The Rangers had some very stiff competition for the NHL club this year. With stiff competition comes some very difficult cuts, which leads to a very strong AHL club. This year, the Rangers AHL affiliate
Hartford Wolfpack Connecticut Whale are the beneficiaries of some of that Ranger depth. Currently, the Rangers have 16 forwards on the club, with two (Chris Drury, Vinny Prospal) on IR. Once Drury and Prospal return, the Whalepack will benefit even more, as two more players will need to be demoted.
At the forward position, the Whale have two of the highest touted Ranger prospects that didn’t make the team this year in Evgeny Grachev and Mats Zuccarello-Aasen. Although Grachev struggled last season, he is prime for a bounce-back year, much like Artem Anisimov did in his second year in Hartford. MZA led the Swedish elite league in scoring, and the pint sized winger showed he can skate with the big boys. He is in the AHL to get some much needed adjustment time, but there’s no reason why he and Grachev can’t benefit from each other’s company on the top line. The Whale are also going to have the physical wing combination of Dale Weise and Dane Byers back this season. The two wingers played very well together last season, especially with Kris Newbury as their center. The same production is going to be expected of this combo, if not more.
On defense, you have to start with touted prospects Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko, the last two cuts from Rangers camp. The two may have been cut due to waiver issues, but that is no reason to think they won’t perform in the AHL. Both are physical, crease clearing guys, and will spend a lot of time making sure goaltender Chad Johnson has a clear view of every shot. However, Valentenko has a booming shot, and it is very likely he will see powerplay time, ripping howitzers at opponents net-minders. You can’t ignore the veteran presence of Wade Redden, who reported to Hartford in a professional manner. Redden was a bit of a mentor for Michael Del Zotto last season with the Rangers, and many are hoping he can guide the likes of McDonagh and Valentenko this season.
In net, Chad Johnson will rest easy knowing he’s not going to play train-tag with the Rangers this season. Dos-Nueve was called up more often than a Vegas hooker last season, which may have affected his performance down the stretch. With one of Cameron Talbot or Jordan Parise backing him up, there is enough pressure on him to play well, while having enough comfort that he won’t be needing a monthly train ticket this season.
The Whale may have lost their top scorers in P.A. Parenteau and Corey Locke, but a bounce-back year from Grachev and a good season from MZA can easily replace that production. It’s going to be fun to watch how those two develop over the course of the year. It’s also going to be interesting to watch how McDonagh and Valentenko fair in their first years in the AHL. Those four could all be call ups this year, should the Rangers need it. Those four could also see themselves as permanent fixtures on the Rangers roster come next season. It isn’t often that an AHL club can boast about that. The top-end talent in Hartford could lead to a very successful 2010-2011 season for the Whale.