SPOTLIGHT: TIM ERIXON

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Tim Erixon has certainly experienced a full gamut of emotions the past two-plus years and especially in the last six weeks.

The Connecticut Whale’s rookie defenseman decided against signing with the Calgary Flames, after being their first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2009. Faced with the prospect of losing Erixon’s rights before this year’s NHL draft, Flames general manager Jay Feaster traded Erixon and a fifth-round pick to the New York Rangers on June 1, 2011, for prospect forward Roman Horak and two second-round picks in June.

The 20-year-old Erixon couldn’t have chosen a better destination, since his father, Jan, played his 10 NHL seasons on Broadway in 1983-93, getting 57 goals and 159 assists in 556 games while being a top defensive player. After being among the Rangers’ final cuts and seemingly missing a chance to start his NHL career in his native Sweden, All-Star Marc Staal’s continued post-concussion symptoms and former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer’s shoulder injury led to Erixon rejoining the Rangers in time to play his first two games before dozens of family and friends in his homeland.

“That was really special for me making my first NHL game in Stockholm,” Erixon said. “They hadn’t got to any of the exhibition games because it was a long trip to Gothenburg, so they came to Stockholm because those were the important games.”

Erixon said he talks to his father in Sweden as often as possible and constantly gets tips on how to improve his game.

“That’s always been the case,” said Erixon, who plans to visit his family around Christmas, when the Whale has four days off. “He’s always tried to help me out on the small stuff, nothing major.”

Son also said dad has never applied any pressure, whether while growing up in Skelleftea after being born in Port Chester, N.Y., and moving to Sweden at 2 after Jan retired from the Rangers, or now that Tim is in North America.

“There are always questions about that, but it doesn’t bother me,” Erixon said. “He was a forward, and I was a defenseman. That’s a little different, but I’ve always played the game and always loved the game. It’s a big part of who I am, so I love hockey.”

But not being a goalie, especially when facing his father.

“My last game (as a goalie) as a kid, we were playing against our dads, and my dad probably had a hat trick against me,” Erixon recalled with a smile. “I never played it (goal) again.”

Erixon did excel for the Rangers’ team that finished second in the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., before training camp while playing alongside rugged Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010. Erixon also more than held his own in six preseason games before his demotion and quick promotion. He was scoreless and minus-2 in nine games on the Rangers’ youthful defense, and was reassigned to the Whale after a 5-4 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 29. Rangers coach John Tortorella said he firmly believed Erixon “is going to be a really good player for a long time in this organization” but decided to have him make a return trip to Hartford.

“We don’t want to screw this up,” Tortorella said of Erixon’s growth process. “He’s very important for the organization, and we’re really concerned that we do not want to hinder his development. He had a good camp and improved each day, but he still needs to go through the process. It’s a very difficult thing to step into a National Hockey League team as a defenseman and play. We felt the most important thing was get him playing immediately, get him more used to the North American style.”

Tortorella hopes Erixon develops similar to Ryan McDonagh, who needed an adjustment period a year ago at the start of his rookie season with the Wolf Pack, after leaving the University of Wisconsin following his junior year. McDonagh played 38 games in Hartford before joining the Rangers on Jan. 3, switching places with Michael Del Zotto. McDonagh had one goal, the winner in the season finale against the New Jersey Devils, and eight assists in 40 games and was plus-16, second on the team to Sauer’s plus-20. McDonagh has now stepped in for Staal on the Rangers’ No. 1 defensive pairing with former Wolf Pack defenseman Dan Girardi.

“I know (Erixon) was disappointed (about his demotion),” Tortorella said, “but this is the best thing for him and it will be the best thing for the organization as he goes through the process.”

Erixon had played three pro seasons with Skellefteå AIK in his hometown, but that was on larger European ice surfaces against less physical opposition. That continued in the Rangers’ final four preseason and first two regular-season games in Europe, then Erixon had to try to adjust to the smaller North American rinks and more straightforward NHL style.

“It’s a faster, more physical game here, but I enjoy the smaller ice,” Erixon said. “I think the game gets more exciting because it’s quicker and you get more scoring chances. It’s a little faster overall.”

The signing of free-agent defenseman Anton Stralman potentially cut into Erixon’s ice time, which isn’t something that he has had to worry about since arriving in Hartford. He is used in all situations – regular shift, usually with the physical, defense-oriented Stu Bickel, who also was a late cut of the Rangers, penalty killing and on the point on the power play.

