Rangers AHL prospects season review

By Leslie Treff

The Rangers had 26 NHL prospects who played at least one regular-season game as a member of the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. Of those, Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi spent a significant period of time playing in the NHL. Zdenek Bahensky, Lee Falardeau, Bruce Graham, and Chris Holt were predominantly ECHL players, on the ice with the Charlotte Checkers for a majority of the season. Dylan Reese, Darin Olver, Tom Pyatt, Ken Roche and Bobby Sanguinetti were all signed by the Wolf Pack to ATOs after either their junior or NCAA seasons were completed, and each played in at least one regular-season AHL game.

The other 15 ams/ahl” id=”HFlink” class=”HFlinkstyle”>AHL players included one goaltender, five defensemen, and nine forwards. Hartford was an extremely young team this past season, with a total of nine regularly-playing AHL rookies on the roster. The team very understandably got off to a very slow start, however, mid-season things turned around, with the Wolf Pack stringing together several long winning streaks.

After a down and up 47-29-3 regular season, the Wolf Pack were defeated by the Providence Bruins in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs. The early round defeat was very disappointing for the Pack, but injuries, particularly on the blue line, took their toll. Despite the addition of key junior hockey prospects at the season’s end, the Wolf Pack just were not experienced enough or consistent enough to be successful in extended postseason play.

Goaltending

Al Montoya 
Age: 22
Years Pro: 2
Acquired: Draft, 1st round, 6th overall, 2004

This season Montoya took another step toward becoming an elite netminder. Named the AHL Goaltender of the Month in February, the Rangers’ top prospect appeared in 48 regular-season games in 2006-07, and managed a 27-17 record (including 6 shutout wins). Montoya’s 2.30 GAA and .914 save percentage were above average in the league (fifth and 13th respectively), and even though his numbers dropped off precipitously in the playoffs, there were unconfirmed rumors of a groin injury, and his blueliners were not very steady in front of him.

Montoya has enormous confidence in net, with good lateral movement, and excellent quickness. Expected to be NHL-ready sometime next season, the Rangers have a decision to make about his future. The former University of Michigan goaltender plays best when he gets regular playing time. He will not get that on the bench behind Henrik Lundqvist in New York. Montoya can certainly return to Hartford, as the Rangers do not have another top netminding prospect that is ready for consistent AHL playing time, but he does not have much more to prove in the AHL. Thus, it is expected that trade talks including Montoya will heat up over the summer. The 24-year-old Lundqvist’s fine performance in net for the Rangers this past season solidified his position as the No. 1 netminder in New York, and, absent a career-ending injury, there seems to be very little room for Montoya in the Rangers organization in the long-term.

Defensemen

Ivan Baranka
Age: 22
Years Pro: 2
Acquired: Draft, 2nd round, 50th overall, 2003

For the second year in a row, Baranka’s hockey season was cut short due to injury. In 2005-06, Baranka missed about a month due to a hand injury. This season, it was his thumb that kept him out of action after the middle of March. Baranka did play in 54 regular season games on the blue line, registering 23 points, while accumulating 50 PIM, and a +13 plus/minus. According to Head Coach Jim Schoenfeld, the blueliner "was having a good year until he was injured. Baranka is a very good skater, with a strong shot, and his defense was really improving, so his injury was a big loss to the team. But he is still young. Because of all the time he’s lost over the last two seasons, next year we will be considering him a second year player and expectations will be at that level."

Bryce Lampman
Age: 24
Years Pro: 5
Acquired: Draft, 4th round, 113th overall, 2001

With 25 points (6 goals, 19 assists) in 60 games, Lampman had a good but not outstanding 2006-07 campaign. He was called up to the NHL and played in one game during the season (no points), but did not look ready for a permanent promotion. It seems a far cry from the start of the 2003-04 season, when Lampman was considered to be one of the Rangers’ top prospects along the blue line.

