BERLET SPOTLIGHT: GERNANDER REACTION TO DAIGNEAULT DEPARTURE

BY: BRUCE BERLET, Special to Howlings

Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander has mixed emotions about assistant J.J. Daigneault’s sudden departure on Friday to become the newest assistant under Montreal Canadiens new coach Michel Therrien.

“You had heard the rumors, but it’s great for him, it’s awesome,” Gernander said Monday from his summer home in Minnesota. “It was a real good working relationship, and he certainly did a lot for us. He was passionate, committed, a very intelligent hockey guy. We’re going to miss him.” 

After a stellar 16-year NHL career, Daigneault had become one of minor-league hockey’s most respected assistants while helping develop many of the top young defenseman playing for the New York Rangers, including All-Stars Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonald, Michael Del Zotto, Michael Sauer and Stu Bickel, who signed a two-year, $1.5 million contract Sunday, the first day of free-agent signings.

The 46-year-old Daigneault had similar feelings as Gernander. Though delighted to be part of the Whale family for five years, Daigneault retained a special spot in his heart for Montreal, the mecca of hockey where he still owned a home and played for the legendary Canadiens for six seasons, winning a Stanley Cup in 1993. So it wasn’t surprising that when he was named a Canadiens assistant that he said, “My prayers were answered.”

“It’s bittersweet because I’m leaving a place I really enjoyed, but it’s a great opportunity that I had to jump at,” Daigneault said while celebrating Friday night at Wampanoag Country Club in West Hartford, where and his family will live until mid-August. “It all happened so quickly, but the whole family is excited.”

Daigneault ended the final day of the Rangers developmental camp in Greenburgh, N.Y., on Friday around noon when Blueshirts president and general manager Glen Sather gave Daigneault his approval to talk to the Canadiens. Daigneault had one year left on his contract with the Rangers, but he said Sather and Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld were “very helpful” in getting a deal done with the Canadiens.

Three hours later, Daigneault had finalized a three-year contract with Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin.

Gernander, whose contract with the Rangers runs through next season, said there have been preliminary discussions about Daigneault’s successor, but there is no rush to find a replacement.

“The news just came out the other day, so we’re going to be looking at some candidates but want to make sure we get the right guy, so there’s no timetable,” Gernander said. “It takes some time because you’re going to see who has interest in the job, see who you have for candidates and go from there. It’s pretty early on in the process.”

Gernander said Whale captain and veteran defenseman Wade Redden wouldn’t be a player-coach.

“We want a full-time coach,” Gernander said.

On Sunday, a day after becoming a father for the second time, Redden said he thought it would be difficult to be a player-coach, though coaching is something that he said he’ll consider when his playing days are over. He has two years left on a six-year, $38 million contract that he signed with the Rangers.

Other candidates for the Whale vacancy could include former Hartford Wolf Pack defensemen Terry Virtue and Dale Purtinton, both of whom played with Gernander and were on the Calder Cup championship team in 2000. Virtue has been a player-assistant coach with the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers, an assistant for the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League and an assistant for the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League. Purinton, who also played with the Rangers, coached the Cowichan Valley Capitals in the British Columbia Hockey League until May.

“The scouts and management are doing the free-agent thing right now, but they’ve also formed an informal search committee and are taking names,” Gernander said. “We’ll go from there and see what happens.”

While the Rangers have the ultimate say in who replaces Daigneault, Gernander should have input into the decision.

“I think it depends on what names you get and what names you’re given,” Gernander said. “There might be somebody who ‘what do we even need to discuss this about, this is the person? They’re a real good fit and have a lot to offer.’ You go from there.”

Gernander said there weren’t any major surprises at the week-long developmental camp that included seven players who were with the Whale last season and the Rangers’ four draft picks, including center Cristoval “Boo” Nieves out of Kent School.

“Everyone played pretty much up to their expectations,” said Gernander, who ran most of the on-ice practices and scrimmages with Daigneault. “There wasn’t a big deviation from what was expected. There were no big surprises.”

