Rangers AHL/ECHL prospects season review

By Leslie Treff

Twenty-two New York Rangers prospects played with either the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack or the ECHL Charlotte Checkers at some time during the 2005-06 season. Five of those players, including Marc Staal, Lauri Korpikoski, Brandon Dubinsky, Greg Moore, and Dane Byers joined the professional ranks late in the season. However, 17 spent the majority of the season in one or both of the Rangers’ affiliate teams.

Both affiliates made the playoffs. Hartford successfully defeated the Manchester Monarchs in the first round, however, was beaten by the Portland Pirates in six games in the second round of the race to the Calder Cup. Scheduling issues had put the Wolf Pack at a severe disadvantage in the second round, as four consecutive games were played in Portland, so it is hard to know how far Hartford might have gone without those challenges.

Charlotte was eliminated from the race for the Kelly Cup in the first round. The South Carolina Stingrays swept the Checkers in three straight games, ending a rebuilding season for the Rangers’ ECHL affiliate.

Defenseman Rory Rawlyk, and forwards Rick Kozak and Juris Stals all played most of their games this season with the Checkers. Rawlyk, a 22-year-old defenseman whose contract with the Rangers will expire shortly, finished the season with 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists) in 70 games for the Checkers. He also played in two regular season games for the Wolf Pack, where he tallied one assist. Although he had one of the highest point totals in the league, Rawlyk’s difficulties stemmed from his –20 plus/minus rating. Unwilling to change his style of play to play a more defensive game, Rawlyk often abandoned his own end to make an offensive play. This hurt his standing with the Checkers and the Rangers, who will not be renewing his contract. It is Rawlyk’s intention to play hockey in Europe next season.

Stals, a 23-year-old left winger, was drafted by Rangers in the ninth round of the 2001 draft. Known for his great shot, registered 45 points (18 goals, 27 assists) in 66 games, while maintaining a plus/minus of -6. Stals has not improved his game significantly over the course of this season, nor has there been much development over the four years of his professional career. It is unclear that he fits into any of the Rangers’ future plans.

After suffering an early season injury, Kozak, had a fine season with the Checkers. The 20-year-old right winger came to the Rangers as part of a March 2004 trade with the Philadelphia Flyers. This was Kozak’s first season of professional play, and he registered 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) in 28 games with the Checkers. The 6’2, 215-pound forward was given the opportunity to play with the Wolf Pack for three games in mid-March, and he accumulated four PIM during that time.

Fourteen Ranger prospects spent the majority of the 2005-06 season playing for the AHL club. Forwards Jarkko Immonen, Nigel Dawes, Dwight Helminen, Lee Falardeau, Bruce Graham, and Hugh Jessiman, as well as defensemen Thomas Pock, Ivan Baranka, David Liffiton, Jake Taylor, and Bryce Lampman all spent significant time with the Wolf Pack. Additionally, the Rangers had two goalie prospects (Al Montoya and Chris Holt) spend most of their season with Hartford.

Immonen (6’0, 209) had an outstanding year for the Wolf Pack. The 24-year-old center was the Toronto Maple Leafs eighth round pick (254 overall) in 2002, and was acquired by the Rangers in a March 2004 trade that sent defenseman Brian Leetch to Toronto. Immonen was the second leading scorer on the Wolf Pack in 2005-06, registering 70 points (30 goals, 40 assists) in 74 games, while maintaining a plus/minus of +16. Immonen continued his superior performance in the playoffs, where he tallied five points in six games. Immonen is NHL-ready and is likely to make the jump to the Rangers next season.

Dawes (5’8, 190) also had an excellent season for the Wolf Pack. The 21-year-old rookie left winger was drafted in the fifth round (149 overall) in the 2003 entry draft, and played in the Western Hockey League for two seasons post-draft before making the jump to the AHL. He was the leading rookie scorer on the team (and fourth overall on the Wolf Pack) with 67 points (35 goals, 32 assists) in 77 games, while maintaining a plus/minus of +16. Dawes then turned in a stellar postseason with 12 points in 13 playoff games. The Rangers are very high on Dawes, however, it is not at all certain that he will play with the Rangers next season. It will depend on free agency signings as to whether Dawes will get a shot at the big club or have to wait until 2007-08.

