By Bob Crawford
It has been an anxiety-ridden last month or so for the hockey world, with the entire sport’s attention focused on the NHL labor situation. And beyond the headlines of the principals, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Players Association chief Donald Fehr, exchanging proposals and looking for an upper hand in the negotiations, and reports of high-profile stars heading across the Atlantic to ride out the lockout with European clubs, players on the proverbial “bubble” between the NHL and AHL, like the Connecticut Whale’s Kris Newbury, were waiting and wondering what their situations would be.
During the last NHL lockout, in 2004-05, basically any player on a two-way (NHL/AHL) contract was allowed to play in the AHL. Word was going around recently, though, that this time around would be different, that any player, like Newbury, who was eligible for waivers would be barred from coming to the AHL and would be locked out like all of the NHLers on one-way deals. This would have been a severe blow to veteran depth players, who admittedly make good money even on their minor-league salaries, but have not had nearly the seven-figure earning power that much of the NHLPA membership enjoys.
Happily for the Newburys of the world, however, the NHL and the Players Association agreed that it would not be fair to deny veterans like Newbury a chance to play in the AHL during a lockout. A special waiver period was held last week, during which teams could waive players on two-way deals, enabling them to be assigned to the AHL if they cleared. Newbury did clear waivers, along with once and future Whale teammates Chad Kolarik, Mike Vernace, Tommy Grant, Brandon Segal, Micheal Haley, Sean Collins and Logan Pyett.
This, obviously, was a big relief to last year’s Whale co-leading scorer.
“I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Newbury said Friday. “I heard the waiver thing first, then I heard we might not be able to play. So I kind of got worried there, I have to support a family. I was kind of just letting my brain do a little thinking about what would happen if I didn’t play. So I’m excited that we get the chance to play again and looking forward to it.”
While the lockout situation inarguably has a negative effect on the sport as a whole, it may present an opportunity for players like Newbury. Having played regularly in the AHL, they will already be well into game shape whenever the lockout happens to come to an end.
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“You’ve got to look at it as maybe it’s an opportunity for the management to see you more down here (the AHL) playing,” Newbury said. “So you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every night and show them what you can do and hopefully open their eyes and get a chance when the lockout does eventually end.
“You’ve just got to give yourself the opportunity, if there is room up there and there’s a spot, you’ve got to be willing to do whatever it takes to grab that, and it starts here in a week (with the beginning of Whale training camp). You’ve got to bring your best work ethic every day and show the management that you’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
Another by-product of the lockout is that NHL training camps, which were to have begun Friday, have been postponed. That has caused the Whale’s New York Ranger parent club to move Whale camp from Hartford to the Rangers’ MSG Training Center facility in Tarrytown, NY. Barring a miraculous settlement of the lockout, Newbury and the rest of the Whale training camp roster report Friday night for the start of camp, another opportunity to display their wares to the full attention of the entire organization.
“It’s (the camp) right in their (the Rangers’) back yard,” Newbury said, “so they’re going to be there every day with their eyes open, watching how hard you work and what kind of skills you do have. So I’m looking forward to it, it’s a great facility down there, and it’s time for guys to get away and enjoy themselves and get to know each other a little better.”
The Rangers’ depth chart underwent some changes this summer, with the most significant being the three-players-for-one deal in late July that brought Rick Nash to Gotham. There could very well be at least one forward spot up for grabs when the NHL season begins, and Newbury hopes, again, that being game-sharpened in the AHL will give players like him a better shot at that kind of opportunity.
“Anything can happen,” Newbury said, “and a week from now guys can show up and play above their heads of what the management thinks they were capable of, and they might get a shot. So you’ve just got to be willing to work extremely hard and show what you’ve got.”
While getting prepared for the start of training camp, Newbury, who lives with his family in West Hartford, has been training with Pyett, with whom he played in 2009-10 with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Pyett, a fifth-year pro defenseman, is changing teams for his first time as a pro, having signed with the Rangers this summer after four seasons in the Detroit Red Wings organization.
As for what Whale fans can expect out of Pyett, Newbury offered, “He’s an offensive-minded defenseman, likes to join the play. So any time you see him get the puck in our defensive zone and he has control of it, he’s usually looking to get going with it. So he brings a lot of excitement to the game, and hopefully he’ll help us out a lot.”
The Whale lost a strong puck-moving defenseman too, when Tim Erixon was sent to Columbus in the Nash trade, so there may be a ready-made role in Connecticut for Pyett.
“I think that’s in the back of his mind,” Newbury said. “He wants to show the coaching staff what he can do offensively and get that opportunity to play on the power play.
“It’ll be exciting here in a week from now, to see all the guys showing management what they have. There’s a lot of new faces, so for the management it’s time to evaluate, and see what everyone can bring to the table.”
Newbury, for his part, was also an unrestricted free agent this summer, and whispers were that he might be headed over to Europe after nine years of back-and-forth between the NHL and AHL. The Rangers organization, though, showed how much it thinks of the gritty centerman when it stepped up with a two-year contract offer that included an excellent AHL salary of $300,000. Newbury gladly accepted, and now is back for a third full year under the Ranger banner, with Hartford an excellent fit for him, his wife Amanda and their three children, Jacob, Jaidyn and Jorja.
“New York’s pretty close to Hartford, so the drive down there, if you do get the call, is not bad,” Newbury said. “And the family’s really happy here, the organization is really great, treated us A-1 since I’ve been here. So this is very nice for us to be here, and we’re very happy.”