Author Archives: Leslie Treff

Rangers Shorts–Blueshirts Hang on To Win Season Opener

The Rangers had to wait for the Stanley Cup banner to be raised in Chicago last night before hitting the ice. But once it was up, New York came out flying. It was an exciting, energy-laden first period, where had it not been for the outstanding goaltending of the Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford, the Rangers might have had 4 or 5 goals. But, alas, New York was facing a recent Stanley Cup winning team, one that makes adjustments. After the adjustments, the Rangers became a team that relied on the world class goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers took away the win last night, 3-2, but after the first period, it was all Chicago.

First the good news. In all, eight different Rangers posted a point in last night’s contest. None of the forwards had ice time close to 20 minutes, ie, AV rolled four lines all night. The Blueshirts have won their last three games in Chicago (going back to January 8, 2014). And several players made notable contributions.

Of course, Lundqvist was the key (stopping 32 of 34 shots and just getting barraged in the third period). But other notable performances (whether their names were on the scoresheet or not) were had from:

Oscar Lindberg–just in his second NHL game, he centered the third line, scored the first goal and won six of the nine faceoffs he faced.

JT Miller–Was a part of the first two goals. Got very little ice time, but made the most of it with two assists, three hits and a + 2 rating. As I have been saying for weeks, Miller could be a huge part of the team’s offense, but he is just not the the head coach’s guy. The two have completely different personalities and styles, but at some point, it will hurt the team if Miller’s potential contribution is not recognized and he is not given more ice time to do his own thing.

Chris Kreider–Used his incredible speed to create several scoring chances. He did not finish last night, but Kreider is a star in the making.

Kevin Hayes–who looked much better last night than he has in training camp, tallied an assist and won all five faceoffs he took (after starting the game on the wing).

Kevin Klein–not only did he nail a one timer for the second goal of the game, but he recorded 5 hits last night.

Now the bad. The Rangers were unable to adjust to the change in the Blackhawk’s style of play after the first period. Chicago shut down the middle of the ice and got aggressive to stop the Rangers’ first pass. The Rangers did not make the necessary changes, turning over the puck in the middle of the ice and trying passes in lines that were shut. In addition, New York was terrible on face offs late in the game, and gave Chicago constant possession. Plus don’t get me started on the defensive breakdowns that led to Chicago scoring chances/goals.

The Rangers almost lost this one. And, in fact, were lucky that a Chicago goal was waived off. It was only the King that pulled it out for them.

On the very bright side, it looks like the Rangers have the talent to score goals this season. Lindberg should be able to contribute and Miller is gaining confidence, which should add to the scoresheet on a regular basis. Mats Zuccarello looks healthy (although he and Derrick Brassard did not show any of their combined magic last night, it will come), and Rick Nash had a beauty close in that was stopped by Crawford.

It is a long season. And one game does not a season make, but there are plenty of signs that the Rangers will once again go far into the playoffs and maybe the next time that there is a Stanley Cup banner to be raised it will be in Madison Square Garden.

Wolf Pack Shorts–Final Pre-Season Game and Cuts

The Wolf Pack played three pre-season games this year–with only one at home. No games at the comfy Quinnipiac College (what a beautiful arena; if you get a chance, go watch a game up there), and none at Trinity College. This year, the sole “home” game was on Sunday, in Cromwell, Connecticut, at the Wolf Pack’s practice facility.

Earlier in the week, two Rangers’ prospects, Troy Donnay and Sam Noreau, were reassigned to Greenville (ECHL). For Noreau, this had to be very disappointing. He had made such great strides coming out of junior and just could not step up to do the job over the last two professional seasons. Apparently, he was not doing any better this fall, and off he went to South Carolina to play for the Swamp Rats. Unless a miracle happens, Noreau’s career as a Rangers’ prospect is almost over (he is not expected to be resigned by the Rangers after his ELC expires next summer).

Donnay is younger and will begin his professional career in Greenville. It is a very good place for him to begin, as Hartford has no room on the blueline, and Donnay, the huge tough blueliner, has a long road ahead of him to get to the NHL.

Noreau and Donnay were reassigned after the team won its first pre-season tilt against the Islanders’ triple A franchise. On Saturday, Hartford won its second pre-season game, against Lehigh Valley (Phillie’s AAA team), where two Rangers’ prospects, Petr Zamorsky and Marek Hrivik, had excellent games. Another round of cuts came Sunday morning, with Michael St. Croix and Josh Nicholls sent to Greenville.

Like Noreau, Nicholls is another prospect who has spent almost all of his pro career at the ECHL level. He just does not seem to have the game to be a real NHL prospect. Do not expect the Rangers to resign him after his ELC expires this summer.

St. Croix is still only 22 years old, and although he has played for Greenville almost exclusively since turning pro, he may be able to play on the AHL level somewhere else. He is not likely to be resigned for next season, but he may be able to get an AHL contract on another team.

Now to Sunday’s game. Bridgeport was looking to avenge its loss earlier in the week, and succeeded–they won 3-1. The Sound Tigers were solid in every zone, with rookie pro Carter Verhaeghe, new to the Islanders organization after a September trade with Toronto, giving an impressive performance. Verhaeghe could be a roster player in Brooklyn next season–he looked that solid.

