Monthly Archives: October 2013

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.