By Bruce Berlet
CROMWELL – Jonathan Audy-Marchessault might be the smallest player in Connecticut Whale training camp, but he certainly has made some big-time plays and impressions the past few weeks.
It started when Dean Stork, coach of the ECHL’s Greenville Road Warriors, recommended Audy-Marchessault to the New York Rangers after the speedy forward had a standout season with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that was coached by Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy and included speedy, gritty left wing Ryan Bourque, son of Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque and a top Rangers prospect.
“I knew Roy and talked to Audy-Marchessault’s mother,” Stork said Monday as he began a three-day stint watching the Connecticut Whale practice and scrimmage at Champions Skating Center. “I was hoping to sign him for my team.”
Well, barring something unforeseen, Stork can forget that idea. After the 5-foot-8, 175-pounder from Cap-Rouge, Quebec, showed well in the Rangers’ prospects camp after the NHL draft in late June, he was invited to participate in the prospects tournament two weeks ago in Traverse City, Mich. After starting on the fourth line, Audy-Marchessault advanced to one of the top lines and played on the power play and killed penalties. In four games, he tied for second in team scoring with two goals and two assists as most of the Rangers’ top young players finished runner-up in the tournament to the more experienced Buffalo Sabres.
“I played good and just worked hard,” Audy-Marchessault said Monday. “I was disappointed to start on the fourth line, but I wanted to prove to them that I could be better. So I just worked hard, and finally they knew me and knew what I was capable of doing. I played in all situations and am good at draws, and it was a really good experience going to the finals because there were a lot of good players. Me, Bourque and Christian (Thomas) played against (AHL Rookie of the Year) Luke Adam, (Marcus) Foligno and (Matt) Kassian. They were a pretty good line, so hopefully I’ll have an important role with the Whale.”
Off the strong showing in Traverse City, Audy-Marchessault got an invite to the Rangers’ main camp in Greenburgh, N.Y., and continued to show well.
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“He went head-to-head with some pretty good centers like (Kris) Newbury, (John) Mitchell and (Erik) Christensen and didn’t take a step backward,” Whale coach Ken Gernander said. “He held his ground defensively, so that’s a pretty good sign. He was a solid, two-way player.”
“I’m used to playing against good guys because when you have better players in front of you, it inspires you to get better and keep pushing in that direction,” Audy-Marchessault said.
Then in a prospects game Friday in Newark, N.J., Audy-Marchessault made a brilliant play to set up Bourque’s 5-on-3 goal, the first of the game, and scored 16 seconds into overtime off a speedy rush through the neutral zone and a pin-point shot for a 5-4 victory over the Devils’ prospects.
In the Whale’s first scrimmage Sunday, Audy-Marchessault made the artistic play of the game, racing down left wing and around defenseman Tomas Kundratek before circling into the slot and beating Jason Missiaen with a 25-foot shot to the glove side.
“The cut back and wrist shot from the slot was great,” Gernander said.
Monday, Audy-Marchessault was robbed in close on a nice save by Missiaen but had two assists, including a nifty pass to former Remparts teammate Kelsey Tessier in the left circle for the Blue’s third goal in a 6-4 victory over the Red. While forwards constantly rotate in scrimmages, Audy-Marchessault, Tessier and Kale Kerbashian was the line of day, combining for 11 points. Kerbashian had three goals and an assist, and Tessier had one goal and four assists, including an unselfish pass to Brendan Connolly for a clinching empty-net goal.
Tryout Connor Shields scored the other goal for Blue, which got shutout goaltending from Chad Johnson for the second straight day. Jordan Owens, on a tryout after playing parts of two seasons with the Hartford Wolf Pack, had a goal and an assist for the Red, which also got goals from Jeff Prough, Jason Wilson and Tommy Grant.
“He has been real good,” Gernander said of Audy-Marchessault’s play since the prospects tournament. “He just puts his nose to the grindstone and is an all-business kind of guy. He played with Bourque in juniors but never on the same line, but whenever we’ve thrown them together, they’ve had pretty good chemistry.”
Audy-Marchessault said Roy didn’t play him and Bourque together because “we were running all over the place everywhere.”
“We always wanted to play together because we knew we had a connection together,” Audy-Marchessault said. “We played together in Traverse City and in Newark and had a very good connection together, so I hope we’re going to start together and push in the same direction.”
But for now, Bourque is still with the Rangers, who were leaving Monday night for Europe for the team’s final four preseason games before they open the season Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm, Sweden.
