(Chris Rutsch/Wolf Pack)
At age 29, Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Raphael Diaz is getting his first taste of American Hockey League action.
The Baar, Switzerland native has been a pro for 13 seasons now, but all of his previous experience has been either in the NHL, where he has played for Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and the New York Rangers, or in the Swiss Nationalliga A, the top circuit in his native country.
Diaz hardly feels as though he has been exiled to a dumping ground, though, as he has found the level of play exhibited by the AHL’s young prospects to be exciting.
“You can tell, a lot of young players here, a lot of young, really skilled players, and it’s fun to see the 20-year-olds out there and being really good players,” Diaz said recently. “I think they have to keep working hard, and a lot of them are going to be in the NHL.”
One of the youngsters who has made a strong positive impression on Diaz is fellow Wolf Pack blueliner Brady Skjei, a rookie out of the University of Minnesota and a 2012 Ranger first-round draft pick. Diaz and Skjei have been paired together for much of Diaz’ action with the Wolf Pack, and Diaz has enjoyed that experience.
“He’s really good, he’s really skilled,” Diaz said of the 21-year-old Skjei. “He’s a big guy and he can play really, really well, you see that. He’s patient with the puck, he plays a lot of PK (penalty-killing), he knows what he’s doing out there.”
The downside of playing with so many younger guys is that making a good first pass and moving the puck crisply, which are among Diaz’ greatest strengths, presumably are tougher at the AHL level, with teammates not always in the right position all the time. According to Diaz, though, that has not been a hindrance to him.
“If you play in the NHL it’s more organized, and you have guys with a lot of experience, of course,” he said. “But here, a lot of young guys, a lot of really good players. Of course they have to learn a lot of things to play in the NHL, but so far it’s fun.”
The other big positive to Diaz’ tenure with the Wolf Pack has been the multifaceted role he has been called upon to play. Coaches Ken Gernander, Jeff Beukeboom and Pat Boller have counted on Diaz to quarterback the power play, kill penalties and play on the top pair at even strength. That kind of responsibility is sure to keep Diaz, a veteran of 201 career NHL games, sharp for a return to the Big Show.
“I think it’s always fun if you can play big minutes, a lot of minutes, and right now I’m playing a lot of minutes,” Diaz said.
After playing last season with the Calgary Flames, Diaz signed with the Rangers on the first day of NHL free agency, July 1, this past summer. That began a second tour of duty for the 5-11, 197-pound blueliner with the Ranger organization, after he had finished the 2013-14 campaign in New York. Certainly finding himself in the AHL was not what Diaz had planned on when re-joined the Rangers, but he remains optimistic that it will turn out to be a good fit for him with the organization.
“Absolutely,” he affirmed, “let’s see what happens in the future. I’m going to focus myself on what happens now, I think this (playing with the Wolf Pack) is really important, and the rest, we’ll see what happens.”
One thing Diaz is trying hard to do in the “here and now” is to help a Wolf Pack offense that has suffered through an ice-cold stretch get hot. As a skilled puck-mover with an accurate shot, Diaz certainly has the tools to make a big impact on the attack, but he doesn’t want himself, or any of his fellow backliners, to get too carried away with a mania to create offense.
“It’s not a big secret how you can score goals,” Diaz said. “I think it’s crashing the net, get some traffic in front of the net and shoot the puck. I think that’s really important.”
Prior to this new experience in the AHL, the last big new horizon that Diaz broke through was when he came over to North America to join the Montreal Canadiens in 2011-12. That was after eight successful years with Zug in the Swiss-A League, and it had to be a daunting step to make that foray into the unknown of North American hockey. According to Diaz, however, he didn’t hesitate at all.
“I got the opportunity to play in the NHL when I was 25, and I thought it was going to be a good step for me,” he said. “I think it’s been a great experience, what you learn over here. Of course it’s different hockey, with the smaller ice, it’s faster, it’s more physical, but for myself, it was a good step doing that and I’ve learned a lot of things.”
The biggest part of the adjustment for Diaz was getting used to how fast things happen on the smaller North American ice, and being an effective defender as a smaller player.
“With my size, I think you have to move the puck, you have to make plays,” he said, “a first good play and then try to join the rush and get some shots through from the blue line.”
After being assigned to the Wolf Pack out of Ranger training camp, Diaz had a goal and an assist in the Pack’s first four games, and then took a deflected puck in the throat in a game in Syracuse October 23, an injury that caused him to miss six games. The down time afforded him an opportunity for some exploration around Hartford, a city with which he had no experience prior to joining the Wolf Pack.
“No, I’d never been here, I’d heard some good things about Hartford,” Diaz said. “It’s a nice city, they have nice parks around, and it’s good for walking around a bit and spending some time like that.”
The Swiss-born Diaz is part of a fairly large European contingent in the Wolf Pack locker room. That includes Czechs Richard Nejezchleb and Petr Zamorsky, Swedes Calle Andersson and Magnus Hellberg and Slovak Marek Hrivik. Diaz dismisses the notion, though, that there is any special camaraderie among the cadre of players from across the Atlantic, saluting the togetherness of the entire roster.
“Everybody is really nice, it doesn’t matter where you come from,” he said. “I think we have a good team here, really good character, and it’s fun to be part of this group here.”