The Connecticut Jr. Rangers are back to the ice, but you won’t see much else in common with the 2021-22 team. Head Coach Jim Henkel has gone in and flipped the house to get a mostly new crew – except for a few key veterans on defense – to better meet his on-ice and overall developmental goals for his players.
“This group is a work in progress. We have some returners on the back end, but this will be a rebuild as expectations and goals fell extremely short last year,” said Henkel. “We feel that we have a very competitive and deep group that will work and make teams show up night in and night out against us. We will once again be a team of players that can play up and down the lineup and look to create mismatches in our line combinations.
“Not much of this year is similar to last year,” he added. “The group is significantly different, their attitude and mindset is different. So far, there is a stark difference in the willingness to work and earn an opportunity.”
The Jr. Rangers defense will be anchored by third-year veteran Aleksey Zielinski.
“Hopefully this will be a huge year for him,” added Henkel.
Joining him on the back end are Jr. Rangers Cam Grillo, Shea Thibeault and Tony Thomas.
“All three guys were in and out of the lineup last year and learned a lot with their experience,” added Henkel. “The best part of the group of four is that they don’t want to ever experience what they did last year, so that will be a driving force.”
Jex Sheffield and Jack Shields are the only players up front coming back for the Jr. Rangers, while Payton Miller came up late from the Premier squad.
“We are hopeful they will continue their progress forward and make those around them better,” he said.
The recruiting drive appears to have yielded some very nice results in terms of the talent and the depth the Jr. Rangers will have in the forward ranks.
Former Oakland Jr. Grizzlies Jack Arizo and Cody Nielsen, both 2003-forwards, come in to push the offense.
“Both play a fast game and compete at a very high level,” said Henkel. “We also brought in a couple boys from Sweden – Max Jaldung [who has USPHL experience] and Ludwig Tylenius. They are big, strong and play right into our system of puck possession.”
The Jr. Rangers also continue to keep the pipeline open for players from within the organization to get their chance with the top team in the NCDC.
“We had a few guys last year that went up and down for us that are looking very confident with their game,” Henkel added.
All in all, the point comes across that there will be very little in common between last year’s Jr. Rangers and this year’s.
“I think we are as deep this year as we were when we went to the finals a few years ago. I am excited to get to know these players more on and off the ice,” Henkel said. “This will be an opportunistic year for our program. We have more competition and openings on our roster then we have ever had.”
For the NCDC, expect much of the same in terms of competitiveness and strength of program across the board.
“I think the league will once again be very competitive. Programs in the NCDC continue to grow within their niche and find the players they are looking for to play with in their systems and make games close,” Henkel said. “I don’t expect many surprises in the South. The Hitmen will once again be a very strong team. I know that P.A.L. and the Rockets Hockey Club have put in a lot of work to fill holes within their roster.”