Now for Sunday’s take on the Rangers’ prospects. This will only include those who stood out–good or needing improvement.

Magnus Hellberg was in net. Big, but not confident with the puck at all. Needs quite a bit of work and he will get it in Hartford. Has the size and the athleticism, but… we will have to see what Benoit Allaire can do with him.

Brady Skjei–sees the ice so well. Makes the solid, safe play. Knows where he is at all times. Does not look like he will need a huge adjustment to the pro game. Looks confident and can carry the puck.

Ryan Bourque–he works so hard. Always in the play, and outstanding on the PK.

Michael Kantor–after sitting out most of the last two seasons with injuries, Kantor was working incredibly hard on Sunday. Not afraid to use his body, an excellent forechecker, Kantor was one of head coach Ken Gernander’s favorites this training camp. It did not stop the inevitable though and Kantor was sent back to the ECHL yesterday morning.

Adam Tambellini–He looks bigger than he is. Tambellini looks like he is one of the biggest players on the ice, and he is not. He takes faceoffs well and he handles the puck well, but it is clear that he needs some experience. He could be a top six player at this level (and maybe beyond), but not sure that he can finish. Thus far, he is off to a good start.

Calle Andersson–needs to adjust to the North American game. Had a very good shot for a goal on Sunday, but he took the puck up ice in the second period, the Sound Tigers were making a (terrible) change, and instead of taking the puck forward into Bridgeport’s zone, he passed it backward to his D partner. Really bad play, but apparently one done in Europe all the time. He looked better here than in camp (development and training) lately, so I am optimistic for Andersson.

Petr Zamorsky–What a heavy shot. Now if he could only hit the net. He did in the second pre-season game, but on Sunday, it was the boards he kept hitting. One of Zamorsky and Andersson will run the power play in Hartford this season. My money is on Zamorsky.

The Wolf Pack made their final cuts yesterday (including Kantor, assigned to Greenville), and if Raphael Diaz reports, they will start the season this coming weekend with 22 players.

Rangers Shorts–October 4, 2015

Before I drive to Cromwell, Connecticut to catch the Hartford Wolf Pack’s final game of the pre-season, I wanted to put down a few thoughts about the goings on in the Rangers’ world since Wednesday.

First, as everyone already knows, Raphael Diaz and Jason Megna were waived on Friday, passed through yesterday and were assigned to the Wolf Pack. I don’t want to rehash what many others have said about the Rangers’ choices on who they kept on the NHL roster–the moves that were made were not unexpected–but what is interesting is the fact that it looks like more moves will be made in the coming days. The Rangers are right at the cap and this makes the organization very uncomfortable. If injuries occur, this could quickly become a problem.

Speaking of which, everyone was on the ice for yesterday’s practice except for Tanner Glass, who was scheduled for an MRI on the foot that he injured in Wednesday night’s pre-season game (the results have not yet been announced).

At the practice, JT Miller repeated the same shot from the same spot on the ice that was so impressive on Wednesday. For those who did not see it, watch the video. His release was amazing on the shot and completely fooled Boston’s goalie (Gustavsson) fooled. Well, yesterday, JT froze Hank too. Just beautiful.

Chris Kreider also impressed yesterday. Confident and hard working, he was showing what good hands he has–finishing on his forehand and backhand close in.

Now to my gaffe. I found out quickly yesterday how a tweet can create havoc. At the practice, Lundqvist lost his skate blade and had to be helped off the ice. I was watching Mats Zuccarello at the time and did not see exactly what happened–just Benoit Allaire helping Hank off the ice, with Lundqvist not putting any weight on his right leg. I tweeted what was happening on the ice (I did not speculate; just reported what I saw) and all heck broke loose. I quickly deleted the tweet, but not before I was swamped with questions. Lesson learned. No more tweets without more info.

Finally, as most of you already know, the Rangers’ trip to West Point, and the open practice on Monday, have been cancelled due to weather. When told, the team seemed really disappointed in not being able to go on this bonding trip. But the word is that the weather has just been too bad to make the trip. Instead, the team will be practicing Monday and Tuesday at the MSG training center, before flying off to Chicago for the season opener on Wednesday.

More tomorrow on the Wolf Pack game and then Monday’s practice.

Rangers Shorts–Post-Game September 30, 2015

The Rangers defeated a young and mostly second string Boston Bruins last night. Outside of Jesper Fast, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle and Dominic Moore, New York put their A team on the ice. Dylan McIlrath and Raphael Diaz, who are fighting for jobs on D, and Tanner Glass, Oscar Lindberg, Viktor Stalberg, Jarret Stoll and Emerson Etem, who are looking for forward roster spots, were all on the ice last evening at MSG.

The final score was 3-2, but more importantly, lets talk about who looked good and who did not.

McIlrath was definitely one of the best blueliners on the ice last night. He clearly won the fight he had with Tyler Randell of the Bruins and his use of his stick to break up plays is impressive. He still has lots of learning to do, in my opinion, he is NHL-ready and will have a spot on the blueline next week.

Diaz is more of a question mark. He has a great shot, heavy and on the mark (most of the time), plus he recorded a point in three of the four pre-season games in which he played, but he makes quite a few mistakes in his own zone that make him a liability at times.

