There are a lot of things to feel good about if you’re a New York Rangers fan right now. Artemi Panarin. An embarrassment of riches in goal. A pipeline full of exciting prospects, and plenty of draft and trade capital to set the franchise up for true long term success.
But another reason to feel good is the resurgence of the Hartford Wolfpack. When John Davidson was named President of the Rangers last summer, he immediately stressed the importance of having a stable and successful affiliate program as a key piece of the organization. The AHL club he inherited was a mess, having missed the playoffs in 6 out of the last 7 seasons, and winning just 29 games in 2018-19. Changes were made almost immediately. Head coach Keith McCambridge was replaced by Kris Knoblauch, a young but experienced boss with successful coaching stints in the WHL and OHL. Chris Drury was retained in his position as General Manager, and oversaw a remake of the roster that has paid immediate dividends.
Rather than sit home and watch the sham that is the NHL All-Star Game, I trekked up to Hartford to take in a game at the XL Center on Saturday night. The Wolfpack were coming off a solid win against Bridgeport on Friday, and looking to close out the first half of their season with a win over the Flyers affiliate Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
Igor Shesterkin, re-assigned to the Pack to get some work with the Rangers in the middle of their bye week, was in goal and The Czar did not disappoint. He made several key saves, particularly in the first period when Lehigh Valley controlled most of the action. His glove is lightning quick, and his puck-handling is an X-factor, though it almost got him in trouble in the first period, when an attempted stretch pass under pressure caromed off an on-rushing Phantom and nearly ended up in the net.
Hartford trailed 2-0 in this game, but rebounded quickly to tie it 2-2 in the first, and eventually took the lead in the third. Shesterkin really shut the door in the second and third periods, and didn’t look particularly bothered doing it. The Wolfpack defense deserves credit as well, as they succeeded in limiting the Phantoms’ chances. Other than a breakaway save in the second and a desperation scramble late in the third, it wasn’t a night of heavy lifting for Igor.
One thing that this AHL game didn’t lack for was speed. It was played at NHL pace throughout, with both teams transitioning the puck from defense to offense quickly and looking to create offense off the rush. Some players who stood out for their skating ability were Phil Di Giuseppe (whose style reminded me a bit of Carl Hagelin, and indeed scored a Hagelin-esque empty-netter on a breakaway to seal the game), Danny O’Regan, and Libor Hajek.
Hajek rebounded nicely from an early turnover that led to the first Phantoms goal. It’s pretty clear when you watch him up close why he was drafted 37th overall by Tampa Bay, and why the Rangers pursued him in the Ryan McDonagh trade. He has prototypical size, an extremely fluid stride, and makes a solid outlet pass. For Hajek, the question is if he can process the game quickly enough at the NHL level and make the right decisions with the puck.
Vitali Kravtsov was solid, if unspectacular in this game. He played mostly on a line with Matt Beleskey and Nick Jones, which I think is considered the team’s third line. Kravtsov hit a post and created some half-chances for his linemates. He also showed excellent defensive awareness, back-checking effectively and generally being on the right side of the puck. Credit goes to Knoblauch and the Wolfpack staff, and to Kravtsov himself, for all buying in on the development of a player that figures to be a very important part of the Rangers’ future.
One last note: Hartford only had one power play in this game. Kravtsov plays on the team’s second unit, and only saw about 30 seconds of ice time with the man advantage.
Success in the AHL isn’t necessarily about having a roster full of hot-shot, nearly NHL-ready players (though that certainly helps). Teams that are successful have a good mix of veterans – AHL-lifers, or AHL/NHL tweeners – and kids that are likely to be key cogs in the NHL club’s future. Chris Drury remade the middle and bottom of the Wolfpack roster starting last spring, adding veterans such as Vincent LoVerde, Darren Raddysh, Mason Geertsen and Danny O’Regan. The young core of players such as Boo Nieves, Vinni Lettieri and Steven Fogarty have all stepped into leadership roles as well, with Fogarty captaining the squad and Lettieri leading the team in scoring
These players probably aren’t going to have regular NHL jobs, but they are still hugely important to the future of the organization. This year they’ve all contributed to the success of the Wolfpack by creating a winning environment. The Wolfpack will likely make the playoffs as a high seed with a legitimate chance at competing for the Calder Cup. That experience for players like Shesterkin, Kravtsov and Joey Keane could be invaluable.
Man, minor league sports are fun to watch live, and a great value for money. Our $30 seats were about 7 rows up, right behind the Hartford bench. The announced attendance of 6,617 created a nice atmosphere as well, filling in most of the lower bowl of the XL center, former home of the Hartford Whalers.
To reiterate one of my earlier points, I was seriously impressed by the pace of the game. There’s no doubt that every player could skate at an NHL level, but the devil is in the details. The game lacked the precision of an NHL affair – more missed and deflected passes, duffed one-timers, etc. – which isn’t surprising, but proves just how elite NHL players are.
Mason Geertsen, a hulking 6’4 defenseman, was one of my favorite players, and would’ve been in the NHL in the 90’s, likely as an enforcer type (though he’s not terrible with the puck on his stick). He plays on a pair with the offensive-minded (and newly minted AHL All-Star) Joey Keane, to form the Wolfpack’s version of Staal-DeAngelo.
Vinni Lettieri is a very, very good AHL player. Ditto Boo Nieves. Unfortunately I don’t think either of them will ever see extended time in the NHL.
It was good to see Ryan Gropp come up with two goals – the equalizer and the game-winner. Gropp’s NHL ship has almost certainly sailed, but maybe he can find a home with the Pack under Knoblauch’s tutelage.
Matt Beleskey looks like a men’s league player: his equipment and jersey don’t seem to fit him right, his appearance always slightly disheveled. I’m poking fun at Beleskey, but he seems to have settled into life in the AHL and is one of those solid veteran presences that a successful farm team needs.
Keep an eye on this team as spring approaches. Even if we don’t get playoff hockey in New York, maybe the Pack will make a Cup run of their own.