After placing second in the Atlantic Division last year, the Hartford Wolf Pack are looking to improve upon their 48-24-2-6 season. The Wolf Pack was solid at all positions last year, and competed through the second round of the playoffs, where the team was defeated by divisional rival, the Portland Pirates.
This season, the team is even stronger, as 17 New York Rangers’ prospects will be on the roster tonight when Hartford’s AHL season begins. Although seven of those prospects will be AHL rookies this season, and will take some time to adjust to the level of play, veterans Dwight Helminen, Jarkko Immonen, Ivan Baranka, and Al Montoya are expected to lead the way. Each of the four was given an extended look in the New York Rangers’ training camp this fall, and each could be considered NHL-ready. Additionally, rookie Brandon Dubinsky, who also was one of the last cuts from the Rangers’ squad last week, is expected to make a major impact upon the team.
Eleven of the 17 forwards on Hartford’s roster are Rangers’ prospects. With only one player above the age of 25 up front, the Wolf Pack’s forward lines will be young and inexperienced. However, the talent is very impressive. Dubinsky, Immonen, and Helminen will provide stability and skill as the top three line centers. Rookie wingers Greg Moore, Lee Falardeau, and Ryan Callahan should provide grit and some offensive production for the team. Moore particularly exhibited more offensive prowess than was expected during the preseason, and the Wolf Pack may be pleasantly surprised with the numbers he posts early in the regular season.
Hugh Jessiman, who had renewed confidence and increased skill in the Rangers’ training camp this fall, looks to become a force in the league this season. His development as a power forward has been slower than management might have wished, but he now appears to be on track to become a player of note this year.
Another player to watch is Jakub Petruzalek, who is a wizard with the puck. If Petruzalek can become a solid two-way player, he will be a great addition to the Wolf Pack’s firepower. If he wants to continue to play at this level or eventually move to the NHL, he must, however, show some defensive abilities this season. Three other rookie forwards, Lauri Korpikoski, Dane Byers, and Zdenek Bahensky, all have offensive skill and potential, but each will need time to adjust to playing at this level.
If Hartford has a weakness, it is on defense. The team’s defensive corps is much less talented than its offense; however, there are fewer rookies along the blue line than up front, which should help to steady the play. All five of the Rangers’ defensive prospects that will begin the season in Hartford played at least part of last season with the team.
Baranka is the top prospect among those in Hartford. He is very solid positionally, sees the ice very well, and can produce offensively. Whether he stays with the Wolf Pack the entire season or shuttles between Hartford and New York will be a function of injuries on the big club, but expect him to be a force on the blueline for Hartford while he is in the AHL. The other defensive prospects, David Liffiton, Jake Taylor, Bryce Lampman, and the recently-signed Daniel Girardi, all need more time to develop their skills and have less potential than Baranka, but they will all be given a chance this season to prove their worth.
Al Montoya, a former first round draft selection, had an excellent rookie season last year. Injured during the playoffs last spring, Montoya had shoulder surgery in the offseason. He tested the shoulder during the preseason, both with the Rangers in training camp and an exhibition game, as well as with the Wolf Pack. According to Montoya, he feels that the shoulder is completely healthy. It will need to be, as Montoya will be stopping a lot of pucks. With defense as a weakness, Hartford will only be able to improve upon its record of 2005-06 if Montoya repeats his outstanding performance of last year.
The Hartford Wolf Pack has a very strong offense and, if Montoya has completely healed, outstanding goaltending. Its weakness on the blue line needs improvement. However, it is not so poor as to keep the team from the playoffs. With the proper coaching and some luck as respects injuries, the Wolf Pack could go further in the playoffs than in 2005-06, and may just be a Calder Cup finalist.
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