Audy-Marchessault’s strong start as a pro is a continuation of his final junior season as assistant captain of the Remparts, when he finished sixth in regular-season scoring with 40 goals and 55 assists in 68 games, with his 10 first goals and 11 game-winners tops in the QMJHL. In the playoffs, he led the league in scoring with 11 goals and 22 assists in 18 games even though the Remparts were eliminated in the semifinals. The 11 goals were third in the QMJHL, and the 22 assists were the most, as he became the first player to lead the QMJHL in playoff scoring despite not playing in the finals.
Audy-Marchessault was named a QMJHL First Team All-Star and received the Bud Light Cup as Quebec’s player of the year despite moving from center to right wing for the first time.
“We had a big center, (6-4, 215-pound) Joel Champagne, who was good on draws and signed with Nashville, so I told Patrick that I didn’t care if I went to right wing,” Audy-Marchessault said. “I don’t find it different playing right wing or center. Center is better for my speed, but I felt I did a good job on the wall when I was on right wing. Maybe I’m better at center here because I have more space to skate, and when I have the puck, I’m in movement so I have my speed going up.
“I had a good year last season, so I have to keep doing that because that’s my role, put pucks in the net and produce offensively. I want to keep doing that, and I hope the coach will give me my chance to play on the power play and one of the first three lines.”
Audy-Marchessault will get his first shot at the AHL level Tuesday night at 7 when the Whale opens their preseason schedule against Albany at the Koeppel Community Sports Center on the campus of Trinity College in Hartford. It’ll be a continuation of his quest to land a spot in Hartford rather than Greenville since he signed his first pro contract with the Rangers on June 23 after turning down offers in France and with other NHL teams. He also demonstrated faith in himself when he signed a one-year, two-way deal in the AHL and ECHL when he could have had two years
Audy-Marchessault has had to have confidence since joining the Remparts as a 16-year-old for the 2007-08 season after being drafted in the 12th round. In his third season (2009-10), he won the Gaetan Duchesne Trophy as Quebec’s best defensive player and finished the regular season with 30 goals and 41 assists and then added three goals and 11 assists in nine playoff games.
Tessier sat in the locker stall next to Audy-Marchessault for 21/2 seasons before being traded to Moncton late in the 2009-10 season, when he had seven goals and five assists in 15 regular-season games with the Wildcats before exploding for 14 goals and 16 assists in 21 playoff games, earning a free-agent shot with the Rangers. Audy-Marchessault and Tessier continued to talk and text message after Tessier was traded, and now they could be linemates, especially off their showing together Monday.
“We’re good friends and connect well because we communicate easy on the ice,” Tessier said. “He’s a small player, but he has always been a real skilled guy who can score and give a pass. He’s a really offensive player who’s a hard-working guy and been my buddy for so long as my stall roommate and spending time together in the summer. He’s a good guy on the ice and a good guy off the ice and plays hard. He got a lot of points last year on the power play thanks a lot to good vision.”
Audy-Marchessault also called Tessier “one of my good buddies.”
“It was hard for us when he got traded, but I was happy for him because he had a good year,” Audy-Marchessault said. “But we keep in touch, so I was happy when I came here because it wasn’t like I was coming here alone. I was meeting Tess and was with Ryan (in New York).”
Audy-Marchessault talked to Stork during the summer and finally met the Greenville coach Monday.
“I’m happy to meet him, but I want to stay here,” Audy-Marchessault said. “I was really happy to play well in Traverse City because my objective this year was to go to New York camp and then do the AHL all year. I’m on the path to doing it, and I’ll keep pushing in that direction.”
The Whale-Devils game Tuesday night benefits the Ryan Gordon/Connecticut Whale Community Scholars Fund, with donations accepted at the door in lieu of an admission charge. The fund memorializes longtime Wolf Pack fan Ryan Gordon, who died in 2006 from cancer and asked that the money set aside for his college education be donated to three charities, including the Connecticut Whale Community Foundation.
The Whale also will play at the MassMutual Center in Springfield on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against the Falcons and then host the Worcester Sharks at the TD Bank Sports Center on the campus of Quinnipiac University in Hamden on Friday at 7 p.m. ($5 admission benefits Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford) and on Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. at Champions Skating Center ($5 admission benefits Junior Wolf Pack youth hockey). The entire AHL preseason schedule is available at www.theahl.com. … Whale defensemen Wade Redden and Pavel Valentenko and right wing Chad Kolarik have cleared waivers. Valentenko and Kolarik are recovering from injuries, haven’t been skating and are doubtful for the preseason games.
STORK THANKFUL TO RANGERS, WHALE
When the Road Warriors open their second ECHL home season on Oct. 14, they’ll have the thrill of raising two banners to the rafters of the BI-LO Center for winning the Southern Division and Eastern Conference regular-season titles.
