Howlings will be publishing our annual report cards for the Connecticut Whale from the staff to the players. We’ve asked several of the people who cover the team to share their insights and we’ll finish with our grades.
First up at the review board, The Chairman of Press Row – Bruce Berlet
Ken Gernander, J.J. Daigneault, Pat Boller (A-): Gernander and his assistants did the best job in his fifth season with the Whale, the longest stint of any head coach in franchise history. The team lost four of its best players – defenseman Stu Bickel and forwards Carl Hagelin, John Mitchell and Mats Zuccarello – to call-ups to the Rangers and injuries for most of the season. Their best defenseman, rookie Tim Erixon, bounced between Hartford and New York, and veteran defenseman/captain Wade Redden missed more than a third of the season with injuries. Still, the Whale overcame a franchise-record, 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) throughout the month of January to challenge the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for the Northeast Division title and then swept their intrastate rival in the first round of the playoffs, their first advancement since 2006. The Whale also played well in the second round against the regular-season champion Norfolk Admirals before being eliminated in overtime in Game 6. The Admirals begin their quest for their first Calder Cup title Friday night against the Toronto Marlies. The work of Gernander & Co. is a reflection of the Rangers’ recent solid drafting, led by director of player personnel Gordie Clarke, that has led to the graduation of captain Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Michael Sauer, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Mats Zuccarello, Carl Hagelin, John Mitchell, Stu Bickel and the rejuvenation of Michael Del Zotto and the improvement of Bickel.
(All players listed in alphabetical order by position)
Chad Johnson (B): Started season well but struggled, as the team did, in January before rallying a bit down the stretch; an unrestricted free agent who isn’t likely to be re-signed
Jason Missiaen (Incomplete): Rookie didn’t play with Whale this season but performed well with Greenville of the ECHL and should battle for a backup spot in Hartford next season
Scott Stajcer (Inc): Didn’t join the Whale after Owen Sound was eliminated from the Ontario Hockey League playoffs because Rangers management wanted him to rest after more problems with his hip; should battle Missiaen for the backup spot with the Whale
Cam Talbot (A-): Backed up Johnson for much of the season but improved markedly down the stretch and into the playoffs, when he started all nine games and became the first goalie in franchise history to record back-to-back shutouts in the first two games against the Sound Tigers; a restricted free agent who should be re-signed and be the Whale’s No. 1 goalie at the start of next season barring injuries to Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron, an unrestricted free agent who is expected to be re-signed.
Lee Baldwin (D): A restricted free agent who didn’t progress as hoped last season, going scoreless in 17 games with Whale while getting career highs in goals (six), assists (12) and points (18) with Greenville of the ECHL; unlikely to be qualified
Brendan Bell (B): An unrestricted free agent who played OK in all situations, including the No. 1 power play, but not likely to be re-signed because of hip issues and veteran status
Stu Bickel (A-): Unrestricted free agent could be re-signed as he’s one of Rangers coach John Tortorella’s favorite players for his grit, tenacity and sticking up for teammates after being one of GM Glen Sather’s all-time steals after being acquired from the Anaheim Ducks for disgruntled defenseman Nigel Williams.
