by Bob Crawford || AHL On The Beat Archive
Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Corey Potter got his chance to join the Pack last winter as a result of Dan Girardi making the jump to the parent New York Rangers, and now Potter is striving to follow right in right in Girardi’s developmental footsteps.
Both players came into their rookie years of pro on AHL contracts, and both ended up on the ECHL side of the Wolf Pack’s depth chart to start their careers. And like Girardi did a year ahead of him, Potter grabbed the AHL opportunity afforded him with both hands, finishing last season with a strong 30 games on the Pack blueline.
Girardi’s callup last January and subsequent rise to top-four defenseman status with the Rangers is well-chronicled, and Potter, who earned an NHL deal from the parent club this past summer, feels as though he could achieve similar heights, if he continues on his present curve of improvement.
“My situation’s pretty similar to Girardi’s,” Potter says. “He’s a pretty good player and a puck-mover, and I think that’s kind of my game too. I just try to move the puck up the ice and be as solid as possible, so I think it’s probably a pretty good comparison.
“I think it’s right on track,” he says of his development as a player. “I’m right where I want to be and I think that’s where the coaching staff wants me to be too. And fortunately I got a chance to get called up once this year, so the Rangers are watching and seeing some pretty positive things. So I’m pretty happy with my development so far.”
Potter, who stands 6-foot-3, thinks of himself as a physical defenseman, and as a collegian at Michigan State, he led the Spartans in penalty minutes three straight years.
Gone are the days, though, when pro blueliners could clear the front of the net with reckless abandon and send every reachable body flying, and the Wolf Pack coaches have commented more than once about how adept Potter is at using his stick to poke-check and eliminate opponents’ sticks in front of the net, and at balancing that with a combative and abrasive approach to the game.
“The game has changed a bit,” Potter says, “so now you have to be a little quicker and a little better with your stick, so that’s one of the things I’ve tried to work on, my speed, my quick feet and getting that stick into position where you can block passes and knock them down. And the physical side of the game is one that I’ve always thought I thrive on, so those are two parts of my game that I think are pretty huge.”
While he is tall and rangy, Potter’s physique is not as bullish and muscular as are those of some physical defensemen at the pro level. Thus, it is a definite challenge for him to maintain his hard-banging approach night after night.
“For me, that was definitely the biggest adjustment, going from college to pro, was the amount of games and that the guys are definitely bigger and stronger,” Potter confirms. “It being my second year, I think I’ve tried to learn a few things and I think it’s going pretty well.”
An indicator of Potter’s success in mastering those little things is his excellent plus/minus rating. As of the first of April, he led all AHL defensemen in that category with a plus-32.
“As a more defensive defenseman who doesn’t put points up, I think that it’s a stat you like to look at and try to base your game on,” says Potter of the plus/minus category. “Sometimes it doesn’t mean too much, but when you get up into the 20s and 30s it starts to look pretty good. So I think that it’s a pretty important stat for me.”
Also helping to spur Potter’s development has been the opportunity to play on a pairing with Wolf Pack captain, and fellow ex-MSU stalwart, Andrew Hutchinson. Potter says that he has enjoyed good chemistry with Hutchinson, who, as a sixth-year pro, has a four-year edge in experience on Potter.
“I think whenever I’m in trouble he’s helping me out and whenever he’s in trouble I’m helping him out,” is how Potter characterizes the partnership. “It’s been a little different playing the left side, so I’ve had to adjust to that, but other than that everything has gone pretty well.”
When asked to identify what is the most challenging aspect of playing left defense, the right-handed-shooting Potter responds, “Probably regrouping in the middle of the ice, taking D-to-D (defenseman to defenseman) passes. You can either take it on your forehand or your backhand, and you have to get used to just positioning yourself in different ways to accept a pass and to give a pass. And in the offensive zone, going D-to-D on the blueline and trying to get shots through is a little different.”
After their positive experience with Girardi, there is no reason for the parent Rangers organization to doubt that Potter could follow the same path, rising from the ECHL to the NHL in a short span of time. And they rewarded Potter, whose AHL contract they replaced with an NHL deal this past summer, with his first NHL summons on Feb. 1.
“It was pretty exciting,” Potter says of being told that he had been elevated to the NHL roster. “They actually told me after one of our games here (in Hartford), and I didn’t actually get much sleep that night. I got up the next morning and got shipped off to New York and practiced there for a bit, and unfortunately had to come right back, but it was a fun experience to be with all the NHL guys.”
With Potter playing in all different situations for the Wolf Pack in just his second season of pro hockey, what is he looking to improve on and square away to improve his chances of making the jump to the NHL?
“I’m just trying to get bigger and stronger,” the Lansing, Mich., native responds. “I’m only about 200 pounds right now, I’d like to be up to around 215 or so. So in the offseasons I just try to train hard and get that weight up, and I’m always going to continue to work on my game offensively and try to put some points on the board too.”
If Potter does indeed bulk up as his pro career continues, and adds more strength and size to the aggression and drive that already characterizes his play, then he certainly would have a good shot at joining the likes of Girardi as real building blocks for the Rangers’ future, and at being a real thorn in the side of any opponents who encroach upon the zones he might patrol.