The 2005-06 season was Helminen’s second as a professional, and certainly one where the 22-year-old center demonstrated his ability to get the job done. The 5’10, 189 lb former University of Michigan forward came to the Rangers from the Edmonton Oilers late in the 2004 season, and he then split the 2004-05 season between Charlotte and Hartford. This season, he was one of the most productive players on the Wolf Pack team, tallying 55 points (32 goals, 23 assists) in 77 games, while maintaining a plus/minus of +23. In 13 playoff games, Helminen had eight points and a plus/minus of –10. Absent an outstanding training camp, it is not likely that Helminen will be playing for the Rangers next season. Depending upon the Rangers’ signing and re-signing of NHL players, it is most likely that Helminen will either remain at the AHL level another year or be packaged as part of a trade.

Falardeau was the Rangers’ first pick in the 2002 Entry Draft (2nd round, 33rd overall). The 22-year-old former NCAA player has been somewhat slow to develop, but he seems to have made some real strides this season. Falardeau (6’5, 215) began the season in Charlotte, but was quickly promoted to the AHL. By early November 2005, he was playing regularly with the Wolf Pack, and leaving his mark on the league. In 64 regular season games with Hartford, Falardeau, a center, recorded 22 points (5 goals, 17 assists), while managing a plus/minus of +10. A feisty player, Falardeau also took 71 PIM in the regular season, and six PIM in 11 playoff games. Falardeau is finally showing signs that he may live up to Rangers’ expectations, however, he will be spending at least one more season in the AHL.

It was a surprise when the Rangers signed the 20-year-old Graham to an NHL entry-level contract last fall. The 6’6, 235 lb center had another year of junior eligibility, and easily could develop in the CHL, but Graham had an excellent camp, and so the Rangers rewarded him and sent him to Hartford. The Rangers’ second round (51 overall) 2004 Entry Draft selection tallied two assists in his first professional game, but then fell into scoring slump. After having somewhat of an upswing in November, Graham fell ill with a lingering virus during the first week in December, and he never regained his full strength.

On Jan. 30, Graham was sent to Charlotte regain his game, but even though he registered 18 points in 25 games as a Checker, he did not play well while in the ECHL. Graham was slow-footed and unable to make good on-ice decisions. This did not improve much when he was returned to Hartford on March 13 and he was promptly returned to Charlotte. He was called up to Hartford on April 14, after the completion of the Checkers’ season, but did not play for the rest of the year. The Rangers are hoping that any lingering effects of Graham’s virus can be overcome this summer, and that he will return to the form he showed in training camp. Depending upon his level of play in training camp this fall, he will either be sent to Hartford or Charlotte for the 2006-07 season.

Hugh Jessiman was another Ranger prospect that split his 2005-06 season between Hartford and Charlotte. Jessiman (6’5, 220) was the Rangers’ first round pick (12th overall) in 2003, and post-draft he played one full season at Dartmouth College. He missed most of last season due to an injury, so his development was somewhat delayed when he got to training camp last fall. He did not impress at camp and was sent to Hartford to begin the season. After a terrible October (7 games, 0 points, -2), Jessiman was sent to Charlotte to get some confidence. Although he was injured for a portion of his ECHL stay, Jessiman managed to record 23 points (13 goals, 10 assists) in 25 games with the Checkers. In the 39 games in which he played after he was returned to Hartford, Jessiman tallied seven goals and 12 assists, with a +4, and 64 PIM. This was a great improvement for him, and he has begun to show signs of the player that the Rangers’ hoped that he would be. Whether Jessiman will continue to develop is uncertain, however, as he was completely unproductive during Hartford’s playoff run. The Rangers can only wait and see what happens, but, in any case, he will play at least one more year in the minors.

Twenty-four-year-old defenseman Thomas Pock (6’1, 208) had an outstanding season offensively while a member of the Hartford Wolf Pack. In 67 AHL games, Pock recorded 61 points (15 goals, 46 assists). However, although he was able to achieve a +15 plus/minus rating, Pock’s defensive skills are questionable, and his 99 PIM (very few of which were for fighting) indicate undisciplined play. Nonetheless, Pock, who signed with the Rangers as a free agent in 2004, played in eight NHL games in 2005-06. In those games, he registered one goal and one assist. With a –3, he often looked out of position and unsure of himself. Pock was returned to the Wolf Pack for the playoffs and played a better game upon his return. In six games, he scored three points, with a plus/minus of +1. At 24, Pock has completed his second year in the AHL, and he should be able to work into a role in the NHL next season. If he does not improve his defensive play though, he is unlikely to play for long.

