By Bob Crawford
The very next day after the NHL Draft, Monday, July 1, the Hartford Wolf Pack’s parent club, the New York Rangers, began its annual week-long Prospect Development Camp at the team’s practice facility, the MSG Training Center in Tarrytown, NY.
Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander and his staff of assistants Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller were front and center at the camp, which brought together all of the youngest players in the organization, including the five players that the Rangers selected at the Draft in Newark, NJ. After the first two days of the camp, Gernander was impressed with the work ethic on display.
“The first day was all (fitness) testing, but I think that the guys worked very well,” the Wolf Pack mentor said. “The on-ice testing was certainly difficult, there’s a bit of an endurance or conditioning component to it, and they worked pretty hard and pushed through that, and they also had some off-ice testing.
“That’s what you’re looking to see, is how hard these guys are willing to work and to push themselves. And to some degree, they’re not in the type of shape that you would expect them to be at a training camp environment. Some of them are coming off of injuries from last season and have taken some time to heal and recover, and they’ve just now started their real push, conditioning-wise, for the start of next season. But you could see that the willingness to work was there, and that’s encouraging.
“And then [Tuesday’s] scrimmage was a pretty spirited scrimmage. It was 4-2 with an empty-net goal, so it was a pretty close affair, and again, these guys haven’t been on the ice, a lot of them, for any significant amount of time lately. So it was a bit of a feeling-out process, and we expect it to build as the week goes on, but a lot of skills and interesting stuff to watch.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the whole enterprise was the fact that the five new draftees, third-round forward selections Adam Tambellini, Pavel Buchnevich and Anthony Duclair, fourth-round defenseman Ryan Graves and goaltender MacKenzie Skapski, a sixth-round pick, didn’t even have 24 hours to digest being drafted before hitting the ice for the camp.
According to Gernander, the newest members of the organization seemed largely unfazed by the whirlwind.
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“I think they’ve been fine in that regard,” he said. “By and large, the first day all that was asked of them is to work hard, to see where they are in the testing, to evaluate them there, and then [Tuesday] was the first scrimmage. But it was nowhere near the intensity level of what you would have in a playoff environment at the pro hockey level.
“It’s so early, and we’ve got a couple of guys who are wearing brand-new gear because they came right from the draft, and due to the storm the other night their luggage was lost, and [Tuesday] was really the first day that they even touched pucks.
“I think we had some earnest efforts on some guys’ parts. Nobody dominated, it was a 4-2 game with an empty-net goal, so it was pretty tight. But I think it was a pretty skilled game, and everybody for the most part worked pretty hard and acquitted themselves well.
“It’s great for them to get acclimated to the New York system,” Gernander continued. “They get to see the training facility and the way things are conducted here, what a first-class organization this is to be drafted into. Also they’re allowed to meet our staff and ask questions and be educated, so if any problems should arise away from the Training Center, during the summertime or if they go back for another year of Junior or college hockey, there’s another resource they can use to help them in their career, whether it be injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, strength and conditioning questions, all of those things. They’ve been introduced to all of the resources available to them, to give themselves the best chance of success.”
One individual who was making special use of those benefits was Tambellini, who was the Rangers’ top pick at 65th overall, after New York had used both its first and second-round picks in trades during the NHL season.
“He was hurt when he arrived,” Gernander said of Tambellini. “He had a nagging injury, which really even prevented him from participating in all of the testing on the first day. So there’s been no evaluation at this camp here of his game, but again, just like everybody else, he’s got resources that can help him with the rehabilitation of his injury. He has strength and conditioning guys that can help him work other parts of his body while this (injured) one’s rehabbing, and give him every exercise that will enable this injury to make a full recovery, so it’s still a very worthwhile experience for him.”
Tambellini’s name is a familiar one in the hockey world, as his dad Steve had a 553-game NHL career with the Islanders, Colorado/New Jersey, Calgary and Vancouver in the 1980s and older brother Jeff was a first-round pick of the LA Kings in 2003 and has played 242 career NHL games since turning pro in 2005-06. Gernander is obviously familiar with Steve Tambellini’s accomplishments, and coached against Jeff when he played in the AHL with Manchester and Bridgeport.
