Connecticut Whale 2011-12 season preview

By Leslie Treff
Photo: Though he started the 2011-12 season in the AHL, defenseman Tim Erixon could see time in the NHL before the season is over. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

The Connecticut Whale start their first full season since the 2010-11 rebranding, but not much has changed for the club. Still a New York Rangers‘ affiliate, the coaching staff is the same, and many of the players have returned. There are only five rookies on the team, with 13 returnees.

Ten of the roster players are NHL prospects, including four forwards, four defenseman, and two goaltenders.

After just making it into the playoffs last season (with a 40-32-2-6 record), then bowing out in the first round, the new division configuration of the AHL may help the team this year.


Forwards


Kris Newbury, the AHL veteran and the Whale’s top scorer in 2010-11, has been reassigned by the Rangers to the AHL team to start this season. Newbury had the best season of his professional career for Connecticut last year and should be a mainstay on the team’s top line for 2011-12. Other veteran forwards on the team for the beginning of the 2011-12 campaign are Sean Avery and John Mitchell, both of whom have seen significant NHL play. Newbury, Mitchell and Avery’s offensive abilities will be needed on a team that, at least at the start of the season, is dominated by potential third and fourth line NHLers.

Rookies Ryan Bourque and Carl Hagelin are both extremely fast skaters, can play both sides of the puck and transition quickly. Once their adjustment to professional play is complete, expect both of them to excel on the penalty kill. Bourque particularly has some offensive explosiveness, which could make for an exciting second line in Hartford.

Bourque never shies away from physical play, which can also be said of rookie Tommy Grant, who is at his best battling along the boards and hitting to shake loose the puck. Potentially, he will play on the third line with AHLers Kelsey Tessier and Scott Tanski, who are capable of taking turnovers and creating scoring chances.

New to the Rangers, and to Connecticut, Andreas Thuresson is an AHL veteran and one of the last players cut by the Rangers prior to their European trip. Thuresson was one of the best players on the ice in the Rangers pre-season game against the Philadelphia Flyers, and looked very good in the Whale’s pre-season games. He should be able to put up some decent numbers and round out the offense.

In the tough guy corner, the Rangers did not re-sign Devin Didiomete and instead have enlisted Andre Deveaux to be the resident enforcer. At 6’4, 232 lbs, Deveaux is a very different player than Didiomete, not only more intimidating, but also an offensive threat. Deveaux can skate too, and if he only could make consistently smart decisions on the ice, his stay in Connecticut would be a very short one.

Defense

On paper one of the big strengths of the Whale is on defense. All of the blueliners have professional experience and excellent size. In addition, there is a good mix of offensive and defensive skaters. Offensive blueliner Wade Redden has three more years left on his contract with the Rangers, but he continues to believe that he may be able to get back to the NHL. Should he raise his game at this level, it will go a long way toward helping Connecticut turn around their goals against statistic from last season.

Defensemen to watch are Blake Parlett, the Rangers recent signee, who had an excellent Traverse City Rookie Tournament before injuring his knee. Parlett is a very good puck distributor, very calm and patient in his play, which should help stabilize the blue line. Both Pavel Valentenko and Tomas Kundratek looked shaky in the pre-season. However, Valentenko revealed after he lost an NHL roster spot that he had been playing through injury, and Kundratek, who looked like he was going backwards, has actually improved
over last week.


Goaltending

Chad Johnson and Cam Talbot will be between the pipes for the Whale to start this season.

Johnson has spent part of his first two seasons as an NHL backup, not getting much playing time and shuttling back and forth between Hartford and New York. Should there be an issue with either Henrik Lundqvist or Marty Biron in New York, this may happen to him again, but if the 25 year old netminder is to develop into an NHL ready goaltender, he must get some very consistent time between the pipes with the Whale.

Both Johnson and Talbot took the college route, which makes them older than the other
netminders in the system. (Jason Missiaen, who is beginning his rookie professional season with the ECHL Greenville Road Warriors, is just 21 years old. Scott Stajcer, who has been returned to junior hockey, is just 20.) Expect Johnson to get the bulk of the time in net to begin the season, however, should he falter, Talbot will get a long look.

Coaching

Ken Gernander returns for his fifth season as the Head Coach of the Connecticut Whale. The former long-term AHLer and assistant head coach under Assistant General Manager Jim Schoenfeld, Gernander also coaches for the Rangers during development camp and in Traverse City. He will be joined once again by assistant coaches Pat Boller and JJ Daigneault.

Prospects

There are several bubble players currently playing with the Rangers, who may see some time in Connecticut when others return from injury. Included within those bubble players are rookie Tim Erixon, defenseman Michael Del Zotto, and winger Mats Zuccarello. Any of those players can make a significant difference in the Whales’ playoff chances next Spring.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, essentially a prospect in name only, will stick with the Rangers for the stretch of the 2011-12 season.