BY: Bruce Berlet (Exclusive to Howlings)
The Connecticut Whale’s nine-day training camp will be at the New York Rangers’ training facility in Greenburgh, N.Y.
The Greenburgh complex is superior to the XL Center in Hartford and Champions Skating Center in Cromwell, but it would have been nice if at least part of the camp was in Connecticut so the Whale could promote a team with several new players, including Rangers standout young left wing Chris Kreider. Instead, coach Ken Gernander & Co. will work out in Westchester County from next Saturday until the day after their final preseason game against the Worcester Sharks on Oct. 7 at 2 p.m. at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College in Hartford. The King Men’s Tour is at the XL Center – where a new ice surface and team and sponsor logos will be installed Tuesday – on Oct. 5, but that’s the only day the Whale would have to practice at Champions.
The Whale opens their preseason in Cromwell on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. against the Albany Devils, with proceeds benefitting Middlesex Whalers Youth Hockey. The Whale’s only road preseason game is against the Sharks on Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Hart Center on the campus of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. The Whale ends their preseason with a game that benefits the Ryan Gordon/Connecticut Whale Community Scholars Fund, with donations accepted at the door in lieu of an admission charge. The fund memorializes young fan Ryan Gordon, who died in 2006 after asking that a portion of the monies set aside for his college education be donated to the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.
The Whale opens their 16th season at the XL Center on Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m. against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, who edged the Whale for the Northeast Division title last season before being swept by their intrastate rival in the first round of the playoffs.
The Whale’s training camp roster includes goalies Cam Talbot, Jason Missiaen and Scott Stajcer; defensemen Sean Collins, Logan Pyett, Steven Delisle, Dylan McIlrath, Jyri Niemi, Blake Parlett, Mike Vernace and Sam Klassen; and forwards Kris Newbury, Chad Kolarik, Michael Haley, Tommy Grant, Brandon Segal, Ryan Bourque, Marek Hrivik, Kyle Jean, J.T. Miller, Christian Thomas, Jason Wilson, Andrew Yogan, Kelsey Tessier and Danny Hobbs, who signed a contract on Saturday. Hobbs, a center and the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2007, had 12 goals and 12 assists in 32 games last season as a co-captain at the University of Massachusetts. Hobbs, 23, ended his four-year collegiate career with 28 goals and 35 assists in 120 games, including his first two years with former Whale center Casey Wellman, traded to the Florida Panthers for a fifth-round pick in 2014 on July 12. Hobbs, a native of Shawville, Quebec, previously played with the Ohio Junior Blue Jackets in the United States Hockey League, getting 25 goals and 37 assists in 114 games.
McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010, won’t be ready for the start of camp because of surgery on July 6 for a dislocated left kneecap sustained in an open-ice collision with Jean in the Rangers’ developmental camp after the NHL draft in late June. Miller, the Rangers’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2011, has left the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers and reported to the Whale for camp. Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton told Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com that the Rangers will decide after camp and the three preseason games whether to keep Miller in Hartford or return him to the Whalers.
“It’s nice to have options with players, and we’re going to bring him in and see how he does,” Gorton said. “If he’s ready to play at (the AHL) level, then he’ll keep him. If he’s not, then we’ll return him to Plymouth, which is going to be a real good team with some good players, some first-rounders from other teams. So it’ll be up to J.T., and we’ll see where he’s at. It’s tough for anyone to turn pro at that age (19). It’s a bigger jump than people realize, and with the way it’s going with the caliber of player in that league, it’s going to be a tough league.”
Gorton said the 6-foot-5, 225-pound McIlrath is “doing well” and will be examined by team physicals next week to determine his exact condition.
“We all hope it’s the best possible scenario where (the knee) is healed the right way and the doctors green-light him for the next part of the process,” Gorton said. “He had a procedure done, has been diligently doing his rehab and the healing has to go a certain way before he’s green-lighted to extend his workouts, skating and that kind of thing. We don’t really know anything until he sees the doctor again in the next few days.”
Kreider will be the only Rangers player added to the Whale roster after he had five goals and two assists in 18 playoff games, the most goals for a player before he played a regular-season NHL game. It also would be beneficial for prospects such as Derek Stepan and former Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale players Ryan McDonagh and Carl Hagelin to continue to develop until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association to end the latest lockout. But that trio would have to clear waivers, and that’s highly unlikely, especially Stepan and McDonagh, who became part of the Rangers’ No. 1 defensive pairing with NHL All-Star and former Wolf Pack blueliner Dan Girardi.
