By Bruce Berlet
Kris Newbury said what a lot of people are thinking these days.
“It’s like the Connecticut Rangers,” Newbury said with a chuckle Monday after participating in his first practice with the NHL Rangers.
The 28-year-old Newbury is the fifth Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale summoned to New York in the first half of the season, compared to eight all of last season. Newbury, a center, is filling in on the Rangers’ M*A*S*H unit for wing Alex Frolov, who will undergo season-ending knee surgery this week after being injured in the third period of a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night.
“(Newbury) has had a pretty good year down there (Hartford),” Rangers coach John Tortorella told the Rangers media after practice. “He had a good camp with us, he’s dropped some weight, which we asked him to do, so we’re going to give him an opportunity.”
Newbury, the Whale’s leading scorer with five goals and a team-high 30 assists and 35 points, skated with former linemate Dale Weise and Rangers captain and Trumbull native Chris Drury at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.
“This will be perfect for me,” Weise said via e-mail. “I’m excited. I love playing with him (Newbury).”
Newbury, too, was excited about his sixth NHL stint, though 8-year-old son Jacob wasn’t initially enthused about dad having to leave West Hartford for the bright lights of Broadway.
“It caught me kind of off-guard because I didn’t know Frolov had got hurt because we were on the bus coming back from Norfolk (on Saturday night),” Newbury said when contacted Monday afternoon. “I took my family out for lunch Sunday and was watching some (NFL) football with my son when (Whale coach) Kenny (Gernander) called on wife’s cell phone because I’d turned off my cell phone because it was dying. My son wasn’t too happy at first, but then he understood.”
Adjusting to a third NHL team in his career was made easily for Newbury by having so many familiar faces around the locker room from earlier in the season, especially Weise. Plus, Newbury will get to play with one of the all-time clutch players in sports and a legend in Connecticut circles.
“Dale and I are familiar with each other, and Chris is a really smart player who really knows what he’s doing,” Newbury said. “Hopefully we can contribute in some way because the team has been going really good. But every night is challenging, and I always like challenges.”
The Rangers and Whale both have been plenty challenged this season because of all the injuries in New York.
“Every team goes through it, so you just have to keep on playing,” Tortorella said. “We’ve done a really good job with that all year long. Let’s face it, it’s been a year of some major injuries. It can’t affect you. It hasn’t, and it won’t.
“That’s the most important part of our team this year, that we’re a team. We’re finding a way to win hockey games, with everybody contributing. When you have injuries, that’s the definition of what you are. It almost forces you into that type of situation. It’s become our identity. … We’re a tight group, it’s a tight team, and we’re going to have to get tighter and better in the details of the game the second half here.”
The Rangers are an amazing 25-15-3 considering the injuries, starting with alternate captain Vinny Prospal having offseason knee surgery and needing more in October, preventing him for playing a single game this season. Drury broke his finger for the first time in the very first scrimmage in training camp and again in practice, then there were sniper Marian Gaborik (separated shoulder), hurt in the third game of the season and former Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan (broken left hand), center Erik Christensen (sprained MCL), enforcer Erik Boogaard (concussion), defenseman Michal Rozsival (strained ribcage) and now Frolov.
Rozsival was back skating Monday, but as Tortorella said, “He couldn’t get through practice, so I doubt he’ll play (Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden against the Montreal Canadiens).”
A few hours later, it was definite that Rozsival wouldn’t play when he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes for forward Wojtek Wolski, 24, who was the first-round pick (21st overall) of the Colorado Avalanche in 2004. Wolski had six goals and 10 assists in 36 games with the Coyotes a season after the native of Zabrze, Poland, set career highs in goals (23), assists (42), points (65), games played (80) and plus-minus (plus-21) while splitting time between Colorado and Phoenix.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Wolski has 85 goals and 142 assists in 356 NHL games with the Avalanche and Coyotes, but despite his acquisition, Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said there wouldn’t be any of roster changes at least for Tuesday night. But that will certainly change when the walking wounded start returning, no sooner than at least three more weeks, and Sather added $2.7 million in cap space – the $1.2 million difference between the contracts of Rozsival and Wolski and $1.5 million for half of the one-year, $3 million contract that Frolov signed.
