By Bruce Berlet
The Hartford Courant
Defenseman Dave Liffiton spent his first two pro seasons battling injuries as much as he did the opposition.
Yet he improved so much this year that he was made an assistant captain of the Pack for an extended time and was called up by the Rangers twice within the past two weeks.
Liffiton, who began his professional career with Charlotte of the ECHL in 2004-05, didn’t get into an NHL game, but he did sit alongside future Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan at a game against the Islanders. Shanahan hasn’t played since sustaining a concussion Feb. 17.
“Sitting with Shanny was a pretty good experience as far as his knowledge and the way he sees the game,” Liffiton said.
It was part of what Liffiton called a positive experience after paying his dues to reach the next level. And Friday in Atlanta, he gets his first legitimate shot at the NHL. He was called up for a third time Wednesday after Karel Rachunek sprained his right knee in a 3-2 loss to Ottawa on Tuesday. Rachunek will be out 3-4 weeks.
It was appropriate that Liffiton spent time with Shanahan, arguably the Rangers’ most versatile and valuable player. Liffiton has always been a hard-nosed, inspirational type who stands up for himself and teammates. But he has elevated all facets of his game while being used in all situations for the first time, notably on the power play.
The Pack coaches called Liffiton an emotional catalyst who is very hard to play against.
Liffiton, 22, started the season slowly after surgery in early July on an ankle he re-injured in Game 5 of the division finals against Portland. He was in a cast for six weeks and had about a month to prepare for training camp, but he said his confidence rose as the Pack took off after being 5-11-1 at Thanksgiving.
The coaches increased Liffiton’s responsibilities, using him on the power play and pairing him with Corey Potter since the rookie was called up from Charlotte of the ECHL Feb. 5.
Liffiton gave particular credit to assistant coach J.J. Daigneault, who was an assistant coach with the Phoenix RoadRunners in 2005-06.
“J.J. really helped the offensive side of my game,” said Liffiton, who has one goal, 10 assists and 154 penalty minutes in 61 games. “The more you play, the better you usually play, so it’s a nice feeling that the coaches have confidence in you. Corey and I clicked from the get-go, and it just shows the depth we have in the organization.”
Daigneault, who spent 15 years in the NHL and won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1993, said patience is key for defensemen.
“There’s no secret that unless you’re Chris Pronger, you usually don’t develop until 23 or 24,” Daigneault said. “You need to play and pay your dues getting some seasoning in the minors. Less is sometimes more, and it takes a little time for defensemen because it’s a responsibility position, second only to the goalie. The eyes are on you, and sometimes it takes a lot of maturity to make the right decisions. And sometimes for you to make the right decisions, you have to play a lot of hockey at the professional level.”
Daigneault said consistency is a key to getting to the NHL, and Liffiton had a handful of games in which he did not have a good rating.
“It’s a progression, but as a defenseman, you don’t want to be impatient with yourself,” Daigneault said. “You have to understand that it takes seasoning and you have to be one of the best in the minors before moving up. But Liffiton was a leader in juniors and now he has taken a leadership role here. He’s vocal on the bench and has been a spark at trying to get his teammates going when things aren’t going the way we want them to go. I think his best is yet to come.”