Stork can take a lot of the credit for the franchise’s first-year success, but he also had plenty of kind words for the Rangers and Whale. Last season, Stork got goalie Cam Talbot on a rehab assignment, forwards Chris Chappell, former Quinnipiac standout Brandon Wong and Chris McKelvie on rehab and defensemen Blake Parlett, Lee Baldwin, Sam Klassen and Trevor Glass from the Whale. Stork then filled his roster with independent signings that included goalie Dov Grumet-Morris, who was a second-team ECHL All-Star and was voted Whale MVP by his teammates, defensemen Julien Brouillette and forwards Shields, Brendan Connolly, Mark Voakes, Marc-Olivier Vallerand and Andrew Carroll. Chappell, McKelvie, Connolly, Shields and Klassen are among the players in Whale camp this year, and Parlett is still with the Rangers.
“It was a great affiliation last year,” said Stork, who opens camp Monday in Greenville, S.C. “I really thought we got some really good kids who wanted to learn and get better every day. We had great character guys with people like the Parletts and Klassens.”
Stork has already signed defensemen T.J. Fast, who played in Cincinnati last season, and re-signed Shields and Wong, who had 21 goals in 64 games with the Road Warriors after he started the season with the Whale. Stork said he will be working exclusively with the Rangers this season after sharing an affiliation with the Philadelphia Flyers, who might send a player to Greenville in a pinch. Stork hopes to get a few more players from the Whale, but that will depend on injuries and how they play.
“I’m expecting a few more, but we’ll see how they do,” Stork said.
The Road Warriors did plenty good in their inaugural season, as their 96 points were only one less than the regular-season champion Alaska Aces, who went on to win the Kelly Cup under the direction of former Wolf Pack defenseman Brent Thompson, now coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“Every other top team was in the 80s (in points), so us and Alaska were the two powerhouses last year,” Stork said.
So why such success?
“We were a team that wanted to win every game,” Stork said simply. “We had great character in the locker room and had the work ethic. Guys worked in practice no matter what they did. The work ethic was fantastic, and it had a lot to do with the Rangers and some real good independent ECHL contracts that I signed on my own, like Connolly, Shields, Vallerand, Voakes, (Justin) Bowers, Brouillette and Carroll. A lot of those guys ended up in the AHL, so I was fortunate the independent guys that I had and the Rangers’ contracted players really helped me win hockey games. We were all-around solid in every aspect of the game.”
When Grumet-Morris was called up by the Whale for good in January, the Flyers’ Nic Riopel became Greenville’s top goalie. Though Riopel played well, Stork said he thinks the Road Warriors would be raising a championship banner if he had had Grumet-Morris in the playoffs. The Road Warriors were eliminated in Game 7 of the second round by the Wheeling Nailers, who will be on hand for the banner raisings on opening night in two weeks. Ironically, one of the Nailers’ top players was former Wolf Pack center Paul Crowder, who is now with the Adirondack Phantoms, who will host the Whale in their season opener Oct. 8 in Glen Falls, N.Y.
STAAL STAYING HOME – FOR NOW
After playing in Philadelphia and before heading to Europe on Monday night, the Rangers were reportedly to assign two of their 21 forwards to the Whale, which would leave them with 33 players, 10 over the opening-night limit.
“I have a pretty good idea of who the two [cuts] are, but I also want to take a look at them in this Philly game, and you never know,” Rangers coach John Tortorella told the New York media on Sunday.
The forwards who played against the Flyers were Bourque, Sean Avery, Brandon Dubinsky, Brian Boyle, Dale Weise, Andre Deveaux, John Mitchell, Mats Zuccarello, Erik Christensen, Artem Anisimov, Andreas Thuresson and Carl Hagelin. The defensemen were Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer, Stu Bickel and Tim Erixon, and the goalies were Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron.
But All-Star defenseman Marc Staal was reported to be not leaving with the team, though he is expected to rejoin the Rangers’ traveling party later in the week after missing most of training camp with headaches related to a Feb. 22 collision with his brother, All-Star center Eric Staal, in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Staal met with specialists on Thursday and Friday, had acupuncture treatment Sunday and more unspecified treatment Monday.
“It’s ongoing,” Tortorella said. “We’re not looking for results. It’s an ongoing procedure to try to help him. You guys keep on asking me on results – it’s not result-orientated, it’s just to try to help him. … We’re hoping, as he continues his procedures with the specialists, I’ll probably have an update in four or five days.”
Staal has been cleared by doctors for contact, but the Rangers continue to move very cautiously with getting him back into game situations. Without him, they brought 10 defensemen to Europe, where they play four games in five days starting Thursday against HC Sparta Prague in the Czech Republic.