Gernander said he was surprised All-Star wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault left the organization, signing a standard three-year, entry-level contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the parent club of the Springfield Falcons. He was originally signed as a possible centerpiece with the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors but earned an AHL contract and had 24 goals, a team-high 40 assists and tied veteran center Kris Newbury for the team scoring lead (64 points) in his rookie season. He also had four goals in nine playoffs games and figured to be given a decent shot to make the Rangers in the falls.

But as an unrestricted free agent, the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Audy-Marchessault could pick his next destination and decided to sign with the Blue Jackets. In Columbus, he’ll be battling Greenwich native and fellow AHL All-Star Cam Atkinson, who had seven goals and seven assists in 27 games with the Blue Jackets and 29 goals and 15 assists in 51 games with the Falcons last season.

“I haven’t spoken to (Audy-Marchessault),” Gernander said. “We tried reaching out to him and was given a very good offer, and I don’t know what his reasoning for going elsewhere would be. But that’s his prerogative, and he’s left so he’s no longer part of the fold.”

The Rangers also didn’t re-sign Chad Johnson, but that was expected after he didn’t receive a qualifying offer after being replaced as the Whale’s No. 1 goalie by Cam Talbot, who was qualified. Johnson was signed by the Phoenix Coyotes but will have to excel in training camp to beat out Mike Smith or former Wolf Pack and Rangers goalie and AHL MVP Jason LaBarbera. If he doesn’t, he’ll be a Whale opponent with the Portland Pirates, the Coyotes’ top affiliate.

But the Rangers did re-sign Newbury (two-year, two-way contract), former Whale defenseman Stu Bickel (two years, $1.5 million) and signed rugged free agent wings Arron Asham (two years, $2 million) and Michael Haley (two years, $1.5 million) from the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. Newbury should have a better shot to make the Rangers roster after John Mitchell, called up on Nov. 23 with rookie wing Carl Hagelin, signed a two-year, $2.2 million contract with the Colorado Avalanche.

“Haley spent a lot of time in Bridgeport (last season), so I don’t think the AHL is out of the realm of possibility,” Gernander said. “But he’s someone who has shown marked improvement since he came into the league, so you’re not going to pigeon-hole anybody. You have training camp and a preseason and let things play out. There’s enough there to think that with a little bit of improvement and a tweak here and there that he could be a NHL player. If not, he can further his craft in the American League and be a valuable player to us in the meantime.”

Ditto for Newbury, who has been a gritty performer with the Whale and in his limited time in New York, where coach John Tortorella often praised his efforts.

“A lot of things can transpire before the start of the season, whether it’s free agency or trades, so you can’t look at a depth chart or roster and think, ‘OK, this guy has got a chance or this is where everybody fits in’ because hopefully some kids will improve over the summer,” Gernander said. “Management is always looking for improve your team, so if you’re a player in Kris Newbury’s situation, the best thing you can do to further your career is it everything you’ve got this summer so when you come into training camp, you’re really, really playing for serious consideration for a spot (in New York).

Getting a two-year contract showed the Rangers have confidence in what Newbury can bring, whether it’s as a fourth-line center in the NHL or a first-line leader on a team that will be trying to reach for the playoffs for the 15th time in 16 seasons.

“In the AHL, you’ve got five veteran spots and all five of those guys better be important cogs,” Gernander said, “whether it be just solidifying your American League team and being an example or a professional or somebody who creates some depth throughout the organization in case there’s an injury or you’re pushing for a job.”

The Rangers hierarchy discussed Newbury and the others in the organization during their pre-draft meetings in Las Vegas, where the NHL Awards Night was June 20 and Gernander said he played some golf and spent minimal time at the gambling tables.

“I gave a meager, but token, contribution to the Vegas economy and then went on my way,” Gernander said with a chuckle.

