Last summer, after getting his feet wet in North America on an AHL deal with the Lake Erie Monsters, defenseman Vladimir Denisov signed his first NHL contract with the New York Rangers. But despite more than tripling his rookie year point production and finishing with the third best plus-minus rating on the Hartford Wolf Pack (+18) this season, the 24-year old Belorussian made no headway towards attaining his goal of making the NHL. On the contrary, the Novopolotsk native found himself planted in the press box for all but three of the Pack’s games in January, ultimately resulting in a request for a trade.
That request was refused, and in February the scrappy defender once again found himself with a full-time role on the team, a role which he held on to until a shoulder injury knocked him out of Hartford’s last two regular season games and all but the final two games of their first round playoff series. Last week, after a trip to Switzerland, where he joined Team Belarus at the World Championship, Denisov discussed his disappointing first (and most likely last) season in the New York Rangers organization with Belorussian sports site Pressball. Their interview with the soon-to-be restricted free agent is translated below.
Vladimir Denisov: I want in the NHL
A second year in North America didn’t bring Vladimir Denisov nearer to the realization of his old dream — to make the NHL. The Belorussian defender, having signed a contract last summer with the New York Rangers, as a result spent the whole season in the AHL, playing for the farm club of the Rangers, Hartford.
Who knows, had the Novopolotsk native not left Lake Erie, surely over the course of the last regular season he would have kept company with [fellow countryman] Ruslan Salei in Colorado. However, life doesn’t tolerate “what ifs”, and in order to achieve that end [of playing with Salei] Denisov forgot about his shoulder injury and at the first call arrived in Switzerland to help Team Belarus at the World Championship. And his appearance on Glen Hanlon’s squad in the quarterfinal, it appears, became quite a good argument on the resume of our fellow countryman during his search for a new club.
- Did you understand what was risked when you went to the national team at the World Championship, clearly not having recovered? Had a reccurance [of the injury] occurred, you very well may have given up your future career.
- I probably shouldn’t have sped up my recovery in Hartford. But I wanted to help the team in the Calder Cup playoffs. And before I responded to Glen Hanlon’s invitation, I weighed everything properly. Certainly, the fact that my game wasn’t always sharp in Kloten and Berne could be explained by the problems with my shoulder. But I was never one of those players, who, when something hurts, doesn’t go out on the ice. And since I went, it meant that I was aware of the possible consequences. And I tried to drive all gloomy thoughts away. It’s another matter that the Swiss tournament wasn’t very successful for me, which is why I’ve tried to forget about it.
- Is it appropriate to assume that your performance at the World Championship, to the detriment of your health, was [undertaken] with the purpose of catching the attention of scouts, including [those] from NHL clubs?
- This championship has hardly increased the quantity of teams which will want to sign a contract with me in the new season.
- What did you think about the fact that your fellow countrymen, the Kostitsyn brothers, decided not to go to the national team and to take care of their health?
- I returned to Novopolotsk just last weekend and therefore haven’t spoken to them yet. I too heard many critical statements in reference to the Kostitsyns, but my opinion is: whatever journalists wrote and fans said, they don’t know the true reasons. Since the brothers missed the World Championship, it means there were valid reasons. Besides, it soon became clear, that Sergei had surgery and Andrei had problems with his groin. But next year they will come to the national team and [then] what? Everyone in an instant will begin to talk [about] how they’re good, how they help the team and glorify the country?
- Do you think you might have made a mistake last summer when you didn’t wait for offers from Colorado and signed a contract with the Rangers? As you know, over the course of the season the Avalanche was beset by a wave of injuries, and called up a lot of youth from their farm club. If you had remained in Lake Erie, you already would have debuted in the NHL…
- I’ll confess, I thought about it. But, as they say, you can never guess where you’ll find [something] or where you’ll lose [it]. So it turned out, that I changed to a club in which it wasn’t possible to play in the NHL. I hope, that it wasn’t possible [just] for the time being. I look at things philosophically: everything happens for the best. And the year in Hartford wasn’t spent for nothing. My second season in North American was easier than my debut [season]. First of all because I improved my knowledge of English. Second, I adapted to the local style of play. But if I were to compare it to the previous season, my performance in Lake Erie was more positive.
- What was impossible to achieve in Hartford?
- To make my way on to the main team of the New York Rangers. This is very unfortunate. Except for one early exhibition match, the coaches of the NHL club didn’t give me any more chances for some reason. Yet last fall when I left for Rangers training camp, I expected, if not to fight for firm spot on the roster, then to at least get the opportunity to prove myself. But for some reasons unknown to me my stay on the New York squad was limited to three weeks and one duel. I’ll confess, after such treatment my emotions sank — I understood that head coach Tom Renney didn’t trust me. Under a two-way contract I had to go to Hartford and fulfill the agreement.
- Perhaps, that you only played one exhibition match for the Rangers can be explained by the fact that the team prepared for the Victoria Cup with Magnitogorsk and played the [regular season] roster?
- That’s one of the reasons. But there were six defensemen on the Rangers with one-way contracts. They were kept on the roster. The others were sent to the farm club in the AHL. Why remember New York’s training camp? To be honest, I already don’t think of it.
- But still the statistics give evidence that the year in Hartford was not spent in vain.
- Indeed, in this sense there is nothing to complain about. I surpassed my personal record for points in a season by far. Though the surge in productivity didn’t surprise me: the Hartford coaches preferred [an] attacking [style of] hockey and weren’t obsessed with defensive schemes. No problems with adapting to Hartford arose. Though at times injuries interfered with things, which is why I only played sixty games.