David Liffiton 
Age: 22
Years Pro: 3
Acquired: March 8, 2004 trade with Colorado (drafted, 2nd round, 63rd overall, 2003)

Liffiton is a tough, defensive defenseman, and if he learns to selectively use his size and strength to his team’s advantage, he will become a regular NHL player. Called up to the Rangers for two games this season, the 22-year-old took 189 PIM during the regular season with the Wolf Pack (72 games, 13 points, +1). Liffiton served time in the sin bin for 15 fights during the regular season, and can hold his own with most of his opponents. But the big defenseman needs to pick his spots carefully and play a disciplined game when not involved in a scrum. Liffiton’s game in his own zone needs improvement; to move to the next level on a permanent basis, he will have to play a more consistent positional game.

Hannu Pikkarainen
Age: 23
Years Pro: 1
Acquired: Free agent

After a frustrating summer/fall of 2005, when Pikkarainen was thought to have signed a Rangers NHL contract, but the contract was declared void, Pikkarainen was finally signed as a free agent last summer, only to be injured in practice at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament last September. He had shoulder surgery late last year and was not ready to play until February. After playing very well in the ECHL (10 games, 9 points, 10 PIM, +1), Pikkarainen was called up from Charlotte in late March. When he got to the AHL, he had some conditioning issues, but impressed his coaches by being willing to work hard at resolving them. According to Schoenfeld, "Pikkarainen is a highly-skilled player, with very good vision. He has made a lot of progress since joining the team and I expect it to continue next season."

Pikkarainen showed creativity and excellent passing abilities in the 10 games he played for the Wolf Pack this season (7 regular season, 3 playoff games, 3 points), however, he is very weak in his own zone, as he often had problems with strength and handling the puck.

Jake Taylor
Age: 23
Years Pro: 3
Acquired: Draft, 6th round, 177th overall, 2002

Taylor was injured for most of the season playing only 15 games with the Wolf Pack. He recorded one point, with 29 PIM, and a +4 rating while with Hartford. He also played four games with the ECHL Checkers.

Forwards

Alex Bourret, RW
Age: 20
Years Pro: 1
Acquired: 2/27/07 Trade with Atlanta Thrashers (1st round, 16th overall, 2005)

Alex Bourret was obtained in a trade that symbolizes the Rangers’ new focus on youth. Traded for Pascal Dupuis and a third-round 2007 draft selection, Bourret was a highly-talented, underutilized winger, who was languishing with the Atlanta AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves. After the Rangers saw him play, the team made the deal to bring Bourret to the organization in exchange for Dupuis, a good NHL player who did not have a long-term future with the organization. This may prove to be the best trade the Rangers have made in some time.

Bourret’s season began with a difficult adjustment to playing in the non-French speaking environment of Chicago. Things did not appear to be getting much better for him prior to the trade. However, after he was obtained by the Rangers, Bourret blossomed, particularly playing on a line with Nigel Dawes. An integral part of the Wolf Pack’s first line (with Dawes and Jarkko Immonen) late in the season, Hartford Assistant Coach Ken Gernander said of Bourret, "it took a couple of games from Chicago for Alex to make some changes that would have him playing our type of game, but he is a very quick study. And there is some real chemistry on this line now." According to Gernander, it was Bourret that really helped Dawes catch on fire at the end of the season. "Alex is just a perfect fit for him."  Schoenfeld agreed, and describes Bourret as "highy skilled, a very good skater with courage, and tremendous on-ice vision."

Bourret was one of the youngest players in the league at 20 years old, and he played a total of 68 regular season AHL games during 2006-07 (50 points, 58 PIM, +5). In the playoffs, he was incredibly offensively productive. In seven postseason games, he registered 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists), 2 PIM, and a +3 rating.

There is no question that Bourret must keep working to get to the next level, but he has grit, excellent hands, good vision and, without question, was one of the most highly-skilled players on the team late in the season. He is not yet NHL-ready, and as Rangers former Assistant General Manager Don Maloney said of Bourret "we are looking for consistency, his highs are quite high and his lows are too low," but depending upon how quick a study he really is, two to three seasons of AHL grooming may be sufficient to see him with the Rangers in New York.

