It's been an exciting eight months for Danny Kristo. The 23-year-old winger for the Hartford Wolf Pack – the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers – has gone from playing in the NCAA national quarter-final at the University of North Dakota to playing in the last stretch of a losing season with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, and now establishing himself as a star with the Wolf Pack following a July trade.
“My head was still at college, but I went right into playing games; I had just one practice before my first AHL game,” Kristo said last month before a game against the Springfield Falcons. “It was a unique situation going to Hamilton, where they were kind of in a scramble, finished last place in the league. I think we lost eight games the whole year in college, and then going to Hamilton, we lost seven or eight of the nine [games I played], so it was obviously different. But it was good to get my feet wet and get some games under my belt before this season.”
Kristo's professional career dates back to before college, when he was drafted out of Eden Prairie (MN) High School by the Montreal Canadiens, who took him in the second round – 56th overall – at the 2008 NHL Draft.
“It was great to get drafted by an Original Six organization,” Kristo said. “They were pretty high on me, which was pretty cool. It was also great to immediately go up to Montreal and see all of the (Canadiens history memorabilia) they had there.”
Kristo played one season in the USHL with the Omaha Lancers before heading off to North Dakota. In 50 games with the Lancers, Kristo racked up 22 goals and 36 assists for 58 points. He also scored three goals in three playoff games.
It was at the University of North Dakota that Kristo began really showing his worth. His freshman year he averaged just under a point per game, with 15 goals and 21 assists in 41 games. Kristo had an off-year his sophomore year, where he missed a few games and was not as effective offensively. However, he returned to top form for his junior year, putting up 45 points (19 goals, 26 assists) in 42 games. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Kristo's best college season was his senior year, where he scored a career-high 26 goals to go along with 26 helpers for 52 total points.
Kristo credits his experiences at North Dakota for helping shape him into the player he is today. Along with the coaching staff, led by head coach Dave Hakstol, Kristo said his UND teammates are still a big part of his life.
“I'm still really close with all of them. The coaching staff made me better every single day and they really pushed me to strive for excellence,” Kristo said. “I think that's why I'm here in the AHL and having such a great start. I can thank Coach Hakstol and the other North Dakota coaches for my development.”
In June of 2013, rumors began to swirl that the Canadiens were planning on trading Kristo, perhaps at the NHL Draft at the end of June.
“My stock was pretty high after the college season, and after I went to the International Championships with Team USA,” Kristo said. “I played pretty well there. The entire team was pretty much all NHL guys, so that helped.”
Kristo ended up not being traded on draft day, but two days later. Kristo received a phone call from his agent alerting him that he had been traded to the New York Rangers for fellow-prospect Christian Thomas.
“It wasn't like I wanted to be traded from Montreal; I liked it there, I liked the guys, but sometimes that's the way hockey is,” Kristo said of the trade. “But obviously I was excited New York traded for me, because that meant that they wanted me.”
This season – Kristo's first full season in the AHL – included an NHL training camp, the first Kristo has attended.
“I started three exhibition games, and thought I played pretty well,” Kristo recalled. “I made some defensive mistakes, which definitely hurt me with trying to make the team, but I knew it was going to be tough to make (the Rangers), anyway.”
Kristo spoke highly of the position playing college hockey put him in, one that has allowed his transition to the professional level to come more easily than for other developing players.
“I played four years of college, so it's not like I'm coming out of juniors, age 19,” Kristo said. “I'm a little bit older, so the pace and physicality hasn't been too bad.”
Kristo's adaptation to the AHL, in fact, has been fluid. Through his first 22 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack, Kristo has recorded 10 goals and eight assists. For rookies, Kristo is tied for second in the Eastern Conference in goals and tied for fourth in points.
“I think the coaches have given me a pretty good opportunity to succeed,” Kristo said. “They've got me playing on the power-play, and top minutes on the top line. We've got a pretty good team that can make plays.”
Like most forwards, it is the defensive part of the game that is last to develop, with most of the emphasis on offense in the lower levels of play. Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander noted that Kristo is also working on making less risky plays.
“He's got great hand skills, he's got a good release on his shot and he has very good offensive vision to make plays,” Gernander said. “That being said, he has some things to learn with the pro game and making some of those plays at a higher percentage. We still want to see that elite-level, high-end passing, but when those opportunities don't present themselves, you have to play a little closer to the chest.”
As the season plows onward, Kristo has been working to continue his development into an NHL-caliber forward. With the good coaching and his looking-to-improve attitude, Kristo has all the tools needed. Kristo understands that getting NHL-ready takes time, but he is happy with where he is right now.
“I'm here in Hartford, and it's been a good start, but I'm still learning everyday,” Kristo said of his first season of professional hockey. “It's been awesome.”
Follow Mark Volain on Twitter via @markcvolain