by Bob Crawford || AHL On The Beat Archive
The New York Ranger organization’s blueline corps is long on exciting young talent, but is somewhat short on experience.
Thus, it is not surprising that the Rangers would take the opportunity to add 14 years of NHL experience, and three Stanley Cups, to their organizational roster, which is what they did when the Hartford Wolf Pack signed former Detroit Red Wing and Montreal Canadien defenseman Mathieu Dandenault to a tryout agreement October 21.
The 33-year-old Dandenault had played all but four games of his North American pro career in the NHL prior to joining the Wolf Pack, and won Cups with the Red Wings in 1996-97, 1997-98 and 2001-02. After spending the last four seasons with Montreal, though, he was not re-signed by the Canadiens, and found himself looking for an NHL opportunity.
With the Rangers having been carrying only six defensemen, two of which, Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto, are rookies, it was a win-win for both sides for Dandenault and the Rangers organization to give one another a look.
“It (the Rangers’ blueline situation) was a factor,” Dandenault says, “and I talked to the Rangers all summer long and that opportunity was always there, but they had stressed that they were going to give their young guys a chance, and I respect that.
“But we had talked again over the course of the last month, and you never know what can happen and having two young guys there, they might need a veteran guy that has played a lot of games, so the opportunity is there. It could be them, it could be anybody else, but I was happy that the Rangers called.”
Dandenault’s style of play, too, is a good fit for Ranger head coach John Tortorella’s system, which works best when the defensemen are fleet-of-foot and can readily join in the offensive rush.
“I’ve always enjoyed jumping into the play,” Dandenault says, “and my best asset is my skating, if I don’t skate then I’m very average out there. But it’s the new NHL now, it’s too difficult to score without the odd-man rush. And now the odd-man rush is not three-on-two anymore, it’s a four-on-three. So you need your defensemen to be able to jump in, and hopefully I’ll get a chance to do it this year with the Rangers.”
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That affinity for jumping into the rush was bred into Dandenault early in his career, when he played with a dynamic Detroit club that was a beacon of offensive-mindedness in a then defense-first NHL.
“When I started, Detroit was kind of the new breed, the new NHL,” he says. “When they brought in the ‘Russian Five’ and everything, they just brought a new mentality to the world of hockey, to North America, and that was it. It was puck control, and everybody gets involved in the offense.
“I’ve been grateful to play with guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Vladimir) Konstantinov, (Slava) Fetisov, Paul Coffey. You learn a lot. I was really influenced a lot early in my career about the way the game was played, and I’ve carried it for 14 years. This is towards the end, but I still have a lot of hockey left in me and hopefully I’ll get an opportunity again.”
Dandenault is coming off of a 2008-09 season that saw him play in only 41 games for the Canadiens, in an injury-marred year. Dandenault hardly feels like that campaign was a total loss, though.
“It was a tough year,” he says, “but it was two different seasons for me. I was playing forward and I got the opportunity to go back on ‘D’ and started really playing well and the team started winning, and then I got injured, really at a bad moment. And then once I came back, I pretty much picked it up where I had left off, where I had the best quarter-season of my career, after all these years, I put up a lot of points.
“So I was really looking forward to continuing on into this year, and it hasn’t happened yet, but certainly it’s not too far away.”
The biggest thing for him, Dandenault says, is simply to be back playing regularly.
“I’ve felt pretty good,” he says of his time with the Pack. “I worked hard back home to try to stay in shape, and the time came that I needed to play some games, in order for me to get back to the NHL I had to play, and the Rangers and the Wolf Pack have given me that opportunity and I’m very thankful for it.
“I’m the oldest guy on the (Wolf Pack) team, and with the most experience, and guys pick my brain a little bit and I try to help them out, to tell them what to expect, what it’s like at the next level and how you get there and how you get better, what the teams look for and things like that. So it’s been interesting, and actually I’ve enjoyed it immensely. The guys have been really good to me, and hopefully I’ve been good to them, but it’s a respect factor and I think guys really want to learn and I’m here to help and so far it’s been a good mix.”
Dandenault doesn’t necessarily want to look back on his career as if it is over at this point, but he does marvel at how fortunate he has been throughout his NHL days. To have made the NHL at age 19, playing only four AHL games prior to becoming a full-time big-leaguer, to win three Stanley Cups and be part of one of the best teams in recent memory, and as a Quebec native to have been able to put on the jersey of the fabled Canadiens, that’s a heck of a career by any measure.
“It’s been special, obviously,” Dandenault agrees, “and the most important thing is I’ve been able to raise that Cup on a few occasions, and that’s the most special part about it all. And to be a part of an Original Six team is very special for me too, all the history and everything. So I’d like to continue on that trend, and hopefully get an opportunity to play with the Rangers. With Hartford I’m working hard towards that goal and I think the coaching staff has been really good to me and so have my teammates. I’ve had a blessed career, but it’s not over yet.”