 

Dane Byers, LW
Age: 21
Years Pro: 1
Acquired: Draft, 2nd round, 48th overall, 2004

"Dane Byers has been the biggest surprise among all the AHL players in terms of his offensive contribution," according to Maloney. Maloney was impressed with Byers’ hockey sense, which he said "was much better than we expected when we drafted him. We love to have players like him, he’s hard to the net, scores in tight, knows what he is and plays tough." Schoenfeld loves the fact that Byers does not hesitate to finish a check, often opening up the play for his linemates. "He goes into the high-traffic areas without a thought, giving us all kinds of opportunities." But Byers has also shown that he can make finesse plays, passes to his linemates, which impressed Maloney greatly.

During the 2006-07 campaign, Byers played in 78 regular season games, with 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists), 213 PIM, and a +6 rating. During the playoffs he scored two goals in seven games.

When musing on what Byers would have to do to become NHL-ready, Maloney said, "he still needs to fill out, he still has a young body, but he is going to get a real look at training camp in the fall."


Nigel Dawes, LW 
Age: 22
Years Pro: 2
Acquired: Draft, 5th round, 149th overall, 2003

Nigel Dawes made the Rangers roster out of training camp and then sat out almost all the games as a healthy scratch. Returned to Hartford in November, he had a very productive sophomore year in the AHL. Particularly after being placed on a line with Bourret, Dawes showed himself a capable playmaker, developing into the type of give-and-go player who he has been expected to become since junior hockey. "Dawes is not the kind of player who goes in alone; he needs someone to feed off of, and with addition of Bourret late in the season, he finally [had] him. The two of them are a perfect fit," said Gernander.

In 65 games with the Wolf Pack, Dawes posted 60 points (27 goals, 33 assists), including eight power-play and two short-handed goals. With only nine PIM all season and a +10 rating, Dawes was one of the most disciplined on the club. He played nine games with the Rangers (eight regular-season games and one in the playoffs) registering one assist and a -6 rating.

As to where Dawes will play next season, the winger is NHL-ready, according to Maloney. "Quick, strong at snapping the puck at the net, and physical, he is ready for the chance in New York, the same way Ryan Callahan was," added Maloney. "We are very happy with the speed and quickness that he has shown throughout the year, and his production toward the end of the season is very impressive. Dawes is going to be in the NHL very soon."

 

Brandon Dubinsky, C
Age: 21
Years Pro: 1
Acquired: Draft, 2nd round, 60th overall, 2004

Dubinsky is a player who is always reaching toward the next level. Competitive, talented, with an excellent work ethic, he made a big splash after he signed an ATO with Hartford in the spring of 2006. As a member of the Wolf Pack, Dubinsky recorded 10 points in 11 postseason games. Although some expected the same kind of production during the 2006-07 season, Dubinsky’s numbers (43 points, 71 games, 115 PIM, +8) reflected a focus on two-way play and a solid adjustment to a new, professional level of play.

Dubinsky will be competing for a spot on the Rangers roster during next fall’s training camp. He has already played six games with the Blueshirts this past season (no points, 2 PIM), and is expected to get more time with the NHL team next year.

 

Dwight Helminen, C
Age: 23
Years Pro: 3
Acquired: March 3, 2004 Trade with Edmonton (8th round, 244th overall, 2002)

Helminen has played the role of defensive forward for the last two years in Hartford. Unfortunately this year did not seem to be one in which Helminen developed either in his offensive production or his play in his own zone, and several younger prospects have passed him on the organizational depth chart. In 80 regular season games, the 23-year-old Helminen recorded 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists), 32 PIM, and a +3 rating. Used extensively on the penalty kill, he scored three short-handed goals.

Helminen’s future is uncertain. He does not appear ready for NHL play, but time under contract with the Rangers is growing short.

