By Bruce Berlet
A Hockey’s Future scouting report on Wolf Pack rookie defenseman Tomas Kundratek says he’s not expected to contribute much offensively but is responsible defensively and isn’t afraid to drop the gloves.
The report proved right on in the latter category Saturday night when Springfield Falcons center Tomas Kana felt Kundratek’s wrath as the Wolf Pack blueliner scored a unanimous decision in a matchup of Czech Republic foes.
The incident started when Kana went after Wade Redden after the Wolf Pack’s veteran defenseman made a good hit on Kana. One of the Falcons wanted to fight Redden, so Kundratek jumped into the scrum and was jumped from behind by Kana as several other players entered the proceedings. Redden eventually got into his first minor-league fight, but not without help from several of his closest friends.
“I didn’t know if they were going to let me do anything,” a smiling Redden said on his way to a post-practice workout at Champions Skating Center.
Kundratek was among those to come to the aid of the former NHL All-Star and Canadian Olympian who is trying to resurrect his career. Kundratek, who hopes to approach the feats of his first pro defensive partner, let Kana know how he felt as they went to the penalty box. Kundratek had played with Kana’s older brother, Jan, on the Czech national team, but Kundratek was in no playoff mood now.
“We were talking a little bit over the glass, and he asked me if I wanted to go (fight) with him,” Kundratek said. “I said, ‘OK.’ So when I went back to the bench, I took off my necklace, tied my (chin) strap and iced my hand so I wouldn’t feel the punches. A couple of guys in the NHL did it between periods when they know they’re going to fight.”
Kundratek and Kana were on the ice for the next faceoff, and Kundratek asked if Kana was ready for their bout. When he got an affirmative, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Kundratev and the 6-foot, 202-pound Kana went at it.
Though the combatants were equal in stature, it was one of hockey’s more lopsided bouts.
“I was kind of ready,” Kundratek said with a laugh.
Then again, the Wolf Pack (soon to be Connecticut Whale) and Falcons play eight more times this season, so stay tuned.
The fisticuffs aside, Kundratek and the rest of the defense has fared well on a team that is on a 1-8-2-1 slide. The Wolf Pack rank ninth in goals against, but they’re 30th and last in scoring.
Kundratek played his first three pro games with Redden, a 13-year veteran who is with the Wolf Pack after clearing waivers because the Rangers wanted to get his $6.5 million salary off their $59.4 salary cap.
“Playing with Redden was so big time for me,” Kundratek said. “It was so good to play with because he helped me with the puck and talked to me a lot.”
Wolf Pack assistant coach J.J. Daignault, who handles the defense, felt having Kundratek play with Redden at the outset would help harness some of the rookie’s sometimes wild energy.
“When we started the season, I thought Tomas was the one defenseman who needed more tutoring both on and off the ice, which is why I put him with Redden,” Daignault said. “Tomas is a young kid who’s very competitive and physical, but he sometimes had a tendency to run around. But that’s only because he’s so competitive and wants to finish a hit and go to the next hit, so at times you have to tame it down and have some awareness and not run around the puck, just play position, like everyone else on the ice.
“Redden is very good positional, then I switched because I like to put two young kids together and see how they react, and they’ve reacted well. I think it’s important after a few games in this league that you fly on your own. We have five very young kids on defense, and I think that it’s important for me to make sure their development goes in the right direction.”
After Redden helped Kundratek get his game under control, Daignault put the Czech with another rookie, Ryan McDonagh.
“At first, I thought for Tomas’ development that the best guy to play with was Redden,” Daignault said. “When I saw that Tomas was playing well with Wade, I thought why not try the two kids together, and they’ve been playing good together.”
Kundratek gives himself mixed reviews on his first six weeks in North America.
“I think I’ve done well, but everybody wants to start winning,” Kundratek said. “Every game I’m getting more and more confidence. I had a couple of games good, a couple OK, so I have to keep going and keep progressing.
“Ryan is a young defenseman like me, so we’ve been talking a lot and asking the coach what we have to do because it’s also his first year. So we have some mistakes and talk about that.”
