Archive for August, 2015

Several “Re-acquaintances” Highlight Pack Schedule

August 31, 2015

Yes, Wolf Pack fans, the Rochester Americans are still in the AHL.

I know that is easy to forget, as it’s been more than 13 years since the Pack and Amerks have seen each other, and since meeting in the 2000 Calder Cup Finals the two clubs have played only four times in 15 seasons, but the renewal of acquaintances between Hartford and Rochester is one of the interesting aspects of this year’s Wolf Pack schedule, which was officially released on Thursday.

It was sad to see good markets like Manchester, Glens Falls, Worcester, Norfolk, Hamilton and Oklahoma City leave the league, but the re-jiggering of the AHL map that was required by the westward move of five franchises caused Rochester, Toronto and Utica to be shifted to the Eastern Conference.  That ensures that Wolf Pack fans will get a look at crops of prospects that they have basically never seen before.  Rochester’s affiliate is Buffalo, and it’s been since 2010-11, when the Sabres were aligned with Portland, that the Wolf Pack has played a Buffalo affiliate.  The Pack also last saw the Maple Leaf-affiliated Marlies in 2010-11, and haven’t gone up against prospects from Vancouver, which is Utica’s NHL parent, since playing a four-game series against the Manitoba Moose in 2008-09.

The Wolf Pack's Tony Tuzzolino, in 1999-00 action against the Rochester Americans.

The Wolf Pack’s Tony Tuzzolino, in 1999-00 action against the Rochester Americans.

In addition to the long-standing rivalries with close neighbors like Springfield and Bridgeport, the realignment, and the schedule, will bring the Wolf Pack some new divisional rivalries too.

In their 18 seasons in the AHL, the Wolf Pack have never been in the same division with the storied Hershey Bears, alongside whom they will reside in the Atlantic Division.  Same story with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who will be playing their 17th AHL season in 2015-16.  And despite never having been in the same division with Hartford, those are two teams with whom the Pack have had some thrilling playoff series, including this past spring’s nip-and-tuck, six-game battle with the Bears.

Ken Gernander’s club will also be re-kindling some old animosities with the Providence Bruins, who were at one time the Wolf Pack’s biggest rival.  The Pack and Bruins have played out of different divisions for the past four years, and were down to a four-game season series last year, after regularly duking it out at least eight times a year through the Wolf Pack’s first 14 seasons of play.  It will again be an eight-game Hartford-Providence season series in 2015-16, and the Pack will be seeing a lot more of the Portland Pirates as well.  Portland and Bridgeport will be the two most familiar opponents on the Wolf Pack schedule, with both season series’ featuring ten games each.

The Lehigh Valley Phantoms will also be a divisional opponent this year, as the Phantom franchise was for the last three seasons of its run in Glens Falls, and the Pack will face Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton six times each, while seeing the other Keystone State club, the Bears, four times.

Aside from that relatively short season series with Hershey, the schedule is heavily weighted towards divisional competition.  With ten games against Bridgeport and eight against Springfield added to the rest of its Atlantic Division slate, the Pack will play 52 of their 76 games against divisional rivals.  And with the return of playoff qualification being determined by division, as opposed to conference, standings, key points will be on the line in all of those division games.

One fairly familiar foe from the past several seasons, the Albany Devils, have been moved out of the Pack’s division, but the two clubs will still meet six times during the season.  That is good from a travel perspective, as Hartford and Albany are an easy day trip from one another, less than two hours apart.  As far as the rest of the Devils’ North Division, the Wolf Pack play the Americans, Utica and St. John’s four times each and Binghamton, Syracuse and Toronto twice each.

Ah, the Crunch, we hardly knew ye’.  Eight-game division series last season, after not playing one another at all the previous season, and having met only 18 times in the Pack’s first 17 years, and now back to separate divisions and only two meetings.

The Pack begin the 2015-16 season with four straight home games, then play seven of their next 11 on the road.  By the time they get to December 27, they will have played only 14 home games out of 31 total outings, and then, from December 29 through January 10, they have six straight at home, their longest homestand of the campaign.  The longest stretch of consecutive road games is five, which occurs twice, and the Pack finish with four straight on the road, including their only Canadian road trip of the year, with a morning-start game in Toronto and a season-concluding pair of games in St. John’s.

