When Ryan Lindgren came to the Wolf Pack out of the University of Minnesota, the Hartford coaching staff knew that the 20-year-old was a strong, gritty blueliner and an effective defender. What has been a nice revelation is how well-rounded Lindgren's game is.
"I've been very impressed with the maturity that he's shown," Wolf Pack head coach Keith McCambridge said of Lindgren. "He plays a real physical style, does a good job with the details of his game, finding sticks in front of the net, boxing out for the ability for our goaltenders to see shots coming through from the point. We really like where he's at, and on top of that, what's been a pleasant surprise is the stages that he can skate pucks out, coming out of D-zone coverage, on breakouts. When there isn't an option, he has that ability to make reads, and all of a sudden give himself two or three different options, because he has his feet moving, and he's skating pucks out of trouble."
Lindgren, for his part, has always been dedicated to sharpening his footwork.
"My skating's always been something that I've taken pride in," the Burnsville, MN native said after a recent Wolf Pack practice. "Maybe it's something that doesn't get talked about too much, but I think I'm a good skater, a guy who can join the rush, and relatively good with my feet. And I think as this year has gone along, I'm getting more confident with joining the rush and getting more confident with the puck on my stick, and maybe holding on to it a second longer and finding that pass to open up, instead of just getting rid of it right away."
McCambridge, who made his living as a player by making opposing forwards uncomfortable, is appreciative of Lindgren's willingness to put himself on the line on a nightly basis.
"I hate to use the term 'old-school defenseman', but that's exactly what Ryan is, in a good way," McCambridge said. "He plays that physical game, with some sandpaper, on the back end, and just watching the opposition on how they dislike having to play against him, is something that has been noticeable for the coaching staff. But we really like where his game's at right now, good young man."
Lindgren agrees that having Wolf Pack opponents consistently upset with him indicates that he is doing the right things around the Hartford net.
"Yeah, that's a good thing," he said with a laugh. "Obviously, if you get under the skin of a team's top player, and he's worried about getting hit all the time, or taking that little cross-check, it's going to get him off his game, and I think it fuels my game. I get more into it."
Lindgren clearly was one of the more physical players in the Big Ten during his two seasons with the Golden Gophers, leading the team in penalty minutes both of those years. He is up against a different type of physical specimen in the AHL, but that has not deterred him from sticking with the hard-nosed style.
"Guys are definitely bigger and stronger, and older, than what it was like in college, and juniors before that," Lindgren said. "But it's (playing physical) something I'm going to do, something I'm going to bring every night. I like to be physical, I like to be in the face of the other team, and that's something that I don't think's ever going to change. It's a little different with these older guys, but I don't mind it and I'm going to keep doing it, for sure."
The consistency and eagerness with which Lindgren has finished hits and battled has been eye-opening for his head coach.
"That's probably been the biggest surprise," McCambridge said. "We saw him at the college level, saw tape on how he played. He was real physical, had some highlight-reel hits. But there hasn't been a drop-off. Sometimes you'll see with young defensemen, first-year players, where they kind of tip-toe into the league, don't really want to ruffle any feathers, and kind of feel their way for the first year, or first half-year. But that hasn't been the case with Ryan, he's come in and he wants to be a factor in the game, he's built off what he did at the college level."
Defending well is also a bigger challenge in the AHL than in college, and that part of Lindgren's development is on track as well.
"There's obviously a lot of good players in this league, a lot of high-end players, so I think it's been a good test, and I think I've adapted to it well," he said. "I think I've done a good job of playing my game, being a good shutdown defenseman. Every night it's a different challenge, against the different players that you're playing against, and if you take a night off, you're going to get burned, you're going to get scored on. So it's big making sure that you're ready every night, every shift, because the players on the other team are going to make you pay."
McCambridge has come to think of Lindgren as a key shutdown guy as well.
