Perhaps even more so than in the NHL, summer brings change to AHL rosters, and this summer has been no exception for the Hartford Wolf Pack. And while it seems unlikely that the Rangers organization has finished its summer makeover, now seems as good a time as any to run through the changes that have taken place on the farm so far this off-season.
Back in the Fold
Swedish-born goaltender Miika Wiikman was the first to be welcomed back into the Wolf Pack fold when he signed his first NHL contract a mere two days after the Pack bowed out of the Atlantic Division Semifinals in April. Wiikman, who will turn 24 during the first week of the AHL season, played his first season in North America on an AHL contract and earned his big-league deal with a 2.30 goals against average and .919 save percentage. His GAA earned him 3rd place among AHL rookie goalies, while his save percentage ranked tops among rookies and 6th over all in he league. In late January, he was named co-RBK/AHL Player of the Week after a 3-0-0 perfrmance in which he put up a .33 goals against average and .989 save percentage with two shutouts. He will looked upon to step into the role of starting goaltender in Hartford this season after winning the title from the departed Al Montoya for portions of the season last year.
The Wolf Pack’s leading scorer, Pierre-Alexandre “call me P.A.” Parenteau was the next to be re-signed, when he inked a one year extension on June 26th. Last season, Parenteau’s 81 points led the Wolf Pack by a wide margin and placed him 6th overall in AHL scoring, while his knack for scoring at just the right time made him invaluable to the Wolf Pack. The 25 year old, 5th year pro was rewarded for his career year by being named an AHL Second Team All-Star. Despite rumors that were circulated before the AHL season ended that suggested he was being courted by a team or teams in the Swedish Elite League, Parenteau opted to return to an already-deep Ranger roster. While he could challenge for an NHL job in camp, he will most likely be looked upon to once again carry the Pack offensively this season.
Greg Moore, who earned himself a 6-game cup of coffee in New York with a strong first half of the season last year, resigned with the Rangers on July 21st after a breakout season during which he earned an invitation to the AHL All Star game in February. The former right wing spent the majority of the season centering the Pack’s top line while putting up a career-high 26 goals and 66 points, good for second on the team. His plus-27 rating also ranked him 2nd on the team, while coming in 6th in the league. Moore will likely start the season in Hartford, but could once again earn himself a mid-season call up or three if he shows he can consistently play at the level at which he started last season.
Rounding out the list of players re-signed to NHL contracts this summer is 2003 first round pick (oh yes, I did) Hugh Jessiman, who accepted his qualifying offer on July 22nd. Jessiman showed steady improvement of the course of last season, more than trippling his previous season’s output with 18 goals and 42 points, and filled a valuable role by sticking up for his teammates after Wolf Pack tough guys Francis Lessard and Mitch Fritz went down to long-term injuries. After his signing, Jessiman told Howlings “I am coming to make the team right out of camp. If for some reason I don’t, then I’m going to the AHL and play so well that they have no choice but to bring me up.” For more from Jessiman, see the Hersam Acorn. Barring a miraculous step forward, it’s unlikely Jessiman will challenge for a Ranger roster spot out of camp, but his progress last season was significant enough to buy him another year in which to prove that he can turn into the power forward the Rangers thought they drafted five years ago.
The list of Wolf Pack returnees is rounded out by two players who were re-signed to AHL contracts. A former teammate of Jessiman’s at Dartmouth, Mike Ouellette played a mere 6 games in Charlotte before injuries in Hartford opened the door for a call up in early November. Once there, Ouellette played a solid defensive game and proved to be the Pack’s best face-off man, ensuring his time in Charlotte was behind him. On July 15th, the Kamloops, BC native signed a one-way AHL deal. He told Pack play-by-play man Bob Crawford in a recent interview “I felt like I made a lot of progress with the team last year, and I was really happy when they extended that offer after the season to have me back. It was important to me to get on at least a one-way deal in the AHL, and I’m glad we were able to come to terms on something.” More from Ouellette is available over at Howlings. Ouellette, who’s offensive production started to pick up as the season went on, will be looking to continue to improve in that area, and has set a personal goal of being selected for the AHL All Star team next season.
Jordan Owens stuck with the Wolf Pack out of camp, but his stay was short-lived and he found himself in Charlotte by early November. By the end of December he was back with the Pack, having stayed in Charlotte just long enough to earn himself a berth at the 2008 ECHL All-Star Game, where he scored a goal and came in second in the fastest skater skills competition. The organization liked what they saw enough to exercise their option on his contract on July 9th. Owens told Crawford in an interview earlier this month “It shows that they are interested and they liked the way I played last year, and itâ€™s an honor to be a prospect and hopefully be a guy that can put in some time in the American League and maybe earn an NHL contract in the future.” Despite his somewhat diminutive (6′0″, 180lbs) Owens proved a willing and able combatant, and earned the respect of players and fans alike with his fiesty play.