“We just want to see (Kreider) keep moving forward,” Gorton told Cerny. “We’ve all seen his speed, his power and shot at certain times and the penchant for doing it under the light. He’s going to go down there as just another guy who’s going to continue to work hard, try to produce and work on his game to become a more complete player.
“Chris knows how to play, and he left school to be a pro and obviously it worked out because he did what he did, which we’re all thankful for. There was no problem being a NHL player right away, but now he’s in an unfortunate situation (with the lockout). But he can still play hockey, and he’s never played a NHL game in the regular season so he’s really a rookie and go down there and act like any other rookie.”
Stajcer, Hrivik, Thomas and Yogan will be four more first-year pros who could be keys for Gernander and assistants Pat Boller and Jeff Beukeboom, who replaced J.J. Daigneault after he became an assistant with his hometown Montreal Canadiens. The trio could have the youngest team in franchise history while trying to continue to develop players for the parent club.
“It’s a huge responsibility because in a salary-cap era, you need to be good in the draft and have young players who are constantly pushing guys in and out and developing,” Gorton said. “You put them back in juniors and college and they develop pretty well, but now it’s time to turn pro and show what they have. We hope they make us look good by showing they were good selections.
“When you turn pro, it’s a great opportunity for the kids and to be together. They all know each other from being at development camps with each other, so they’re all pushing to make an impression and make the big club. To have so many of them together is exciting. It’s been a couple of years since we drafted a few of them, and so it’s exciting to finally see them at the pro level.”
Gorton also discussed Kolarik, who showed well while getting one assist in four games with the Rangers two seasons ago but missed all of 2011-12 after he tore the ACL in his left knee when he caught a skate in a rut in the ice early in training camp in Greenburgh. Kolarik had 20 goals and 16 assists in 39 regular-season and playoff games with the Whale after being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets for former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers on Nov. 11, 2010.
“We’ll watch Chad closely,” Gorton said. “When he came up for a few games he was effective, and (coach) John (Tortorella) put him in some good situations. That’s when we brought some guys up and they were helping us, which is a credit to Kenny and the guys who run the same program as we do. But after a frustrating year where he couldn’t play any games at all, I think it’s huge for Chad’s career to come out and re-establish where he’s at, and then hopefully for him that he can improve as an NHL player.”
Defenseman Wade Redden, named the Whale’s fifth captain last season, isn’t on the Whale’s training roster because the Rangers don’t want to have to pay the 15-year veteran his $6.5 million salary. Redden is about to enter the fifth year of a six-year, $39 million contract that he signed July 1, 2008, and the Rangers haven’t had to count his salary toward their cap the past two seasons because they waived the veteran and sent him to the American Hockey League.
Players on one-way contracts such as Redden could play in the AHL by signing an AHL contract if they were in the league or the clear-day roster last season. But the Rangers won’t be waiving Redden because they don’t want to have to pay his salary or want him to get hurt and become eligible for an amnesty buyout that likely will become part of the new CBA.
“It’s disappointing to see (a lockout) happen again,” Redden said via cell phone from his summer home in Kelowna, British Columbia. “It’s frustrating, and I don’t know what’s going to happen because we’re kind of at a stalemate.”
Redden said he attended several NHLPA meetings in Western Canada last month and has been skating with NHL players such as Nashville Predators standout defenseman Shea Weber and youngsters who will be heading to AHL camps. But Redden said he didn’t know if he’ll sign an AHL contract so he can get back into the pro game.
“I haven’t really looked into it too much,” he said. “I have to see how long the lockout goes.”
As for his future with the Rangers and pro hockey, Redden said, “A lot will depend on what’s in the new CBA.”
CONTINUED MIXED FEELINGS FOR AHL PRESIDENT
A second NHL lockout in eight years could again be a bonanza for the AHL.
But AHL president Dave Andrews continues to have mixed sentiments about his league being the No. 1 in North America for the foreseeable future with no negotiations scheduled.