If its a choice between McIlrath and Diaz, the powers that be should take Big Mc. If the team could keep both, all the better.

On forward, Etem was clearly the worst of the bubble players on the ice last night. He was totally ineffective. Unfortunately that does not mean that he will be put on waivers and sent to Hartford. He should be, but I really don’t think this is going to happen, because the Rangers would have to admit that they got basically nothing from Anaheim for Carl Hagelin, and I do not think that they are ready to do that.

As for Glass, if McIlrath is on the roster, he may very well be expendable. And Stoll’s play was pretty droll last night (I have been waiting a while to write that; stop rolling your eyes). He did a decent job in the face off circle but other than that, meh. One or both are the likely last cuts by the Monday deadline.

So its Stalberg and Lindberg that the team needs to be thinking about in my opinion. Lindberg won the 2015 Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award as the Rangers top rookie in training camp last night (last year it was won by Anthony Duclair). He was outstanding in the face off circle and notched an assist. But more than that, he was good at both ends of the ice and has excellent vision.

Stalberg notched a goal last night, but frankly it was just because he was standing in front of a crowded net on a shot by Ryan McDonagh and it happened to hit him. He was okay, but I was not thrilled. His stats are fine, but seeing him on the ice is not exciting in any way and he does make defensive mistakes that can cost the Rangers if he does not tighten up his game.

Other notes:

* Lundqvist is “ready”, as confirmed by AV last night.
* The Rangers may make their final cuts as early as Friday.
* Miller had a tremendous goal last night. His moves around his D-man were impressive. According to JT, he had never done that move before. Really really talented offensive player. AV mentioned in his very brief post-game remarks that Miller still needs to work on his defensive play, but personally I think that he is ready for a top six role.
* Tomorrow (Friday) is an open practice at 11 am. Watch it on MSG network from 11-1.

The Rangers Reassign/Release 22 Players

Last evening, the Rangers reassigned 20 players and released two from training camp.

Both Dallas Valentine and Nathan Burns. If there were any surprises in the moves, it had to be the release of Dallas Valentine, who went undrafted this year, but joined the Rangers for both Traverse City and the main camp. Valentine was very impressive in the rookie tournament in Michigan earlier this month. could have been signed (if the Rangers had room). It is expected that the Blueshirts will keep him on their radar over the next 6-9 months.

Other reassignments are Troy Donnay, Michael Kantor, Nickolas Latta, Paxton Leroux, Chris McCarthy, Richard Nejezchleb, Logan Nelson, Josh Nicholls, Sam Noreau, Mackenzie Skapski, Michael St. Croix, and Andrew Yogan, who will join Hartford in their AHL training camp; as well as Ryan Graves, Brandon Halverson, Keegan Iverson, Ryan Mantha, Adam Tambellini, and Daniel Walcott, who have been returned to their junior teams.

Prospects still vying for spots on the NHL club are: Ryan Bourque, Anthony Duclair, Jesper Fast, Ryan Haggerty, Marek Hrivik, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg, JT Miller, Conor Allen, Mat Bodie, Tommy Hughes, Dylan McIlrath, Petr Zamorsky, Cedrick Dejardins, and Jason Missiaen. It is likely that three or a maximum of four of these prospects will make the team.

Rangers Lose First Pre-Season Game 5-4, But Several Prospects Impress

Last night, the Rangers opened their pre-season with a 5-4 loss to the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden. A tight contest, where the Rangers twice came from behind to tie the hard-hitting Devils, it was the goaltending and defense that failed the Blueshirts on this night. Unlike what we often saw last season, the Rangers had no trouble scoring, with several of New York’s prospects adding zest to the offense.

Henrik Lundqvist let in two goals he would like to have back early in the first period. A Chris Kreider mistake led to the Devils’ Reid Boucher scoring unassisted at only 59 seconds into the game. Two and a half minutes later, Michael Ryder deflected Eric Gelinas’ shot through Lundqvist and it was 2-0.

The Rangers were able to come back quickly though, getting their first goal of the season at 4:43 of the first, when Carl Hagelin went to the net and stuffed in JT Miller’s shot past Scott Clemmensen. Four minutes and 55 seconds later, with New York on the power play, Miller once again contributed–passing to Ryan Malone for the team’s first power play goal of the pre-season. At the end of the first period the score was tied 2-2.

After a scoreless first half of the second period, both teams changed goalies, with Cam Talbot coming in for the Rangers. It was the defense that broke down in front of Talbot that led to the Devils’ third goal at 16:14 of the second period. It was a shame, because Talbot was quite sharp until then.

The score was 3-2 to start the third, when the Rangers had several great chances early on the power play. The teams traded penalties, with Hagelin taking a foolish slashing penalty at 13:25. New Jersey jumped on the opportunity, taking only 14 seconds to score–Gelinas wound up and bombed one from the point through traffic.

New York came back once again, however. This time it was Chris Kreider, at 15:00 in the period, strong on the puck, who beats the new Devils’ netminder, Keith Kinkaid. Kreider’s goal was very impressive; he had a man all over him the entire time he was going to the net.
The Rangers began to swarm the New Jersey zone, and it paid off. New York prospect Jesper Fast pots the Rangers final goal of the night, to tie it up at 4 goals a piece, with just 2:30 left in regulation.

