Connecticut Whale 2011-12 Season Preview: Veteran defense set for a new season

Although the Connecticut Whale’s offense endured several extreme changes during the off-season, the team’s defensive corps remained the same for the most part. Last season’s squad allowed 223 goals in 80 games and also accounted for 25 of Connecticut’s 221 goals scored. With limited changes on the back-end, the Whale will have a “veteran” group this season, as each player is familiar with each other and the Whale playing system.

Leading the way last season was veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who scored eight goals and 34 assists in 70 games. He finished the season with a minus-1 rating. Redden, 34, will return to the team this season, and he will likely play a major leadership role for Connecticut. The veteran defenseman of 994 NHL games could be a top-pair defenseman for the Whale, and he will likely play the point on the team’s top power-play unit. Similar to last season, Redden should have a new rookie defenseman to work with. Last season Redden assisted Ryan McDonagh for the first few months of the 2010-11 season, which eventually led to McDonagh being recalled by the New York Rangers and becoming one of the their top-4 defensemen. This year it is expected that Redden will work with 20-year-old rearguard Tim Erixon, who will likely join the Whale after the Rangers play their season opening games in Europe. Although Erixon will not start with the season with Connecticut, when he returns you can expect Redden to help him reach the next level.

Another veteran returnee on this season’s squad is 29-year-old Jared Nightingale, who, at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season, signed a one-year contract extension with the Whale. Last season Nightingale scored two goals and six assists in 72 games played. He also amassed 204 penalty-minutes, the most of any defensemen, and finished with a rating of minus-5. Nightingale is known for his physical play, and he will have to continue with that playing style this season, due to lack of physical skaters on the team. Nightingale will probably log top-4 minutes, and spend time on the penalty-kill. Like Redden, the veteran blueliner will be relied on to take some of the younger defensemen under his wing; which is something that he probably will not mind at all. Being one of the only defense-first defenseman on the team, he will be an extremely important player for the Whale.

Offensive-minded defensemen Pavel Valentenko and Blake Parlett will also return to the Whale this season. Valentenko was cut by the Rangers following what was described by coaches as an unimpressive training camp, and he will be looking to prove himself NHL worthy with a big season in Connecticut. During the 2010-11 season, Valentenko scored just five goals and 12 assists in 79 games. He took 38 penalty-minutes and finished with an impressive plus-21 rating. Valentenko was most important in the shot-blocking category, which he led the team in last season. The 23-year-old defenseman is known for his booming shot, and should receive some time on the power-play. It is also likely that he will play top-4 minutes, and possibly spend some time on a pairing with Redden.

As for Parlett, 22, he signed an entry-level deal with the Rangers over the summer following an impressive season with the Whale last year. Parlett appeared in 24 games with the Whale last season after spending most of the year with the Greenville Road Warriors. Parlett scored two goals and 10 assists, along with 17 penalty-minutes and a plus-1 rating. Parlett will likely receive an opportunity to play on the Whale’ power-play this season, as he is has proven his offensive talents. He is another player that the Rangers and Whale would like Redden to work with this season.

Jyri Niemi, 21, and Tomas Kundratek, 21, are also on Connecticut’s roster this season. Both players played for the Whale last season, although Kundratek appeared in many more games than Niemi did (which was due to an injury Niemi sustained).  Kundratek played in 70 games with the Whale last season, and recorded two goals and 10 assists. He took 42 penalty-minutes and finished with an even-0 rating. Reports suggest that Kundratek had an impressive training camp with the Whale, which should earn him a consistent spot in the line-up.

Niemi, however, played in only 46 games last season due to injury. The former Islanders draft pick scored three goals and six assists for Connecticut last season, along with 22 penalty-minutes and a minus-1 rating. Niemi is a very good skater, and if given the proper playing time in the right situations, he could score some goals. Niemi will challenge for a spot in the Whale line-up this season, though it will likely be in the bottom-6.

Lee Baldwin, 23, has made the Whale roster for now, after splitting the 2010-11 season with Greenville and Connecticut. In 21 games with the Whale last year, he failed to record a point but registered 17 penalty-minutes and a minus-1 rating. Baldwin will fight for a spot in the teams’ line-up, but he will more than likely be used as a spare defenseman for the most part. He could be re-assigned to the Road Warriors some time during the season, where he should receive plenty of ice-time.

There are a few possible additions to this season’s defensive corps, as Brendan Bell and T.J. Fast could become part of the Whale roster. Bell, 28, is expected to begin the season with the Rangers, but could be demoted to Connecticut as soon as the Rangers acquire a defenseman or when an injured blueliner returns. He would become a major part of the team’s defense, and he will immediately add another puck-moving defenseman who can play in the top-4.

Fast, 24, signed an ECHL contract with the Road Warriors this summer, but after an impressive camp it looks as though he may have earned a spot on Connecticut’s roster. Fast has the ability to become a talented two-way defenseman, and he could play a major role on this season’s team if he sticks around. It will be interesting to see what the Whale choose to do with him as the season approaches.

There is also 25-year-old Stu Bickel, who, like Bell, will start the season in the NHL but could be demoted as soon as next week. If that is the case, then he will play a similar role to the one he played last season: a physical, shut-down defenseman. In 54 games with the team last year, he scored just two goals and seven assists along with 135 penalty-minutes and a minus-2 rating. He would certainly be an important addition to the team, although he would likely push Baldwin and possibly Fast off the roster.

Projected defensive depth chart (Note: the following pairings are predictions for the season opener, and are subject to change. These pairings have not been confirmed by the Whale)

Parlett—Redden

May not be the ideal pairing, but until Erixon, Bell and Bickel return, it would work. Parlett will get an opportunity to work alongside a veteran puck-mover in Redden, and he could learn from plays that the 34-year-old makes. Both players are also reliable two-way defensemen, although offense is a big part of their game.

Kundratek—Valentenko

This would be an interesting pairing to say the least, as both players have good offensive instinct but they are also talented in their own end. As long as Valentenko is healthy for the opener, he will be a top-4 defenseman. Kundratek should be tried with Valentenko early in the season, as both players recorded the best plus/minus ratings out of all defensemen who played in 70 or more games in 2010-11.

Niemi—Nightingale

Granted there are no changes to the roster prior to Saturday’s season opener against the Adirondack Phantoms, I truly believe Niemi will earn a spot in the line-up. Partnering him with Nightingale would be a good choice by the Whale coaches. Nightingale plays a physical, shut-down game, and the veteran’s playing style would allow a smooth-skating Niemi to carry and move the puck more often. I could also see Fast, Kundratek and Parlett paired with Nightingale for the same purpose; as well as Bell, Erixon and possibly Michael Del Zotto if they return to the AHL.

The extra defensemen, based on these predictions, would then be Fast and Baldwin.

Note: you may notice that 20-year-old Collin Bowman was left off of the preview. That is because he was released from his try-out with the Whale according to his own twitter account.

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Check out my forward preview here.