“First of all, you don’t know how great this window of opportunity is likely to be, if it is at all,” Andrews told Pierre Lebrun of ESPN.com. “We’re still three or four weeks from the opening of our season, the opening of the NHL season, if it were to happen. But I’ve been through two of these before, and in 1994 and in 2004-05, those periods of time when the NHL wasn’t playing were tremendous opportunities for us to grow the brand and to create greater awareness of how good our league is.
“The media coverage and the opportunity for live television, and the attention of the hockey world in North America at least being on us, and having some players in our league that we might not normally have, those are all positives and they added up to more revenue for us, far greater exposure and the best attendance that we ever had. So it’s hard to make that sound like bad news. It isn’t. It’s a really good windfall opportunity for us when it happens.”
AHL attendance rose 6.5 percent from 2003-04 to the 2004-05 lockout season, with both the average and overall attendance figures still the highest ever as standout players such as Jason Spezza, Eric Staal, Dustin Brown, Patrice Bergeron and Mike Cammalleri played in the AHL. It also helped that the Edmonton Oilers put their AHL affiliate in Edmonton for the season and that several games were moved to NHL arenas in Nashville, Los Angeles, Buffalo, San Jose, Anaheim, Toronto, Tampa, Philadelphia, Columbus, Ottawa, Long Island and Minnesota.
There could be a similar situation if the NHL lockout drags into the fall and winter, plus with social media and new media platforms, who knows how much more the AHL can gain. But there’s another side for Andrews.
“At the same time, not just in being good partners with the NHL and with NHL players, but the engine that drives our business is the NHL,” Andrews said. “And while we might see a short-term gain for a month or two months or whatever the period of time is, ultimately we all get floated by the success of the National Hockey League. I can honestly say that I haven’t been sitting here, nor have our owners sitting and wringing our hands saying, ‘Boy, I hope we get this opportunity.’ If it’s there, it’s there, and you need to be prepared for it and take advantage of it. But at the same time, it’s not the normal state of life for our business and it will eventually go back to normal.”
But that doesn’t appear likely soon, so AHL fans will get to see the likes of Kreider, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Eberle, Adam Henrique, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, Alex Burmistrov, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Cody Hodgson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Ryan Johansen, Brett Connolly and Adam Larsson for some time to come.
Continuing their development rather than watching could be a beneficial as it was for Spezza, Staal & Co. eight years ago.
“To a man, they would say it was a great experience for them and that their careers were enhanced by having a chance to play really meaningful minutes, getting the opportunity at their age to be a leader on their team was really important for those guys,” Andrews said.
But players such as Nugent-Hopkins, Skinner, Eberle, Hanrique, Schenn and Couturier have already had success at the highest level, so the question is how they will accept being in the AHL. And a few players who would be on AHL rosters will be relegated to the ECHL.
“Some players may end up in the ECHL that normally would be in the American League,” Andrews said. “Whether that’s one or two players per team, that’s probably how significant the impact will be to start with.”
Andrews is also taking a wait-and-see attitude on locked-out players on one-way contracts signing AHL contracts.
“We did that to create a mechanism by which players who in our view legitimately belong in the American League and were in the American League wouldn’t get caught in the lockout,” Andrews said. “We did that acting in our own best interests.”
But the AHL again won’t allow any locked-out player to play in the league.
“I don’t think you want to put your league in a position where there’s virtually no competitive integrity because as soon as the NHL comes back, all those (NHL) players go back,” Andrews said. “It’s a delicate balance you have to strike and act in the right way for your league, which is what you’re required to do because we’re a neutral part in all this. If you open the floodgates completely, then you have a number of guys that are normally in your league out of work. We have a mission (to develop players) that has worked for us, and we have to be mindful of that.”
MANY TOP NHL STARS HEADED TO EUROPE
Since the NHL canceled preseason games through Sept. 30, many of its stars continue to head to Europe.
Among the latest are Ottawa Senators center Spezza (Rapperswil-Jona of the Swiss Elite League), Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia), Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar (Mora Ishockeyklubb in Sweden), Boston Bruins right wing Tyler Seguin (EHC Biel in Switzerland), Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk (CSKA Moscow of the KHL), former Rangers wing Jaromir Jagr of the Dallas Stars and Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec (HC Kladno in their native Czechslovakia) and former Wolf Pack and Rangers forward Artem Anisimov, who was part of the trade that brought All-Star left wing Rick Nash to the Blueshirts from the Blue Jackets on July 23. Anisimov joined rebuilding Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the KHL, which lost 37 members of its organization in a plane crash on Sept. 7, 2011 that took the lives of 44 people. Because of the crash on the way to the season opener, the team did not participate in the 2011-12 KHL season.
