It’s taken a few months, but Raman Hrabarenka is growing into something like the player his coaches hoped for.
Two seasons ago, defenseman Alexander Urbom was the next big thing, and he was thrust into situations he would later grow into, but may not have been completely ready for as a rookie.
This year, Albany coach Rick Kowalsky feels he put rookie defenseman Hrabarenka in the same spot after the 20-year-old Belarusian impressed the coaching staff during training camp.
He was tossed into the deep end of the pool and told to swim. He swam. He just wasn’t moving like Michael Phelps.
“You want to put these kids in a position to succeed, and sometimes, as a coach, you see a little bit and you get excited about something that they’re maybe not ready for,” Kowalsky said.
“He maybe didn’t play a lot of power play in junior, I know he didn’t, and we saw a couple games in training camp and thought, ‘Hey! Right-hand shot, here’s our guy!’ And in all fairness to him, he probably wasn’t ready for that. He’s learning to play in the league. Here’s a guy who came to camp on an invite, and all of a sudden, we’ve got him on the power play and he’s the next savior.”
Maybe not, but Hrabarenka will walk on (frozen) water tonight as the Devils host Bridgeport at 7. They will play all weekend at home, hosting Springfield at 5 Saturday night and Adirondack at 3 p.m. Sunday.
Hrabarenka was in camp on an invitation and, in short order, earned himself a contract.
He showed a lot of potential, but it took him a little while to get into a groove. Part of that was because of the depth of the team during the lockout, and part of it was just the maturation process of a young guy coming into his first pro league.
He’s played the last nine games, which is the longest consecutive run for him this season. In last weekend’s three-in-three, he was a plus-three. All season, he’s never been lower than minus-three, not higher than plus-four.
Look for him to test the high end of that range soon, though.
“It’s just pro hockey. It’s up and down, but right now I’m playing more consistently,” Hrabarenka said. “Now, I know what the coaches want from me, and I know what I have to do on the ice.
“It’s just about time. You have to work every practice, talk with the coaches, watch videos and improve mistakes. That’s it.”
He’s got a goal and four assists in 29 games with Albany. He said the offensive end is where he probably needs the most work still, finding lanes to put the puck on the net.
“In this league, there’s a lot of guys blocking shots from the blue line, so you have to find a way,” he said. “It’s really hard, but I keep working on it in practice every day.”
Defensively, Hrabarenka feels he’s made some strides. He’s playing smart hockey in his own zone, and that’s what Kowalsky wants.
He’s been better with the puck and with his passing decisions. He’s been reliable enough that Kowalsky said he would have a tough time taking him out of the lineup, even with captain Jay Leach returning from a lower-body injury to give Albany seven or eight healthy blueliners.
“You’re 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, you’re a tough guy to get around, and he’s got good feet and a huge reach. I think he’s been focusing on that,” Kowalsky said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on video with puck retrieval and breakouts under pressure. He’s got a lot more composure, he’s understanding the forecheck well and knows what’s coming at him and what his options are. As a young D, that’s really all you’ve got to do. If you can defend when you’re in and break the puck out and get it up to the forwards’ hands, that’s all we really ask, and he’s done great with that.”
That may be all Kowalsky can ask of the young defenseman right now, but eventually, he will be expected to realize that potential and stand at the point on the power play.
“Right now, he’s confident, he certainly has ability,” Kowalsky said. “He can shoot the puck, he can handle the puck. Do we, one day, maybe see him back in those situations? Absolutely. But it’s baby steps right now. We like what we’re getting out of him, and right now, what we’re getting out of him is perfect.”