Kundratek said the speed of the game and strength of the players are a major difference from when he was playing in the Czech Republic and for Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League the last two seasons.
“I have to make better passes against way, way stronger guys,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been going to the gym a lot and working with (strength and conditioning coordinator) Jeremy (Goodman) to get stronger.”
Coach Ken Gernander said he has been satisfied with Kundretek’s start.
“I think he has done pretty well in one of the toughest spots in the game,” Gernander said. “I think he’s a good competitive kid, and I like the way he plays.”
Daignault said he has seen improvement in Kundratek, which is why he moved him from being paired with a veteran to another rookie.
“We rely on the young defensemen to get involved in the rush,” Daignault said. “When they start in a new league, it can be a little intimidating at times. Usually the offense starts on the backside and ends on the backside so you have to make a good first pass, get up on the play and try to get some scoring chances, just like the forwards have to get some scoring chances.
“Getting in on the rush is the aspect of their game that they need to develop at this level. It’s an aspect of the game that Michael Sauer got better at (and is now with the Rangers). I tried to have Tomas change his mind about getting to a loose puck and not pass it to the first available outlet when it was available. He was looking for the spectacular play instead of just what was there, and usually the first option is usually the best option.
“It’s not easy to play with when you do that. But the thing I love about Tomas is that he competes. When you have that in your luggage and aren’t afraid to compete, you’re headed in the right direction. After 17 games, I really like his development. The only thing I’ve had to change is adjustments. You need to be very competitive to play at this level and the next level. ”
Kundratek began his quest for improvement and the NHL at 3 skating with his father, Marek, and older brother, Marek Jr., who is playing in Czech Republic. Tomas also liked to play soccer but began to focus on hockey at 7 when he and his brother started hockey school.
“I kept playing soccer from my friends, but I thought my best chance at the pros would be in hockey,” he said.
Kundratek progressed through the Prerov youth hockey until he was 15, when he went to play for the Trinec Ocelari team for three years, the last two while playing on a higher level with the senior team. He played on the Czech Republic team that finished fifth and sixth in the World Junior Championships in 2008 and 2009, and he was good enough to play four games with the Czech senior national team before being the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2008. He then played two seasons with Medicine Hat, where he had six goals, 42 assists and 125 penalty minutes in 116 games, though his first year was hampered by a broken wrist.
“I came over when I was 18 because I saw it as a good school to learn English and the style of hockey,” he said. “I wanted to make the adjustment as soon as possible.”
Kundratek won’t be able to legally drink in Connecticut until the day after Christmas, but he has earned kudos from organizational insiders as the Wolf Pack’s best defenseman so far.
Kundratek has one goal, one assist and 48 penalty minutes, third on the team, in his first 17 pro games and has rarely been caught out of position after some early growing pains.
“At times, he had an urge to go forward with the puck in the neutral zone,” Daignault said. “If a defenseman thinks he can get there the same time as the puck, it’s OK to go forward. But most of the time you have to let the rush come to you with a good gap (with the forwards). That’s why he got caught on a few 2-on-1s early in the season, but we said that’s something he had to correct. You have to go and then come back. You can’t go and keep going because this league is too good. He’s made some very good adjustments along those lines, and he’s done it with hard work and watching video on a regular basis. The (weekly) one-on-one with them is very valuable for them and for me because I get to know them and learn what they think on different plays.”
Kundratek’s favorite player is arguably one of the best defensemen in the world, Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. The Wolf Pack and Rangers can only hope the young Czech approaches the excellence of the veteran Swede, a 10-time NHL All-Star who has won four Stanley Cups and the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman six times in 18 seasons with the Red Wings. He also helped Sweden win the gold medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics, scoring the clinching goal in a win over Finland in the finals.
“I like the way Nicolas plays the game,” Kundratek said. “He’s such a smart player and really good passer with a great shot. He’s really unreal.”
Kundratek also likes chowing down at Subway because of a wide variety of choices.
“We don’t have that in Trinec, and it’s a really good snack,” Kundratek said with a smile. “I love it when I need quick food. I’ve tried the meatballs, I’ve tried the seafood, I’ve tried almost everything.”