 

Jarkko Immonen, C
Age:25
Years Pro: 2
Acquired: March 3, 2004 Trade with Toronto (8th round, 254th overall, 2002)

Immonen completed his second year on the top line in Hartford and once again put up good numbers. "If you are looking for pure speed, he is not your guy, but if you are looking for someone who gets the job done, Jarkko is your man," remarked Maloney when asked about Immonen’s future with the Rangers organization. Maloney felt that this season Immonen was the Rangers’ fifth center and a good depth player for the team. Called up to play in the NHL this season, Immonen never looked like he was contributed as much as he did. In 14 games with the Rangers this season, he registered six points (one goal, 5 assists), 4 PIM, and a -2 rating. With Hartford, he had a very productive season, especially in the post-season, where Immonen recorded eight points in seven games.

As for the next season. Maloney candidly admitted that Immonen "will probably to a hard look at going back to Europe if he feels that he is not going to get a legitimate chance in New York. We have to talk in the offseason. I think he can play in the league, it’s just a matter of finding the right fit."

Given Maloney’s comments and the number of young players vying for spots on the Rangers roster next season, it is unlikely that Immonen will be in the Rangers plans long-term. He definitely has offensive upside, and could play on a several NHL teams’ second or third line, however, it most likely that it will not be within his current organization.

 

Hugh Jessiman
Age: 23
Years Pro: 2
Acquired: Draft, 1st round, 12th overall, 2003

Jessiman terms the 2006-07 season as "another learning year for me." Told to play a more physical game, Jessiman spent most of the season adjusting his style to become a more aggressive player. Jessiman admits that "When I use my body, I’ve been much more successful and I start having fun." Maloney agreed. "When Hugh brings the physical element all the time, he looks good. But he still needs to learn to bring it game in and game out, shift in and shift out. Consistency is what we are looking for from him."

When asked about the future, Maloney said, "Jessiman is a very young 23-year-old hockey-wise. Time will tell, we still have another year with him under contract. We’ll have to watch him and see how it goes."

In the meantime, Jessiman’s progress is noticeable. After spending part of the season with the Checkers, where he improved his shot, Jessiman is much stronger on the puck, an improvement he credits to the help of teammate Brandon Dubinsky. "I am still on the learning curve, but I am working hard, and have really started to enjoy myself."

 

Lauri Korpikoski, LW
Age: 20
Years Pro: 1
Acquired: Draft, 1st round, 19th overall, 2004

Korpikoski is a speedy winger with good hands and decision-making After coming over from Europe, where he played a shorter season, Korpikoski started the season off very strongly. However, he seems to have tired as the season went along. Maloney noticed that "Lauri lost a little of his crispness he had early on. He looked tired, he never had the ice time in Europe that he has here in North America, and although we still see the flashes of brilliance on both the power play and the penalty kill, there are long periods where that does not happen."

Korpikoski appeared in 78 games for Hartford this season. He registered 38 points (11 goals, 27 assists), 23 PIM, and was +8. His adjustment to North American play will continue next season, as he grows into his role. But it is important to remember that Korpikoski is only 20 years old and will probably take another two to three years to become NHL-ready.

 

Greg Moore, RW
Age: 23
Years Pro: 1
Acquired: March 6, 2004 Trade with Calgary (5th round, 143rd overall, 2003)

Moore was one of the last players cut from the Rangers roster last fall. When he got to Hartford though, he started slowly. According to Gernander, Moore was not training properly. "He had conditioning issues that was affecting his speed and flexibility. Now he has become a really strong forechecking forward, is very physical on the penalty kill, blocks shots, and has even started taking draws for us."

Although he appeared to lose some of his offensive touch this season (Moore played in 79 regular season games and registered 25 points in 2006-07), this season Moore has become much more versatile, playing either wing or center, and on either side. Gernander was emphatic that "we are very happy with his game, which has improved incrementally in almost every way. He is one of our most well-rounded players."

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.

Related Articles