The Connecticut Jr. Rangers believe all the work done over the off-season paid off in a fantastic group of young student-athletes that has come together very well early on - and they’re still just under two weeks away from their first puck drop, which takes place Sept. 24 against the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders.
“I’m very excited to work with this group. We are growing each day we are together,” said veteran Head Coach Jim Henkel. “We feel like we have been able to recruit from all areas of the U.S. and internationally to hopefully bring us back to where we were a few years ago.”
The “Where we were” referred to here is the NCDC Championship series of 2019 - then a best-of-three series - when they had a very close series with the eventual champion Boston Junior Bruins. Standings-wise, the Jr. Rangers have been floating through the upper middle, finishing third in 2019-20 and seventh overall in 2020-21. In other words, they remain a perennial threat to do damage in the playoffs as proven.
“We have a lot of depth and competition throughout the lineup. We feel we have added more depth to our group than we have had the last two years,” said Henkel. “We will play again with a lot of speed and puck possession/transition style game. We’re looking forward to getting off to a great start and generating some positive flow going forward.”
You can’t count out a team that returns players with the elevated talent level of Andrei Levushkin, for starters. He led the Jr. Rangers in goal-scoring with 16 goals through 31 contests.
“He plays with a ton of speed and skill. He scored a highlight-reel goal in the All-Star Game last year,” added Henkel.
Additional top Jr. Rangers coming back include the Flansburg twins (Schuyler and Spencer), Mika Petersen, Bobby Barrasso and Derek Manzella.
Manzella (‘02) is a returning goaltender out of Eagan, Minn., who put in 15 games of action for the Jr. Rangers, going 7-7-0-0 with a .901 save percentage.
“Having a solid piece in net will provide a great backbone for us,” Henkel said.
On defense, Petersen was already a rising star as an ‘03 last year, even running the Jr. Rangers power play. “He’s a fantastic skater with a lot of skill and hockey sense.”
Barrasso is an ‘02 who brings size (6-feet-4-inches, 194 pounds) and good knack for scoring, adding five goals throughout the season last year including one in the playoffs.
“He will be in the lineup on a daily basis and will generate a ton of offense and physicality,” added Henkel.
The Flansburg twins, who are 2002-born, are both sixth-year USPHL and third-year CJR veterans, so their experience is a massive boost to the Jr. Rangers crew. Schuyler is a center and Spencer is a right wing, both of whom came up to the Jr. Rangers from the CP Dynamo Midget program.
“Schuyler will provide a big boost down the middle for us,” said Henkel. “It’s great to have Spencer back as one of our top returning PK guys and he will add some scoring on the right side.”
Every team needs to reload when they experience the mark of success that is advancement to NCAA hockey, and the newcomers to the Jr. Rangers fit the mold of the high-character player Henkel is always looking for. A group of 2003’s in particular has the coach excited for what they can do come game time on Sept. 24.
Cade Baker (‘03) isn’t a total newcomer, having played a game with Connecticut last year, but he already has three USPHL seasons in the books, all with the Skipjacks Hockey Club’s 16U and 18U teams ove the years.
“He has a ton of skill and works hard,” said Henkel. “He had some good opportunities last year.” Aidan HAws, an ‘03 center, “is very quick and thinks the game very well. He’s very crafty with the puck and should factor in a good amount on the offense.”
Additionally, Henkel has high expectations for ‘03-born Michiganders Brennan Sass and Billy Shields.
“They [both] have a high motor and generate a ton of offense when they create turnovers,” said Henkel.
The NCDC saw more than 70 of its players advance to or commit to NCAA Division I universities during the 2020-21 season. Henkel said the NCDC has certainly arrived on the scene as a major Tier II player in college advancement, and the league’s profile is only growing.
“I expect that we will have continued growth and a better league than we have had,” said Henkel. “It has been a steady growth each and every year for our league and I expect it to be the same this year.”
The Jr. Rangers regularly do battle in the South Division, home to the 2021 Dineen Cup Champion Jersey Hitmen - and the finalist Rockets Hockey Club.
“I think the South division will be very competitive and deep. I know the coaches have been out recruiting and building their programs accordingly,” added Henkel. “I am not sure there will be any surprises, as all the teams have been out in full on recruiting mode all spring and summer.”