When told there were foot-long specials for $5, Kundratek said, “I’m going to have to go and get one. I was thinking about one for the bus ride.”
That bus ride would be to Manchester, N.H., for a game Wednesday at 11 a.m. against the Monarchs. But Kundratek hopes he soon will be headed south for charter flights with the Rangers.
Wolf Pack Looks To Turn It Around
The recent slump has dropped the Wolf Pack (4-9-2-2) into a tie for last place in the Atlantic Division with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (6-10-0-0), who have one game in hand after a 4-3 loss to the Springfield Falcons on Tuesday night. The Wolf Pack starts a five-game road trip, longest of the season, against the Monarchs in a special school-day game. The Monarchs have won the first two meetings this season, including 3-2 at the Verizon Center on Nov. 5. When the Wolf Pack returns to the XL Center on Nov. 27, they will be re-branded as the Connecticut Whale for a game against the Sound Tigers. The first 3,000 fans will receive a green Whale T-shirt. … Jeremy Williams, who had two goals in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Falcons on Saturday night, leads the Wolf Pack in scoring with eight goals and six assists. He’s three points ahead of Kris Newbury (1, 10) and Chad Kolarik (6, 5), who scored in his Wolf Pack debut Saturday after the Rangers acquired the right wing from the Columbus Blue Jackets for Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers on Thursday. Byers assisted on Mike Blunden’s tying goal with 4:35 left in regulation and scored the clinching shootout goal in the fourth round when his shot trickled in off goalie Cameron Talbot. … Forward Chris McKelvie and defenseman Jared Nightingale share the Wolf Pack’s plus-minus lead at plus-2, which is rather remarkable considering the team is five games under .500 and has been outscored by 12 goals in 17 games. … Before rallying from a two-goal deficit to beat the Falcons 4-2 on Sunday, the Monarchs (8-6-1-1) had lost three consecutive games for the first time this season. Bud Holloway, who scored the winner in the last meeting between the Monarchs and Wolf Pack, sparked the comeback against the Falcons with two goals. Defenseman Alec Martinez leads the Monarchs in assists (10) and points (14) and shares the plus/minus lead with Corey Elkins at plus-6. Former Yale forward David Meckler leads the team in goals (seven) and is tied for third in points (10), one behind left wing Dwight King (6, 5), who was recalled by the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday. Martin Jones (2-1-0, 1.90 goals-against average, .937 save percentage) has better numbers but has played in only four games compared to 11 for Jeff Zatkoff (5-5-1, 2.82, .895). … The final total for money raised for the Eastern Chapter of Special Olympics Connecticut at the Wolf Pack’s Bowl-A-Thon at AMF Silver Lanes in East Hartford on Sunday is $31,191. That increased the nine-year total to $242,516. “It was great to get our name out there and bring in all the Wolf Pack fans,” said Jackie Turro, the director of development for the benefactor, whose second-largest fundraiser of the year is the bowl-a-thon. “I know the players really seemed to enjoy it, and I think it’s great to be able to have our athletes involved with pro hockey players and get to do things that they’re great at. We have a lot of our bowlers who raise money and come out just for a chance to bowl with the Wolf Pack. They look forward to it every year, and I think it’s a great way for the Wolf Pack to get involved in the community. We can work together to get our name out there and have a great event.”
Bingham Is Interim Coach in Bridgeport
Pat Bingham was named interim coach of the Sound Tigers after Jack Capuano was elevated to interim coach of the parent New York Islanders on Monday when Scott Gordon was replaced and became an adviser to general manager Garth Snow.
Bingham was an assistant under former Yale coach Dave Baseggio in 2005-06 and Capuano from 2007 to the present. Capuano, 44, will make his NHL debut Wednesday night when the Islanders, who are on a 10-game winless streak, host the Tampa Bay Lightning. Assistant coaches Dean Chynoweth and Scott Allen were retained.
In a conference call, Snow said he opted for Capuano instead of a more experienced candidate because of Capuano’s familiarity with the Islanders’ young players, many of whom graduated from the Sound Tigers. Capuano, a native of Cranston, R.I., had a 133-108-14 record with the Sound Tigers after joining the organization in 2005-06 as an assistant with the Islanders and took over in Bridgeport in 2007-08.
