Hartford Wolfpack season preview

By Aaron Smith

The Hartford Wolfpack, AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers, return in 2004-05 with expectations of a championship season after just missing the target in 2003-04. The Wolfpack tied the Milwaukee Admirals atop the league standings with 102 points, but the MacGregor Kilpatrick Memorial Trophy for the league’s regular season points champion was awarded to the Admirals based on games won differential. The Pack missed an opportunity for retribution against the eventual Calder Cup Champions after losing the Eastern Conference final to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in overtime of the seventh game. This year could be a return to the Pack’s 2000 Championship form with many returning players and key additions resulting from the NHL labor impasse.

The Departed

The Pack parted ways with several key members of the 2003-04 squad. Center Cory Larose, fifth in team scoring with 49 points, signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Chicago Wolves, while center Benoit Dusablon signed as an UFA with the Montreal Canadiens. Defenseman Matt Kinch, the Pack’s plus/minus leader in 2003-04, signed as an UFA with the Salzburg Red Bulls of Austria’s Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, and defenseman Jayme Filipowicz is scheduled to attend the Providence Bruins training camp.

Goaltending

Blackburn, the 10th overall pick by the Rangers in the 2001 draft, was the Rangers’ top goaltending prospect until a left shoulder injury sustained in a prospect camp erased the entire 2003-04 season. He played 63 games for the Rangers in his first two professional seasons but will now be expected to refine his technique and overall development with the Wolfpack.

Jason LaBarbera returns after leading the Pack to the fewest losses (22) among all American Hockey League clubs in 2003-04 with a personal record of 34 wins, 9 losses and 9 ties. Parading the league’s second best goals against average at 1.59, third highest save percentage at .936 and league-leading 13 shutouts, this memorable campaign culminated in LaBarbera winning the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player and Aldege Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s outstanding goaltender in 2003-04.

LaBarbera will start the season sharing time in net with late-season acquisition Steven Valiquette. Acquired in the trade that sent Petr Nedved and Jussi Markkanen to the Edmonton Oilers, Valiquette posted a 2.25 goals against average and .928 save percentage in seven games with the Pack. The well-travelled Valiquette may well be on the move again once Dan Blackburn, 21, returns from injury.

The Blackburn-LaBarbera-Valiquette combination is very strong and should provide the Pack with another excellent season in net.

Defense

Rule changes implemented to create more speed and scoring opportunities in 2004-05 will benefit the mobile and offensively capable Pack defense. The defense will also benefit from the NHL lockout should the impasse cancel the season as many were set to graduate to the Rangers line-up.

The scoring defenseman Thomas Pöck, 22, joined the Rangers in 2003-04 from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst where he averaged over one point per game in his final two seasons. In six games with the big club, the native of Klagenfurt, Austria, tallied 4 points, 2 goals and 2 assists, and would surely have been a Calder Trophy candidate had the NHL lockout been averted and a season assured. Only the third Austrian to play in the NHL, Pock should amass soaring point totals for the Wolfpack in 2004-05. The back-end will be complemented by the transition play of Lawrence Nycholat who registered 32 points for the Pack in 2003-04.

Maxim Kondratiev, 21, was a component of the trade that sent Brian Leetch to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2003-04. Playing for Lada Togliatti in the Russian Elite League at the time of the trade, Kondratiev remained in Russia and rumors persist that he will remain overseas in 2004-05. He must choose within 30 days after the start of the 2004-05 season, which begins October 16th. Once thought to be a stay-at-home defenseman, Kondratiev showed flashes of offensive brilliance in seven games with the Maple Leafs early in the 2003-04 NHL season. If Kondratiev returns to North America in 2004-05 and the coaching staff allow offensive development alongside improving his defensive game, the Pack’s offense from the blueline could be impressive.

The primary concern for the Pack in 2004-05 may well be a lack of solid, defensively minded, blueliners. Stabilizing the defensive game will rest with the poise and vision of Fedor Tyutin, 21, selected 40th overall in the 2001 draft by the Rangers, and Bryce Lampman, 22, who plays a sound positional game. Martin Grenier, acquired in the 2003-04 trade that sent Martin Rucinsky to the Vancouver Canucks and Jeff Macmillan, signed as an UFA in July, will round out the defensive corps. Vying for a spot with an outside chance of making the squad is David Liffiton, who turns 20 on October 18th, acquired from the Colorado Avalanche in the Mathew Barnaby trade.

Forwards

The depth and strength of the Wolfpack’s forwards depends largely on the continuation of the NHL lockout. An end to the lockout would signal a serious decline in offensive production as several of the forwards may well graduate permanently to the Rangers.

The departure of Cory Larose creates an opportunity at center for USAHockey’s National Team Development Program and University of Michigan alumnus Dwight Helminen. Helminen, 21, arrived as part of the March 2004 trade with Steven Valiquette for Edmonton Oiler bound Petr Nedved and Jussi Markkanen. Helminen will never be considered a power forward at 5’9, 185lbs but has breakaway speed, scoring ability and exceptional defensive skills. Defensive awareness earned Helminen recognition as the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s Best Defensive Forward in 2003-04.

Returning pivots Dominic Moore, with 38 points in 2003-04, and Layne Ulmer, with 39 points in 2003-04 as well as checking line center Blair Betts, acquired by the Rangers from Calgary in March 2004, should find roles with the Pack in 2004-05. The Rangers 238th selection in 2001, Ryan Hollweg, 21, will try to stick with Hartford this season. Hollweg collected 57 points, 25 goals and 32 assists, for Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League and added another 15 points in 20 games during the Tigers’ playoff run.

The Pack’s left wing will be manned by high-scoring AHL All-Star Chad Wiseman, who tallied 52 points in 62 games for the Pack in 2003-04 and Alexandre Giroux, who accumulated 51 points in 75 AHL games in 2003-04 including 9 points in 16 games for the Pack after arriving from Ottawa Senators via trade in March 2004. Garth Murray, 21, who played a checking role in 20 games with the Rangers in 2003-04 and tallied 22 points in 63 games for the Pack, will continue to provide tenacious forechecking on the left side. Trevor Gillies, signed as a free agent in July, should remain on the roster as an enforcer capable of also playing defense.

Pack captain Ken Gernander will return on the right side for an eighth season in Hartford along with Jed Ortmeyer who played 58 games with the Rangers in 2003-04. The right wing position will be significantly strengthened with Jozef Balej, 22, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadians for Alexei Kovalev in March 2004. Balej, a pure goal scorer with tremendous speed, who should lead the Pack in points during 2004-05. Challenging for a position will be Juris Stals, Brandon Cullen, Lee Falardeau, Michael Henrich and Ryan Cuthbert.

Outlook

The Wolfpack roster should be as strong as the 2003-04 edition provided the NHL lockout continues and key players remain with the Pack for the duration of 2004-05. The Pack’s depth at center and defense must overcome size and grit issues in order to support what should be an above-average trio of goaltenders. The wings will be competitive and carry the goal-scoring load in 2004-05. The combination of returning players, new faces and key additions resulting from the NHL lockout will unquestionably extend the Wolfpack season beyond April. However, success for the Pack will be measured by whether or not they take the proverbial ‘next step’ and hit the Calder Cup target in June.

The Pack open the 2004-05 season at home October 16th against the Philadelphia Phantoms. Those not making the cut will be assigned to the Rangers ECHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, located in North Carolina.

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.