BY: Bruce Berlet, (Special to Howlings)
McIlrath, the New York Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010 who was scoreless in five playoff games with the Connecticut Whale in April after completing his junior season with the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors, was injured in a collision with forward Kyle Jean during the Rangers’ prospects camp after the NHL draft in June. Dr. Andrew Feldman and Dr. Anthony Maddalo performed the operation July 6 at the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan, and the 6-foot-5, 220-pound defenseman immediately began rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Jean was signed to a free-agent contract after getting four goals in four games and likely will be a teammate of McIlrath this fall.
“(The injury) was a bit of a speed bump, but I’ve been trying to recover and get my rehab going and just looking forward to whenever camp starts,” McIlrath told Marc Smith of Discover Moose Jaw. “I won’t be ready (for training camp), but around that time I’ll get the go-ahead to start skating, so I’m looking forward to it.”
The Rangers are scheduled to open camp Sept. 21, but that’s contingent on the NHL and NHL Players’ Association reaching a new collective bargaining agreement before the existing accord expires on Sept. 15. Regardless of whether there’s a new CBA, the AHL will play, as it did during the NHL’s 2004-05 lockout season.
McIlrath had hoped to challenge for a spot on the Rangers’ blueline, but the collision and surgery put that on hold. Dealing with the injury has been something new for McIlrath, who said he feels he has become more mentally tough because of it.
“No one wants to get injured, but when you do, you’ve just got to take it with a positive attitude and try to get back playing as soon as possible,” McIlrath said.
McIlrath returned to Moose Jaw with former Warriors teammate Quinton Howden, chosen 15 spots behind McIlrath by the Florida Panthers. Howden said he hopes to be playing for former Hartford Whalers standout right wing and captain Kevin Dineen, who will start his second season as Panthers coach if a new CBA is reached.
“I worked on getting strong, trying to gain a little weight and do what I can to be better on the ice,” the 6-3, 185-pound Howden told Smith. “I’ve had a hard summer with a lot of training. Not to say anything bad, but I’m done with junior hockey, I’ve had fun, but I feel like I’m ready to move on and gain some more experience from a pro level, so I’m really excited.”
McIlrath and Howden have been visiting their former Moose Jaw teammates as they prepared for their WHL opener Friday night against Swift Current. While playing is on both of their minds, they have followed the lockout talks that stalled last Friday, though they’ve tried not to let it be a distraction for the coming season.
“I’ve been keeping as close an eye as you can,” said Howden, who had 30 goals and 35 assists in 52 games last season. “There’s nothing I can do but watch and wait, so I’m going to keep training, and if all else fails, I’ll go to the AHL (San Antonio Rampage) and hope for the best there.”
McIlrath, who had three goals, 20 assists and 127 penalty minutes in 52 games last season, has been getting more of an inside look at the talks thanks to New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic.
“I work with Travis Hamonic, and he’s going to lots of the (NHL-NHLPA) meetings, so I get some info on how things are going,” said McIlrath, nicknamed “The Undertaker” for his fighting ability. “Hoping for the best and hope they can agree on terms, so there’s a season right away. … I remember the lockout (in 2004-05), and not being able to watch hockey was just a bummer. But now that it’s kind of my job, it’s a little worse. Right now it’s just kind of a waiting game, and I’ll go down to Connecticut and do my best down there.”
Other top prospects who might start the season in Hartford if there is no new CBA are speedy wings Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin and J.T. Miller. Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009, showed he could handle the NHL when he had five goals and two assists in 18 playoff games after helping Boston College win their its second national title in three years. Hagelin, a sixth-round pick in 2007 who co-captained the University of Michigan to the 2011 NCAA finals, began his rookie pro season with the Whale before being called up Nov. 23 and getting 14 goals and 42 assists in 64 games with the Rangers while often playing on the top line with veterans Brad Richards and Marion Gaborik, who will be out until December after shoulder surgery. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2011, held his own in eight playoff games with the Whale after completing his junior season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers. Miller and prospects Brady Skjei and Steven Fogarty were among those selected for Team USA’s final 34-man roster for the National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. The final selections will be on the U.S. national junior team at the IIHF World Junior Championship Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Ufa, Russia. Miller is one of only three remaining players who represented the U.S. at this year’s World Junior Championship, where he had two goals and two assists in six games.
