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Gunderson comfortable at Trenton

by Brian Compton

Trenton defenseman Ryan Gunderson leads the
Devils in scoring, and made the ECHL All-Star team.
While playing hockey at the University of Vermont, Ryan Gunderson’s parents would have to get in the car and drive all the way up from the suburbs of Philadelphia to watch their son play.

These days, the commute isn’t so rough.

After joining the Columbia Inferno for the end of the 2006-07 season, Gunderson signed with the Trenton Devils as a free agent. His hometown of Bensalem, Pa., is roughly a 15-minute drive to New Jersey’s capital city.

In other words, he’s home.

“It’s great,” Gunderson told “My family gets to come to every game, which they haven’t really been able to do too much. Vermont was like seven hours away. They’re pretty pumped. My friends from high school have even gotten to some games. It’s great to be home.”

How long Gunderson will get to stay home, though, is up in the air. And that’s a good thing.

The 22-year-old defenseman has been one of the ECHL’s most pleasant surprises, as he currently leads the T-Devils in scoring with 36 points (four goals, 32 assists) in 48 games. He was Trenton’s lone representative at the ECHL All-Star Game in Stockton, Calif., last month.

“It was cool to be a part of,” Gunderson said. “It was really well run. Being in the skills competition, I know a lot of guys had never really done anything like that. It was pretty cool.”

Brian Compton
Brian Compton reports on the ECHL every week throughout the 2007-08 regular season.

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Trenton coach Rick Kowalsky has been thrilled with Gunderson’s development over the course of the season. At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, Gunderson is never the biggest player on the ice. But his willingness to get the puck up ice and his eagerness to quarterback the power play has done wonders for the rookie’s numbers.

“For a guy that’s not real big, he’s not afraid to take a pounding to make a play or to get it up the wall or out of the zone,” Kowalsky said. “That’s the stuff the Brian Rafalski’s and the smaller ‘D’ in the NHL have to do. He’s really made strides.”

So while it appears Gunderson has the offensive game to earn a promotion to the American Hockey League, the rookie continues to work on areas where he can improve in his own end of the ice. Kowalsky believes Gunderson has the necessary work ethic to make it to the Triple-A level.

“He has to work on a few things, but he’s willing to do that,” Kowalsky said. “That first pass and his ability to find those seams, whether it be in the neutral zone or on breakouts, you can’t teach that. You can preach that to some ‘D’ and they just never get it. But he has that ability. He really sees the ice well and he doesn’t hang on to the puck too long.

“Obviously, he’s got to get a little stronger, but he knows the game,” Kowalsky added. “He’s worked at it. He’s willing to learn and he’s willing to work. All the things are in place for him to definitely have a crack at the next level. Whether or not that comes next year, I don’t know. But he’s definitely made the first step here, that’s for sure.”

And that first step has come despite a shaky season for the T-Devils. Kowalsky’s club – depleted by injuries, pending child births and anything else you can think of – has dropped four in a row and is currently two points behind the Johnstown Chiefs for the fifth and final playoff spot in the North Division. Gunderson says the spirits are still high in the Trenton locker room thanks to Kowalsky, who is aiming for a return trip to the postseason.

“It’s been great,” Gunderson said of playing for Kowalsky. “He’s a great coach and he’s great for the younger guys. He’s been through it all. He really knows what’s going on as far as the players and when we need a day off and things like that. We’ve got to get guys healthy. We’ve just had a real bad string of injuries. Hopefully once we get a few guys back, we can make a run at it down the stretch. But considering we have a young team, the morale is pretty high.”

Should Gunderson help lead Trenton to the Kelly Cup Playoffs, it’s a safe bet that the organization’s bosses up Route 1 will be paying close attention. While there haven’t been any talks to sign Gunderson to an AHL deal, the fact that New Jersey owns both of its minor-league affiliates (Lowell, Trenton) certainly gives Gunderson a leg up on players from outside the organization.

“I think that’s something we’ll talk about after the season’s over,” Gunderson said. “It definitely helps that they send people (to our games) who represent our team. They get to see me a lot because of the relationship with the three teams. I’m in a good situation here right now.”

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