“I’d spoken to (Phoenix GM Don Maloney) about a month ago, but there wasn’t any way we could make a deal,” Sather said in a conference call. “When the injury happened (Sunday), things became more urgent. I was surprised last year when Colorado traded him. Things haven’t been going as well as he probably expected in Phoenix, and Donnie wasn’t as happy with him last year as they went to the playoffs. It happened fairly quickly (Monday).”
Wolski is in the first year of a two-year, $7.6 million contract, meaning he carries a $3.8 million cap hit. He becomes a restricted free agent after the 2011-12 season. Rozsival’s contract, which carries a $5 million charge, runs through next season. The trade deadline is Feb. 28.
“It gives us an opportunity to do some things that may come up in the future,” Sather said. “It was a situation that was easy for us to make for a lot of reasons.”
In his third trip to the playoffs with the Avalanche, Wolski had four goals and an assist in seven games. He has been a good contributor on the power play in his career but did not have a power-play goal this season with Phoenix, where he found himself in the doghouse of coach Dave Tippett, the former Hartford Whalers wing. As one of the Rangers’ biggest players, Wolski seems a natural linemate for Gaborik.
“We know this is a little risky,” Sather said. “But the opportunity to do something with a 24-year-old who’s been an obvious goal scorer with a pretty high talent level, it was just too good an opportunity to turn down.”
Callahan and Prospal skated on their own on Monday, and Tortorella said they would be pushed harder by coaches in the next few days.
Meanwhile, the Rangers will continue to rely heavily on help from the Whale (24-18-2-5), who also have performed admirably with many of their top players on recall, a testament to Gernander and assistants J.J. Daignault and Pat Boller. The Whale are on a 13-2-0-3 run that has lifted them from the Atlantic Division cellar into tie for second with the Portland Pirates (21-11-4-1), who have four games in hand.
Last season, goalies Chad Johnson and Matt Zaba, defensemen Corey Potter, Bobby Sanguinetti and Ilkka Heikenen and forwards P.A. Parenteau, Dane Byers and Corey Locke played in a total of 51 Rangers games, with Parenteau accounting for 22. Parenteau also had three of the group’s four goals and five of the six assists, the other coming from Johnson, the lone call-up last season still in the organization. Weise was called up but didn’t play in the last four games.
Wing Mats Zuccarello (one game-winning goal in overtime, three assists and two shootout goals, one a winner) has already nearly equaled the output of the 2009-10 group in only eight games and should add plenty more the rest of the season, barring the injury bug also bites the “Norwegian Hobbit.” Wings Weise (scoreless in six games in two call-ups) and Jeremy Williams (one game) have had limited ice time on Broadway, while rookie Ryan McDonagh has averaged about 12 minutes and is one of five former Wolf Pack or Whale players among the Rangers’ six defensemen. McDonagh held his own in his first two NHL games against the tough Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues on Friday and Saturday night, and he should stay unless he again trades places with Michael Del Zotto, a member of the NHL all-rookie team last season who set up game-winners by Tim Kennedy and Williams in his first three minor-league games last week. McDonagh and Del Zotto switched leagues Jan. 3, and both performed well in their initial games with their new teams.
Rozsival, who had three goals and 12 assists in 32 games this season, became expendable with the development of youngsters such as Del Zotto, McDonagh, Tomas Kundratek and Pavel Valentenko. Sather said Del Zotto will remain with the Whale, but that “could change tomorrow.”
“I think that the obvious reason (to be willing to trade Rozsival) is that we’ve got young defensemen progressing,” Sather said. “We’ve been happy with the youth, and when you get a player, and you move a guy that’s 33 years old with this year and next year on his contract, it gives us an opportunity to get younger and better and gives the kids a chance to play.”
The Rangers also have needed forwards Zuccarello, Weise, Williams and now Newbury because of the long-term injuries to Drury, Gaborik, Callahan, Prospal, Christensen, Boogaard and Frolov, who will have surgery to fix three damaged ligaments in his right knee injured when Blues defenseman Brad Winchester badly twisted Frolov’s leg when he fell on it in the third period of the Rangers’ 2-1 victory Saturday night. Frolov went to the dressing room and returned for one shift Saturday night, but he couldn’t function – for what turned out to be obvious reasons.
It’s an unfortunate end to a disappointing offensive season for Frolov, who had only seven goals and nine assists in 43 games after being signed to a one-year, $3 million contract on July 26. He started the campaign on the No. 1 line with Gaborik but recently was dropped to the fourth line with Drury and Weise. At the time of his injury, Frolov was pointless in his last seven games, and his last goal came in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 23.
