The Hartford Wolf Pack struggled early last season — the team was very young and won only two of the first ten games — but just before Thanksgiving, things turned around, and it began to win. And even after the team’s leading scorer, Ryan Callahan, was called up to the NY Rangers, Hartford continued to win. In the month of March, the Wolf Pack were 12-3. But despite being heavy favorites to defeat the Providence Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, the Wolf Pack were defeated in a seven-game series.
Thehad 16 prospects on the Wolf Pack roster at the 2006-07 season’s end. This year, there are 15 players whose rights are owned by the NHL club, including five new names. Of the 15 prospects, nine are forwards, five are defensemen and one is a goaltender.
The duo of Nigel Dawes and Alex Bourret are the Wolf Pack’s top forwards. Although Bourret has been injured for most of the preseason, the two wingers are expected to be the top scorers on the first line for the AHL team. Their complementary styles on the ice played a large part in the Hartford 2006-07 late-season surge and, according to Dawes, is a natural fit.
"After Alex came to the team, our chemistry was just there. We got on the ice together and just seemed to know where the other was going to be right away. Sometimes you just have that bond, that chemistry with certain players and we just feed off each other."
Commenting on Bourret’s play, Rangers Assistant General Manager/Wolf Pack General Manager Jim Schoenfeld said, "Alex sees things on the ice that not many players will ever see. He is able to make passes that not many other players will be able to make. He has that skill set. He loves to make plays but he can shoot so well too, with a quick release. He needs to get stronger, learn to work out physically better and if he can eliminate some of his high risk passes, Alex will be playing in the NHL for a long time."
But it is unclear how long Dawes and Bourret will be playing together in the AHL this season. Dawes, who began last season with the Rangers and did not get a lot of playing time before been sent back to Hartford, is likely to be called to New York if there are any injuries or let downs in play among the NHL forwards. Dawes was philosophical about his experience last season and bouncing back and forth between New York and Hartford.
"I don’t think I played my best hockey when I was sent down last season, and it took me awhile to get used to being on the ice a lot again. The whole situation being up and down last year really helped me, and I will handle it better this year. You have to play your best, you can’t sulk, feeling you should be up there. You just have to play your best, the best you can, and look for your next opening and get up as soon as you can." For Dawes, if he continues to play as he did in the preseason, his stay in Hartford will be short.
Dane Byers, Lauri Korpikoski, Greg Moore, and Hugh Jessiman are all beginning their second season with the AHL team. Byers, a big tough power forward, had a very productive season last year on the Wolf Pack’s second line. Expected to remain on that line during the 2007-08 campaign, the Nipawin, Saskatchewan native got a good look at Rangers training camp. So did fellow forward Korpikoski, who had a tough adjustment to the long schedule last season. But Korpikoski had a very good Traverse City Prospects Tournament last month and came into the Rangers training camp with high expectations.
According to Schoenfeld, "Lauri is improving. Although last season he hit a wall, he is expected to be better over the long haul this year. His greatest asset is his speed and he showed in Traverse City that he can really carry the puck. He also has a good shot and is a very good defensive player. We are hoping to see more from him this season." Korpikoski himself is looking to take on a more offensive role with the Wolf Pack this season, and Head Coach Ken Gernander is expected to give him that chance.
Moore, the former Hobey Baker finalist, has been slower developing. After an excellent Rangers training camp last season, he had a good, but not great, freshman season in Hartford during the 2006-07 campaign. Coach Gernander explains that "Greg needed to make some changes in his training and he has done well since he adopted a new regimen," however, he did not make a real impression in training camp this year and was an early cut from the Rangers training camp. At 23, Moore is older than many of the other Rangers prospects and time is shorter for him than some of the others. This will be a very important season for his career.
Jessiman had a very impressive training camp, and a new attitude, this fall. His work ethic had changed; it was clear from the first day on the ice that this past summer, he worked hard at raising both his fitness and his confidence levels. He picked up his speed and combined a lot of north-south play with some real skill with the puck. Schoenfeld noticed the changes immediately.
