Avery Back on the Ice

This article appears courtesy of the Connecticut Whale written by Bruce Berlet. Sean Avery, wearing a yellow no-contact jersey, skated for the first time in nearly three weeks Wednesday morning in a 50-minute workout with the Connecticut Whale at the XL Center in Hartford.

Avery participated in the entire practice, including special teams drills in which he actually played a little defense on the penalty kill. It was his first ice time since he was injured in his third preseason game with the parent New York Rangers on Sept. 30 in Gothenburg, Sweden. His workout ended with a brief chat with Whale coach Ken Gernander and more treatment on the injury.

Avery and Gernander said they didn’t know if the left wing will play in the Whale’s next game Friday at 7 p.m. at the XL Center against the Manchester Monarchs.

“I think I could probably play, but I can’t say right now,” Avery said. “I just skated for the first time in a while, and it could feel completely different tomorrow morning.”

Gernander said playing Friday night is a bridge to be crossed when they get there.

“Today was his first day on the ice in quite some time, and you can’t skip any steps,” Gernander said. “You have to see how it responds after today’s ice session. He didn’t do any contact, so that bridge has to be crossed. I know his overall level of fitness has been great; he has been working hard with our physical trainer Mark (Cesari).

“But that being said, there are sports-specific muscles like the groins and hip flexors, and it would be kind of foolish to push him back and risk injuring something else. The whole thing is going to be on a day-to-day basis, and it’s going to be a lot of communication between Sean, myself and the training staff.”

Avery said he doubted he would be recalled by the Rangers after he lost a battle with Erik Christensen for the 13th and final forward spot on the NHL team. Avery cleared waivers Oct. 5, reported to the Whale five days later and had been strictly rehabbing off the ice until Wednesday.

“Probably not,” Avery said of a possible return to Broadway. “I’m not even going to think about it. It’s like you’re going to win the lottery. I guess some people do, but I’ve never had that mentality. … I’m just going to go on, but I can play in the NHL, there’s no question about that. But I feel like a completely different player already. I’m just relaxed. This game is all mental.”

Avery is earning $1,937,500 on the final year of a four-year, $15.5 million contract he signed with the Dallas Stars on July 2, 2008 after his first stint with the Rangers, though none of it applies to the salary cap of either team while he’s in the minors. That also goes for Mats Zuccarello ($1.75 million), who was assigned to the Whale Saturday night, and defenseman Wade Redden ($6.5 million).

Avery played only 23 games with the Stars before being waived and claimed by the Rangers on March 2, 2009. The Rangers and Stars are each paying half of Avery’s salary, which doesn’t count against their salary cap. If the Rangers were to recall Avery, he would be on re-entry waivers. If another team claimed Avery, he would receive half of his salary from the Stars and 25 percent from the Rangers and his new team.

Avery said he had options to play in Europe but opted to stay near his home in New York for different reasons.

“There was a lot of money on the table to go to Russia, but I don’t necessarily feel that was something that I wanted to do,” said Avery, who has been living in Middletown since he joined the Whale. “There wasn’t enough money to go somewhere like Switzerland. I’m 100 miles from home, and that certainly factors into it, for sure.”

Avery played one full preseason game with the Rangers, and said he had “a quick conversation” with Rangers coach John Tortorella before being sent to Hartford. Avery said Tortorella told him that it was the coach’s decision on who would remain with the Rangers and who would join the Whale.

While Avery and Gernander were unsure of the left wing’s status for Friday night, Avery stressed he was enjoying his second go-around in Hartford. He had two goals and one assist with the then Hartford Wolf Pack before joining the Rangers after being claimed on waivers.

“I had fun out here today,” said Avery, who watched the Whale’s home opener Saturday night, a 5-4 shootout loss to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. “All the guys are good guys down here.”

When reminded he said he had been a bit rejuvenated being around younger players in his first stay in Hartford, the 31-year-old Avery said, “It’s certainly more authentic this time. I’ve got no pressure. I’m one of the only guys getting paid a lot of money to play and probably can truly say that doesn’t really have that much pressure. The only responsibility that I have down here is to work hard. That’s something that I consider a responsibility.”

Gernander said Avery isn’t a special case despite being an 11-year pro veteran with 87 goals, 157 assists, 1,512 penalty minutes and countless “chats” with the opposition in 565 NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Stars and Rangers. Gernander also said he doesn’t expect Avery to need much time to get in game shape.

“He’s one guy whose conditioning is not an issue or a question,” Gernander said. “It’s obviously a little bit more sports-specific for different skating strides as far as being able to skate all the time, but if your overall level of fitness is superior to others, obviously you’re going to have a quicker push back into the lineup and makes the transition a lot clearer.”

While Avery might not be in game shape yet, he certainly showed plenty of quickness Wednesday and freely chatted with teammates, though his role hasn’t been determined.

“I would expect that when he gets in our lineup that he would be able to chip in in several different areas,” Gernander said. “He’s a good skater, you know he can play a physical style of game, you know he can mix it up and he’s got offensive capabilities. He’s got a lot of NHL attributes because he has an NHL career, so I think he’s going to be able to participate, help our team in a number of different fronts. We’re not going to just pigeon-hole him into one role.”

The Whale could use Avery, as they have only 11 healthy forwards with center Kris Newbury having been called up on Saturday night and rookie left wing Ryan Bourque and right wing Chad Kolarik still recovering from injuries. Defenseman Jyri Niemi played left wing on Saturday night.

Defenseman Pavel Valentenko practiced with the team for a third consecutive day, staying out for extra skating with assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who handles the defense. Valentenko hasn’t played in any of the Whale’s preseason or regular-season games but hopes to return Friday or during a home-and-home set with the Springfield Falcons on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

“He’s being pushed,” Gernander said. “You’d like to have all available options healthy and ready to go, but we don’t want any setbacks or put anyone at risk either.”

Valentenko sustained his original injury in his only preseason game with the Rangers. Lee Baldwin, who hasn’t played in the Whale’s four games because of an injury and excess of defensemen, may get in the lineup, after Brendan Bell was called up Sunday as insurance. Former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer missed his second game Tuesday night, a 4-0 victory in Vancouver, with a shoulder injury that was aggravated in the team’s second game Oct. 8 in Stockholm. Bell, who was a healthy scratch Tuesday night, had one assist in two games with the Whale after being assigned when the Rangers returned from Europe on Oct. 9. He was an alternate captain in his Whale debut when Redden was out because of illness. Redden returned Saturday night.