It looked like the game was going to OT, but with just 52 seconds left in the tilt, Talbot does not see the puck coming at him and Adam Henrique’s shot gets past the New York goaltender. All the air came out of the building and the Rangers, who had been building momentum, coming back twice against a team that often does not give up much. Granted this was not the usual Devils’ defense on the ice, but the Rangers’ comeback was impressive.

Thoughts on some of the players:
–Miller was incredibly impressive in this game. Not only did he provide offense, he also blocking shots, played on the PK, took face offs, and created chances on a line with Ryan Bourque and Hagelin.
–You can see the talent oozing off of Kreider, but he still needs to play a more measured game. Both of his penalties last night were unnecessary.

The Wolf Pack’s Opening Weekend

The Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, played their first two games this weekend, garnering 3 out of the 4 available points from the contests. Almost as importantly, the contrasting games showed two different styles of play that the Wolf Pack will likely employ this season. Last night’s game, where Hartford lost 3-2 in a shootout, was gritty–reminiscent of the Connecticut Whale games of the past, with three fights and 22 combine penalties for the two teams. It was somewhat high tempo, but too gritty for the fact that the Wolf Pack have at least two and half lines of high skill players waiting to jump on the ice and do their thing.

The up-tempo and high skill-based game that Hartford won this afternoon (by a score of 4-3), however, was much more of what this team will need to be to succeed this season. And more importantly, it is what the Rangers’ prospects need to develop properly. When you look up and down the lineup, this is no longer a lunch pail crew. However, I believe that there will be differences of opinion here, as Wolf Pack head coach Kenny Gernander said this afternoon that he preferred the way his team played in game one and not in the game this afternoon.

Let’s recap the games tonight and review the play of the Rangers’ prospects that participated in the games.

In game one, the Wolf Pack faced the Norfolk Admirals, Anaheim’s AHL team. The game was pretty even through the first period, with Hartford getting a couple of power plays to start the game and both teams playing a high tempo game. During this time, however, Norfolk’s Zac Stortini proved to be a one-man wrecking crew, as he first took on Michael Haley, who got crushed although he kept coming back for more (tonight his face looked pretty bruised when I saw him without a helmet), and then fought Dylan McIlrath, which wound up a draw. As for offense during the first period, Andrew Yogan rang a puck off the pipe for the Wolf Pack and Chris Krieder did lots of little things right, but there was no scoring.

This changed in the second period, as Hartford’s Danny Kristo gave the puck away in his own zone, which led to a Norfolk goal at 1:15. Steve Whitney picked up the puck in the slot and quickly shot it past Wolf Pack netminder Cam Talbot to put Norfolk up 1-0. Kristo later told me that the puck jumped on him because of bad ice, but it looked absolutely terrible from the press box. Whitney stole another puck a couple of minutes later, but Talbot made an excellent glove save, and the bleeding stopped. What began at that point was a parade to the sin bin. Boarding, hooking, interference, tripping, roughing, slashing–one after another both teams were guilty of bad mistakes. Only about 8 minutes of the period were played at even strength. The penalty killers and Talbot beat back a five on three, and came out of the period unscathed by penalties, until, at almost at the end of the second period (19:48), Yogan took an instigating, fighting, and 10 minute misconduct penalty.

Yogan’s penalty quickly gave the Admirals a 5 on 3 advantage early in the third period. At 37 seconds into the period, one of Anaheim’s top prospects, Richard Rakell, scored for Norfolk. The Admirals had set up, and defenseman Dylan McIlrath threw himself into a shooting lane to stop a shot. However, by doing so, he completely took himself out of the play and Norfolk scored around him. Now down 2-0, Hartford woke up. Michael Haley drew a penalty and on the resulting power play, Kristo made a beautiful play putting the puck up high and through Norfolk’s netminder Frederik Andersen, making it 2-1.

There the score remained until literally the last second of the game. The Wolf Pack had pulled Talbot from the net and had the Admirals pinned in their own zone. the puck and all six of the Wolf Pack skaters went into the zone and eventually to the Admirals’ net. At 19:59 Darroll Powe put the puck past Andersen and the game was tied.

Overtime ensued, but ended without the tie being broken. The game went to a shootout, with Kristo scoring on a beautiful shot. Unfortunately though two Admirals’ scored–Rakell and Devante Smith-Pelley. It seemed like an anti-climactic end to the game, but the crowd of a little more than 6,500 filed out feeling like they got their money’s worth.

In this afternoon’s game, the Wolf Pack faced the Albany Devils. The Wolf Pack started off slow, but it was at least in part because of the type of game Albany plays. Lest you think that they play a different game than the parent club, you would be sadly mistaken. Although not quite as bad, the whole Devils culture is to slow the game down. Hartford finally found a way to beat this strategy this afternoon, although Jason Missiaen had several trying minutes. Just 51 seconds into the game, Scott Timmins put a goal right between Missiaen’s legs. It was a softie that Missiaen would have liked back, but the goaltender need not have worried, because the newest member of the roster, JT Miller, just reassigned from New York was about to have a big night. At 9:13 of the first period, Miller put in a rebound that Devils netminder Keith Kinkaid left right out there. Miller tied the score 1-1. At 13:35 of the period, Harri Pesonen cross-checked Marek Hrivik (they called it roughing, but it was a cross-check) and the baby Rangers went on the power play. Kreider was on the first power play unit with Miller and Kristo, and the three of them combined on a power play goal for Kreider at 14 minutes of the period.