"He is man strong; he does not look like a boy anymore. It is much harder to knock him off the puck." Immediately there was a lot of buzz surrounding Jessiman and lofty predictions were made. As Schoenfeld said, however, "the question is how will all this work translate on the ice." After two exhibition games against outside competition, it was clear that Jessiman was not ready for his assigned role, and he was returned to Hartford. However, despite his embarrassing fight with Philadelphia Flyers rookie Steve Downie and lackluster play in his two exhibition appearances, there is no question that Jessiman is moving forward, slowly, in his development. As this is his final year under contract with the Rangers, Jessiman only has this year to impress upon management that all his hard work can translate to stellar play on the ice.
Brodie Dupont, Artem Anisimov and Tom Pyatt are the Rangers’ rookie forward AHL prospects this season. Of the three, Anisimov made the biggest impression in training camp. He also has the highest potential overall, and is expected to start as the first line center on the Wolf Pack this season. Anisimov is creative, excellent at taking face-offs, and is strong on the puck. Pyatt had a very good tournament in Traverse City and continues to impress Rangers management with his work habits, but he did not look particularly impressive at camp. He is expected to begin the season centering Hartford’s second or third line. Dupont, who can play either center or wing, is a very good two-way player. However, he was practically invisible in training camp and was among the first players reassigned to Hartford.
Among the Rangers’ defensive prospects, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Michael Sauer were the most impressive in camp. Both Girardi and Staal have begun the season with the Rangers, while rookie Sauer will take the ice tonight for the Wolf Pack. Arguably the best first-year professional in training camp and the exhibition games, Sauer is formidable in his own zone, both in terms of size and positioning. A great addition to the Hartford roster, Sauer is a top prospect from whom the Wolf Pack can expect an anchor along the blueline.
Other defensive prospects on the Hartford roster include Dave Liffiton, Corey Potter, Ivan Baranka, and Michael Busto. Of the four, the blueliner with the most potential is Baranka, who has been injured for a good part of his first two seasons. Prior to his hand injury late last season, Baranka was playing extremely well. His training camp was good, but not spectacular (he was outplayed by both Staal and Sauer), and he was thus reassigned to Hartford on Sept. 22, 2007. It is expected that he will be a first pairing defenseman this season in Hartford. Among the other three blueliners, none made any outstanding plays at the Rangers training camp and will be playing in either Hartford or with the ECHL Charlotte Checkers this season.
Al Montoya begins his third season with the Wolf Pack tonight. There was some question whether the Rangers would keep him as their backup netminder to start the season, but according to Schoenfeld, "the best thing for Al is to play a ton of games in Hartford. He made giant strides last year, physically, emotionally — how he handled the job, his teammates. He enjoyed it more; it was a much better year for him than the first season." Schoenfeld was particularly impressed with Montoya’s ability to take responsibility for the AHL team’s early exit from the 2006-07 playoffs in the seventh game of the first round.
"I think it’s a huge step for him or any athlete to accept the responsibility for a huge loss. We are looking for growth in a lot of different areas and certainly that is one of them. It will serve him well." Montoya begins this season knowing that it will almost certainly be his last as an AHL netminder. He maintains that he is ready for the NHL now, but he will get a chance to show consistency and mental toughness in the net at this level, which can only enhance his case to become the No. 1 netminder of an NHL team.
The Hartford Wolf Pack is stocked with talent this season, with the team having a good combination of veterans and rookies. However, three of the top forwards from last season, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Jarkko Immonen are no longer with Hartford. And there are questions as to who will quarterback the power play from the blueline. But the combination of Anisimov, Bourret, and Dawes up front is very powerful. And rookie Sauer is a tremendous addition on defense.
If Montoya can play consistently in goal, and either Pyatt or Korpikoski can provide good offensive production, this team can be a Calder Cup contender. However, the call-up situation, both up front and in goal, will determine how far this team goes this season.
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