So the IceCaps, a team the Wolf Pack have played each year of IceCaps’ existence but who also will showcase an unfamiliar roster, due to an affiliation change from Winnipeg to Montreal, bookend the Pack’s schedule, as a Hartford-St. John’s matchup will kick off the Wolf Pack’s docket October 10 at the XL Center.

Finishing the regular season in Newfoundland, as the Pack did two seasons ago, is seemingly a good deal, as the chances of weather-related travel problems, the one negative to what is always a fun time in North America’s easternmost locale, are considerably less in mid-April than they would be in the dead of winter.  Taking points out of Mile One Centre is no easy task no matter what the calendar says, though, and could be especially tough if playoff spots, or positioning, are on the line when the Wolf Pack and IceCaps bring down the curtain on the regular year April 15 and 16.

Mid-summer Free Agent/Roster Update

August 31, 2015

As the calendar careens past the first of August, and training camps loom only a little more than a month away, following is an update on the contract statuses of the crew of players who finished the 2014-15 season with the Wolf Pack.

Contract info. has been lifted from eliteprospects.com, generalfanager.com and spotrac.com.

Pack second-leading scorer Oscar Lindberg has re-signed, reportedly on a two-year, one-way deal.  After his 28-goal season, and strong playoff performance, though, he stands a good chance of graduating to the Ranger roster.

In addition to Lindberg, prospects Marek Hrivik, Mat Bodie, Dylan McIlrath and newly –acquired goaltender Magnus Hellberg have all been signed to new contracts, Hellberg to a two-year, two-way deal, McIlrath a one-year one-way, and the other two on one-year two-ways.  On the AHL side, the Wolf Pack has re-upped Shawn O’Donnell, whose seven major penalties were third-most on the 2014-15 Wolf Pack club behind McIlrath’s 13 and Nehring’s eight.

Ryan Bourque is under contract for the coming season, entering the second year of a two-year, two-way ticket, and Nick Tarnasky also has a year left on his two-year deal, but fellow veteran forward Joey Crabb, who was the Wolf Pack’s top goal-scorer, and third-leading point-getter, in the postseason with 6-4-10, remains an unrestricted free agent.  Also still unsigned are Tyler Brown and Chad Nehring, who both did some very nice work for the Pack this past year on callups from ECHL Greenville.

Joey Crabb

Joey Crabb

Steve Spinell has landed an AHL deal with Grand Rapids, and Dallas Jackson, who got into 44 games for Ken Gernander & Co. in 2014-15, signed with Hudiksvalls HC of Sweden’s Division 1, but goalies Jeff Malcolm and Jason Missiaen remain available.  Among depth players who spent most of last year in the ECHL, Josh Nicholls, Chris McCarthy, Sam Noreau and Michael St. Croix all have one year remaining on their respective Ranger contracts, and injury-plagued Michael Kantor, who has only been able to get into 33 total games between the Wolf Pack and Greenville in his first two pro years, also has one year left on his deal.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have nearly completed the business of getting all of their contractual ducks in a row, with the biggest triumph being the conclusion of a six-year deal with top centerman Derek Stepan.  Other restricted free agents getting new deals included J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Emerson Etem, leaving James Sheppard as the only unsigned member of the roster with which New York finished the playoffs.

Stepan’s cap hit more than doubled, from $3.075 million to $6.5 million, with his new pact, and the Rangers currently are within $400,000 or so of the 2015-16 salary cap of $71.4 million.  That is with 12 forwards, including Jayson Megna’s cap hit of $600,000, and eight defensemen, including McIlrath’s $600,000, plus goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta.  That relative lack of wiggle room continues to make it look like the big club might look to move a defenseman at some point before the start of the season and, very possibly, add some more Hartford-ticketed depth players with low NHL cap cost.  As of right now, the organization has 48 players under NHL contract, two under the limit of 50, and one of those 48 is goaltender Brandon Halverson, who would go back to the Ontario Hockey League unless he pulled a major surprise and won the Ranger backup job.

In case you missed it earlier in the summer, departures from last year’s Wolf Pack group of mainstays include Chris Bourque (free agent, to Washington), Danny Kristo (free agent, to St. Louis), Chris Mueller (free agent, to Anaheim), Conor Allen (free agent, to Nashville), Ryan Haggerty (traded to Chicago), Michael Kostka (free agent, to Ottawa), Carl Klingberg (KHL), Yann Danis (free agent, to New Jersey), Justin Vaive (free agent, to Islanders) and Ryan Potulny (Finland).

