In September 2004, the ECHL Charlotte Checkers marked the 11th year of association with the New York Rangers and their AHL affiliate Hartford Wolf Pack. Although the affiliation is not new, the team is more integrated into the organization this season, as the team implements a new Ranger-created system under first-year head coach Derek Wilkinson.
Wilkinson talked to Hockey’s Future about the system and the Rangers prospects who will be learning it along with him after the Checkers first game of the season in Greenville Friday night.
“The idea from New York this year is that we want to be aligned with the Rangers and Hartford so that the style and systems that we’re playing are generally the style and systems that Hartford’s playing, and when New York is playing, will be that so when kids move up and down, they understand. They don’t have to relearn what to do, they can just go out and play. And then when you’re looking from the Rangers perspective, they can see what the kid can do in that style of play. They know who they need and who plays well in that particular style, as opposed to not necessarily knowing how a kid from Hartford is going to play in New York. Now they’ll know.
“That’s what we’re implementing here and it’s really based on a lot of forechecking, a lot of pressure, energy and really taking advantage of that. Not being afraid to make mistakes, getting after the puck and really pursuing the puck, offensively, neutral zone, defensively, PK, the whole thing, being really aggressive because of the youth movement, because you’ll have more energy. So that’s the idea, that’s the way I understood it from (Rangers VP of Player Development) Tom Renney and (Rangers GM) Glen Sather, that that’s what they’d like to do. And (head coach) Ryan McGill, they’ve already done that last year at Hartford. The system is somewhat similar to what they already play. So we’re trying to implement it here. I need to learn it as well (laughing). So far so good tonight, but that’s the idea behind it.”
The Checkers caught on quick to the new system, beating the Greenville Grrrowl 3-1 opening night, putting up 45 shots to the Grrrowl’s 28 in the process.
“We really want to get a forecheck going and work ‘em down low, work ‘em down low, work ‘em down low,” Wilkinson explained. “The idea being that we’ll tire them out in their end, create chances and if they do get a chance on us, they’re going to be at the end of their shift. So defensively that helps us. Offensively we’re able to do that and I think you saw that we were able to keep the momentum going. We’ve got guys who are just tireless.”
Four New York Rangers prospects make up part of that tireless squad — defensemen David Liffiton, Jake Taylor, Rory Rawlyk along with winger Juris Stals. Rawlyk played with the squad last year, while Liffiton, Taylor and Stals are newcomers.
In 2003-04, his rookie season, Rawlyk collected 32 points in 67 games with the Checkers while also scoring a goal in five games with the Wolfpack. The 6’4 200-pounder was a free agent signee of the Rangers.
“Rawlyk had a good year last year, but needs to get a lot better defensively, so this year we’re going to concentrate more on defense,” Wilkinson said. “He’s naturally offensive, he’s got a great skill set for an offensive defenseman, but just needs to get stronger in his own zone.”
Drafted by the Rangers in the sixth round in 2002, Jake Taylor, 21, spent two years in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers before moving to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers for 2003-04. The 6’4 220-pound Rochester, Minnesota native did little to dispel his reputation as a tough defensive defenseman, collecting 68 penalty minutes in 39 games as a freshman. Taylor decided to forego his remaining three years of eligibility in Minnesota and signed with the Rangers this summer. He was paired with Rawlyk against Greenville.
“Tonight was the first time we saw him in a game situation, but he’s big strong, real good player,” Wilkinson described. “He’s going to be a kid that I’d be surprised if he didn’t make a real run at the National Hockey League in the next couple years. He just needs ice time. He needs to learn the differences in the pro game playing against men than the college game playing against kids his own age.
“[Taylor’s] mold is more of a stay at home defenseman, kill penalties and just be a real solid force in his own end. But tonight he was real good, jumping in the play and showed a little bit more than he’s billed to have. He made really good decisions offensively.”
Liffiton, a Colorado Avalanche second round selection in 2003, played three years for the Plymouth Whalers (OHL) and was acquired from Colorado by the Rangers in 2004. The 21-year-old has good size at 6’1, 200 pounds. This is his first year playing pro hockey. He was paired with 32-year-old Chris Bellanger on Friday.
