Nine more players were deleted from the Rangers training camp roster on Wednesday, leaving 30 still vying for up to 23 spots on the opening night roster next week. That means nine more players will be arriving shortly in a place that was not their first choice, Hartford, CT, home of the Rangers AHL affiliate.
While the drive from XL Center, home of the Hartford Wolf Pack, to Madison Square Garden, home of the Rangers, is a relatively painless two or two-and-a-half hour ride, it can seem like millions of miles away for players whose goal it is to play in the NHL, yet begin a season in the AHL.
That is the reality, however, facing the likes of Dylan McIlrath, Danny Kristo, Cam Talbot, Micheal Haley, and five others who were assigned to the Wolf Pack on Wednesday. And it is the job of Hartford head coach Ken Gernander to make sure that the players get over their disappointment and get them back on the track that could lead to the Rangers.
"You have to treat every case on an individual basis," Gernander explained to me the other day. "You have to make an assessment of every situation and do what's in the best interests of the athletes and the organization."
Gernander is spot on in observing that not every player sent down is in the same boat or experiencing the same emotions. Kristo, for example, is a highly touted first year pro who was given a prime chance to earn a spot on the Rangers roster. Haley is a veteran third or fourth liner who has bounced back and forth between the NHL and the minor leagues throughout his career. Talbot is an up-and-coming goaltender who has a pair of solid veterans in Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron ahead of him on the depth chart. McIlrath is a first round pick who needs more time in the minor leagues to develop his game after missing several months following knee surgery a year ago.
"It's a case by case basis, but I can give you some hypotheticals we might deal with," shared Gernander. "You could have someone who last year wasn't necessarily in the plans and had a good season and progressed to the point now they are meriting a second and third look, maybe they are encouraged by staying as long as they did in camp. Other people are real professionals where they are told by the organization what their focus needs to be in order to make the jump, and they want to get right at it. And other guys feel they showed better than what they were rewarded for, and they may not be as happy. So every case is different."
It is a big part of Gernander's job to understand quickly what each player is feeling and how they are reacting to their demotion. He then must counsel, and coach, these players so that they can become as productive to the organization as possible.
In short, that is called player development.
"A large part of our job is development," said Gernander, who is assisted in Hartford by Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller. "We are working with raw players and trying to help them be the best they can be. We are trying to create as much depth and competition within the organization as possible."
Perhaps better than most coaches, Gernander can understand all of the emotions he helps these players deal with on a regular basis becaus eover a 14-year professional hockey career Gernander appeared in only 12 regular season, and 15 post-season, games---all with the Rangers. Though he was elected into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame last year, Gernander more times than not was that player being sent back to the minor leagues and not playing in the NHL over the course of his career.
Now his concern is molding the players he receives from the Rangers, and making sure as many as possible become ready and good enough to be National Hockey Leaguers.
"From Day One in the organization we are trying to push the (players) in a certain direction, and that is to the Rangers, to the NHL", explained Gernander. "The best teams in this league build from within, and that's what we want to do, to keep building from within. Our overall body of work does not change, there is a certain stability to what we do in this organization."