By Joshua Boyd / NCDCHockey.com
The Connecticut Jr. Rangers were back on the construction site right after the end of their 2022-23 season. But you wouldn’t find wood and drywall here – it was all about culture. The Jr. Rangers are looking at building a program that players see as the obvious step for themselves between prep school or AAA hockey and the NCAA Division I realm. They would be playing in a top-flight multi-sport facility at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, and with coaching from individuals with Division I and high-level pro resumes that know what it takes to be the best hockey athlete, on and off the ice, that you can be.
“I think we have gone back to what made us successful from the pre-pandemic hockey teams: we went after guys that love the game, and want to be here,” said Head Coach Jim Henkel, a former RPI Engineer who then enjoyed a nine-year AHL and ECHL career. He has been head coach of the Jr. Rangers since Day 1 of the NCDC in 2017. “They are determined to bring CJR back to the playoffs and make some noise. These kids are hungry to prove people wrong and they have a chip on their shoulder.”
Along with building that culture of bleeding Ranger Red, White and Blue, Henkel and GM Vinnie Montalbano feel that the Jr. Rangers of 2023-24 are a deeper offensive team with standout goaltending than their 2022-23 predecessors.
“We are more skilled throughout our four lines up front,” Henkel said. “Our netminders are poised and excited to be able to guide us through this season and bring us to the next level.”
With so much depth and so many players dedicated to the Rangers culture, Henkel is looking forward to getting the games going and seeing which players emerge as the leaders.
“We have a number of leaders in our group. They have stepped up in various ways to make sure players are getting their assignments down,” Henkel added. “Pushing kids outside of their comfort zone on and off the ice. Making sure teammates are working hard and accountable for their actions.”
Among returning veterans, the Rangers can look to forwards Jextinian Sheffield and Max Jaldung (both centers) and Jack House (wing). Sheffield will be a third-year NCDC player for the Rangers, and improved his year-over-year offense by 20 points last year. Jaldung is in his third USPHL season and second NCDC campaign with the Rangers. Prior to joining Connecticut, he played for the former New York Aviators (now Brooklyn Aviators) in the USPHL Premier under current Jr. Rangers Premier Head Coach and Premier/Elite GM Mike Stanaway.
As a junior rookie last year out of the Belmont Hill School (in Massachusetts), Houser put up 17 points in 42 games.
On defense, the team welcomes back third-year blueliner Shea Thibault, who put up 13 points in 44 games a year ago.
The Rangers have a majority on their team of brand new NCDC players, ranging from tenders and free agent signings to recent year draft picks and in-house promotions.
Forward Colin Richard is “a great addition” who brings high-level prep experience from both St. Paul’s School and Thayer Academy. Stanley Bright is a Berkshire School alum who also played on the Premier Conference’s Rangers over six games in 2020-21.
“Stanley is going to fill in a lot of different roles for us,” said Henkel.
The Jr. Rangers are looking for big minutes on defense from Carl Salle, a Swedish import playing his first North American season out of the highly respected Malmo Redhawks organization.
“We have a solid netminder in Wilmer Brundin that’s confident and excited to be here,” added Henkel, of the Swedish-born veteran of the Nacka organization.
Two recent draft picks to join the Rangers are 2022 selection Aaron Bleier and 2023 pick Tyler Kedzo.
Bleier, an ‘05 originally from the Penguins Elite, moved to the 2022-23 Premier Rangers where he played directly for Henkel and scored 39 points in 43 games. Kedzo, an ‘06, played with the Anaheim Jr. Ducks 16U team and made it into the USA Hockey Nationals, including the knockout round.
Two other former USPHL Premier Jr. Rangers moving up are James Hope, a defenseman who put up 18 points in 42 games last season, and 2022 Jr. Rangers tender Joey Lomtevas, who had 33 points in 42 games.
The Atlantic Division is all ready to go for Friday and Saturday, and the landscape features a mix of some veteran-rich teams and some brand new teams. Overall, Henkel expects much of the same tough competition he’s always seen.
“I don’t really expect any surprises. With the exception of WBS, all the teams coaches are the same,” added Henkel. “Most of the styles will be the same: hard work, they will compete, and make you play fast. I just hope we are up to the task in those areas.”