This put the Wolf Pack ahead 2-1, but Pesonen wanted some revenge and he got it at 18:57 of the first period when his pass to David Wohlberg put Wohlberg behind the defense in what became a one on none. When Wohlberg put the puck through Missiaen, the Devils tied the score 2-2. The Devils jumped out ahead early in the second period when Joe Whitney scored on a power play which resulted from an Aaron Johnson penalty. It was the last two goals, both Hartford scores, that really were exciting.

The first was still in the second period. Ryan Bourque, who had been playing on the fourth line in the first two games, made a beautiful pass to Miller standing on Kinkaid’s right–alone at the top of the crease. Miller later said that he never saw the pass until it was on his tape. Miller quickly shot it past Kinkaid for a goal.

The last goal of the game was from the stick of McIlrath, who took a shot from the point and put it past a completely screened Kinkaid. There was only one body in front of Kinkaid–Kreider–but he stood so big, Kinkaid never saw McIlrath’s shot until it was past him. That was the game winner, with the Wolf Pack defeating the Devils 4-3.

A little scouting report on players:

Conor Allen–Played in all situations; second pairing. The rookie had a very up and down weekend. Sometimes the play moved too fast for him. Others, he had good anticipation. Will need some time to adjust to this level.

Andrew Yogan–Had a better game tonight than last night, but does not look like more than a borderline NHL player at this point. Has skill but decision-making needs lots of work.

Dylan McIlrath–A work in progress, McIlrath took himself out of position many times last night, but was a little better tonight. Pairing with veteran and new Hartford captain Johnson should be helping as they talk to each other while on the ice. McIlrath did decently in his fight last night and let go an excellent shot from the point this afternoon, but he still needs to work on gap control and blocking out opposing players.

Ryan Bourque–Great timprovement sinc elast season. I noticed it in the pre-season too. Much more north-south play. He has been the fastest skater on the team over the last two days. He is excellent on the PK and has good instincts. He also made a beautiful pass to Miller for the tying goal today. The problem is he just cannot seem to finish and sometimes he gets knocked off the puck when he should not. Gernander had many good things to say about Bourque’s effort this afternoon. I expect that he will see more playing time next week.

JT Miller–Just arrived yesterday and played his first game today. Besides the two goals and an assist, Miller looked like a complete player on the ice today (he also had the most SOG). Miller was playing with a passion, a fire, that exceeded every other skater on the ice. He certainly looked NHL-ready. When I spoke to him after the game, he indicated to me that the Rangers are looking for consistency from him. Not just one game of this intensity and production, but every game. That seems to indicate that he will be here for at least a week or two, trying to prove that he has right now what the Rangers want from him over the long haul.

Michael Kantor–Great hitter, but did not much else in the two games this weekend. He was -2 today with no hitting–it would have been better having another skilled or semi-skilled player on the ice (maybe Brodie Dupont–who was scratched?).

Marek Hrivik–Was demoted to the fourth line today. When I asked why of Gernander, he said it was the situation. Not sure what that means, but I thought he played fine today. Yesterday he took a bad penalty and he was not particularly productive, but there were several other forwards on the team who were worse.

Oscar Lindberg–I keep waiting for him to contribute, but basically most of the offense on the team has been created by Kreider, Miller and Kristo. Lindberg has been pretty invisible. He can play center, but he needs to make some plays happen or score. So far, I haven’t seen a thing from Lindberg since the start of the pre-season that gives me the impression that he is a budding star.

Chris Kreider–Over the two night span the best player on the ice. He has been doing everything to help the team. Even when he does not get a point (like when he stood in front of Kinkaid’s goal and screened the netminder), Kreider is performing the way he should. And just talking to his very confident, funny self over the last two days, you can see a big change in him. Kreider, who is always a perfectionist on the ice, is clearly enjoying the game and his position in it. He should be NHL-ready very soon.

Danny Kristo–With further to go than either Miller or Kreider, Kristo has tremendous offensive skill. His greatest assets are his creativity, quick release and hard shot. He does need to learn how to get to the places he needs to be defensively, so he is not a liability, but there is no question that lots of offensive tools are in his arsenal.

Wolf Pack 2013-14 Season Preview

I know that everyone is very excited about the opening of the Rangers’ 2013-14 season tonight in Phoenix, but while we await the Blueshirts’ season opener, let’s take a look at the baby Rangers–the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack–and see what they will look like this season and who to watch.

This team, which will open the season on Saturday night, is loaded with talent. Hartford has a lot of new players, so things may take a few weeks to get going, but the talent that is on this roster should interest any Rangers fan. Yesterday, I even suggested that you part with a few shekels and sign up for AHL live, because the team has the makings of a Calder Cup contender. It does, but there is one caveat–the personnel on this team are high end and will be difficult to juggle. The coaching staff’s approach will have to be different from what it has been in the recent past–and much of the team’s success will depend on that adjustment.

So, let’s look at the team.

