Tonight the Hartford Wolf Pack will begin their fourteenth season as the affiliate of the New York Rangers. After being riddled with injuries and missing the playoffs last season for the first time in their history, the Wolf Pack are hoping the influx of top Rangers’ prospects will change that fate. One thing is for sure, however, by the end of the season the "Hartford Wolf Pack" will be no more.
Hartford Hockey LLC took control of the business operations of the Wolf Pack last month, and the decision was made to change the name of the team to the Connecticut Whale. Although a date for the name change has not been announced, it is expected to happen before the end of the calendar year.
Whether the Connecticut team changes their season and recent post-season fortunes along with their name remains to be seen, but given the talent that this team has to start the season, particularly on defense, they should be a contender and be able to get past the first round of the playoffs this season.
Hartford is captained by Dane Byers, who until this season was among the Rangers’ top 20 prospects. At age 24, it was critical to Byers continuing growth within the organization to have an impressive camp. When that did not happen, he was returned to Hartford and will be one of the most experienced AHLers on the Wolf Pack. Another experienced forward within the Rangers prospects is Brodie Dupont, who in July signed for one more year within the Rangers organization. Dupont, who returned to his natural center position with the Wolf Pack last season, is an excellent face-off man, and plays with an edge. Both Byers and Dupont’s experience up front should be a real asset to the team.
Also returning is Evgeny Grachev, from whom a lot is expected this season. Still only 20 years old, Grachev has matured both physically and in his game since last season. Alternate captain Dale Weise will also be a member of the team, at least until there is a need for a tough, two-way player with some offensive upside in New York. Weise started slowly in the Rangers camp this fall, but after being sent to Hartford and then called-up in a late pre-season game against Ottawa, he was extremely impressive with the NHL team.
Also involved in the pre-season one game call-up was Mats Zuccarello, who will begin the season as a member of the Wolf Pack, but should be in New York later this year. Zuccarello, a Norwegian who played in the Swedish Elite League last season, is adjusting to the North American smaller ice surface. Once he has done that, it is expected that he will get a chance with the Rangers.
If Hartford makes the playoffs this season, Grachev, Weise and Zuccarello must play well and combine to put the puck in the net. Without the offensive prowess of these three players, the netminders will have to be outstanding to get to the post-season.
On paper, Hartford’s blue line is one of the strongest in the league. Long-time NHLer Wade Redden was recently reassigned to the team, and although, his game was not what it once was in New York, Redden should be highly effective with the Wolf Pack.
The Rangers defensive prospects to watch on the team are Ryan McDonagh, Pavel Valentenko, and Tomas Kundratek. All three are AHL rookies and excellent NHL prospects. McDonagh should be an excellent two-way defenseman at this level and make an immediate contribution to the Wolf Pack. Valentenko brings a toughness and heavy shot that almost earned him a spot on the NHL team over the last few weeks. Kundratek needs some further development, but he earned quite a bit of notice in Traverse City and in the Rangers’ main training camp. He is expected to spend the entire season in Hartford and be a second or third pairing defenseman with the club.
The Wolf Pack will have two Rangers’ prospects between the pipes this season. Returning for a second season will be Chad Johnson. After an impressive fall last year, Johnson began the season with Hartford, and by November 2009, he was one of the leading AHL goaltenders. His excellent performance earned Johnson a shuttle back and forth to New York as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup for quite a bit of the season, with Johnson appearing in five NHL games. This season, Johnson is not expected to shuttle back and forth and will be a regular member of the Wolf Pack.
Cam Talbot was signed as a free agent to an entry-level deal after posting an excellent season with the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers. The former MVP of the 2010 College Hockey America Tournament, helped steer his team to the NCAA Midwest Regional last season.
The coaching staff of the Hartford Wolf Pack has not changed since last season. Ken Gernander is the head coach, and has been with the Wolf Pack since its inception. Gernander was the team’s captain as a player, then became an assistant coach after his retirement and begins his fourth season as the team’s head coach. Returning as assistants are J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller.
Twelve Rangers’ NHL prospects are members of the team; five of whom are rookie North American professional players. Of Hartford’s current roster of 23, eight began their pre-season with the Rangers’ prospects in Traverse City at the Prospects’ Rookie Tournament. Derek Stepan, Grachev and McDonagh stood out at the tournament and came into Rangers’ main training camp as players to watch. Although Grachev did not have the training camp that was hoped for, both Stepan and McDonagh showed why the New York brass have been so high on them for more than a year. Stepan made the opening day NHL roster and McDonagh was one of the Rangers’ last cuts over the past week. Other prospects to watch are Zuccarello and Weise, who are expected to be mid-season call-ups to the Rangers.