Erixon feels he has improved every game since joining the Whale.

“I enjoy being a big part of the team and getting a lot of ice time and feel I’m progressing,” said Erixon, who has one goal and four assists in six games. “It’s not a secret that I want to get back to the Rangers, of course, but as long as I’m here, I’m going to try and help the team to win and try to develop.”

The smooth-skating, 6-foot-2, 195-pound Erixon said the Rangers told him to work on “really small stuff, nothing major.” He has already shown he can compete against some of the best players in the world in the Swedish Elite League and while helping Sweden win a silver medal in this year’s World Championships. He also helped his team win silver and bronze medals in the 2009 and 2010 World Junior Championships.

“I just have to keep learning and get more comfortable playing big minutes, and I’m really enjoying it,” he said.

Erixon has focused on improving his defensive play and trying to get more shots through to the net, because he’s sometimes too eager to score.

“When he’s at the point, he’s looking for guys going to the net and sticks for redirects,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said.

Whale assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who works with the defense and handles much of the power-play work, said Erixon has been a major asset since the prospects tournament and it was “an unbelievable trade” that Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather pulled off to land the projected Top 10 pick in June.

“It brings a lot of youth to our defensive corps, not only with the Rangers but in the organization,” Daigneault said. “The organization has a wealth of good, young defensemen now, and this was a very good addition. From the get-go in Traverse City, you could tell (Erixon) is a highly skilled defenseman with an excellent first pass and unbelievable poise with the puck, both five-on-five and on special teams. He really plays the game like a 10-year veteran.”

Erixon’s development was helped by the two pro seasons in his hometown, but Daigneault said the young defenseman’s play in the prospects tournament was “a real eye-opener” for anyone who had not seen him play. NHL.com writer Mike G. Morreale selected Erixon as one of the top nine players and arguably the best in an event that included center Luke Adam, a member of the winning Buffalo Sabres team after being named AHL Rookie of the Year.

“Erixon played a lot of minutes, maybe 30 a game, and he’s still able to log a lot of ice time,” Daigneault said. “From the get-go, I knew he was a good power-play specialist, but I kind of took my time with him as far as killing penalties. But the past few games, he has been getting part of the penalty kill, and he has responded really well. He’s not extremely physical, but he gets things done with smarts. He closes the gap, angles players, has a good stick and is quick to recover loose pucks.

“Lots of times we get 20-year-olds down here who have to mature physically and basically become a man. Sometimes they just blossom when they’re 23 or 24, especially defensemen. It takes a little bit more time for them. You have to play a lot of hockey, you have to make some mistakes, you have to make some good plays and then you put everything together and all of a sudden you’re an excellent defenseman and you’re not here anymore.”

Daigneault said the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Erixon needs to bulk up a bit, but that there’s no rush because he is very diligent and disciplined and is putting in the extra time to get stronger, something that will come naturally as he gets older.

Daigneault likened Erixon’s situation to that of McDonagh, who was among the final cuts of the Rangers last season and arrived in Hartford more mature physically than Erixon, after playing three years at the University of Wisconsin. But both had to adjust to a new environment, teammates and coaching staff, the structure and the expectations. After switching places with Del Zotto on Jan. 3, McDonagh never returned to Hartford.

“I think the first few games Ryan played in shell a little bit, but it didn’t take him long and now he’s going full bore and looks more comfortable on the ice,” said Daigneault, who practices with a stick with the name of “one of my favorites” on it, McDonagh. “It starts with game conditioning, and I’ve been there, done that. I got sent down when I was 23 to the Sherbrooke Canadiens, and my first 10 games were just blowouts. I wanted things to happen and thought I was working hard, but it wasn’t happening.

“My game conditioning wasn’t that good, so Tim comes from the big team (Rangers) where he plays 10-12 minutes a game. Then we try to give him 20-22 (minutes), but sometimes your body fights it even if you want to go that much. But Tim has played some really good hockey for us, and his best is still ahead of him.”

STREAKING WHALE, PIRATES MEET WEDNESDAY; NEWBURY SUSPENDED

Two streaking teams will face off at the XL Center on Wednesday night.

