With the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament, the unofficial opening of the NHL training camp season, set to begin this week, the Rangers and Wolf Pack have largely completed their organizational roster and now will begin the process of shuffling the pieces around.
The Pack have some holes to fill, with the top seven scorers from last year all gone from the organization. Kris Newbury (trade to Philadelphia), Brandon Segal (Washington/Hershey), Logan Pyett (KHL), Christian Thomas (trade to Montreal), Mike Vernace (Germany), Nick Palmieri (Germany) and Benn Ferriero (Vancouver) have all moved on. The Rangers have upgraded their defensive depth, however, which is a real positive, and let’s face it, having missed the playoffs last season for only the second time in franchise history, the Wolf Pack had no appetite to stand pat.
I put Ken Gernander on the spot last week, asking him who he was targeting to replace the offense provided last year by Newbury, Segal & Co., and he expressed optimism that the scoring would be more diversified than it was in 2012-13.
“In large part it might be by committee,” he responded. “I’m a little bit reluctant to make a specific pick for someone who may create offense for us this year, given that we hope some of these guys are pushing for NHL jobs this fall, first and foremost. And then when our team is assigned here and we take a long look at who we have, I think our offense may be a little more spread out than it has been in past years, but I think that we’re comfortable in that it’s competent from top to bottom. Everybody can generate and participate in the offensive portion of things.”
It will be very interesting to see what the Pack’s top-six forward group looks like to start the season, with the situation complicated by the fact that stalwart Ranger wingers Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin are both slated to miss the start of the season while rehabbing shoulder injuries. Fellow veterans Arron Asham and Darroll Powe were both waived this summer for salary cap space reasons and may end up as part of the Pack’s forward nucleus, but also may be needed to fill the Callahan/Hagelin void early on.
If you assume Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash, Benoit Pouliot, Brad Richards, Mats Zuccarello, Taylor Pyatt, Dominic Moore, Derek Dorsett and Brian Boyle as sure bets to start the season with the Rangers, and then throw in Chris Kreider, that’s 11 forwards. Powe and Asham would make 13, and I would imagine that J.T. Miller and Danny Kristo (acquired from the Habs in exchange for Thomas) would be given long looks as well.
The parent club starts its season with a week-long, four-game West Coast swing, and then plays its fifth game in St. Louis before returning east, so they will probably carry a bigger roster than normal. I would be surprised to see them keep more than 14 forwards, though, so it seems likely that at least one name from the above group would start the year in the AHL, and a couple more would have to come down once Callahan and Hagelin are ready to play.
Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast are a pair of Swedish imports who figure to be playing on this side of the pond this year, and are thought to be guys who will push for NHL spots and would be impact players if they end up with the Wolf Pack. Hopefully Marek Hrivik is healthy, as he should be at worst a top-six guy in the AHL if he is physically sound, and holdovers Micheal Haley and Brandon Mashinter also should be in the NHL/top six AHL conversation. Other names I see as in the mix for the Wolf Pack are the likes of (in no particular order) Ryan Bourque, Andrew Yogan, Kyle Jean, Josh Nicholls, Michael Kantor, Chris St. Croix, Andrew Carroll, Jason Wilson and Andrew Rowe.
“I think there’s a couple of guys that could be pushing for NHL jobs,” Gernander said, “and we’re going to have some young guys that come in with good offensive numbers, and have some offensive prowess, that it might take them to find their sea legs but I think should be able to be offensive contributors. That would be their calling card or their strong point coming in, and they’re just not real familiar with the people here because they’re coming from Junior or college hockey. But I think they’ll, in a short amount of time, be competent offensive contributors.”
There is always the possibility that a youngster might come in and blow away expectations, becoming a star player in the AHL and a premier NHL prospect after not being one of the ballyhooed names coming into training camp. An example of that would be Cory Conacher, who won AHL Rookie of the Year honors, and a Calder Cup, with Norfolk two seasons ago, after being signed to an AHL contract out of Canisius College.
“I think there are going to be a lot of players that spend some time with the NHL club, given that they’re going to be on that western swing and they can’t just pull up guys for a day or two here or there,” Gernander said. “That being said, we’ve got several invites (free-agent tryout players) coming in that’ll be at our camp, and it’ll be a good opportunity to show themselves. And we hope that we can find a diamond in the rough, much like a Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Kelsey Tessier joined us that way, I think Danny Girardi was an AHL invite, so the possibility exists, and oftentimes it pays off in a big way for us.”
Through the Rangers’ yearly summertime prospect camps, Gernander has gotten previous glimpses of many of the young players who will be battling to make an impression in the upcoming Traverse City tournament and Ranger training camp. He is reserving judgment, however, on whether these youngsters will be able to make a quick transition to the pro game.
“You don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” the Wolf Pack head man said. “We have to see how things play out. Everybody develops at a different level, and it’s fun to go to the development camp and see what some of the skills or attributes they possess might be, but how that translates into a heated battle at the AHL level remains to be seen.”
On defense, the NHL top four of Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal (assuming he is healthy) and Michael Del Zotto seems pretty well set, and I would think that Anton Stralman is pretty much a lock for a Ranger spot as well. That leaves one spot in the top six, and I’m sure that John Moore, Justin Falk, Stu Bickel, Aaron Johnson, Danny Syvret and Dylan McIlrath all feel like they have a shot to lay claim to that slot.
I can’t see the Rangers not taking at least one extra D-man out west, and they may keep seven for the whole year, but even if you take two out of Moore/Falk/Bickel/Johnson/Syvret/McIlrath, that still leaves the Wolf Pack with a darned good top four on the blueline. Brendon Nash, an AHL signee this summer, has a resume indicating that he is of top six AHL caliber, and the organization also has under contract blueliners Tommy Hughes (NHL), Samuel Noreau (NHL), Connor Allen (NHL), Charlie Dodero (AHL) and Mike Marcou (AHL).
In goal, Cam Talbot is back for a fourth season in the organization, and it will be interesting to see if Yale product Jeff Malcolm can push Jason Missiaen for the second spot in Hartford, after Malcolm had such a stellar senior season with the Elis. Scott Stajcer remains in the organization, but is injured.