After spending time playing wing for the Whale, defenseman Jyri Niemi was assigned to the ECHL last week. (Chris Rutsch/ CT Whale)

After Transactions, Whale Blue Line Finally Set

Just three weeks ago, Jyri Niemi, a third-round pick by the New York Islanders in 2008, was playing wing for the Connecticut Whale.

Niemi, who is now playing with the Greenville Road Warriors of the ECHL, was a participant in the traffic jam of defensemen that had begun to pile up on the Whale roster. In fact, before the demotion of Niemi and Lee Baldwin to Greenville and Tomas Kundratek’s trade to the Washington Capitals, the Whale had amassed 10 defenders.

Coach Ken Gernander has since trimmed the number down to a manageable seven, a collection of promising NHL potential, veteran leadership and AHL journeymen.

The loss of Kundratek, who hadn’t looked promising in the young season, won’t inherently damage the Whale. But the Rangers’ third-round selection in 2008 probably deserved more of a look than he received in the system.

Tim Leone of The Patriot-News reported that Kundratek had asked the Rangers for the trade and I can understand why. When you’re a young third-round pick and you’re a healthy scratch behind defensemen like Stu Bickel and Jared Nightingale, you’re going to be frustrated.

It’s not to say that Kundratek didn’t have his chances in 2010. The Czech defenseman played 70 games, tallying only two goals and 12 total points in his opportunities. But surely he deserved a bit more playing time than he received in a Whale uniform this season.

Despite Nightingale having developed into a sort of leader on the ice for the Whale (he’s been an assistant captain at times) and Bickel being the closest thing to a true fighter the team has, their playing time should have been sacrificed for the sake of development.

Losing Kundratek, who turns 22 in December, won’t be a shot to the heart of Ranger fans. And it shouldn’t be. But if it weren’t for the promising development of Michael Del Zotto and Derek Stepan, the 2008 draft class would be a complete bust. Kundratek joins other 2008 draftees Evgeny Grachev and Dale Weise as once promising Ranger prospects now with other organizations.

What this really proves is the depth in the Rangers’ system. In a ranking of potential, Kundratek sat far behind Tim Erixon, Blake Parlett and Pavel Valentenko on the Whale blue line. It would have been a long, challenging road for Kundratek to find his way to Madison Square Garden.

After all the moves, the Whale’s blue line is set up nicely. Erixon, who has already shown his aggressiveness in his handful of games, and the undrafted Parlett provide play-making abilities to aide the offense. Valentenko, who has underperformed thus far in 2011, must step up and provide the team with physical play. It also wouldn’t hurt if the Russian defenseman used his laser of a shot to net a few goals.

With the demotion of Brandon Bell to Hartford and the existence of the ever present $6.5 million Wade Redden, the two can lend their veteran leadership to the trio of young defenseman, but with the minutes they receive their play in all areas of the game must match it. Redden has assumed the role nicely since accepting his assignment to Hartford last season, never looking to be a bitter veteran lost in the world of minor league hockey as so many others who has been assigned to Hartford have in the past.

With the decisions of who’s in and who’s out on the Whale’s blue line finally having been made, some sort of stability now comes to the defensive pairings. Nothing in the AHL is forever and certain, we know that, but at least know the players who are here can get down to business without four defensemen sitting in the stands each night.


Tags: AHL American Hockey League Connecticut Whale CT Whale ECHL Greenville Road Warriors Jyri Niemi New York Rangers Pavel Valentenko Tim Erixon Tomas Kundratek Wade Redden

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