A Trek to Hartford to see the Wolfpack

Thoughts on the AHL Club's Impressive Turnaround

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.

Shesterkin Shines

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.

Speed Kills

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.

Kravtsov Watch

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.

Solid Core

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

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  • “Man, minor league sports are fun to watch live, and a great value for money.”

    This is the very reason I go to Hershey as often as possible when the Pack is in town. It’s only 20 miles from where I live, and when the grand kids come to visit, I can be a Big Spender for them, LOL!!!!!! The main reason I go to be honest, is to see who will be wearing the Ranger blue in the future. It’s always fun trying to predict who will be a regular, and or who will be a flop!!!!!!!!!!

    • I was at the bear toss game against the pack last month and it was an incredible experience. There were quite a few Ranger jerseys sprinkled about and my 3 year old had a blast.

  • I think your assessment of Hajek is spot on. Spending time in Hartford hopefully does him some good. I believe by the middle of next season he will ready to be a valuable second pair LHD.

    • We can only speculate here, but I believe that a former second round draft choice like Hajek will get numerous chances whereas an undrafted free agent like Raddysh may get none. That’s how it often is. As Rob reports, Hajek’s talent reinforces this picture.

      But is it right? Raddysh is an amazing +21, while Hajek is -3 in 5 games for a very good team. He was horribly minus last year in Hartford and inadequate this year as a Ranger. He looked decent as a Ranger last year, but that was 5 games. If I am Jeff Gorton, I do not give up on Hajek by any means, but my hunch is that he will not be a serious contributor ever. Last year, IIRC, Walt was more excited about Lindgren than Hajek and I think he got it right.

      • Pedigree be damned. Results are what counts. Pedigree can be a tie breaker but shouldn’t be the major factor in determining who gets a shot

        Ryan Graves should be a cautionary tale. Drafted 110th and could never get a cup of coffee with the Rangers despite a rocket of a shot. Now plays heavy minutes for the Avs and is one of the league leaders in +/-

        He only makes $750,000. Imagine him instead of Skjei or Trouba. No cap problem for years

        If we’re sellers at the trade deadline, lets give Keane, Rykov, Raddysh and Di Giuseppe, 5 or more games in the NHL and see what we got

        • Ahhh. Slow down here. If we’re talking about Graves, I watched a lot of him from the time he first laced up with the Pack until he was traded. Recognize that he had a stupendous rookie year, where as you mention, his booming shot stood out. But more specifically, I noticed how he moved. He was fast, responsible and seemed to know where to be.

          The next year? Major regression. Frequently out of position. Didn’t seem as comfortable. And above all, opponents were using him as a pylon on turnovers in the offensive zone. The year after that? Even worse. It was to a point where it was night and day with that kid. Now I will say, the team was an absolute dumpster fire. And Keith McCambridge was one of the worst coaches I can recall in developing a system that worked.

          Nevertheless, there was nothing Graves did in his final season to warrant a call-up, much less a spot on the regular defense. I haven’t seen him with the Avs, but I suspect the combination of playing in a different system and for a team with a juggernaut offense up front is playing to his base abilities. Given the system the Rangers are employing now, I suspect he wouldn’t look much different in New York than he looked in Hartford last season.

  • 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:

    That is very true, but no playoffs for the third year in a row….which I fully expected with or without our prized signings during the off-season because I still do not believe in our current defense and bottom six…….no balance……..My expectation for next season is the playoffs…..and if we fail..then I will blame all of the people in Ranger leadership and that I not forgive!!

  • Truly excellent read. A very good piece, both unsalted and informative. I do think it underlines in part how hard it is to tell the difference between a good AHL player and a guy who belongs in the NHL. I suspect that one of these players – a Raddysh or a LoVerde or an O’Regan or I really don’t know – will fall through the cracks and miss out on an NHL career because no one thought he could make the transition when he really could have (as would have been the case with Ryan Graves if he had not escaped the Ranger organization).

    One minor complaint, which hopefully you will rectify. You did not mention the one player that we care about and have no information on – Yegor Rykov. Any impression of him?

    • LoVerde’s ship has sailed. He’s an AHL lifer, but a good one and an absolutely stupendous pickup by the Rangers. He’s the type of character guy you want on a team. And I would wager that he and some of the other vets have as much or more to do with the Pack’s turnaround as Knoblauch. That said, I doubt he ever dresses as a Ranger unless they do him a favor at the end of the season.

      Raddysh is what he is. Might get a cup of coffee. But recognize the guy was passed over by 30 teams twice in the draft. Someone was mentioning pedigree here. This wasn’t a kid that came out of nowhere. He was playing with the Erie Otters during the McDavid years. And his brother was drafted by the Bolts in the second round. He’s a good player, but compared to Hajek? Nah. Doesn’t have nearly the tool set.