“David Liffiton is a real good two-way player, a guy who has a knack for blocking a lot of shots. He can play a little power play. He’s a nice mix. When you’re looking at getting players, I’m sure the Rangers are looking at him as a kid who can fit in in all situations. He’s a good one, and he’s a gamer, just loves to play and does whatever it takes to win, so that’s nice to see.”
Stals, a ninth round Ranger selection in 2001, collected 18 points in 62 games for the Wolfpack in 2003-04. The 22-year-old Latvia native is 6’3 210 pounds. He played on a line with veterans Eddie Pershin and Kenton Smith on Friday.
“Juris Stals is a kid who played in Hartford all of last year and is now with us. He’s a kid who just needs confidence. He’s got a knack for scoring, he just needs to get confident, get a little bit more selfish with his shot. He’s got a really good one.”
Charlotte also received a prospect from the Ottawa Senators, junior goaltending sensation Kelly Guard. Guard lead the WHL last season with a 1.56 goals against average and posted a WHL record 13 shutouts. He guided the Rockets to the Memorial Cup championship with 11 wins in 17 postseason games and claimed tournament MVP honors.
While Wilkinson, a former goaltender in the IHL and NHL, is glad to have Guard in his stable and the two teams formalized the relationship with an affiliation agreement, he doesn’t expect more prospects from Ottawa at this time.
“The deal with Kelly is that New York didn’t have a goalie to send us this year with (Al) Montoya and (Henrik) Lundqvist not here yet. They didn’t have anyone to send us so that’s why we got Kelly Guard. I don’t anticipate seeing any more players from Ottawa, but that’s not to say we won’t. But our spots are designated for the Rangers.”
Two other players deserving mention are Jason Dawe and Ryan Cuthbert. The Checkers signed veteran Dawe just before dropping the puck for the season. He brings 366 games of NHL experience to Charlotte and at 31 years of age he will provide leadership to a young Checkers squad. The length of his stay with the Checkers is a bit cloudy, however.
“We hope to have Jason Dawe for the season but we’re not sure,” Wilkinson said. “He’s here for the weekend, his family would like to move to Charlotte. We’re not sure if we’re going to be able to keep him for the year, but he’s here for now.”
Cuthbert, under contract with Hartford, returns for a second season on right wing with the Checkers. Reunited with his junior goalie, Guard, Cuthbert hopes to improve on a 23-point performance in 62 games for the Checkers in 2003-04.
“They don’t build them enough like him and that’s too bad,” Wilkinson raved. “He’s just a gritty, hard-working player. He’s the guy you win championships with.”
Twenty-two-year-old Cuthbert will be one who fits naturally with the new system of forecheck, pressure, and grit.
“A lot of your systems are designed for your personnel, and I think the personnel they have through the system is young and hungry,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a lot of good young prospects with a lot of energy and a lot of grit. You can play that way when you have that. If we didn’t have that here, we’d have to change the style. We may not have it at all times here. Now we do because of the lockout, but hopefully even when that’s over we can play the same way.”
For some affiliates, implementing the parent club’s system is met with resistance and headaches. Not so in this case. It is welcomed and even desired.
“My being a first year coach, for me it’s easy,” Wilkinson explained. “I don’t have a set way of playing, so I just learn from them and now I’m going to try to implement it here. Although I’m not an employee of theirs, I certainly feel like I’m very well tied to them and I feel obligated to do that.”
The Checkers executed the system well in the first game, made easier perhaps because they were on the road. They played almost exactly how Wilkinson had envisioned.
“It surprised me a little bit too,” Wilkinson admitted. “I was real shocked with our ability to sustain the pressure that we did. I thought at times we’d have to maybe pull back a little bit with the conditioning, but our conditioning as a team is obviously tremendous and we’ll see how we bounce back tomorrow. I was real pleased. I thought we did more things that I thought, I thought we made more tape to tape passes than I thought we would, being a young team. So I was pleased with their poise.”
The Checkers will give the system its second test tonight against the South Carolina Stingrays.
Aaron Smith and Holly Gunning contributed to this article. Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.