But with so any other players sidelined, starting with Drury’s first finger injury in the opening scrimmage of training camp, Tortorella trusted Frolov in most situations, used him on the second power-play unit and believed in his ability to protect the puck and thus be effective in a defensive role. That’s difficult with all but exceptional rookies and some veterans who are one-dimensional, though Newbury doesn’t fit that category and is the reason he and Williams were signed to $250,000 contracts at the AHL level. But when Frolov, who twice scored more than 30 goals in a season with the Los Angeles Kings, is placed on long-term injured reserve, it will create about $1.5 million in cap space for the Rangers, minus the $500,000 that Newbury earns on a NHL level.
Newbury will make his Rangers debut Tuesday night as his new team tries to win four in a row for the first time this season in the start of a difficult stretch of four games in six days against teams that lead or tied for the lead in their divisions – two against the Canadiens and one each against the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers. Newbury and Weise played well together in Hartford before the right wing was called up for the second time on Dec. 29.
While Newbury prepared to start with his third NHL team, Callahan skated for the first time Monday since breaking his left hand while blocking a shot in a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 15. Amazingly, the Rangers are 7-2-2 despite losing the player who epitomizes their new gritty style and is expected to be out another 3-to-5 weeks, along with Christensen who should return about the same time after suffering a sprain of the MCL in his right knee. Boogaard is still unable to practice because of continuing concussion symptoms, and Prospal might not be back this season at all because of the two knee surgeries, and even if he does return, his effectiveness almost certainly will be limited, at least at the outset.
In the short term, Frolov’s loss is a good break for a hard-working good guy. Newbury, 28, led the Whale in assists (30) and points (35) to go with five goals and 87 penalty minutes while playing in all 41 games. He is 11th in the AHL in scoring, and his 30 assists are third in the league. He had a team-high, 10 multiple-point games, including two streaks of three games, and established a career high with an eight-game assist streak from Nov. 28 to Dec. 17.
Newbury also adds a physical presence and someone who can help kill penalties. It is the fifth NHL stint for Newbury, a fifth-round pick by the San Jose Sharks in the 2002 NHL entry draft whom the Rangers acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for forward Jordan Owens on March 3. Newbury, who played with the Grand Rapids Griffins and Wolf Pack last season, tied for the team lead in scoring with 18 points in 18 games after being acquired. He has four goals, three assists and 64 penalty minutes in 48 NHL games with the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
ALL-STAR TEAMS TO BE ANNOUNCED TUESDAY
The Eastern Conference and Western Conference starters and reserves for the AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 30-31 at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa., will be announced Tuesday at 3 p.m. Starting lineups were decided by online fan voting, and the remaining All-Stars will be selected by a committee of AHL coaches, with all 30 clubs having to be represented.
The Hall of Fame Class of 2011, to be inducted Jan. 30 at 11 a.m., is Mitch Lamoureux, Larry Wilson and the late Harry Pidhirny and Maurice Podoloff, who grew up in New Haven and graduated from Yale. AHL Hall of Famer Bruce Boudreau, former coach of the Hershey Bears and now coach of the Washington Capitals, will be the keynote speaker, and AHL graduate and 2008 Foster Hewitt Award winner Mike Emrick will be master of ceremonies. Rookie head coaches John Hynes of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Jared Bednar of Peoria will be co-coaches of the Western Conference All-Star team. By virtue of winning the 2010 Calder Cup, Hershey Bears coach Mark French and assistant Troy Mann will coach the Eastern Conference All-Star team for the second consecutive year.
Tickets for the All-Star Classic, which includes admission to the skills competition (3 p.m., Jan. 30) and All-Star Game (7 p.m., Jan. 31), are nearly sold out. Tickets remain for the post-skills party (6 p.m., Jan. 30) and Hall of Fame induction and awards ceremony (11 a.m., Jan. 31). For information, contact the Giant Center box office at 717-534-3911. … Former Wolf Pack wing Nigel Dawes was named the Reebox/AHL Player of the Week on Monday after getting five goals and an assist and being plus-4 in three Chicago Wolves’ games. Dawes, a member of the Canadian All-Star team in 2008 while with the Wolf Pack, set a Wolves AHL franchise record on Wednesday night when he scored four goals, including one shorthanded and the game-winner in a 9-3 rout of the Toronto Marlies. A 25-year-old native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Dawes has a team-high 19 goals, one off Williams’ league lead, and 13 assists in 36 games. The sixth-year pro set career highs with 35 goals and 67 assists as a rookie with the Wolf Pack in 2005-06 and has 95 goals and 98 assists in 202 career AHL games. He also has 39 goals and 44 assists in 205 NHL games with the Rangers, Coyotes, Calgary Flames and Atlanta Thrashers.