Defenseman Stu Bickel also could rejoin the Whale after getting nine assists and 108 PIM in his first 51 NHL games with the Rangers after being called up on Dec. 18. And there’s an outside shot that former Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer could rejoin the AHL team. McDonagh became part of the Rangers’ No. 1 defensive pairing last season with former Wolf Pack blueliner and All-Star Dan Girardi but has played only two seasons as a pro. Sauer was sidelined for the season with a concussion thanks to a big hit from Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf on Dec. 5. But the Rangers aren’t optimistic that he’ll be ready for the season because Sauer isn’t symptom-free and could be placed on the long-term injury list.
Other leading young prospects are wings Jean, Christian Thomas, Ryan Bourque, Marek Hvirik, Andrew Yogan and Tommy Grant, centers Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg, defensemen McIlrath and Steven Delisle and goalies Cam Talbot, Jason Missaien and Scott Stajcer. And wing Chad Kolarik will return after missing last season with a torn ACL in his left knee sustained when his skate caught a rut in the ice during Rangers camp.
Thomas, a second-round pick in 2010 and the son of former NHL wing Steve Thomas, had 129 goals and 103 assists in 185 games the last three seasons with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals and had one goal and one assist in five regular-season games with the Whale before being scoreless in six playoff games and being a healthy scratch twice. Short in stature (5-9, 162), Thomas must use his hockey savvy and increase his strength to absorb contact and handle play on the boards.
Bourque, a third-round pick in 2009 and the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, struggled much of his rookie pro season before closing strong and finishing with six goals and eight assists in 69 regular-season games before getting two goals and one assist in nine playoff games. Like Thomas, the 5-9, 170-pound Bourque is undersized but has good speed, hockey sense and grit and was one of the Whale’s top penalty killers despite several injuries.
The 6-1, 197-pound Hrivik was a late addition to the Whale after getting 93 goals and 111 assists in 179 games in three seasons with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats. He had one goal in eight regular-season games before getting a team-high five goals and four assists in nine playoff games and being signed to a free-agent contract. But the undrafted wing must continue to use his size and speed to prove he’s more than a one-hit wonder.
The 6-3, 200-pound Yogan has been plagued by injuries the past few seasons but had career highs in goals (41), assists (38) and points (79) in his overage season with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. The Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 2010 was scoreless in four regular-season games with the Whale and will need to show he can handle and beat bigger and quicker defensemen at the AHL level, starting with being physical and strong on the boards.
Fast and/or Lundberg were originally scheduled to remain in Sweden but could come to North America depending on what a new CBA might say. The 6-6, 209-pound Delisle, who was part of the trade that brought All-Star left wing Rick Nash to the Rangers from the Columbus Blue Jackets, spent last season with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons and ECHL’s Chicago Express. Talbot (14-15-1, 2.61 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, four shutouts) became the Whale’s No. 1 goalie last season and played in all nine of their playoff games, leading to the Rangers not re-signing Chad Johnson, who joined the Phoenix Coyotes. Missaien spent most of last season with the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors and Stajcer finished his junior career with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack.
The Whale begin their 16th season at home on Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m. against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who edged out their intrastate rival for the Northeast Division regular-season title before being swept by them in the first round of the playoffs. Season tickets are available by calling the XL Center ticket office at 860-548-2000 or visiting www.ctwhale.com. Seniors 62 years or older, students presenting a valid college or high school ID, AAA members who show their AAA cards and members of the military with a valid military ID can all purchase green or blue-section tickets for $3 off the regular price.
VISNOVSKY TO ISLANDERS IN ARBITRATION
Arbitrator George Nicolau will decide if standout defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky will be allowed to be traded with the Anaheim Ducks to the Islanders. The two sides’ hearing was Tuesday, and a ruling is expected before Sept. 15.
“The argument from both sides is the same,” Visnovsky’s agent, former Whalers defenseman Neil Sheehy, told the New York Post on Wednesday. “The argument from the league was that the CBA is very clear, and the case for the NHLPA is that the CBA is very clear.”
The problem is the interpretation of how a player’s no-trade clause can change under certain circumstances. According to the CBA Sec. 11.8: “If the Player is Traded or claimed on Waivers prior to the no-Trade or no-move clause taking effect, the clause does not bind the acquiring Club. An acquiring Club may agree to continue to be bound by the no-Trade or no-move clause, which agreement shall be evidenced in writing to the Player, Central Registry and the NHLPA, in accordance with Exhibit 3 hereof.”
Sheehy said Visnovsky was never approached by Ducks general manager Bob Murray before Murray traded him to the Islanders on draft day for second-round pick in 2013. The question is if his no-trade clause was still in effect after he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Ducks in 2010. If he waived the clause, it would be up to the Ducks to pick it up. Whether the Ducks did or didn’t adopt the clause, it seems the player should have been notified either way.