Tim Erixon (A-): Started the season with the Rangers but sent to Whale to get more playing time and progressed in most areas, including on the No. 1 power play, but needs to work on being stronger; should make strong run at spot on Broadway
Sam Klassen (C+): A restricted free agent who is likely to be qualified after showing a steady, feisty style after being called up from Greenville when the Whale defense was depleted by call-ups and injuries
Dylan McIlrath (Inc): Showed his physical style in limited ice time after joining the Whale after Moose Jaw was eliminated from the Western Hockey League playoffs; longshot to make the Rangers so will be counted on to play major role with the Whale next season
Jyri Niemi (Inc): Played only eight games with the Whale before being sent to Greenville, where he was among the Road Warriors’ top defensemen and might get a shot in Hartford this fall
Jared Nightingale (B): The ultimate team player on and off the ice who is a hard-nosed unrestricted free agent and a difficult call to be re-signed depending on who else is available
Blake Parlett (C-): Had roller-coaster season between Hartford and Greenville and didn’t play in playoffs so his future in the organization is cloudy
Wade Redden (B+): Was a steadying influence again in a season plagued by injuries, notably missing 25 games with a bum knee from crashing into a post; will be asked to help develop more young defenders for two more years if he doesn’t get bought out and signed by another NHL team
Pavel Valentenko (B+): Improved in all phases and had his best statistical season but signed a two-year contract with Avangard Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League in his native Russia with slim prospects for joining the Rangers, especially when management rarely mentioned his name
Mike Vernace (B): A solid standup contributor after being acquired Feb. 25 from the Florida Panthers as part of the Rangers’ trade of Wojtek Wolski; unrestricted free agent who is in a similar situation as Nightingale
Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (A+): The biggest and best surprise of the season who was signed as a free agent as a possible centerpiece for Greenville but played so well in the prospects tournament and Rangers camp that he earned an AHL contract and became an AHL All-Star while tying veteran center Kris Newbury for the team scoring lead; Rangers want to re-sign him, but he’s certain to be getting plenty of offers.
Francois Bouchard (D): A restricted free agent who produced little after being acquired for defenseman Tomas Kundratek on Nov. 8 and before being sidelined for the season with a broken wrist sustained Feb. 4 against his former team, the Hershey Bears; not likely to be qualified
Ryan Bourque (B-): One of team’s hardest triers, especially on the penalty kill, who was at his best in the playoffs but needs to improve offensive output if he’s ever going to have a shot at the NHL
Andre Deveaux (D+): An unrestricted free agent not likely to be re-signed after he started strong, earning time with the Rangers before a suspension ended his NHL time, but fell off dramatically at the end of the season, finishing with 20 goals but 13 came on the power play and only one in the last 15 regular-season games before he scored twice in nine playoff games
Tommy Grant (C): Had his moments on the third line but needs to be more consistent and get more dedicated to his trade
Carl Hagelin (A): Speedy rookie left wing had terrific start with the Whale with seven goals and six assists and plus-12 rating that tied for team high for the season with Valentenko before being called up with Mitchell on Nov. 22 and making a solid contribution for Rangers; won’t be seen again in Hartford unless Rangers play an preseason game at the XL Center
Marek Hvirik (A-): Second biggest and best surprise after signing an amateur tryout contract after Moncton was eliminated from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs; had one goal in eight regular-season games but led the Whale with five goals and tied for scoring lead with Casey Wellman with nine points in the playoffs, earning a contract from the Rangers and high hopes for Whale next season
Chad Kolarik (Inc): Though he never wanted to hear it, he was the sad case of the season when he tore the ACL in his left knee when his skate caught a rut in the ice in Rangers training camp and then couldn’t play late in the season or the playoffs when his name wasn’t on an AHL roster by Feb. 27; hopefully will have good shot with Rangers or be productive with the Whale
Shane McColgan (Inc): Unsigned fifth-round pick in 2011 who was scoreless in five games with the Whale after signing an ATO on April 4 after Kelowna was eliminated from the Ontario Hockey League playoffs; considered by some as the Rangers’ top prospect last season when he had 18 goals and 46 assists in 70 games with Kelowna but not eligible to play with the Whale next season because he won’t be 19 until Jan. 1
Chris McKelvie (D): A speedy hard trier who just can’t seem to finish and likely won’t be qualified after getting five goals and five assists in 49 games with the Whale and Greenville in the regular season and being a healthy scratch in the AHL playoffs.
Randy McNaught (Inc): Rugged unrestricted free agent not likely to be qualified after getting no goals, three assists and 43 penalty minutes in one game with the Whale, four with Greenville and 15 with the Missouri Mavericks of the Central Hockey League last season after leaving the University of Calgary in December after going scoreless in 12 games
J.T. Miller (B+): Showed why he was the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2011 in eight playoff games with the Whale after Plymouth was eliminated from the OHL playoffs; will be counted on to contribute in many areas next season despite being only 19 but able to play in the AHL because he was drafted by the USA Hockey National Team development program
John Mitchell (A-): Had strong start with Whale before being called up with Hagelin and making solid contributions with the Rangers before being a healthy scratch the last two playoffs games; questionable if Rangers will re-sign the unrestricted free agent but would be excellent veteran presence for the Whale and call-up possibility again next season
Steve Moses (Inc): Showed some speed and spunk after signing an ATO on March 23 after completing his career at the University of New Hampshire but didn’t have much future in the organization so signed with Jokerit Helskinski in the Finnish Elite League.
