Kolarik, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee Wednesday and will be out at least six weeks.
Gernander said he’s happy with the skill and work ethic of the team in the first two up-tempo practices together.
“You can’t really say the seven, now six, guys that we got from New York had a real good preseason and stacked up well against the rest of the AHL,” Gernander said. “We really aren’t tested yet because I don’t think any of the four (preseason) games we played was a full AHL complement on either side. We’re evaluating some of the players that are new to us, we’re evaluating some of the players reassigned to Greenville, but if we need them for recalls, we know where they fit into things.
“Right now, it’s hard to say. Some of the things I’m looking forward to is team speed, and I don’t think there’s a lot of disparity between the talent level from one line to another or one defensive pairing to another. I think everybody is pretty capable and on the same level.”
Continuity should be a benefit on defense, where the core of players are back, led by Redden, who has played 994 NHL games and was like a third coach in his first minor-league stint last season mentoring the Whale’s young defensive corps.
“You would hope that if you’re a veteran team or veteran in that position or experience that that would come through and be part of the equation,” Gernander said. “You have maybe a little bit higher expectation for them or feel they should be able to provide some stability.”
DUBINSKY TO START ON RANGERS’ NO. 1 LINE
Rangers coach John Tortorella has often said he would like to keep the former Wolf Pack tandem of captain Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov together. But on Wednesday, Tortorella had Dubinsky on the No. 1 line with center Brad Richards, the plum of the offseason free-agent corps, and Marian Gaborik, who the Rangers hope is revived playing alongside the former Dallas Stars standout.
It’s a look the Rangers will have on Friday, with Ruslan Fedotenko moving into Dubinsky’s spot. Wojtek Wolski played with Richards and Gaborik in training camp and the preseason until he sustained a groin injury and missed the last two games. On Wednesday, Wolski skated with Zuccarello and second-year center Derek Stepan, and Brian Boyle was between Brandon Prust and newcomer Mike Rupp.
“We’ll start the game this way and see where it goes,” Tortorella said. “(The top line) just seemed to work better with Dubi. But I am robbing Peter to pay Paul because I really like Dubi, Cally, and Artie together. I am one who believes in balance, and I think this works because I am also very comfortable with Feds (playing) with Artie and Cally.”
The Rangers will host a fan viewing party Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at renovated Madison Square Garden. Rangers alumni Pete Stemkowski and Nick Fotiu, who played for the Hartford Whalers, will be on hand as fans have an opportunity to win Rangers alumni merchandise and the launch of the Volkswagen “Shoot. Score. Drive.” Challenge.” Fans can shoot to win 10 Volkswagen vehicles throughout the season.
After the viewing party, fans can go across the street to watch the Rangers play the Kings. Rangers alumni will be present, and fans will have a chance to win a variety of Rangers prizes during the game.
With members of the Rangers front office on hand Tuesday night in Stockholm, center Jesper Fasth, one of the organization’s Swedish prospects, had a career-best game with one goal and four assists in regulation and overtime, and another goal in a shootout, as HV-71 rallied from a 7-2 deficit in the third period to win 8-7 in a Swedish Elite League game.
“Jesper played with two former NHLers, Jesse Joensuu and (former Ranger) Jason Krog, and had a good night, for sure,” said Rangers head European scout Anders Hedberg, who attended the game. “He is going to be a good player. Is he an NHL prospect? In my mind, absolutely yes.”
Fasth, the Rangers’ sixth-round pick in 2010, had seven goals and eight assists in 35 games in the SEL last season and was selected to play in the 2011 World Junior Hockey Championships, where he tied for the team lead with four goals and added two assists in six games as Sweden finished fourth.
ATKINSON TO START WITH BLUE JACKETS
The Whale won’t have to deal with Greenwich native Cam Atkinson – at least for now – but they could face former Wolf Pack wings Dane Byers and Alexandre Giroux.
Atkinson, a 5-foot-7, 175-pound right wing, is one of four rookies to make the Columbus Blue Jackets, the parent club of the Springfield Falcons, and will play on their second line with center R.J. Umberger and Antoine Vermette.
“We put (Atkinson) with real good players to bring out his skill, see what he could do,” Blue Jackets coach Scott Arniel said. “We also put him with some other guys, people of his age or experience, and he still was one of the better players on the ice. He showed in practices that he’s real attentive to the system and to detail. He was really dangerous every time he had the puck. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do, so now he gets a chance to show us what he’s got.”
Atkinson, 22, the Blue Jackets’ sixth-round pick in 2008, had 31 goals and 21 assists in 39 games with Boston College last season, when he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award while playing with top Rangers prospect Chris Kreider, who chose to play his junior year rather than turn pro. In his junior year, Atkinson led the nation with 30 goals and had 23 assists in 42 games as Boston College won the national championship. He signed a two-year deal with the Columbus on March 28 and will make $712,000 in the NHL.
Giroux cleared waivers on Tuesday after being among the Blue Jackets’ final cuts. He has 142 goals and 136 assists in 208 AHL games the last three seasons, and added 29 goals in 43 playoff games, as the Hershey Bears won back-to-back Calder Cups in 2009 and 2010. He had 60 goals in 2008-09, when he was named the AHL’s MVP, and 50 goals the following season.
Giroux, 30, has 340 goals and 310 assists in 708 AHL games and was one of the Blue Jackets’ several free-agent signings this summer to try to improve the depth in Columbus and Springfield, which has missed the playoffs the last eight seasons. He played well in training camp, but the Blue Jackets decided to start the season with rookie forwards Atkinson, Maksim Mayorov and Ryan Johansen.
Mayorov was with the Falcons most of last season, and the 19-year-old Johansen was the team’s No. 1 pick in June. The other Blue Jackets rookie is defenseman David Savard, who improved with the Falcons last season as an AHL rookie.
Giroux could remain with Columbus if Matt Calvert or Derek Mackenzie, who were injured in preseason games, can’t start the season. But Falcons coach Rob Riley expects Giroux to be in Springfield and play with center Martin St. Pierre and right wing Tomas Kubalik in the Falcons’ opener at Manchester on Friday night.
Like the Whale, the Falcons play their first three games on the road and then have their home opener Oct. 15 against the Providence Bruins, while the Whale is hosting the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
The Blue Jackets will carry an extra defenseman for the first three weeks of the season because their major free agent signee, James Wisniewski, must serve an eight-game suspension for excessive roughness in an exhibition game. When he returns, Savard or Aaron Johnson likely will be sent to Springfield.
“When we get everybody together, we’ll have some experienced players to drive the offense,” Riley told Garry Brown of the Springfield Union-News.
Riley already has a No. 2 line of power skaters Byers, the former Wolf Pack captain traded to Columbus for Chad Kolarik last Nov. 13, Cody Bass and Nick Drazenovic.
“That’s a good two-way line,” Riley told Brown.
Andrew Joudrey, another veteran center who played on Hershey’s Calder Cup teams, will be on the third line with linemates to be determined.
The Falcons will have a young defense, but John Moore, Cody Goloubef, Nick Holden and Brent Regner have valuable experience from playing with in Springfield last season. Moore, 20, was an All-Star last season while playing 73 games. Regner, 22, played 56 games; Holden, 24, played 67, and Goloubef, 21, played 50.
Allen York and former UMass standout Paul Dainton will handle the goaltending.
The Whale and Falcons meet 12 times this season, starting with a home-and-home series Oct. 22-23 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield and then the XL Center in Hartford.