Goalies
Cam Talbot and Jason Missiaen are a very strong netminding tandem. Talbot will handle the bulk of the AHL duties to start and is really ready to spot in New York, if there is an injury or if Marty Biron needs more personal time off. Talbot is expected to be one of the top AHL goaltenders this year, and he should help save a rather young defense when they make mistakes early in the season. Missiaen, who at 6’8″ looks huge in net, spent most of last season as the AHL backup, and has generally looked very good this pre-season.

Scott Stajcer was also listed on the roster that was published Monday night, however, Stajcer is still recovering from hip surgery and is not expected to play for awhile. When he is ready to play, expect him to be sent back to the ECHL to continue his development.

Defense
The Wolf Pack are carrying seven defensemen (Conor Allen, Stu Bickel, Tommy Hughes, Aaron Johnson, Dylan McIlrath, Brendon Nash, and Danny Syvret), all of whom, except for Nash, have contracts with the Rangers. Nash, Bickel, Johnson and Syvret are AHL veterans, and McIlrath will be in his second season. Allan and Hughes are rookies.

Nash has proven to be able to provide decent offensive production from the blueline in the AHL, while playing solid D in his own zone. The two-way defender has not yet been able to raise his game to make it at the NHL, so he agreed to an AHL contract this past August. Another experienced stable two-way blueliner is Johnson, who at age 30 has been able to put up the points in the AHL, but had less success in his 291 games in the NHL. Johnson can also play a tough game if necessary. Both Nash and Johnson are coming off injury last season and should provide stability and some points on a young blueline.

Bickel, who is more of a defensive blueliner, spent a good portion of last season with the Rangers (his potential is mostly as the seventh NHL blueliner). At this level, he is very steady and very big; he should be able to provide protection to the smaller more skilled forwards.

Finally, among the AHL veterans, is Syvret, who has really been able to put up offensive numbers in his previous AHL seasons. The 28-year old Syret has posted an average of 41 points in his last two seasons in the AHL, and while defense can be an issue for him, he should provide some offense from the blueline and quarterback the power play (at least to start the season).

Which brings us to the more interesting three young defensemen.

McIlrath is a top Rangers prospect, with a year of pro play under his belt. At this point, he should be ready for a bigger role in Hartford–clearing the crease, fighting when necessary and increasing his reputation as a nasty player. This will be a critical year for him, as McIlrath needs to be more consistently visible and fearsome than he was last season. No one questions the fact that he still needs to grow stronger to fulfill his potential in the NHL, but if McIlrath does not make a strong impression this season, one has to start to believing that he is falling behind schedule.

Hughes is a 21-year old two-way blueliner, with excellent size, who was signed by the Rangers as an undrafted free agent after his season with OHL London Knights. At least two years away from being NHL ready, Hughes will probably be a bottom pairing D-man in Hartford.

Allen was the most exciting defensive prospect in Rangers’ training camp this season. More known for offense than D during his collegiate career, Allen showed during the pre-season that he is good positionally and has excellent defensive instincts. He is probably one year away from a full time job in New York, but his vision and puck distribution should provide Hartford with some exciting scoring chances this season.

Forward
Twelve forwards are signed and will be on the Wolf Pack’s opening day roster, including 11 who are Rangers’ prospects. There are two other players, Shawn O’Donnell and Brodie Dupont, who are listed on the Wolf Pack roster, but are not yet signed. O’Donnell is a rookie pro, who played CIS hockey last season and then joined Greenville (ECHL) for five games. It is unclear whether he will wind up in Hartford or Greenville this season.

Dupont is another matter, entirely. Selected by the Rangers in the third round of the 2005 draft, Dupont was a fixture in the face-off circle for the Wolf Pack from 2008-2011, before being traded (as an RFA) by the Rangers to Nashville in July of 2011. The player in return, Andreas Thuresson, did not work out for the Blueshirts, but at the time, it was worth a shot. The problem for Hartford was that Dupont was a very solid two-way player (about a half point per game), who was very hard to replace. After playing in Italy last season, Dupont wanted to return to North America. He is on a PTO, but he was playing with a fire in his belly last week, and is expected to be signed to an AHL contract. The kind of experienced guy that you want in the locker room, Dupont can play a top nine center role or at left wing for this young team.

The only player currently on an AHL contract is Andrew Carroll, a sixth-year pro who has bounced between the AHL and ECHL during that time. He plays a very tough game, and although he puts points on the board in the ECHL, he is not expected to be much more than a banger on this team.

The eleven NHL prospect forwards to start the season in Hartford are Ryan Bourque, Michael Haley, Marek Hrivik, Kyle Jean, Chris Kreider, Brandon Mashinter, Andrew Yogan, Michael Kantor, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg, and Darroll Powe.

Haley, Mashinter, Kantor and Powe are third or fourth line players at this level (as well as in the NHL, should they be promoted at some time during the season). Powe is an NHL vet who can play on the PK and has very good speed, while Mashinter is a big banger, who was a member of the Wolf Pack for the later part of last season. Haley led Hartford in penalty minutes last season and played nine games in a Rangers’ uniform–he could be one of the first Rangers’ call-ups, if they need a tough guy.

Kantor is a rookie, who the Rangers signed as an undrafted free agent out of the OHL Sudbury Wolves. A tough winger, Kantor will need quite a bit of seasoning before being NHL-ready, including perhaps spending some time in the ECHL.