Here’s hoping Gernander and the Whale have even more success under a new marketing arm after the Rangers severed ties with Whalers Sports and Entertainment last week. No word Monday on a replacement for WSE, which has filed for bankruptcy in the wake of losing about $2 million and having 14 lawsuits pending. The Rangers, XL Center general manager Chuck Steedman and longtime Hartford Whalers employee Mark Willand, the vice president and COO of WSE, are trying to work out final details on who will market the Whale through at least next season.

On Friday, Steedman said AEG, which runs the XL Center, expects the AHL to be in Hartford for the foreseeable future and hopes to expand the hockey market in the region when the University of Connecticut men’s team joins Hockey East in 2014.

BRODEUR, HEDBERG STAY WITH DEVILS

The Stanley Cup runner-up New Jersey Devils re-signed their goaltending tandem of future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur and backup Johan Hedberg on Monday.

Brodeur, 40, re-signed for two years and a reported $9 million. Hedberg, 39, also signed for two years and a reported $2.8 million.

“We did entertain some offers, but at the end, the Devils were able to come through with the extra year and that for me was the most important thing in the deal,” said Brodeur, who added most of the teams he talked to Sunday were willing to give him the second year. “The Devils weren’t ready for a little while to do that, and when they were able to get it done that was a pretty easy decision to be made.”

After spending two weeks in Florida with his family, Brodeur decided he had to hire an agent to give him advice on the chance that he was to enter free agency. He hired Pat Brisson, who represents star players such as Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and when the Devils still wouldn’t come through with a two-year deal before the market opened at noon Sunday, Brodeur started to field offers.

While Brodeur didn’t reveal the teams that approached him, Toronto and the Chicago Blackhawks reportedly were on the list. Once Brisson and Brodeur felt comfortable that they had enough two-year offers to consider, the Devils stepped up and offered the second year, making Brodeur’s decision easy. He has spent his entire 20-year career in New Jersey, setting numerous NHL goaltending records, including most wins (656), shutouts (119), games played (1,191) and minutes played (70,028).

Brodeur cashed in after leading the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals for the fifth time in his career and the first time since 2003. They lost in Game 6 to the Los Angeles Kings and goalie Jonathan Quick, the Hamden native and former Hamden High, Avon Old Farms and UMass standout who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. But Brodeur posted 14 wins with a 2.12 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in the postseason after going 31-21-4 with a 2.41 GAA and .908 save percentage in the regular season. In 1,191 games with the Devils, he has 656 wins with a 2.23 GAA, .913 save percentage and 119 shutouts.

“We had no interest in a one-year deal going somewhere else,” Brodeur said. “If after the first hour I knew nobody would have signed me for two years, I would have went back to (Devils GM) Lou (Lamoriello) with the one-year offer, but every team we talked to had the two-year deal. That’s where we started and then we went back to Lou and made it happen.”

But Brodeur would not say for sure that this is going to be his last contract. He will be 42 when it expires.

“Circumstances happen sometimes in life that you can’t control and I can’t say it’s not going to happen again, but I’m really happy,” said Brodeur, who completed a six-year, $31.2 million contract. “Two years seems appropriate for me to maybe leave the game at that time, but I’m not 100 percent sure.”

Brodeur is also happy that Hedberg will return, even if it means the Devils still have two goalies near the end of their careers.

“It’s definitely a nice set-up, but it doesn’t really help the future of goaltending for the Devils,” Brodeur quipped.

Hedberg won 32 of 61 games over the past two seasons with the Devils. He went 17-7-2 with a 2.23 GAA, a .918 save percentage and four shutouts this past season.

“We’ll definitely bring stability to the back end here like we’ve been doing for the last year and a half. I can’t say two years because we struggled two years ago,” Brodeur said, referring to the Devils’ terrible start to the 2010-11 season. “But it’s nice to be able to count on somebody that is going to be able to play a bulk of games and really helped me out this year to be fresh and play well on the back end of the season and into the playoffs.”