The Islanders started the season 4-1-2 but haven’t won since back-to-back overtime victories in Toronto and Tampa Bay on Oct. 18 and 21. Since then, they’re 0-9-1 and have scored only 14 goals while falling into a tie for last in points (11) with the Edmonton Oilers.
Hollweg Helps Rampage Get Share of Overall Points Lead
Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Ryan Hollweg scored in San Antonio’s 5-2 victory over the Chicago Wolves on Sunday. It was the Rampage’s fourth consecutive victory and moved them into a tie for first place in the AHL’s overall standings at 12-4-1-0 (25 points in 17 games). That’s quite a turnaround from the last two seasons, when the Rampage were had a combined record of 9-30-2-2 October and November, digging a hole each year from which they couldn’t recover. But under coach Ray Edwards, who over on Nov. 23 last year and featuring a roster that includes six first-round draft picks, the Rampage ranks seventh in goals (3.29), fifth in power-play efficiency (21.2 percent) and fourth in goals allowed (2.53). … Toronto Marlies goalie Jussi Rynnas was named AHL Player of the Week after stopping 101 of 104 shots (.971 save percentage) in notching his first three AHL victories. His first win came in a 33-save performance in a 4-0 victory over the Wolf Pack on Tuesday that started a four-game winning streak and has the Marlies at 6-0-0-2 during a season-high, 10-game road trip. Before the trip, the Marlies were 2-6-0-0 but now they’ve allowed three or fewer goals in seven of their last eight games. The Sound Tigers nominated former Wolf Pack defenseman Dylan Reese for player of the week, while the Wolf Pack did not have a nominee. … Corey Locke might be with his fourth organization in as many years, but the Binghamton Senators center is as consistent as ever as far as putting up points. The four-time All-Star is on a 10-game scoring streak (five goals, 12 assists) and has a point in 15 of 16 games. He leads the AHL in points (23), power-play assists (10) and power-play points (13) and is tied for first in assists (17). Locke, who won a Calder Cup with Hamilton in 2007, was the leading scorer for the Bulldogs in 2007-08, the Houston Aeros in 2008-09 and the Wolf Pack last season, when he had career highs for goals (31) and points (85). The 26-year-old Toronto native has 416 points in 482 AHL games. … The Colorado Avalanche reassigned former Wolf Pack defenseman Dave Liffiton to the Lake Erie Monsters after he scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 30 against Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets and had 17 penalty minutes in four games. That’s one more game than the Rangers gave Liffiton in four seasons in the organization before not re-signing him. After playing one season with Esbjerg Ishockey in the Danish Elite League, Liffiton signed a one-year contract with the Blue Jackets and assigned to the Syracuse Crunch where he had career highs for goals (five), assists (10) and points (15). This year he came full circle when he re-signed with the Avalanche, who drafted him in the second round in 2003 and then traded his rights and Chris McAllister to the Rangers for Matthew Barnaby and a third-round pick in 2004 (Denis Parshin) on March 8, 2004. Congratulations to one of the game’s good, honest, tough guys on NHL goal No. 1. Display that puck proudly and prominently after all the trials and tribulations that you overcame the last few years, especially those frustrating and debilitating concussions that limited him to only 21 games in 2007-08. … On another happy front, Falcons center Ben Guite had quite a memorable week. He and his wife had their first child, he was named captain of the Falcons and he played in his 500th AHL games. Congratulations, Ben. … On a not-so-happy front, Calgary Flames forward Brett Sutter was assigned to the North Division-leading Abbotsford Heat on Monday after apologizing to his family and fans for getting into a fight outside a bar in Scottsdale, Ariz. Sutter, a sixth-round pick of the Flames in 2005 who had one assist in four games, was briefly jailed on suspicion of assault after being taken into custody for allegedly punching a man as the two were leaving the bar at closing time. Sutter, 23, is the son of Flames general manager Darryl Sutter and nephew of Flames coach Brent Sutter, whose four assistants include former Wolf Pack coach Ryan McGill.