When Ranger fans think of prospects in Hartford, they will probably think of Morgan Barron, Tarmo Reunanen, Tim Gettinger or Ty Ronning. But the team has some undrafted players as well who joined the organization after graduating from college.
I had the pleasure to speak Justin Richards of Minnesota Duluth and Patrick Khodorenko of Michigan State, who went undrafted and signed with the Rangers. Another UDFA signing with the Rangers was probably the least known of the three, Austin Rueschhoff.
I sat down with the 6’7″, 209 lbs forward who played with some established NHLers as a kid.
Austin Rueschoff enjoyed being around the Tkachuk family
Growing up, Austin Rueschhoff was shaped by his father’s decisions as we all are. His dad wanted him to play sports and aside from baseball and lacrosse, little Austin learned how to skate and play hockey at a young age. As a kid he even played alongside Clayton Keller, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk.
“My dad really liked watching hockey, but no one in my family played before. He decided to bring me to some games and at age two he put me on skates and it took off from there,” he recalls. “I grew up just outside St Louis, a town called Wentzville. I was a Blues fan growing up all the way until I became a Ranger.”
Rueschhoff looked up to Keith Tkachuk, who in the twilight of his career played for the St Louis Blues. “He was always around when he wasn’t playing and helping out on the ice,” Austin tells of his experiences. “I was 7-8 years old at the time and couldn‘t believe my friends’ dad who was in the NHL, was out there teaching us how to shoot, how to skate faster and help with my equipment”.
It’s an interesting story and these are the things I love hearing. It shows you that even the biggest players in the league, and Keith Tkachuk was a big player, are still regular people that help tie the skates of their kids’ teammates. They sacrifice their day off to help out kids playing the game of hockey. For Rueschhoff it left a lasting impression and those connections are still there today.
“Matthew Tkachuk and Clayton Keller are the best guys I’ve played with. Keller was a year younger but played with our age group and still dominated,” he said. “Before he was going back to the bubble last year, I skated together with Matthew Tkachuk back in Missouri. Spending time with him is great and I still learn from him.”
College with a slight detour
Rueschhoff was born September 7th 1997, making him draft eligible the same year as Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. But coming off a mixed year playing for 5 different teams, his name wasn’t called 6 years ago. Starting with the Iowa AAA Elite u18s, he moved to the Omaha Lancers in the USHL before splitting time between the Minnesota Wilderness, Janesville Jets and Minnesota Magicians all in the NAHL. As a late bloomer, Rueschhoff didn’t attend the combine or the draft back in 2015.
2015-16 was a turning point with Rueschhoff signing with the Austin Bruins (What’s in a name, right?) in the NAHL where he put up 31 points in 52 games. It earned him a move to Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL where he had a similar season production-wise with 27 points in 57 games. That’s when the path for Rueschhoff became clearer.
“My last year in Juniors with Dubuque, the assistant coach talked to me and right when the playoffs started, their head coach came over the watch two games,” Austin explains. “He spoke to me and my family and like the Rangers they had a plan for me, what role to play so it was an easy decision.”
The move to Western Michigan put him in the NCHC with some tough opponents. “My college team, Western Michigan, is a smaller school in a good division with North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth with Richie (Justin Richards).”
It brings up fellow undrafted free agent signing Justin Richards. The young center who made his Rangers debut at the end of the 2021 season won back-to-back national championships with Minnesota-Duluth and if it wasn’t for the pandemic cancellation the Frozen Four, there’s a chance they could have gone for a third.
“Yeah, Richie always lets us know about it. He keeps bringing it up so Patty (Khodorenko) and I have to shut him up,” he said laughing. It’s a healthy rivalry the kids have carried with them to Hartford. The former college kids, including Tyler Wall, hang out together a lot in part due to their shared history.
Joining the Rangers and turning pro
On March 20th of last year, Rueschhoff signed his entry-level contract with the New York Rangers. It was an easy decision despite the Rangers not being the only ones interested.