“To me, it’s really 50/50,” said Sheehy, a witness at the hearing. “It’s something that has to be interpreted.”
Visnovsky is said to be taking the process step-by-step and is fully prepared, even embracing, the Islanders if that’s where he ends up. If the NHLPA and Visnovsky win the case and he goes back to Anaheim, where he feels he was betrayed, odds are he would end up forcing a trade to a team he approved, which could again be the Islanders.
Visnovsky, 36, and his $5.6 million salary cap hit (with a $3 million salary) is a key in the Islanders getting to the current salary cap floor.
LANDESKOG BECOMES NHL’S YOUNGEST CAPTAIN
The Colorado Avalanche named Gabriel Landeskog the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 286 days, 11 days younger than when Sidney Crosby was named captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 31, 2007.
“I had no clue,” Landeskog told nhl.com after his predecessor, veteran Milan Hejduk, handed Landeskog a No. 92 jersey with a “C” stitched on the front during a brief ceremony inside the Avalanche locker room. “I didn’t have any idea what [the meeting with Hejduk and coach Joe Sacco] was about. I was a little bit shocked at first. I didn’t expect this at all, especially this early in my career. But I feel like I’m ready for it and this organization feels like I’m ready for it.”
It’s been quite a whirlwind for Landeskog, a second-round pick in 2011 who had a team-leading 22 goals and 30 assists while playing all 82 games last season. He made the team as an 18-year-old last October and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in June. Now he’s captain of an NHL team.
“It’s something you dream about as a kid, just being a part of an organization like the Avs and getting the honor to put the ‘C’ on with the history that this club has – [former captains] Joe Sakic and Adam Foote and obviously Milan Hejduk,” Landeskog said. “It’s a pretty humbling experience. I’m really excited and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Hejduk, 36, was named captain 17 games into last season, on Nov. 10, 2011. Once a 50-goal scorer and the last remaining player from the Avalanche’s 2001 Stanley Cup championship team, Hejduk spent much of last season on the third and fourth lines, finishing with 14 goals and 37 points, both career lows. Though he remains highly respected by Avalanche coaches and players, Hejduk felt it would be best to give up the captaincy because of his diminished role.
“It was a great experience,” said Hejduk, who will return for a 14th NHL season, all with the Avalanche. “I really enjoyed it. It was such an honor. But my role changed a little bit on the team and I felt the captain should be someone with a significant role, someone who is on the top two lines, which I was not last year. It kind of feels weird when you’re playing on the third or fourth line and you’re captain. It didn’t feel right.
“I think Gabe is a great choice. He’s young, but the older guys on the team will help him. I believe he’s going to be here for a long time and he’s going to be captain for a long, long time. I feel really comfortable about this.”
But Hejduk caught Sacco by surprise when he informed the coach of his decision.
“Coming from him, knowing that if he didn’t feel comfortable doing it 100 percent, I wouldn’t expect anything less from him,” Sacco said. “We had to respect what he was thinking. It’s never an easy decision for a player, especially one of Milan’s character.”
Sacco said selecting Landeskog to succeed Hejduk wasn’t as difficult a decision when he met with team management and his coaches.
“To me, the logical choice kept coming back to Gabe,” Sacco said. “No. 1, his leadership ability comes very naturally. He doesn’t try to be somebody he’s not. He demonstrated in his first year at 19 – he started at 18 – strong leadership both on and off the ice. His play on the ice certainly was an example of how we want all our players to play. He played in every situation possible for us.
“His play speaks for itself on the ice and the way he conducts himself off the ice … don’t let his age fool you. He’s way mature beyond his years. The response of the other players to this has been overwhelmingly positive. I think he’s going to be a great captain for a long time.”
A native of Stockholm, Sweden, Landeskog has experience in this role. He was the first European-born captain in the 48-year history of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers in 2010-11, when he completed his junior hockey career with 36 goals and 30 assists in 53 games before adding six goals and 10 points in seven playoff games.
“I’m still going to be the same Gabriel, be the same guy,” Landeskog said. “It doesn’t change the way I play the game or how I conduct myself. I’m going to be wearing the ‘C’ on my jersey, but other than that I’m still the same guy. I want to grow into this and learn from experience, just be myself. I’ll listen to Milan and to the older guys in the room and be respectful to the elders. It’s a little surreal, pretty special.”