During the official announcement that the Rangers would play the Flyers in the 2012 NHL Winter Classic at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia on Jan. 2, Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather said he expects Staal to rejoin the team on Thursday or Friday and be ready for the season opener.
“Marc practiced yesterday, he looked great and his conditioning is terrific,” Sather said. “I think he’s tested, in every (conditioning) test that we have, he’s been one of the top guys in the organization. I’m not concerned about that at all. First of all, going through the protocol happened a long time ago. He’s gone through the protocol a couple of times to find out exactly what it is. There are a lot of things that can cause headaches. You can look at migraines, you have a slipped disc, you can have pulled muscles, you can have a hundred different things.
“Trying to diagnose exactly whether it’s a concussion or it’s something else that’s bothering the player, we really have to find that out first. That’s been complicated. He’s had MRIs, X-rays, examinations by different people and they come and go. It’s not as if you sit at home for 24 hours and you have a pounding headache you need to take a migraine pill for it. That’s not the case. It’s coming and going.
“We think we’ve got a handle on it now so we’re going to know in the next couple of days exactly. I’m saying is I’m not exactly sure. I’ve heard that it may not be (a concussion), but it’s such a fine area of trying to define what’s causing the problem.”
Rugged left wing Brandon Prust, who has not played in the preseason after offseason shoulder surgery, was expected to fly with his teammates and return to game action in Europe.
Defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010, was slated to make the trip. He could play as many as nine games with the Rangers before either having to be returned to Moose Jaw of the Western Hockey League or having this season count against his entry-level contract.
“He has some work to do,” Tortorella said. “He’s not ready. I shouldn’t say – well, he isn’t. He’s a young guy, and this gives us more of a chance, in the situation we’re in right now with our D, more of a chance to keep playing, and for us to keep evaluating and keep teaching. The longer these guys are with us, we can keep teaching, also. So we’ll see where it goes.”
Meanwhile, former Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan said he didn’t notice much of a difference between wearing an “A” on his jersey and the “C” on his left shoulder in a 4-3 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night.
“It’s not much difference in terms of dealing with on-ice things with the refs or anything like that,” Callahan said. “Maybe you’ll talk to them a little bit more, and got to deal with them a little bit more, but nothing much has changed that way.”
Callahan’s biggest adjustment was playing a real opponent for the first time since broke his ankle blocking a slap shot by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in a game on April 4.
“Early on, you feel a little bit off, being your first game,” Callahan said. “Just timing and things like that. Overall, I felt pretty comfortable. Obviously, our conditioning is there through our training camp, so that’s not an issue. Things are starting to come together. We’re doing a little bit more systems and getting used to things like that, so it’s good.”
As for Staal, an assistant captain, Callahan said, “It’s hard because you don’t know exactly when he’s going to be back. If you have an ankle or a hand, you have a timeline. There’s no secret that he’s a huge part of our team. He’s one of our top defensemen, and if we don’t have him, it’s going to be a hole. Hopefully he gets better soon, and we have him for the start of the season.”
WHALE KICKOFF SATURDAY NIGHT IN WEST HARTFORD
The Whale will host their “Whale Blue & Green Block Party” season Face-off event Saturday from 6-9 p.m. at Blue Back Square in West Hartford. It will resemble a pep rally, with introductions of the Whale players and coaching staff, who will be signing autographs.
The Face-off Fan Experience will feature live music by Hartford hockey legendary national anthem singer Tony Harrington & Touch, food specials available from local restaurants, Whale merchandise showcasing the latest apparel, outdoor movies, “Pucky” joined by other mascot friends in the Autograph Zone, prizes and the introduction of the new CT Whale Slap Shot Cage sponsored by XFINITY, where fans can test their puck-shooting skills. Fans also can enter to win tickets to the home opener Oct. 15 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers or a Connecticut Whale replica jersey.
Admission is free and the event will be in the area of Blue Back Square known as “The Square” on Isham Rd. next to Barnes & Noble. … Whale season and individual game tickets are on sale. For information on season seats and all the Whale’s many ticketing options, visit www.ctwhale.com or call the Whale ticket office at 860-728-3366 to talk with an account executive. Individual tickets are on sale at Public Power ticket office at the XL Center. The Whale will play 90 percent of their 38 games at the XL Center on weekends and during vacation and holiday breaks. Tickets, starting at $14 for adults and $12 for youth, are available at the box office Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. or online at www.ctwhale.com and through TicketMaster charge-by-phone at 1-800-745-3000. For information on season seats and mini-plans, call 860-728-3366 or visit www.ctwhale.com.