BRODEUR TRYING TO RECRUIT PARISE

Besides signing his contract, Brodeur was staying on top of the contract negotiations with Devils captain Zach Parise, the most prized free agent on the market with Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter. Brodeur said he feels Parise is still considering re-signing with New Jersey despite having lucrative, long-term offers from several teams.

Parise agreed Monday afternoon but also said he’s not ready to make a decision and is not putting a deadline on when he will decide. Parise spoke to reporters outside of his agent’s offices in Mississauga, Ont., that he is going to take time to discuss his options with his family before making a decision. He said the Devils are still in the mix for his services but refused to divulge the other teams. It is believed Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago are on the list, but nothing has been confirmed by Parise or his agent, Wade Arnott.

Parise had 31 goals and 38 assists last season and has 194 goals and 216 assists in 502 career games. The Devils reportedly tried to sign Parise before the opening of free agency as he met with Lamoriello in Toronto. No deal was struck, so Parise became an unrestricted free agent and spent Sunday huddled with his agents fielding offers. He returned to Arnott’s office Monday but is scheduled to fly back home to Minnesota.

Parise took Sunday night to sleep on his decision and waited until late in the afternoon Monday to inform the media that he is not ready to make a decision. He said he is not feeling any pressure from the teams involved to make a decision. Suter said he’s not going to make his decision until Parise makes his.

“I talked to him a lot (Sunday) and I talked to him (Monday) morning again, and I’ll probably talk to him again,” Brodeur said. “The Devils are right in there with him. He’s really weighing his options. Hopefully he’ll make the right decision. By no means is he thinking about not coming back.”

Brodeur called Parise “a franchise player at this stage of his career.” He also gave Parise credit for bringing the Devils to the Stanley Cup finals. He talked about the responsibilities that Parise has with the Devils and said they could be different if he signs elsewhere.

“You let that go and go somewhere else, the responsibility of what you could bring to another team might be different,” Brodeur said. “To come back to New Jersey for him is something he takes a lot of pride in and that’s why the decision is so hard. I’m sure the offers are coming in left and right, money up front, but it’s the rest of your career, not just one or two years. That’s why it’s a tough decision on him.”

If Parise sticks to his “no way” declaration during the playoffs about crossing the Hudson to join the Rangers, there are no reasonable alternatives on the free-agent market for the Blueshirts, who need a first-line left wing who can add offensive punch that was limited to two goals or fewer in 34 of 82 regular-season games and 13 of their 20 playoff matches. And the Rangers will be without 41-goal scorer Marian Gaborik for several months because of shoulder surgery.

The Rangers also remain interested in Columbus Blue Jackets’ All-Star wing and captain Rick Nash, but general manager Scott Howson keeps insisting stud youngsters Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider and/or Derek Stepan be included in a deal, something that Rangers GM Glen Sather isn’t interested in going – so far. Nash has a no-move clause in his contract and has given the Blue Jackets a short list of teams to which he will accept a trade. But Howson entered into discussions with at least three teams not on Nash’s list — the Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators — in an attempt to create leverage against Sather, who is believed willing to move two players off the roster and two prospects for the wing who has scored at least 30 goals five consecutive years and in seven of the last eight seasons of his nine-year career.

WOYWITKA DEPARTS

As expected, the Rangers did not pursue defenseman Jeff Woywitka, who didn’t get a qualifying offer after he had one goal and five assists in New York and three assists in six games with the Whale during a two-week conditioning assignment. Woywitka signed a one-year, two-way contract with the St. Louis Blues, where he had six goals and 29 assists in 152 games from 2005 to 2009. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound defenseman has nine goals and 46 assists in 278 NHL games with St. Louis, Dallas and the Rangers. The native of Vermilion, Alberta, was a first-round pick (27th overall) of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2001.