Bourque and Yogan are second to third line tweeners on this team, depending on injury and effectiveness of the players above them. Bourque is in the final year of his ELC with the Rangers, and has good speed. He can play in all situations, but is particularly good on the PK. Used more in a defensive role in his first two seasons, Bourque may be able to fill a complementary player role on the first two AHL lines, if necessary.

As for Yogan, it feels like he has been around a long time, but, he is only 21 and in the second year of his ELC. In other words, he has one more year on his contract after the 2013-14 season. Yogan can plays on either the center or the wing, and had started to pick up his offensive production prior to sustaining a season ending injury last March, but it remains unclear whether he is a real NHL prospect. He will get the opportunity, at least at one point, to play with some high level talent this season, so its likely that his fate in this organization will be determined prior to next year.

Jean was signed by the Rangers after wowing everyone in development camp during the summer of 2012. He continued on a tear last fall and then fell flat. He will definitely get a look on a top six line, but he has been injured since Traverse City and his return is uncertain.

Hrivik, Kreider, Kristo and Lindberg are the four highly skilled forwards assigned by the Rangers to Hartford over the last two weeks. Each was competing for an NHL roster spot and any one of them could be a call-up to the big team this season. Kreider and Hrivik were members of the Wolf Pack last season and played a top six role. Hrivik was plagued by injuries, but when he was in the lineup, he used his size and speed well to produce offensively.

Kreider was and is more of a mystery. Everyone knows about his first appearance with the Rangers during the 2011 playoffs–Kreider was tantalizing. Predictions of his place on the Rangers’ first line to start last season abounded. Instead Kreider split the season between the AHL and NHL. While in Connecticut, he played pretty well, but when he was promoted, he looked lost. Kreider certainly has improved since a year ago, but he still is not NHL-ready. Whether its just his confidence that needs to improve or his overall decision-making with and without the puck that needs work is not yet clear, but, for the first time, he will have lots of competition for a call-up, so, unless he really shows he is ready, his return to New York may not come quickly.

When Kristo was obtained from Montreal this summer, he was just out of college and highly touted. Some off ice issues had previously plagued him, but what were the whispers in Montreal had to do with consistent effort. Since Kristo arrived in the organization, however, there is no question that he has put forth his best effort. The fact is–he is just not NHL-ready yet. He looked good in the Rangers’ training camp, but not quite good enough. Now, he will get to show what he can do on what is likely to be Hartford’s first line. If he produces, he will probably get an injury call-up to New York.

Lindberg was one of the best players through the summer and into Rangers’ training camp this fall. The former playoff MVP in the SEL last season, Lindberg overpowered young prospects and looked very comfortable playing alongside men in camp. But, he did not show much at all in the games over the last weeks (and he was given lots of chances). The frontrunner for the final Rangers’ roster spot prior to the pre-season games, Lindberg managed to lose his spot to Jesper Fast. But, he still is very high on the Rangers’ brass radar, and is likely to get an early call-up this season. Expect Lindberg to play on the top line in Hartford, (mostly at center) and play plenty of minutes.

How The Rangers Player Reassignments Have Affected the Wolf Pack

There have been many stories over the last few days about who the Rangers decided to keep on their opening night roster and who they sent down. In case you missed it, JT Miller stayed with the big team (no matter what anyone says, this was almost a given going into training camp), as did Jesper Fast (somewhat of a surprise, but it was deserved). Miller continues to grow into his role as a top nine player–ideally he will skate on a third line that can produce offensively but does a lot of checking.

Fast, however, projects to be a top six forward–a highly skilled player, who attracts the puck and makes things happen. It is not clear to me that he is actually NHL-ready, but, on the strength of his play over the last few weeks, he deserves this shot. Whether he stays in New York for any length of time is questionable though. Its hard to believe that Fast will adjust so quickly and make that big an impact, but it is possible. Not only will this depend on what he does on the ice over the next few weeks, it will also be a function of Carl Hagelin’s recovery, not to mention whether someone else in Hartford impresses–the organization will be particularly watching if Kreider comes out of the gate with guns ablazing in Hartford. Not to be a naysayer, but, absent additional injuries, I do expect Fast back in Hartford by early November.

Until then, what will the Wolf Pack look like? In total 21 were reassigned by the Rangers to their AHL affiliate over the last few weeks, and although Hartford is a different team than it was last season, it has talent than the Wolf Pack have not seen in a long time. Prospects Connor Allen, Marek Hrivik, Chris Kreider, and Oscar Lindberg were reassigned along with three others–Stu Bickel, Brandon Mashinter and Darroll Powe–this past Sunday. Bickel, Mashinter and Powe all had to pass through waivers and, as of Monday, all cleared. Cam Talbot, Tommy Hughes, Dylan McIlrath, Danny Kristo and Andrew Yogan, among others were sent down on September 25th, and Sam Noreau, Jason Wilson, Josh Nicholls and Michael St. Croix the week before. That’s quite a prospect pool.

Hartford could not keep all of them, however, and some decisions had to be made to get to the AHL season-opening roster. Monday night, the Wolf Pack announced the reassignment or release of 14 players, including four prospects the Rangers reassigned to their ECHL affiliate in Greenville–Sam Noreau, Jason Wilson, Josh Nicholls and Michael St. Croix. Wilson, who spent most of the last two seasons in the ECHL, was no surprise. To be honest, neither was Sam Noreau, a rookie pro, who is big, with a good stick, but has trouble with positioning and the speed of this level.