“It will be exciting to see,” said Gernander of how Adam’s abilities might compare to those of his father and sibling, “but he’s drafted for his own merits, what he’s done on the ice. We don’t draft people and hope that they can be someone that they’re related to or what have you. He was drafted and he was chosen by our staff for the things that he brought to the table, the things that he displayed in his own personal game. And he’s going to be his own player, he’s going to find his own identity. And that will be fun, to watch that process, just like any other player that we draft.”
For players like Tambellini, who are getting their first look in the prospect camp at how things are done at the pro level, the expectations and competition can be a bit of an eye-opener, even though all of the camp attendees are coming from excellent, highly-regarded leagues or college programs.
“As you move up each level, the disparity between players’ skills and abilities and things of that nature decreases,” Gernander said. “And a lot of times I think as you’re growing up, you’re able to have success with just first efforts alone, and I think some of them now are discovering that it takes second and third efforts. Pro hockey players that have been at it for a number of years, by and large their conditioning is second to none. And because the gap in skill level is so narrow, you have to do all you can from a conditioning standpoint to give yourself any edge available. And I think finding that out, just how hard you have to work to stay competitive or to have success and move up a level, is very important.”
In addition to the new draftees, players who were drafted or signed by the Rangers in the last year or two, and a number of tryout players who have been identified by team scouts as worthy of a look, the prospect camp roster includes several “older” players, the likes of Dylan McIlrath, Marek Hrivik, J.T. Miller, Kyle Jean, Andrew Yogan and Jason Wilson, who not only have attended at least one previous prospect camp, but also have at least a year of pro experience as well.
“I think they really should be looking to showcase themselves, to separate themselves from guys that are just coming in, given that they’ve had at least a year of pro hockey experience under their belts,” Gernander said of what those more seasoned players should be looking to accomplish at this year’s camp. “They’ve been in the system for at a couple of years now, where they’ve trained and conditioned under the systems or the guidelines that we provide for them, and they’re a year more physically mature than the rest. So they should be looking to give themselves every opportunity come the fall (NHL training camp), that we should have high expectations for them.”
As the prospect camp was going on, Gernander was seeing his own potential Wolf Pack roster undergoing some significant tweaks, via a pair of Ranger trades. On Monday night Kris Newbury, Gernander’s leading point-scorer the past three seasons, was dealt to Philadelphia for veteran defenseman Syvret, and then the parent club sent Christian Thomas, the leading rookie scorer on the 2012-13 Connecticut Whale club, to Montreal on Tuesday in exchange for fellow forward Danny Kristo.
The Thomas-Kristo deal was a swap of highly-regarded young prospects, both talented forwards, but the Newbury-Syvret deal, on the surface of it, was more of a sea change for the AHL club.
Gernander’s comment on the exchange of veteran stalwarts was, “After last season, when we looked at our power play, we could use someone on that back end (defense) that can quarterback it for us. And I think that’s one of the great things that he (Syvret) brings to the table. He’s got professional hockey experience (eight years of pro, mostly in the AHL), and in order to get something good you’ve got to give up something good. Kris has been a top offensive performer for us, but we have some young kids coming in that are going to play pretty significant roles offensively, and we see Syvret as being a better complement to them and to their game, and it’s a better fit given the personnel that we’re bringing in and that we’re going to start the season with next year. Really it’s not much more than that. Syvret brings an element that we’re a bit lacking in, and he should complement the young players and help in their development.”
Syvret was the second seasoned pro defenseman added by the Ranger organization in two days. The Blueshirts also picked up five-year vet Justin Falk from Minnesota right before the draft, for Benn Ferriero and a 2014 sixth-round draft pick. Gernander confirmed that these two deals were indicative of an organizational objective of strengthening its defensive options.
“I think if you go around and ask, nobody (in pro hockey) is hemorrhaging with defensemen,” he quipped. “They’re a pretty high priority in any organization. So if you can get some depth in that position, it really strengthens your organization, and we’re always looking to strengthen our club and increase our depth.”