The Whale (9-4-1-2), coming off their most stirring victory of the season, shoots for a third consecutive win against the Portland Pirates (8-7-0-1), who have won four in a row, all at home, allowing only two goals in each game. But the Whale will be without veteran center Kris Newbury, who received a four-game suspension from the AHL on Tuesday for an illegal check to the head of Bridgeport Sound Tigers wing Justin DiBenedetto in a 3-2 overtime victory Friday night. Newbury, who is fifth on the team in scoring (five goals, five assists) despite missing five games while on recall to the Rangers, practiced Tuesday but will miss games Wednesday, Friday at Bridgeport, Saturday at Springfield and next Tuesday at home against Hershey. DiBenedetto didn’t play for the Sound Tigers on Saturday or Sunday.

With Newbury out, veteran left wing Aaron Voros is expected to make his Whale debut after sitting out two games while working into playing shape after signing a 25-game professional tryout contract on Nov. 15. Voros, 30, has played in 251 AHL games with Albany, Lowell, Houston, Syracuse and Toronto and 162 NHL games with Minnesota, the Rangers and Anaheim, where he was scoreless with 43 penalty minutes last season.

But Voros and the rest of the Whale will be hard pressed to duplicate the team’s best win of the season Sunday. Despite being without flu-ridden co-leading scorer Mats Zuccarello (three goals, nine assists) and their injured top defensive pairing of Wade Redden and Jared Nightingale, the Whale rallied from a two-goal, third-period deficit to beat Providence 3-2 in a shootout. Rookie wing Carl Hagelin (7, 5) didn’t add to his co-leading scorer totals in regulation or overtime, but did notch the winning goal in the first extra round of the shootout to make a winner of Cam Talbot, who allowed only two power-play goals to improve to 5-1-1-0 with a 2.54 goals-against average, .903 save percentage and one shutout. The others who share the Whale scoring lead are veteran center John Mitchell (7, 5), who also scored in the shootout, and rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (5, 7).

Also of significance Sunday were the Whale’s two goals in regulation coming from defenseman Brendan Bell, who scored with only 6.8 seconds left in overtime to beat Bridgeport on Friday night, and versatile forward Jordan Owens, noted more for his defense and tenacity than scoring, off a rebound with 1:57 left in regulation. The Whale rallied by firing 19 of their 35 shots at Anton Khudobin in the third period, which was only one fewer than the Bruins had in the game. The Whale is now 2-2-0-1 when trailing after two periods, which is far above the normal.

“It was encouraging that on a night where not everything was clicking, the guys found a way to grind it out,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “They persevered and had a real strong third period when you’re looking at 19 shots to five. That’s a good sign because you could have just said, ‘Hey, it’s not our night, it’s Sunday afternoon, whatever,’ but we tied it with two minutes to go. It’s good to see guys get rewarded for hard work and good play.”

The comeback win enabled the Whale to reclaim first place in the Northeast Division, but they are only one point ahead of Bridgeport, Albany and Springfield, which has won three in a row since the return from the parent Columbus Blue Jackets of former Hartford Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux and rookie wing/Greenwich native Cam Atkinson, who starred at Avon Old Farms and Boston College, where he helped the Eagles win two national championships.

The Pirates, who are above .500 after starting 4-7-0-1, are led by rookie center and 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele (five goals, 10 assists), right wings Mathieu Beaudoin (4, 7) and Ryan Duncan (4, 7), defenseman Nathan Oystrick (4, 6) and center Brock Trotter (3, 7), acquired with a fifth-round pick in 2012 by the Phoenix Coyotes from the Montreal Canadiens for forward Petteri Nokelainen and defenseman Garrett Stafford on Oct. 23. The Pirates have veteran goalies Justin Pogge (3-1-0-1, 2.37 goals-against average, .911 save percentage) and Curtis McElhinney (4-6-0-0, 3.43, .895).

This is the first of eight meetings between the Pirates and Whale, who will be seeking to avenge a first-round playoff loss in April. The Whale will give 5,000 fans a team rally towel, sponsored by Xfinity, and will also give away a Wii and tickets to the upcoming “Jingle Jam,” starring Drake, courtesy of CBS Radio.

The Whale completes Thanksgiving week with games at Bridgeport and Springfield on Friday night and Saturday nights, with both games starting at 7 p.m.

Before their dramatic win over the Sound Tigers, the Whale lost two-goal leads in the first two GEICO Connecticut Cup meetings in a 5-4 shootout loss in Hartford on Oct. 15 and 4-3 overtime defeat in Bridgeport on Nov. 2, as wing Tim Wallace scored his only pro hat trick. The Sound Tigers (9-7-2-0) lost wing David Ullstrom, their co-leading scorer (12 goals, two assists), to his first recall to the parent New York Islanders on Sunday. Ullstrom had just completed a run of seven straight games with a goal, one shy of Jeff Tambellini’s team record, including the Sound Tigers’ two goals in the loss to the Whale. Ullstrom made his NHL debut Monday night in the Islanders’ 5-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and captain Sidney Crosby, who made his season debut.

