The Hartford Wolf Pack will begin the season on Saturday night, and, based on the opening day roster, the team appears to be a strong contender to win the Atlantic Division. The roster was cut to 22 players today, one more than is needed per game in each position. Of the 22 players, 13 were on Hartford’s roster for most of last season. Of the nine new players, three skated for other teams in the AHL last season, two played in the ECHL, three were in the major junior hockey, and one skated in Europe. Most significantly, all but five of the 22 roster players to open the AHL season are under contract to the New York Rangers.
With 13 forwards on the team’s roster, the Wolf Pack is stocked with high-scoring players up front. The team’s top scorers of last season, P.A. Parenteau and Greg Moore, have returned. The two, who often played on the same line at regular strength and on the power play, combined for 147 points in the regular season during the 2007-08 campaign. Although both got a good look by the Rangers before being reassigned to the Wolf Pack this fall, each is looking to prove that he should be an early call-up to the NHL team. Look for the pair to equal or improve their output of last season.
Centers Artem Anisimov, Tom Pyatt, and Mike Ouellette will also return this season. Anisimov, who was expected to compete for a roster spot with the Rangers out of training camp, but was not seen as yet NHL-ready, is expected to be the AHL team’s first line center. Solid on face-offs, with very good playmaking skills, Anisimov was the team’s highest scoring rookie last season. Expect even higher numbers from the Russian in his sophomore season.
For Tom Pyatt, his freshman professional season was a disappointment. After spending most of last season with the ECHL Charlotte Checkers, Pyatt is aiming to stay with the AHL team during the 2008-09 campaign. He is off to a great start. With three goals in three pre-season games, Pyatt has shown that his game has improved. Although not expected to put up big numbers during the 2008-09 campaign in Hartford, if Pyatt can play a solid defensive game while providing some offensive upside, he will remain with the AHL team this entire season. Ouellette, a product of Dartmouth, signed a one-way AHL deal to return to the Wolf Pack for the 2008-09 season. Not expected to be a top-six forward, Ouellette will most likely play a depth role for the team.
Joining the returning centers will be Mike Taylor, a recent graduate of Harvard University. Taylor, who played eight regular season games last year and is playing on an AHL contract, is expected to begin as the third- or fourth-line center, as he adjusts to the professional game.
Among the potential power forwards, Dane Byers and Hugh Jessiman have the most NHL potential on the team. Both players got a good look at Rangers training camp and neither played their way onto the NHL roster. However, this is a make it or break it year for each of Byers and Jessiman, so good production is expected from both of these big players. Neither of the wingers shies away from protecting their teammates (the two combined for 338 PIM during the regular 2007-08 season), and the two are expected to do quite a bit of the fighting on the team this season.
But not all the fighting. Enter Andreas Jamtin, who signed a two-way NHL contract with the Rangers this past summer. A 2001, fifth round, NHL Entry Draft selection of the Detroit Red Wings, HF has previously described the 25-year-old as a “feisty third liner with punch.” For most of the last five years, Jamtin has been playing in the Swedish Elite League, however, for the 2008-09 season, he has brought his pesty style of play to the Wolf Pack. Look for him to try to make a big impression on the NHL club by playing a very aggressive game in Hartford.
Brodie Dupont and Jordan Owens are returning for their second season with the Wolf Pack. Although Dupont has quite a bit of offensive upside, and could possibly have the potential to be a top-six forward, he needs to show that he belongs on one of the top two lines to get a real look by the Rangers. That is not likely, given who is ahead of Dupont on the depth chart. Both Dupont and Owens, who is playing on an AHL contract, are expected to be third- or fourth-line players on this team.
Justin Soryal and Dale Weise are rookies who should play a big physical game. Both have excellent work ethic and are not afraid to play in traffic. Expect quite a bit of banging and grinding when they are on the ice. Weise played extremely well in the Rangers training camp, which got him the entry-level contract that he was seeking. Despite the very physical nature of his game, Weise has very good hands and speed. It remains to be seen whether he becomes a top-six player on the AHL team. Soryal is more of a fourth-line player that will provide the team with energy and toughness to shake things up.
Two additional skill players were assigned to Charlotte earlier this week and are waiting in the wings. Both Ryan Hillier and Tomas Zaborsky have the skill set to play at this level, and if they can perform over the first few weeks of the ECHL season, one or both may find themselves an integral part of the Wolf Pack by the New Year.
If there is a weak spot on this team, it is along the blueline. Although Head Coach Ken Gernander refused “to give away any trade secrets and tell you our weaknesses,” it is quite obvious that some work is needed in the Wolf Pack’s own end. To start the season, Hartford will have the services of Brian Fahey and Corey Potter, both of whom were impressive with the Rangers in the pre-season and were reassigned earlier this week. Those are the two defensemen that Gernander is counting on to lead on the blueline. However, one or both of these players will be an early call-up by the NHL team. That will leave the Wolf Pack in questionable shape on defense, as Michael Sauer missed quite a bit of last season with injuries, and is not ready to return for at least another month. Bobby Sanguinetti, who is a rookie, has very few professional games under his belt and needs to continue to improve his coverage in his own zone.
There are three new defensive blueliners added to the team this season, including Vladimir Denisov, Ethan Graham, and Chris Murray. All are AHL veterans, with Graham and Murray on AHL contracts (Denisov was signed by the Rangers this past summer after an excellent showing in the World Championships last spring). All play a very tough game, however, the question is whether any of the three are sufficiently skilled to be the fourth defenseman on the team.
As questionable as the defense on the team is, the netminding is solid and should make up for quite a few defensive failures. Mikka Wiikman, who took over the No. 1 duties after Al Montoya was traded to Phoenix last season, led the team to the playoffs. Solid, dependable, and confident, Wiikman should lead this team to another playoff appearance. Should there be an injury and Wiikman be called up to the NHL team, Matt Zaba would be a competent backup in Hartford. After a shaky start last season in Charlotte, Zaba was outstanding in Idaho, with the ECHL Steelheads. He has shown great confidence and continuing maturity this fall, and will win quite a few games for the Wolf Pack when he is called upon.
When Gernander was asked how much improvement to expect from his mostly veteran Wolf Pack this season, he responded, “that remains to be seen, but … I like what I saw in training camp in terms of our skill level, our work ethic and just how quickly guys have come together as a team.” His team’s strengths up front and in net certainly outweigh the defensive weaknesses, however, as Gernander said, “we’ll just see how we stack up against the rest of the league and the division.” It should be a strong showing, particularly if Sauer is able to return to the ice quickly and stay healthy for the rest of the season.