Previous European signings included Nash being reunited with Sharks center Joe Thornton with Davos in Switzerland, New Jersey Devils wing Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL) and Buffalo Sabres defenseman Christian Ehrhoff (Krefeld of the Deutsch Eishockey Liga League in Germany). All the players who signed in Europe have contracts that allow them to return to their NHL teams if/when the lockout ends.
Nash is the only Ranger to go to Europe, though McDonagh said he has had several offers. Nash had a natural hat trick, an assist and five shots in his return to Davos on Saturday in a 9-2 victory Rapperswil-Jona. Thornton, who teamed with Nash to lead Davos to the Swiss league during the last lockout season, assisted on each goal and added another helper against former Colorado Avalanche and Canadiens goalie David Aebischer.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who won the Vezina Trophy last season, told Larry Brooks of the New York Post that he “seriously will consider” playing in his native Frolunda in Sweden when the country’s top league commits to adding locked-out NHL players. The SEL’s policy of not signing NHL players to lockout contracts was ruled in violation of Swedish anti-trust law on Friday, but the league appealed. Lundqvist won the 2004-05 Swedish championship playing for Frolunda with his twin brother Joel during the last NHL lockout before beginning his NHL career with the Rangers.
Rangers veteran center Brad Richards will remain in New York until at least Christmas to train and work out with many of his teammates, who were suppose to start training camp Saturday with the legendary strenuous testing by Tortorella. Last week, Tortorella asked Richards and captain/former Wolf Pack right wing Ryan Callahan to try to make sure the team worked out and scrimmaged properly and regularly in Greenburgh to stay sharp. Michael Del Zotto, another former Whale defenseman who is still an unsigned restricted free agent and attended the New York Rangers-Oakland A’s game on Saturday, told Steve Zipay of Newsday that he will return to his home in Ontario next week to skate with other players who have been locked out and possibly with his former team in Oshawa and perhaps go to Europe.
Meanwhile, players recently signed to contract extensions include New York Islanders forward Matt Martin (four years), Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler (five years, $20 million), Winnipeg Jets center Evander Kane (six years, $31.5 million) and Predators forward Craig Smith (two years, $2 million) and defenseman Kevin Klein (five years, $14.5 million).
DISPUTE IN ALBERTA
The NHL and NHLPA failed to have negotiations for the sixth consecutive day Friday partly because league deputy commissioner Bill Daly was in western Canada to attend an Alberta Labour Board hearing at which players from the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames challenged the NHL’s attempt to lock them out as unlawful.
If the players win their case, they would be paid during the lockout and allowed to skate at their team practice facilities. Canadiens players already filed a similar charge that was rejected by the Quebec Labour Board last week, though a full follow-up hearing was scheduled to finalize the decision. The NHLPA might think these tactics are useful in foiling the owners’ plan for a long lockout, but the short-term consequence was to remove a key person from the NHL’s negotiating side, thereby pushing back any meetings over the weekend or longer.
Daly also was involved in the NHL fining the Detroit Red Wings $250,000 for comments by the team’s senior vice president and alternate governor Jim Devellano in an interview that was published earlier this week.
“The Detroit Red Wings organization and the league agree that the comments made by Mr. Devellano are neither appropriate, nor authorized, nor permissible under the league’s by-laws,” Daly said. “Such comments are neither constructive nor helpful to the negotiations.”
The question is: What negotiations? The sides haven’t met formally since the start of the lockout last Sunday, though the NHL and NHLPA reportedly will meet in Toronto on Monday to finalize calculations on last season’s Hockey Related Revenue numbers, including escrow payments due to players. But no more formal CBA talks regarding the core economic issues are scheduled, which seems ridiculous.
Devellano’s most controversial remark was, “It’s very complicated and way too much for the average Joe to understand, but having said that, I will tell you this: The owners can basically be viewed as the ranch, and the players, and me included, are the cattle. The owners own the ranch and allow the players to eat there. That’s the way it’s always been and that the way it will be forever. And the owners simply aren’t going to let a union push them around. It’s not going to happen.”