The top remaining scorer for Sound Tigers’ first-year coach Brent Thompson, a former Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman, is Wallace (6, 8), followed by left wings DiBenedetto (9, 4) and Casey Cizikas (3, 9), center and captain Jeremy Colliton (3, 7) and former Wolf Pack defenseman Dylan Reese (1, 9). Kevin Poulin (4-5-0-0, 3.66, .884) is the Sound Tigers’ top remaining goalie after Swedish rookie Anders Nilsson (5-2-0-0, 2.86, .908) was called up for the first time by the Islanders after Evgeni Nabokov was placed on injured reserve with a groin injury sustained in a 4-3 victory over the Canadiens on Thursday night. Former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya was already sidelined with a strained hamstring and was placed on IR on Sunday, retroactive to last Tuesday. In need of a backup goalie, Bridgeport signed former Sound Tigers, Wolf Pack and Rangers goalie Steve Valiquette to a 25-game tryout contract on Saturday.

The Whale won the first two meetings with the Falcons (10-7-0-0) in a home-and-home set Oct. 22-23. Former All-Star center Martin St. Pierre leads the Falcons in scoring (five goals, 16 assists) and plus-minus (plus-10), followed by left wing Nick Drazenovic (four goals, 13 assists), Atkinson (8, 4), center Ryan Russell (8, 2), the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2005 who never played in the organization before being traded to the Canadiens in 2007, and former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers (4, 6). Byers won’t play because he was given a two-game suspension Tuesday because of an illegal check to the head in a 7-2 victory at Providence on Friday night. Byers will miss Friday’s game at Adirondack and Saturday’s game against the Whale. Giroux has six goals and three assists in only six games with the Falcons after spending most of the season with the Blue Jackets. Audy-Marchessault has two goals and two assists against the Falcons, while St. Pierre and Wade MacLeod have scored against the Whale for the Falcons, who host Adirondack on Friday night.

The Whale completes their weekend with their annual Bowl-a-Thon to benefit Special Olympics Connecticut on Sunday at the AMF Silver Lanes, 241 Silver Lane in East Hartford. There will be shifts from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2 to 3:30 p.m., with a team of four paired with one Whale player for a minimum donation of $200 for two games. There also will be chances to win prizes, including hockey memorabilia, restaurant gift cards, apparel and more. To register, call 877-660-6667, visit www.soctbowlathon.com or enter at the door. …

ODDS AND ENDS

Goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, the Wolf Pack/Whale’s MVP and a second-team All-ECHL selection last season, has returned to the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage. He started the season with Lorenskog in Norway. … Defenseman Alexei Vasiliev, who played with the Calder Cup champion Wolf Pack in 1999-2000, has signed with Torpedo Novgorod in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia after not re-signing with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in the KHL after playing for the ill-fated team for 10 seasons. … Someone was still so excited about the Whale’s last-second win Friday night that the score and remaining time was back on the XL Center scoreboards after games the University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball teams played on Sunday and Monday night. The time was one-tenth of a second off, but who’s counting. It was still mighty exciting to see Bell successfully play beat the clock. … The Greenville Road Warriors, the Whale’s ECHL affiliate, had their first alum play in the NHL on Monday night when defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon played for the Philadelphia Flyers in a 4-2 to the Carolina Hurricanes. Bourdon, a third-round pick of the Flyers in 2008, was plus-1 in 15:49 of ice time.

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Lauri Korpikoski had two goals, including on a penalty shot after being interfered with on a short-handed breakaway, and former Wolf Pack and Rangers goalie Jason LaBarbera made 31 saves, but the Washington Capitals rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat the Phoenix Coyotes 4-3 Monday night. … The HBO cameras rolled into the Rangers’ practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., on Monday for the network’s NHL Winter Classic preview “24/7” series. Former Wolf Pack players Ryan Callahan, the Rangers’ captain, and Dan Girardi, an alternate captain, wore microphones during practice. The Rangers face the Flyers at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia on Jan. 2 in the fifth Winter Classic. They’re at Florida on Wednesday night to challenge Dineen’s feisty Panthers.

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