Kris Newbury (A-): Alternate captain who played in all situations and was leader in locker room while tying for the team lead in scoring with Audy-Marchessault despite missing seven games during three call-ups to the Rangers; unrestricted free agent who hopefully will be re-signed to keep his needed grit, feistiness and leadership in Hartford
Jordan Owens (B-): An unrestricted free agent who is a gritty team player and solid defensively, especially on the penalty kill, but unlikely to be re-signed because of lack of offense
Jeff Prough (Inc): Unrestricted free agent who didn’t show much in limited ice time after recall from Greenville; claim to fame is he dates the daughter of ESPN legend Chris Berman
Scott Tanski (C+): Made solid contribution defensively and on penalty kill after being free-agent signing after tryout in preseason; another difficult call on re-signing the unrestricted free agent depending on who’s available
Kelsey Tessier (B+): A solid all-around player in all situations who was named the Whale Man of the Year for his community relations and received the Unsung Hero/Seventh Player Award from the media; unrestricted free agent hopefully will be re-signed for his contributions on and off the ice
Christian Thomas (Inc): Showed signs of the scoring prowess in juniors with hard, quick shot that produced 129 goals the last three seasons but none in six games with the Whale after Oshawa was eliminated from the OHL playoffs; should be a frontline right wing next season
Andreas Thuresson (C-): Counted on to be one of Whale’s top six forwards after being acquired for Brodie Dupont but didn’t produce much and was relegated to fourth line and penalty killing by season’s end before signing two-year contract with Brynas IF of the Swedish Elite League in his native land
Casey Wellman (B+): A restricted free agent who should be re-signed after being a stellar addition, especially during the playoffs, after being acquired from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 3 as part of the Rangers’ trade of Erik Christensen
Jason Wilson (Inc): Rugged left wing who spent the entire season with Greenville but might have chance to play with Whale as an enforcer next season if he shows some offense in training camp
Andrew Yogan (Inc): Scoreless in four games with Whale before being sidelined with injury after joining the team after Peterborough was eliminated from the OHL playoffs; had career highs in goals (41), assists (37) and points (78) with Peterborough and should have good shot to earn spot in Hartford on left wing if healthy
Mats Zuccarello (A): One of the Whale’s All-Star selections who excelled 5-on-5 and on the power play when not injured or with the Rangers; unrestricted free agent after two-year, $3.5 million contract ended who reportedly is ready to sign a two-year contract with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in Russia in the Kontinental Hockey League after playing only 10 games with the Rangers that he said he doesn’t want to do again.
The Rangers signed center Jesper Fast and forward Oscar Lindberg to entry-level deals on May 29 and June 1, and they could be more young additions for Gernander & Co. to work with. Fast, 20, a sixth-round pick in 2010, had five goals and 11 assists and was plus-9 in 21 games with HV71 of the Swedish Elite League last season before missing the last three months with a fractured ankle sustained in a game against Brynas IF on Nov. 29. The 6-foot, 180-pound Fast previously excelled for HV71 Jr. in the Super Elit League and has represented Sweden in several international tournaments, including the 2011 IIHF U-20 World Junior Championship where he tied for the team lead with four goals and added two assists in six games. Lindberg, 20, had a career-high five goals and five assists in 46 games with Skelleftea HC of the Swedish Elite League last season. Acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes for Ethan Werek on May 8, 2011 after being a second-round pick, Lindberg also represented Sweden in the 2011 IIHF U-20 World Junior Championship, scoring the winning goal in a 6-5 shootout victory over Canada.