FREE AGENCY – DAY TWO

The biggest winner in free agency so far is center Jordan Staal, who got his wish to play with his brother, All-Star center Eric, when he signed a 10-year, $60 million contract with the Hurricanes. Staal, 23, was acquired from Pittsburgh on draft day, June 20, for Brandon Sutter, Brian Dumoulin and the eighth pick, which the Penguins used to select Derrick Pouliot. Staal, whose brother Marc is an All-Star defenseman with the Rangers, had 25 goals and 25 assists in 61 games last season. Ironically, Eric’s contract with the Hurricanes runs out after next season. Though both Staals are natural centers, coach Kirk Muller said last week that he would experiment during training camp with having both of them on the ice at the same time.

The Calgary Flames signed center Jiri Hudler to a four-year, $16 million contract. The 28-year-old center had 25 goals and 25 assists last season and has 58 goals in the past three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings. The native of Olomouc, Czech Republic, was the Red Wings’ second-round pick in 2002 and had spent his entire career with the organization.

TORRES SUSPENSION REDUCED FROM 25 TO 21 GAMES

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman suspended Coyotes wing Rafael Torres’ suspension for launching himself to deliver a late hit to the head of Blackhawks wing Marian Hossa during Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinals on April 17 from 25 to 21 games.

The suspension includes the 13 games that Torres served in the playoffs, so he will remain suspended, without pay, for the first eight games of the upcoming season. Because he is classified as a repeat offender under the collective bargaining agreement, Torres will forfeit $170,731.68 in salary. In addition, Torres will be ineligible to participate in any preseason games until he has served the entire suspension.

“This type of on-ice conduct cannot and will not be tolerated in the National Hockey League,” Bettman said. “We have seen similar behavior before from Mr. Torres and, particularly given the league’s heightened scrutiny on hits to the head, I believe that a very significant penalty is warranted in this case. We hope and expect that the severity of this incident, and the league’s response to it, will help prevent any similar incident from occurring in the future.”

Torres met with Bettman at a hearing in New York on May 17 pursuant to his appeal of a 25-game suspension assessed by NHL Senior Vice President of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan on April 21.

ROAD WARRIORS QUALIFY EIGHT PLAYERS

The Greenville Road Warriors, the Whale’s ECHL affiliate, qualified eight players for next season: forwards Marc-Olivier Vallerand (30 goals, 25 assists last season), Jeremy Gouchie, Bretton Cameron, Brett Robinson and Connor Shields, defensemen T.J. Fast and Adam Comrie and goalie Nic Riopel. Forwards Tim Coffman and former Quinnipiac University standout Brandon Wong, who started his pro career with the Whale, had already signed a contract by Sunday and did not need to receive a qualifying offer.

Each team was entitled to reserve the rights to a maximum of eight qualified players. Of the eight players, no more than four could be veterans (260 regular season pro hockey games played as of the start of the upcoming 2012-13 season). Players on open qualifying offers cannot be traded.

The qualifying offer must remain open for acceptance until Aug. 1 at which time the qualifying offer becomes null and void and the team may sign the qualified player to any salary or may elect to take no further action. Teams that extend a valid qualifying offer to a non-veteran player retain the rights to that qualified player for one playing season. A team that extends a valid qualifying offer to a veteran player will retain the rights to that veteran until Aug. 1. After Aug. 1, if the veteran player is not signed to a contract by the team, the veteran will be deemed a restricted free agent and entitled to seek and secure offers from other ECHL teams. Restricted free agents may not be traded. When a restricted free agent receives an offer from a team other than the team with the player’s rights and the restricted free agent wishes to accept the offer, the restricted free agent and the offering member must, within 24 hours, notify the ECHL, the team with the player’s rights and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association. The member with the player’s rights shall have seven days after the date it is notified to exercise its right to match the contract offer. If a restricted free agent is not signed to an offer sheet or a contract by an ECHL team by Aug. 31, the player shall be deemed an unrestricted free agent

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