- Was it only [injuries] that prevented you from playing? If I’m not mistaken, for almost a month head coach Ken Gernander held you in reserve, alive and healthy.
- There was a period when the coach for some reason decided that I was tired and it was necessary for me to rest. Though before midseason I invariably appeared in the first or second defense pairings and had a lot of playing time. When I suddenly ceased to find myself in demand, I immediately asked about a trade. But the trade didn’t take place: the leaders of Hartford assured me that I was a key player on the team, needed by the club. Nevertheless, they didn’t allow me to play. I repeatedly asked what was going on, but didn’t hear a specific answer. However, in North America its not accepted to explain why this or that person remains in reserve. You come to the arena in the morning, look for your name on a list. If it’s there, you go out and practice and prepare for the game, if not, you work in a separate group. It was good that by February, everything was normal, and I returned to the roster.
- What thoughts visited you in January?
- I wanted to understand the situation and decide how to go on. And my agent and I met with the managers and coaches of Hartford, and searched for a way out.
- That meeting with the advisers didn’t bother Ken Gernander — a living legend in Hartford?
- No. No one even concentrated on that. I had a regular working relationship with the coach. He is the boss, I am the subordinate for whom it is necessary to follow his instructions.
- I would hardly be mistaken to assume that in Hartford you associated more with Russian [Artem] Anisimov.
- Yes, basically I spent time together with Artem. We lived in the same building, but on different floors. But my wife didn’t arrive with my daughter in the States until November. Naturally, all attention switched to my loved ones in a flash. I had already made myself at home in Hartford by that time, settled domestic questions.
- With the arrival of your family your concerns have surely increased?
- Yes, but they’re pleasant cares. I looked forward to my wife and child’s [arrival] very much, I missed them. When we found ourselves together again, the remaining issues faded into the background.
- But January’s playing problems could have thoroughly beaten you up psychologically…
- There was such a time. On those days I tried not to lose heart, to panic, I held myself in check, believed in the best. I drove gloomy thoughts aside. My family helped a great deal. Coming home, I was plunged into family affairs and forgot about work. Including the problems which had arisen.
- Did your wife and child attend games?
- Yes, they often went to our games. My daughter took a little stick, cheered, clapped her hands. Did she recognize her dad? I don’t know, but my wife showed her where I was on the ice.
- What is Hartford itself like as a city?
- Small, by American standards, one hundred and twenty thousand people. An hour’s flight from New York. Calm, quiet, no special entertainment. We lived in the center, not far from a big park where we mainly walked with our child.
- In small little towns fans usually know each player by sight.
- In others, perhaps, but hockey isn’t very popular in Hartford. They follow the basketball team of the local college more. Seven to eight thousand fans came to our games only on weekends. On weekdays we were lucky if there were 3-4 thousand.
- How did you get on with your teammates?
- On the team, besides Anisimov and I, from the Old World there were also Finnish goaltender Miika Wiikman and Swedish forward Andreas Jamtin. The rest were residents of the USA and Canada. I associated with everyone equally, but didn’t make any friends. The attitude towards hockey overseas is a little bit different than in Europe. You come to practice, and afterwards everyone goes home right away.
- It doesn’t happen that you stay after work, to spend time in cordial company, to associate in an informal setting?
- In North America people have a different mentality. But what is there to discuss, since they so long ago acquired it. It’s clear that they don’t keep aloof from hockey players who come from Europe, because we have a common cause, and what’s the point in splitting up team into cells. The same would happen if a Canadian arrived in Belarus. I’m sure he would come to communicate more with his fellow countrymen, than with Russian-speaking guys.
- Does the intense AHL schedule, especially on the road, intimidate you any longer?
- Last season in Lake Erie was spent adapting to the new schedule and frequent long road trips. Now I’ve already gotten used to them physically and psychologically. However, when we played the fourth game in five days, it occurred that I felt my functional state was far from optimum — there was no crispness.
- In the autumn [fellow Belorussian] Sergei Demagin was also in Hartford…
- He completed the whole pre-season, and constantly took the ice in scrimmages. But before the start of the season the coaches dispatched him to the fourth line [and] cut down his playing time. As far as I understood, the coach wanted Sergei to immediately start to show something. For him, quite logically, it was necessary to adapt to the new conditions, to learn the language, to adapt to a different style. It’s possible that the Hartford leadership didn’t want to wait.
- As a result, Sergei returned to Dynamo Minsk. When you ceased to make the roster, didn’t thoughts arise to leave for home or Russia?
- Frankly speaking, at times I deliberated over that choice. But in the end I decided to remain in North America and to continue to try to make my way to the NHL.
- Over the course of the season did the coaches of the Rangers hint at an opportunity of a call up to the main team?
- Such things are not disclosed in advance. Generally they simply tell the player that he’s going “up” or “down”. At each Hartford game there were many scouts from various clubs. That’s why the New York squad knew not only about me, but about members of other AHL teams.
-Your contract has ended. What next?
- My rights belong to the Rangers. Therefore, I don’t know where I’ll spend the next season.
- There weren’t tempting offers after the Swiss World Championship?
- It’s possible only to guess about my further fate in hockey. Behind me is a tense year. There are some offers from clubs in North America and Europe, but I’ll concern myself with the search for a new work place, most likely, at the end of June. Now I wish to have a proper rest. Most likely, I will spend my holiday at home in Novopolotsk, I’ll have a rest from America. Besides, it is necessary to heal my shoulder once and for all. Within a few days I’ll visit Minsk, and consult with doctors. And in July, I think, I’ll start training.
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