Hartford Wolf Pack 2009-10 preview

By Leslie Treff

When the Hartford Wolf Pack open their season tonight against the Binghamton Senators, they are expected to have 23 players on their roster. Of those, 21 are NHL prospects within the NY Rangers organization. The team has quite a bit of experience though as well, as 14 of the roster players also took the ice for the Wolf Pack last season.

At every position, there is experience and talent, and on paper, at least, this should be a very strong team. Several of the players are either NHL-ready now or will be within a year.


Forward

At forward, the Pack should open the season with the very talented top line of P.A. Parenteau, Corey Locke, and Evgeny Grachev. Grachev was the last cut from the Rangers this past week, and is likely to have a short stay in the AHL. But while with the Pack, expect him to score and create opportunities for his linemates, no matter who they are. Parenteau and Locke are excellent producers at this level, and Locke, a center signed by the Rangers this summer, should make up from the loss of Artem Anisimov, who has started the season with the NHL club.

Also at center, will be Brodie Dupont, NHL veteran Tyler Arnason, and rookie Paul Crowder. Crowder made a positive impression in the Rangers camp this fall, and, while he did not look as good last week in Hartford’s pre-season games, he can go to the net and sees the ice well. Dupont has been nursing a sore shoulder, but should be ready by tonight.

On the wings, Grachev and Parenteau should put up a large number of points, while Andres Ambuhl, Dale Weise, Jordan Owens, Patrick Rissmiller, and Dane Byers are expected to be good secondary scorers. Byers, who was a top contender for an NHL roster spot, did not impress at the Rangers’ training camp, so he was reassigned to begin the season with the Wolf Pack. Injured almost the entire 2008-09 season, Byers has a one-year contract with the Rangers, with quite a bit of incentive to put up big numbers this year.

Along with the scorers, Hartford will also have its tough guys and energy players. Justin Soryal, Devin Didomete, and career minor leaguer Brent Henley will provide grit and fire on the club. Henley, one of only two skaters on the club with AHL contracts, is listed as a defenseman, however, he is likely to play as much or more on the wing as the season goes on.


Defense

Including Henley, the Wolf Pack are carrying seven blueliners on their roster. Corey Potter, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Michael Sauer were the mainstay of Hartford’s defense last season, and each is arguably NHL-ready. But because there was just no room on the NHL club for them, each finds himself back in Hartford. When offensive defensemen Nigel Williams and Ilkka Heikkinen, as well as stay-at-home blueliner David Urquhart are added to the top group, the Pack’s defensive corps is impressive. With Potter, Sauer, and Urquhart taking care of their own zone, while Sanguinetti, Williams, and Heikkinen jumping into the play, excitement should be the order of the day. Head Coach Ken Gernander has already said that he intends to run the team with similar systems run in New York, and if that’s the case, there should be quite a few defensemen joining the rush this season.


Goaltending

Hartford currently has three netminders on the roster, Miika Wiikman, Matt Zaba, and Chad Johnson. It is highly doubtful that the Wolf Pack will carry three goaltenders this season, so one will be either sent down to Charlotte or loaned out to another AHL club over the next week, but at this point, its very hard to tell which one it will be.

Wiikman was the No. 1 netminder to start last season, however, after he went down to injury, and Zaba got a chance in net, Wiikman became more of the backup. Zaba was the steadier of the two, and started every playoff contest last spring. The Rangers were extremely happy with Zaba’s performance and expected him to continue in this position this coming season. However, at the draft, the Rangers obtained Chad Johnson, one of the NCAA‘s best goalies last season, and he has been very impressive in the Traverse City Rookie Tournament, Rangers’ Training Camp, and with the Wolf Pack in one of the pre-season games. Although Zaba will most likely start the season as the No. 1 netminder in Hartford, expect Johnson to get a large number of minutes too. Both goaltenders are good prospects, and although neither is ready or near ready for the NHL, they should be more than adequate between the pipes at this level.


Overall Assessment

The Hartford Wolf Pack currently have some of the best NHL prospects in the AHL. Their goaltending must be solid, to go along with the team’s excellent blueliners, if Hartford expects a long run in the playoffs. If Grachev remains with the team into the playoffs, it could be a Calder contender this season.

Juniors’ NHL Training Camp performance

Scott Stajcer, Tomas Kundratek, Ryan Bourque, Roman Horak, and Ethan Werek were all at Rangers training camp for the scrimmages and the first two pre-season games. On Sept. 17, all were returned to their junior clubs.

Stajcer and Werek were very impressive in camp, and Horak had been excellent in Traverse City and brought the same level of play into the Madison Square Garden Training Center. Bourque, who had been dynamic in Development Camp earlier this summer, was not as exceptional in either Michigan or Training Camp, but his speed was evident in both places.

Horak was somewhat of a surprise in Traverse City, where he combined with Daniel Bartek to be an offensive force. In training camp, he showed again that he may wind up being the surprise of the Rangers’ 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Very good on face-offs, with good hands, and excellent vision, Horak opened a lot of eyes this fall.

Stajcer played well between the pipes both in Traverse City and in the Rangers’ Training Camp. A reactive goalie, with good lateral movement, Stajcer is positionally solid and relies on instincts to play the position.

Werek got better and better as the pre-season went along. Big and strong, Werek loves to play in front of the net, and use his good hands to score goals. Not afraid to take the body and play tough along the boards, Werek has become a top prospect in this organization.