Ranger Draftees Eligible to Join Pack

August 31, 2015

An always-fun summer exercise is to speculate about which of the players the Rangers have picked in the last few NHL drafts might end up seeing action with the Wolf Pack in the upcoming season.

The most obvious one is Brady Skjei, whom Wolf Pack fans got an eyeful of at the end of this past regular season and in the playoffs.  Skjei, the Rangers’ first-round pick in 2012, came out of the University of Minnesota and fit in seamlessly with the Pack, even working his way on to what amounted to the team’s top defensive pairing (with vet Michael Kostka) by the start of the postseason.  There is more than a slight chance, though, that the steady Skjei might latch on to a spot with the big club, especially if salary cap concerns force the Rangers to deal a defenseman.  Dylan McIlrath is subject to waivers this season, so the parent club might elect to keep him, if they need an extra D-man, over Skjei, who doesn’t have to be waived, just so they don’t risk losing McIlrath for nothing.

Brady Skjei

Brady Skjei

Another blueliner who is age-eligible to graduate to the AHL this year, and whom I’m hearing some good things about, is 2013 fourth-round pick Ryan Graves.  Similar in size to McIlrath at 6-4 and 220 pounds, Graves played only 50 games in 2014-15 with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL but scored 15 goals, third-best among league defensemen.  He also added 24 assists for 39 points, and helped lead the Remparts to the Memorial Cup, where he earned tournament All-Star honors.  At the Rangers’ recent prospects camp, Graves told Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com, that he still considers himself “A defense-first kind of defenseman,” but that work on his shot with his Remparts head coach, Philippe Boucher, who was an NHL defenseman that could really bring it from the blue line, helped him take his offensive production to a new level.

The Wolf Pack defense is looking extremely young at this point, with Kostka and Conor Allen having left the organization, and Chris Summers probably in the running for a seventh-defenseman spot with the Rangers.  So I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the organization was still shopping for a veteran backliner in the same mold as Kostka, to help solidify the defense in Hartford and act as an insurance policy for the Rangers.

Up front, Wolf Pack fans may get a look at Adam Tambellini in a 2015-16 Pack jersey.  Tambellini, who has great bloodlines as the son of former long-time NHLer Steve Tambellini and the younger brother of Jeff Tambellini, a veteran of 242 NHL games and a very successful player in the AHL and in Europe, was a third-round selection by the Rangers in 2013.  He started the next season at the University of North Dakota, playing 16 games for the Fighting Sioux before leaving for the WHL and the Calgary Hitmen.  Tambellini is tall, 6-2 and 195 pounds, and had excellent offensive totals with Calgary, rolling up 64 career goals and 125 points in only 102 WHL games and finishing fourth in the league in goals this past season, with 47 in 71 games.

Another WHL-produced forward who may find his way on to the Wolf Pack roster this season is 2014 Ranger draftee Richard Nejezchleb.  A native of the Czech Republic, Nejezchleb was picked as a 20-year-old in the fifth round last summer, after a 32-goal, 57-point year in the Western League with the Brandon Wheat Kings.  He came to training camp with the Wolf Pack last season, but an injury prevented him from showing what he could do on the ice and when he was ready to play in late October, the organization returned him to Brandon, which traded him to Tri-City.  The 6-2, 203-pound Nejezchleb continued to struggle to stay healthy, but still managed better than a point per game with the Americans, logging 19-30-49 in 47 games.  One other pick from the 2014 draft who is old enough to play in the AHL, defenseman Daniel Walcott (fifth round), who played one game for the Wolf Pack this spring after his QMJHL season was over, was traded to Tampa Bay June 1.

The other Ranger-drafted defenseman who sounds like he might be in the mix for a spot with the Pack is Swedish import Calle Andersson, a fourth-round selection by the Blueshirts in 2012.  The Rangers signed Andersson to an NHL deal last June and then loaned him to Zug of the Swiss League.  He was later transferred to another Swiss club, Lugano, and had a fine run with them, chalking up five goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 30 games.  He doesn’t have much in the way of penalty minutes, so you wouldn’t think he is an overly physical player, but he’s a good-sized guy at 6-2 and 211 pounds.  His father is former Ranger defenseman Peter Andersson, and his brother Rasmus was a second-round pick by the Calgary Flames this June.