For the first time in recent memory, when the Wolf Pack open the season in Hartford tonight, it will be loaded with talent. The team 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.
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.
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.
All 11 forwards that are signed are Rangers’ prospects. There are two other players, Shawn O’Donnell and Brodie Dupont, who are listed on the Wolf Pack roster and are on PTOs. 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 be eventually signed to an AHL contract or, when Carl Hagelin returns to the Rangers, O;Donnell goes back to the ECHL.
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 if he performs as he is able, Dupont should be offered an AHL contract soon. 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 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.