The Whale nominated Del Zotto, and other nominees included defenseman Mark Katic (Bridgeport) and former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux (Oklahoma City).
WHALE’S NEW ROAD JERSEYS DEBUT FRIDAY
The Whale concludes a four-game road trip Friday night at Portland, where their new blue road jerseys will debut. The jerseys are available at the XL Center or The Hartford Store, 45 Pratt Street in Hartford. Prices, including sales tax, are $289 (authentic), $125 (senior replica) and $99 (junior replica).
The Whale returns to the XL Center next Saturday at 7 p.m. to face the Providence Bruins in the start of a three-game homestand that will include former Boston Bruins standouts Rick Middleton and Reggie Lemelin signing autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. and then dropping the ceremonial first puck. Middleton, who played 12 seasons with the Bruins after two with the Rangers, and Lemelin also will play on the Bruins legends team that will face the Hartford Whalers legends Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. before the Whale plays the P-Bruins at 7 p.m. The doubleheader is part of the “Harvest-Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford on Feb. 11-23.
Early commitments for the Whalers team are Jordy Douglas, Ray Neufeld, Gordie Roberts, Darren Turcotte, Nelson Emerson and the Babych brothers, Dave and Wayne. Tickets ($20 to $85) for the doubleheader can be purchased at Ticketmaster.com and the Bushnell box office in Hartford on Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or by calling the Whale at 860-728-3366. They also can be purchased online and printed immediately at Ticketmaster.com.
The homestand also will include visits from the league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Jan. 16 and the Hamilton Bulldogs on Jan. 21, when former Wolf Pack standouts and close friends Terry Virtue and Todd Hall of Hamden will sign autographs in the XL Center atrium from 6-7 p.m. and then drop the first puck. Virtue is an assistant coach with Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League, and Hall is an assistant coach with the Hamden High hockey team, which won the state Division I title the last two years. It’s also a special Family Value Night at which New Britain Rock Cats mascot Rocky will be on hand with Whale mascots Pucky and Sonar. There will be a giveaway, a table setup and autograph session, and the New Britain High School marching band will perform the national anthem and during the first intermission. Tickets in the lower level are $16 and include a soda and pizza slice or hot dog. Visit www.ctwhale.com.
Virtue will be making a pit stop on his way from his home in Tara, Ont., to Worcester, Mass., where he’ll be one of the first six inductees into the Worcester Hockey Hall of Fame on Jan. 22 at the DCU Center. It’s “Salute to the IceCats Night,” the former name of the Worcester Sharks, and Virtue will be inducted with former Whalers wing Scott Young, Kelly O’Leary, Eddie Bates, Larz Anderson and Marvin Degon Sr., father of former Wolf Pack defenseman Martin Degon.
BALDWIN SPEAKS TO EAST HARTFORD GROUP ON TUESDAY
Whalers Sports and Entertainment chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin will be the guest speaker at the East Hartford Chamber of Commerce breakfast series sponsored by AT&T Connecticut Tuesday at 8 a.m. at the Sheraton Hartford Hotel on East River Drive in East Hartford. Baldwin will speak about his efforts to revive the local hockey market, the Whalers Hockey Fest and other economic development opportunities.
“I am very excited to have a man of Howard Baldwin’s experience, energy and commitment to Connecticut and the Hartford area speaking at our Chamber event,” Chamber president Ron Pugliese said. “I invite anyone who has the desire to see the Hartford area grow and prosper economically to join us on January 11.” … The Whale’s eighth Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, will be Jan. 23 at the XL Center from 4-7 p.m. Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for children, and proceeds benefit Gaylord Specialty Healthcare at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. For more information, contact Lori Lenihart at 860-728-3366. … Howard Baldwin Jr., the new president and COO of WS&E, has a new Twitter account accessible to Whale fans at www.twitter.com/howardbaldwinjr.