“There were other teams I spoke to, but the Rangers were keen on wanting me and had a plan on how to develop me to make the roster later on, similar to the conversation I had with Western Michigan,” he reveals. “That made it an easy decision for me. It gives you confidence when you hear what they have in mind.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t get to play any games in Hartford because the season was cancelled shortly after he signed but the 2021 season saw Rueschhoff put up 4 goals and 4 assists for 8 points in 23 games in his first year in pro hockey.
“Every step you take, you notice it’s faster,” he said of the jump to the AHL. “Everyone is in a better position and they think quicker. You need to make the plays faster and that was the biggest difference for me.”
When talking about this past season the conversation is steered towards the Bruins getting to play the Utica Comets and how the Wolf Pack players responded to that.
“Providence got to play a game against Utica. Honestly, we were pretty jealous that they got to play a different team.” Rueschhoff is referring to the weird schedule the Wolf Pack had to deal with, playing only the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Providence Bruins.
“This was a strange year. But we work with what we are given. Just 2 teams to play against is repetitive but we approach them as playoff series,” Austin notes. “We have a whiteboard where we keep score in our locker room. It gives the games more meaning.”
The Wolf Pack finished the season with a 14-9-1 record, 5 points behind the Providence Bruins but 11 points ahead of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
This upcoming season we will see Rueschhoff and the others play a normal season in the AHL which will tell us a bit more about where they stand in their development. Rueschhoff also knows what he needs to work on. His physical presence and ability to get to the puck quicker than opponents will need to improve if he hopes to be successful.
Life in Hartford this past season had been relatively normal. The team rode the bus to Bridgeport and Providence. Games were played at 1 PM and the team got back in Hartford by the early evening. Players got to sleep in their own beds and there were no disruptions. In Rueschhoff’s own words “a relaxed bubble.”
“We didn’t really isolate. We go to the rink and back home but we do get tested every day in Hartford.”
Position and off-season training
Rueschhoff played mostly on the right wing this past season but has lined up at center from time to time.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable playing left wing but the challenge playing the opposite side is defensively,” he said. “When you are in the defensive zone, your stick is off the board on the right side, and inverse on the left wing making it harder to control the puck. On offense there aren’t many difference to me”.
That versatility on offense makes it easier for the Wolf Pack coaching staff to put together their lines, especially for offensive zone face-offs. With Richards and Barron making the jump to the NHL last season it’s clear what the goal for Rueschhoff is.
Utlimately, everyone signs an entry-level contract to try and earn his chance at the highest level. To get there, a lot of training, perseverance and patience is needed and the kids work hard even during the summer to reach those goals. When asked about his jersey number, Rueschhoff explains number 22 is his preferred number because it was the one he wore when his career took off in college. It was randomly assigned at the time but now has meaning to him.
During the off-season the former college kids hang out together. “Richie and I worked out with Ben Prentiss over the summer so we know each other pretty well and we’re all rookies so we gravitate towards each other.”
Chris Kreider is a guy who gets named quite a lot during these interviews as someone who reaches out to the younger kids and with Rueschhoff that’s no different. “Last November, Kreider was working out with Barron, Miller and Lafrenière in Connecticut,” Rueschhoff said. “Kreider is a guy who always takes his time and he really is a leader in our eyes. Miller and Laf had a rink in their backyard and it’s such a sweet setup. We were hoping they’d invite us to play out there.”
With training camp only days away, Rueschhoff is preparing to share the ice with the rest of the Rangers players and prospects. It’s his chance to show the new coaching staff what he can do and with the Rangers leaning towards adding a more physical presence, Rueschhoff with his 6’7″, 209 lbs frame might have an outside chance to make something happen.
If not, I suggest anyone living close to Hartford attend some Wolf Pack games and watch Rueschhoff, Khodorenko, Richards and the other prospects in person.
PS: I want to thank Austin Rueschhoff for sitting down with me and giving me the opportunity to share this story with our fanbase.