When the Connecticut Whale opens up its regular season schedule Friday night in Hartford there is no question that the eyes of the Rangers organization will be focused on the development of several very important youngsters---first rounders Chris Kreider and JT Miller, top prospects Christian Thomas and Andrew Yogan, and intriguing free agent signee Kyle Jean, among them. But that doesn't mean the Rangers brass will not also be watching the play of several key veterans that could help the big club at some point, as well.
Including Kreider, who appeared in 18 playoff games with the Blueshirts last spring, the Whale has eight players with NHL experience on its roster. Forwards Kris Newbury (66 games), Brandon Segal (102 games), Michael Haley (43 games), and Chad Kolarik (6 games) join defenseman Mike Vernace (pictured---22 games), Sean Collins (21 games) and the just-signed former Ranger Matt Gilroy (194 games) as veteran members of the Whale with NHL experience.
"Of course we are going to pay a lot of attention to Kreider and Miller and those other young guys we drafted," said Rangers Assistant General Manager Jeff Gorton. "But it is still very important for us as an organization to make sure we have other guys ready to step into the NHL when the opportunity arises, like what Kris Newbury has done for us the past couple of years."
Newbury, who had played previously in the NHL with the Maple Leafs and Red Wings before coming to the Rangers, has appeared in 18 games over two seasons with the Blueshirts. He has recorded only one point, an assist, but has totaled 59 penalty minutes proving himself to be a willing contributor in any way for the Rangers.
"Quite often that veteran who gets called up is put into a different role than what he was playing in the minors," explained Gorton. "Newbs is a perfect example of how you have to adapt sometimes. He's the leading scorer with the Whale (last year), but we needed him to play a fourth-line role because of injuries. And he came in and gave us what we needed."
In the case of Haley, his role is well defined no matter what league he is playing in. With 767 penalty minutes in 282 career minor league games, it's no surprise that Haley totaled 151 penalty minutes in 43 games over three seasons with the Islanders before signing with the Blueshirts this past summer.
In the case of Kolarik, his role changed only slightly when he played in four games for the Rangers two seasons ago. A skilled top-line forward with the Whale, Kolarik skated on third-line duty in the NHL where he was asked to play responsible defense and chip in offensively---his true forte. So solid was the impression he made in those four games, that Rangers head coach John Tortorella often has referred to the 26 year-old Kolarik when discussing the future of the Rangers.
Defensively the Rangers are building quality depth on the blueline in Connecticut. Gilroy is a known quantity, having spent his first two NHL seasons with the Rangers. An above-average skater with puck-moving abilities, Gilroy will play a major role with the Whale and will be watched closely in New York. Collins and Vernace will likely form the top-pair defensive unit for the Whale, and both are capable of playing solid NHL minutes if the need arises. And AHL veterans Sebastien Piche and Logen Pyett offer some interesting puck-moving options on the Whale back end, as well.
"We have changed our defense quite a bit since last season and I think it's going to be for the better," stated Whale head coach Ken Gernander. "There's some experience there, and quite a bit of talent."
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