Ivan Baranka, the Rangers second round (50 overall) 2003 selection had his season cut short by injury, however the AHL rookie was having an excellent year prior to sustaining a hand injury. Baranka (6’2, 195) registered 21 points (5 goals, 16 assists) in 59 games with the Wolf Pack. A highly-touted prospect, Baranka shows all the signs of being an excellent defenseman in the near future. He is probably slated to start the season in Hartford in 2006-07, but with the Rangers’ defensive needs, he may be called up some time during the season and given a shot at playing in the NHL.

Liffiton was part of a group of players that were acquired in early March 2004. A mostly defensive defenseman, the 6’3, 210 lb blueliner likes to hit. In 2005-06, the 21-year-old registered 169 PIM in 58 games (while scoring 14 points). He was called up for one game with the Rangers this past season and sat in the penalty box for two minutes during the game. Liffiton is solid defensively (this season he had a plus/minus of +7) and can clear the net very well. He has NHL potential and, although he may be given a shot next season to show whether he can perform at the NHL level, the young defenseman will most likely spend next season in the AHL.

In 2005-06, another Ranger prospect stay-at-home defenseman played in Hartford. Jake Taylor (6’5, 225) was a sixth round pick (177 overall) in 2002. After playing in the USHL and one year at the University of Minnesota, Taylor split the 2004-05 season between Charlotte and Hartford. This past season, Taylor, 22, was a member of the Wolf Pack for the entire year registering 12 points in 66 games, a plus/minus of +14, and accumulating 128 PIM. A solid defenseman, Taylor has NHL potential too, but he still needs to develop his game at least one more year in the AHL.

Lampman is the last of the Rangers prospects to play in Hartford this season. A fourth round pick in the 2001 Entry Draft, Lampman, 23, was in his fourth season as a member of the Wolf Pack when he sustained a season ending injury last November. It is unfortunate, as he was having his best professional season of his career (5 points in 11 games). At this point, his future with the Rangers is uncertain.

The Rangers had two rookie goaltenders play in Hartford for most of this season. Both also spent time in the ECHL, and were called up by the NHL Rangers at some point in the season.

Montoya (6’1, 200), the Rangers’ first round pick (6th overall) in 2004, played his first professional season after playing collegiate hockey at the University of Michigan. After a tremendous college career there were great expectations for the 21-year-old Montoya this season. Despite two serious injuries during the season, Montoya had a good year. He played in 40 regular season games with Hartford, with a 23-9-0-1 record, a 2.61 GAA and .907 save percentage. Montoya was sent to Charlotte to rehab an injury midseason, and while there he played in two ECHL games. He was having a fantastic playoff run, when on April 25, he was felled by a freak injury that ended his season. He recently underwent shoulder surgery and is rehabbing. Hopefully, Montoya will be ready for next season, but it is troubling that he has had so many physical problems this year. If he can get and stay healthy, he has a tremendous career ahead of him.

Chris Holt, the Rangers’ sixth round pick (180 overall) in 2003, was a surprise signing last fall. All set to return to college, Holt first found himself in Hartford and then in Charlotte. He did not have a very successful early season, which is not particularly troubling, given the huge adjustment that he needed to make to professional play. The 20-year-old Holt (6’2, 218) was sent to Charlotte in mid-November, where in 23 games, he accumulated a record of 7-11-1, with a 4.10 GAA and .887 save percentage. His regular season statistics with the Wolf Pack were much better, where he was 3-2-0-1 in nine games. Holt accumulated a 4.06 GAA and a save percentage of .879. Where Holt really stepped up was in the playoffs, after Montoya was injured. In eight playoff games, he had a record of 4-4, with a 2.96 GAA and a save percentage of .912. Holt was a star goaltender in the playoffs, and it is possible that he can take that confidence with him next season. If he does, the big netminder may surprise a lot of early naysayers.

Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.