"When we're up a goal, up two goals, at the end of the game, with a minute-and-a-half left, he's one of those players that's going over the boards to keep that lead," the Wolf Pack bench boss said. "He's continued with where he left off from college, and now his speed that he plays at, and his reads when he has the puck on his breakouts, and from the offensive blue line, continue to grow."
For college players, the longer and more densely-packed schedule at the pro level always take some getting used to, and it has been no different for Lindgren. In the final analysis, though, he feels it is a positive.
"You hear about this league, hear about turning pro, it is a grind," Lindgren said. "Three games in three nights, that's something you never do in college. It's just a lot more games, 76, compared to 38, or whatever we play in college. I think it's been good for me. You learn a lot playing games, and you've got to make sure you bring it every night. In college you've got a week to prepare every time, and in the pro schedule you've got games on Wednesdays, or whatever it is. I think it's been good, and I like the transition."
The last year has been full of transitions for Lindgren, with the most prominent being his acquisition by the Rangers from Boston at the NHL trade deadline February 25. Being dealt from your first NHL organization before you even play a pro game has to set your head spinning a bit, but Lindgren ended up taking it in stride.
"Obviously a lot of emotions go through your head when you find out you got traded," he said. "I kind of heard about it, leading up to the trade deadline. Never really put much thought into it, but when the day came and Jeff Gorton called me, and Don Sweeney of the Bruins called me as well, and let me know that I got traded to the Rangers, at first you're kind of wondering, 'Is it because the Bruins didn't want me any more, was something going on there?'. But after talking to Sweeney and Gorton, it was a lot more that the Rangers really wanted me. So obviously that made me very excited, and you couldn't ask to be part of a better organization than the New York Rangers. I couldn't be happier to be part of this organization."
There was a "wow factor", too, for Lindgren, in that he, Ryan Spooner and a first-round pick were traded for long-time NHL star Rick Nash.
"Pretty crazy," was Lindgren's answer to the question of what went through his mind upon hearing whom he was traded for. "What can you say about Rick Nash? He's one of the best power forwards and it was pretty cool and special to kind of be linked up with that name in a trade."
Another major step for Lindgren was his subsequent decision to leave college after his sophomore year to turn pro. That could not have been easy, given that he grew up in the heart of Gopher country, but his pro experience so far has made him supremely confident that it was the right move.
"I really couldn't be happier," he said about signing with the Rangers. "It is a tough decision, you're leaving college, you're leaving your buddies. I was leaving my family, who lives in Minnesota, right around that area. But looking back on it, I would do the same exact thing. Playing here, playing for these coaches, playing with these teammates, it's made me a lot better player. And just learning from the guys here, and learning from this organization, I think it was the right choice to come in, and I'm very happy I did it."
Foregoing the rest of his college eligibility also allowed Lindgren to join the Wolf Pack for their final ten games of 2017-18, which gave him a valuable head start on his pro career.
"I think it was huge, just more from a confidence standpoint," Lindgren said of his "cup of coffee" with Hartford. "Coming in after college, you're kind of worried about turning pro, and how will you fit in. And after playing those 10 games, I thought I played well, and thought I kind of adjusted to the pro game well. So coming in this year, I kind of knew what to expect. And just meeting the guys last year, I think that was big too, so coming into training camp there was a lot more familiar faces and kind of made the transition easier this year.
"I think I've learned a lot, I think that's the biggest thing, just learning from the older guys on the team, learning from the coaches. I think my game keeps getting better and better as the days go by, and I think that's a good thing. I'm going to learn a lot more as the season goes along."
Lindgren has proven himself to be an excellent learner, and is showing every sign of being the kind of all-around defenseman that every team covets in today's NHL.
"Obviously the game has changed," McCambridge said, "where there's more of an emphasis on adding that second layer (of offensive pressure) off the rush, getting your D up the ice, which he still has that in his resume to do. But on top of it, he's a low-maintenance, hard-working guy that is going to move pucks from the goal line to the forwards, for breakouts, and keep the opposition away from the front of our net, and be hard to play against eve