Hartford Wolf Pack season preview

By Leslie Treff

After being eliminated in the Atlantic Division semi-finals of the Calder Cup playoffs last year, the Rangers’ AHL affiliate is entering the 2005-06 season with a lot of new personnel, and hopes for a postseason title.

The ever-present Ken Gernander, Wolf Pack captain for 14 seasons, has retired and become an assistant coach. Gernander and former Ranger, Ulf Samuelsson, will assist head coach Jim Schoenfeld behind the bench this season.

As of Oct. 5, 13 skaters are returning to the Wolf Pack and will form the core of the team. They will be joined by 11 young players, who are suiting up in Hartford for the first time. Additionally, veteran NHLer Peter Worrell has been with Hartford in the preseason on a tryout basis, and Dale Purinton, who is currently suspended from play by the NHL due to an incident in a preseason game, are both listed on the Wolf Pack roster.

Six former Hartford players were promoted to the NHL for 2005-06 and will not start the season with the Wolf Pack. Forwards Jamie Lundmark, Dominic Moore, Blair Betts, Ryan Hollweg, and Jed Ortmeyer, along with defenseman Fedor Tyutin, are now on the Rangers’ roster.

Forwards

Alexandre Giroux, who scored 54 points in 78 games with Hartford last season, was the highest scorer among the forwards that are returning to the team. Giroux, a 6’3, 195 lb center, who was acquired in 2004 from Ottawa, will begin his fifth season in the AHL. His scoring production has increased each year he has remained with the club, and the Wolf Pack are expecting him to continue to be an offensive force this year.

Giroux will be joined by Jozef Balej, a winger, who begins his fourth year in the AHL. Balej was hoping that this was the year that he would stick with the big club (he played in the NHL for 17 games in 2003-04), however, he was a late cut from the Rangers, and will start the season with the Wolf Pack. Last year Balej scored 42 points in 69 games in Hartford, and they are delighted to have his scoring ability available to the club. Also returning is Chad Wiseman, the 24-year-old scrappy forward, who has been a consistent performer at this level. Acquired by the Ranger organization from San Jose in 2003, Wiseman has played with the Wolf Pack for two seasons, and his style of play and scoring proficiency are a welcome addition to the team.


The three prolific scorers are joined by Dwight Helminen, who last year split his first professional season playing in Hartford and Charlotte of the ECHL. Helminen, known for his speed and forechecking, registered 21 points in Charlotte in 28 games; in Hartford, he garnered nine points in 41 games. The former University of Michigan agitator looks to spend his first full season in Hartford, perfecting his skills. Finally, Brandon Cullen, returns to Hartford after playing in Charlotte for all of last season. No longer a prospect, the 24-year-old winger out of St. Catherines, Ontario, will make another attempt to play at this level.

These returning players are joined by skaters who are from the Canadian Hockey League and the college ranks, as well as a Finnish League star. Ryan Callahan, the former captain of the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, is a playmaker, who last season scored 28 goals (54 points) in 60 games. His skill and leadership abilities will be a great addition to the team.

Nigel Dawes, formerly of Kootenay Ice (WHL), is a player with tremendous offensive skills, who, despite his size (5’8, 193) is unafraid of physical battles. A goal scorer (50 goals in 63 games last year), Dawes is a player to watch this year as he adjusts to the speed and physicality of the professional game.

Another former Western Hockey League skater, Rick Kozak, has joined the Wolf Pack. The 6’3, 225 lb winger is a banger on the ice, unafraid to take the body, with very good hands. In addition to serving 185 penalty minutes, he scored 14 goals (27 points) in 51 games for the Prince Albert Raiders last year.

Former QMJHLers Bruce Graham and Daniel Sparre are also on board. Graham, an imposing center (6’6, 237), is excellent in front of the net, has soft hands and very good faceoff skills. As the result of his strong physical play in training camp and the preseason, the former Moncton Wildcat has been rewarded with a professional contract. Look for Graham to improve his defensive skills and be a leading offensive threat for the Wolf Pack this season. The diminutive winger Daniel Sparre (5’9, 178), was invited to training camp, and apparently has played onto the Hartford roster. Sparre played for the Halifax Mooseheads last year and garnered 68 points (35 goals) in 62 regular season games. He also had eight total points (2 goals, 6 assists) in eight playoff games.

Two forwards come to Hartford from the college ranks. Colby Genoway, former North Dakota winger, has had a tremendous preseason. Signed to a professional tryout contract with Hartford last spring, Genoway has continued to impress the coaching staff. He is expected to be one of Hartford’s leading playmakers this year. Hugh Jessiman, the Rangers’ first pick in the 2003 entry draft, missed most of last season to injury. The former Dartmouth star will be spending much of the early part of this season getting reacquainting with game conditions.

The Wolf Pack received a great gift when top Ranger prospect Jarkko Immonen was sent down by the Rangers to Hartford. Immonen, who has huge offensive skills, will be a great asset to Hartford.

Defense

Seven defensemen are returning to Hartford this season. Four of those defensemen, Bryce Lampman, David Liffiton, Tomas Pock, and Jake Taylor are top prospects in the Rangers organization. Lampman and Pock were late cuts from the Ranger team. Pock’s return is somewhat of a surprise, and it is likely that at some point in the season he will become an NHL player. Lampman scored 25 points for the Wolf Pack last year and is expected to easily reproduce those numbers this year. Taylor is a large (6’4, 228) imposing figure on the ice, mostly a stay at home defenseman who is not afraid to mix it up in his own zone (he served 156 penalty minutes last year). Liffiton is a mobile defenseman (6’2, 210), who still needs to prove that he can play at this level.

Of the three other returning defensemen, i.e., Martin Grenier, Steve MacIntyre, and Craig Weller, Grenier and MacIntyre both present large physical presences and a no-nonsense approach. Both can play defense or on the wing, take lots of penalty minutes, and fill the enforcer role. Weller, who also plays wing, served 182 PIM last year. However, he also has offensive skills that will be very useful to the Wolf Pack (last year he garnered 19 points in 76 games). He begins his fourth season in the AHL, and the team is looking for Weller to maintain his physical play while continuing to refine his offensive skills.

Joe Rullier, signed as a free agent in August of 2005, will also start the season in Hartford. A late send down from the Rangers, Rullier played in Manchester of the AHL last year, garnering 16 points in 71 games. Most notably, he served 322 penalty minutes.

The returning defensemen are joined by Ivan Baranka, the 6’3, 200 lb, offensive defenseman, who is trying to make the jump from the WHL Everett Silvertips to the AHL. Baranka has an excellent shot and great passing skills, which he hopes to show off during this season with the Wolf Pack.

Goaltending

Both goaltenders that will be playing for Hartford this season are top prospects. Al Montoya, the Rangers first pick in the 2004 entry draft (6th overall), has been outstanding in preseason, and is practicing puck handling. The former University of Michigan standout is working on his on-ice communication skills, and will likely be the No. 1 goalie as the season begins. Chris Holt, a pleasant surprise at training camp, will be Montoya’s backup this year.

Outlook

Hartford is loaded with young talent. Whether that talent will translate into on-ice performance will depend upon the coaching staff’s ability to acclimate the young players into the professional level of play. Additionally, the steadiness of goaltender Al Montoya’s play will be key in determining whether Hartford’s has a legitimate shot at the Calder Cup.




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