Off-Season Game Plan: Rink Rats
The Minnesota Rink Rats played well above expectations once again last season as they made one of the strongest Cinderella runs the WHL has ever seen; going from a last place squad before the All-Star break to a playoff team and then Cup finalist. The team is built around a core group of young talent with a strong cast of finesse players. The Rink Rats are primed to make another run at the Cup this season as the team has one of the strongest cast of players the franchise has ever seen.
Although an improved squad will be coming out of Minnesota, the lifting of the salary cap has allowed some teams to move their prospects and become even stronger. The Las Vegas Bulls are strong favorites to make a run this season with their many acquisitions this offseason and the Rink Rats will likely see competition coming from many other familiar teams such as the Express, Dropkicks, Dugouts and others. If the Rink Rats want to make a run they’ll rely on former MVP finalist goaltender, Ryan Miller to lead the way.
Even with an up & down season last year, Miller is still one of the WHL’s best goaltenders and will need to play well in order to live up to team expectations. The 29 year goaltender played well in the playoffs and is entering the prime of his career so look for another MVP-caliber season out of this veteran.
Brian Elliott & Jimmy Howard will contend for backup duty. Elliott, who was a 3rd round pick last season, is expected to win the job but the team isn’t ready to commit to either. Although the future is bright in goal for the Rink Rats, the present is slim. Depth will be a real issue and the team will have to put all their faith in Miller to get the job done.
Minnesota’s defense is better then ever boasting a mix of veterans and skilled youth the best of which are defensemen Brent Burns & Paul Ranger. Burns was the Norris Trophy winner last season and one of Minnesota’s top scorers. At only 23 years of age, there are very few defensemen or players in the league with a brighter future then Burns.
Ranger, acquired in a trade for Rob Schremp last season, projects to be a very good puck-moving defenseman and will likely play on the squad’s top two lines this season. With 8 goals and 50 assists last season, Minnesota is very excited to see what he can do wearing a Rink Rats jersey for an entire season.
Derek Morris, John-Michael Liles, Nick Boynton and Jordan Leopold will compete for the final two top-four spots on the Rink Rats roster. Morris & Liles are the likely candidates as both have solid abilities in the offensive zone and Morris played well defensively for the Rink Rats last season. Leopold & Boynton will likely fill the final two roster spots, with Shane Hnidy playing occasional minutes on the team’s penalty kill. While Minnesota will likely miss Captain Jay Bouwmeester, the team fills confident in their current group of defenseman and feels that Keaton Ellerby will step up in the next two seasons to take Bouwmeester's place.
Minnesota’s center corps will be much improved over last season, a season that saw Alexei Yashin & Matthew Lombardi split time as the number 1 & 2 options through the first half of the season. This season Minnesota has Daymond Langkow leading the way after a much hyped MVP run. Langkow came to Minnesota halfway through the season and found great chemistry with Derek Roy, reigning in 47 goals (34 on the PP) and 52 assists providing the spark the Rink Rats needed to get into the playoffs & Cup Finals. Langkow will likely switch off between the first line and second line with rookie David Krejci, who got a taste of WHL action last season with 3 goals and 2 assists in 8 games played. Krejci is a very likely candidate for the Calder Trophy and will get plenty of minutes as expectations are high for this young, talented, playmaking center.
Rounding out the center corps are speedy centers Matthew Lombardi and TJ Hensick. Lombardi may be one of the fastest players in the WHL but he’s always had troubles putting points on the score sheet. Last season was a little different as Lombardi surpassed 20 goals for the first time enjoying a solid 28 goal campaign along with 26 assists. Hensick rounds out the group of centers and while he’s still a year or two away from playing in the WHL, Minnesota sees tremendous potential out of this young center.
On the left side Assistant Captain, Derek Roy had a strong breakthrough season last year with career highs across the board. Roy was selected to his first WHL All-Star game last season but an injury kept him out of that appearance. Roy projects to have another great season playing alongside center Daymond Langkow. The two had great chemistry last season and will have a full year to build upon. Behind Roy are veterans Jason Blake, Martin Straka and Patrick O’Sullivan. Blake is a great two-way forward who will see minutes on the penalty kill & power play units. Straka has his best years behind him but he can still make a contribution playing alongside a solid sniper. The Rink Rats have great hopes in O’Sullivan who scored 32 goals and 30 assists for the Rink Rats last season. His production should only continue to climb as he matures in the WHL and Rink Rats brass hope to see him be a 50 goal scorer someday soon.
On the right side many expected to hear Jamie Langenbrunner’s name show up on the trade market this season but instead Langenbrunner was resigned to a 3 year deal and named Captain. Langenbrunner will move between the first and second lines this season.
Mike Cammalleri will be the other guy moving between the first and second scoring units this season. Acquired before the start of the preseason last year, Minnesotans expected big things out of Cammalleri. Cammalleri will have to do more this season then his 29 goals and 29 assists last season in order to win over fans. With a lofty contract and huge expectations the pressure is definitely on Cammalleri to perform. Luckily for Rats fans, Cammalleri has been working out this offseason with a number of trainers and appears in better shape then ever. Expect big things from this speedy young winger.
Rounding out the Rink Rats wing corps is new acquisition Michael Ryder. Ryder played well last season on a bad squad scoring 25 goals and 25 assists in 56 games played. Although he’s likely going to play on the Rink Rats’ 3rd line, the 3rd line will be filled with Lombardi and O’Sullivan so Ryder could enjoy improved numbers this coming season.
Center: David Krejci, Daymond Langkow, Matthew Lombardi, TJ Hensick
Left Wing: Derek Roy, Jason Blake, Patrick O'Sullivan, Martin Straka, Nikolai Kulemin
Right Wing: Mike Cammalleri, Jamie Langenbrunner, Michael Ryder, Tyler Kennedy, Michael Repik
Defense: Brent Burns, John-Michael Liles, Derek Morris, Paul Ranger, Nick Boynton, Jordan Leopold, Shane Hnidy
Goal: Ryan Miller, Brian Elliott, Jimmy Howard
Needs: Backup goaltending, strong goal scorer, top prospects not rookies
Who’s In: John-Michael Liles, Jason Blake, Michael Ryder, Jordan Leopold, Martin Straka, Keaton Ellerby, Roman Voloshenko
Who’s Out: Jay Bouwmeester, Sergei Samsonov, Aaron Asham, Scott Hannan, Kyle Cumiskey, Mike VanRyn, John Grahame
01) Nikolai Kulemin
02) Brian Elliott
03) Tyler Kennedy
04) TJ Hensick
05) Keaton Ellerby
06) Michael Repik
07) Jimmy Howard
08) Andreas Nodl
09) Taylor Chorney
10) Ryan Potulny
Outlook: This team no longer has to play Cinderella; they’re strong and respected across the league after the run they put on last season. There’s a good mix of veterans and youth on the team and no doubt they have some speed. The team has probably the strongest chance they’ve ever had to make the playoffs and make a run at the Cup, however increased competition across the league and question marks in goal may keep them from reaching that goal. The team will have to ward off injuries and everyone will have to have a strong season in order for the Rats to go deep again this year.