It is fellow rookie forwards Nicholls and St. Croix who are the surprises. Both are decent prospects who may at some point be NHL players, but neither player stood out in the Wolf Pack’s pre-season games, both are first year pros, and there just was not enough room in Hartford for players with their skill set–two way skaters without much grit–while Bickel, Mashinter and Powe are on the roster. Both are likely call-ups to Hartford at some point during the season.

That leaves us to look at the extremely strong Wolf Pack roster; it will look very different from last year’s team, but is a good mix of experienced players and rookie pros, as well as skill players and grinders. Believe it or not, one year after missing the playoffs completely, this team could compete for the Calder Cup if some of the rookie forwards perform anywhere near to what is expected.

Tomorrow, I will give an in depth analysis of the players that are starting the season with the team and give an idea of what to expect from the Wolf Pack over the coming months. Here’s a hint–even if you never have before, you should consider buying a subscription to AHL Live this season.

Pre-Season is Over; Where are the Rangers Now?

The Rangers have made no secret of the fact that they want this to be a Stanley Cup year–that the Rangers are serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. The Rangers play this week (including two bad losses in two nights) has to be somewhat discounted as it was mostly younger players vying for roster spots, but a few telling cracks were revealed that will require some changes for that quest to come to fruition.

It is very hard to judge where the team is actually at with this pre-season schedule–two games last week on the East coast, then a bonding trip out West, with no game for five days, then four games in another five days, then back across the country to practice in NY for four days, then back out West to start the season. I understand that the charity golf tournament in Banff raised many thousands of dollars for a very worthy cause (I have interests in the area too and know what devastation has occurred), but maybe a fundraiser with a resulting big donation done from New York might have been easier on the team. Bonding is good, but West Point is only down the road, and, if the travel was lighter, the games could have been more evenly spread out.

But what is done is done. And thankfully, the pre-season is over. So, where does the team go from here? Some thoughts below.

As respects Rick Nash, he really needs someone to feed him the puck–he is not a player who can do it all himself. And he has been trying to in the pre-season. It remains to be seen whether Derek Stepan, who just signed a two-year contract late this week, is that guy. If he is, then there needs to be a smaller highly skilled guy on the other side–one dreams of a Marion Gaborik for this function, but alas he longer is here. Who that right winger will be is one of the big questions for the team. There are one or two of the younger players who I think may be able to fill this function over time (Fast, Kristo), but probably not in time for this season.

Then there is Brad Richards. He freely admits that he did not play up to par last season and has dedicated himself to improving the outcome this year. Although it is very clear to anyone who meets him or sees him working out that Richards’ intent and work ethic are some of the best on the team, after watching him over the last two weeks, one has to question whether or not all this effort will be fruitful for the Rangers. I know that others see positive changes in his game–I do not see sufficient changes in foot speed to really help the team with its “Stanley Cup now” goal.

The younger players will be discussed by management over the next couple of days. How many will be kept? Yesterday, AV suggested two young guys will remain of four competing for spots–he did not say whether that included Kreider and Miller. Lets get bold and suggest that Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin start on the IR and that Kreider and Miller are not in this race–they are regular roster members. So, that would mean that two of Fast, Lindberg, Hrivik and Mashinter will stay. Although yesterday I suggested that Mashinter should be kept out of this group of contenders, by the light of day, after watching the game last night, I am less certain that this is a good idea.

Kreider, Miller, Fast and Lindberg are the core of the Rangers future top nine. I believe that, even if Callahan and Hagelin are not on the IR to start the season, that Miller and Kreider will both be kept on the roster and given a chance to show what they can do. However, even if Callahan and Hagelin are roster players, can Fast and Lindberg stay? After watching the game last night, I think that both Fast and Lindberg should stay on the Rangers roster. What would the cost be? Veteran bangers and PKers. Fast and Lindberg both appear to be able to play on the PK, which is what will be needed if three of the more defensive forwards (including Mashinter) are waived. One tough guy can be kept from among the other forwards. It makes sense to do this, which will make this team much more exciting, more in line with AV’s system, and, once the youngsters get acclimated, there will be four good lines to roll against all opponents.

As respects the D, it has looked absolutely awful the last two games. AV’s system of having the blueliners more involved in the play has caused upheaval. I hate to single him out, but it is Dan Girardi who appears to have struggled the most. Maybe some thought should be given to changing the pairings until he can get with the new program.

As to who will stay as the seventh defenseman (and maybe eighth as AV has indicated he wants), I have to say that Conor Allen has made a good case for it to be him. But, Justin Falk and Stu Bickel would need to go through waivers to be assigned to Hartford, and it is uncertain that either would clear. Allen can be sent back without going through waivers. Extra defensemen are always needed through a season and the Rangers can’t afford to lose Falk and Bickel–especially since Marc Staal is unproven in his return (although he has looked fine thus far) and Girardi has struggled. So, I expect Allen to be returned to Hartford.

All these questions will be answered by Monday, when the Rangers have to cut to 23 players. Stay tuned.