      O’Regan is an interesting one. Had a heck of a career in the NCCA and even has a connection with Quinn(was his leading scorer one year). But he’s had more than his fair share of chances at the NHL level. on teams that had spots open. But whatever success he’s had in the AHL hasn’t translated. Thing is, the AHL is a quick league for sure. And not far off from the NHL. But reality is, the split-second difference between the speed of the two leagues can really make a difference for some players. It’s why players like all three of these guys never really catch on with clubs. Either they’re a step behind mentally or their skill is just not there.

  • The sad reality of professional sports is that many, many kids have not been either given a chance or some timely pats on the back which would have made the difference in Turning them into pro athletes full time. If it’s not size, it’s speed, toughness, a soft nature or a coach that doesn’t believe or touts their skills…these kids fall thru the cracks and never get a chance.

    It’s amazing that Ryan Graves wasn’t good enough for us, but is a top 6 dman for Colorado, or that Marchessault wasn’t for us, but has had a nice career or even Dale Weise whose played 500 games in the NHL but couldn’t find a spot on the Rangers ! And what of McIlrath? I would take a kid that would fight 3X to stick up for a teammate on my squad any day….even if he did make the occasional defensive blunder. I mean we have Stall playing full-time minutes! You telling me Stall is better than McIl or serves a better purpose??

    And it’s not just our team, but every single team in the NHL…. this is why I abhor attitudes like Buchnevich….sullen, apathetic, when any other kid in the AHL would give his right arm for that kind of opportunity!!!

    Let’s praise our NHL players, let’s cheer them on, but let’s hold them accountable to improve every year and appreciate all they have! Frankly, and I love the player, but Chytil not knowing how to win a face off is an insult… what he didn’t know this before? No one evert told h8m he is shit on the draw? And he couldn’t fix this over the summer…. I mean did he think he was a defenseman?. For this reason alone Crosby is great. Living in LA I have seen him work thru the summer on drills….specific drills to improve ONE thing. Once he’s confident there, he works on another small detail that needs help. What’s the phrase….?… the devil is on the details!

    Go Rangers!! Let’s give our kids a chance… we know what Haley can do, Fast, Buch, Staal and and evening Skjei …. let’s give others a look !!!!

    • Question, Walt: What do you honestly think of Joey Keane? His numbers are mixed – great scoring but a minus player. He is an All-Star, but then so was Gilmour, they seem to like good scoring defensemen. I am presuming he is still a work in progress, but you have a good appreciation of the value of good defensive play and have seen him a few times. Anyway, where do you think he is now – and what do you expect from him?

      • Ray

        To be fair with him, I think he is a works in progress, and may well be another Gilmour, not very big, and somewhat weak on the defense. Given time he may develop, but I see Rykov ahead of
        Joey Keane in a Ranger uniform. That’s an opinion, but don’t bet the house on my opinion, LOL!!!!!!!!

        • Don’t think he’ll play ahead of Lundkvist anyway. Probably destined to be a tweener with us … might have to be moved to another team to actually play.

          • Tanto

            They list Joey at 6 feet, but he appears to be smaller than that, and isn’t hard to play against, sort of like Pionk was. I can see him be moved for another player due to the traffic jam we’ll have at the defense position!!!!!!!

            As for Lundkvist, he is sound both on the offensive, and defensive side of the game. He also is smallish, but he can skate very well, and has been on the ice for heavy minutes in the past, good at the PK, just an all around better player than Joey…………….

        • Thanks for the insights. Good general managers try not to bet the house on anything (though sometimes you have to, like Panarin) We have our opinions, but you develop everyone and see what happens.

  • Awesome spot on editorial, great comments! I was there back in December,a 5-3 win vs Binghamton
    which was commandeered by Shesterkin.the team played collectively well as a whole,a most enjoyable game and night out to watch pro-play. I would definitly come back.

    • Michael

      Have to agree, if you like hockey, it’s entertaining, and relatively inexpensive for a working class guy to take his family to see. Like I posted above, you can be a big spender at these games for the kids, or so they think, being retired, and on a fixed income. LOL!!!!!!!!!!!

  • What do people think is the best move forward for the Rangers with the deadline?

    Stand pat?

    Trade one, two, three or all four of Kreider, Georgiev, Fast and Strome?

    Trade ADA and/or Skjei and call up Keane and Rykov to play out the season? Sign Miller when his season ends? Call back Reunanen (Are they able to do this?)?

    There are a lot of possible combinations–or they could do nothing.

    Curious as to what everyone’s predictions are.

  • The all-star game is a sham indeed. Nice write up on the Pack. These guys often fly until the radar and are overlooked. It’s not usual for a hockey player to make it to the bigs when it appeared his window had close. Some players preserve and don’t let go of their dream.

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