In addition to those who signed new contracts this summer, the Pack will have a number of already-signed returnees when they take the ice in October. They include forwards Lauri Korpikoski, Dane Byers, Artem Anisimov, Tommy Pyatt and Brodie Dupont, who talked about his first pro season with Crawford earlier this month. On defense, the Pack will welcome back Tomas Pock, who entertained offers from teams in Europe and Russia this summer, Corey Potter, and Michael Sauer, who is likely to miss the start of the season while he recovers from off-season knee surgery to repair and ACL tear suffered in game two of the playoffs. In addition, two players who’s seasons were plagued by injury in the ECHL but remain under contract with the Rangers, defenseman Michael Busto and center Joe Barnes, could challenge for spots in Hartford this season.
The list of departures is long, but none will hurt as much as that of defenseman Andrew Hutchinson, who signed a 2-year, one-way deal with Tampa Bay on July 8th. The Wolf Pack’s captain and team MVP had a spectacular season in Hartford, setting records for goals and points by a Wolf Pack defenseman en route to winning the Eddie Shore Award as the top defenseman in the AHL. Exiled to Hartford after concerns about his defensive game prevented him from making the Ranger roster out of camp, Hutchinson set out to prove the organization wrong — and did — but in the process made himself too valuable to risk passing through waivers for a call up to New York. His veteran presence, both on and off the ice, and high-end offensive skills are sure to be missed in Hartford.
Hutch headlines a long list of defensive defections, which started in mid-May when Ivan Baranka signed a 2-year deal with Spartak Moscow of the KHL. According to his new GM, Baranka left for Russia because he didn’t think he’d get a shot at the NHL with the Rangers organization, and hopes to attract the attention of other NHL teams with a strong showing in the new Russian league. Despite the fact that Baranka has struggled with injuries over his three seasons in Hartford, its hard to see his leaving as anything less than a significant blow to an organization which can’t boast a lot of depth on defense, despite a number of quality defensive prospects.
Defenseman Jake Taylor, who played his first injury-free pro season last year and had a career year as a result, opted for the security of a 2-year AHL deal with the nearby Springfield Falcons. A tough, stay-at-home defenseman, who was good on the penalty kill, Taylor’s contributions shouldn’t be too difficult to replace.
Rounding out the departures on defense is David Liffiton, who played only 21 games last season after suffering a concussion late in October. He returned briefly in mid-January, but a re-occurrence of post-concussion-like symptoms lead to him being shut down for the remainder of the season in February. Liffiton told Howlings last week that the Rangers declined to make him offer, adding that “I have some teams interested in the NHL and some in Europe I will be making my decision in the next couple of weeks.” A punishing, physical, defensive-minded defenseman, Liffiton’s lack of mobility is likely to be his biggest obstacle in ever making it to the big show.
Up front, the Wolf Pack lost all of its paid muscle when Francis Lessard, Mitch Fritz, and Josh Gratton all signed NHL deals elsewhere. Lessard, a loose cannon but fan favorite nonetheless, joined former Rangers Assistant GM Don Maloney with the Rangers-West Pheonix Coyotes. “Frankie” played only 14 games for the Pack last season after suffering a season-ending knee injury in November. Fritz, who’s time on the ice was similarly limited by shoulder surgery at the start of the season (he played only 11) is headed an hour south to Bridgeport after signing with the parent club and Ranger-rival New York Islanders. And Gratton, who played 20 games with the Pack last season after joining the team at the trade deadline as part of the deal that sent Al Montoya to Pheonix, is heading to either Nashville or Milwaukee after signing a one-year, two-way deal with the Predators.
Also up front, the Pack will be without the services of highly skilled, but enigmatic forward Alex Bourret. Bourret had a forgettable season with the Wolf Pack last year, limited to only 54 games by a series of maladies, and spent much of the time he did play in coach Ken Gernander’s dog house. Bourret will join Gratton on the Rangers West Pheonix Coyotes after being traded for the 90th overall pick (which became Czech defenseman Tomas Kundratek) at the NHL Draft in Ottawa on June 22nd.
In addition, the Rangers declined to offer center Bruce Graham a contract. Graham, the 51st overall pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, split his first three professional seasons between Hartford and the ECHL Charlotte Checkers and played only 24 games in Hartford this past season. Graham, who was set to be married this summer, was not tendered a qualifying offer by the Rangers, and where he’ll play next season is unknown.
Finally, two goaltenders who saw time in Hartford this past season have decided to move on. Chris Holt, who will be most remembered for his strong showing in the 2006 Calder Cup playoffs, when he stepped in and lead the team into the second round after Al Montoya suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, opted to sign with the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL, though he is likely to start with the Alaska Aces in the ECHL. And David LeNeveu, who came in with Gratton at the trade deadline in the deal that sent Montoya and Marcel Hossa out west, signed a one-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks in early July. LeNeveu, who put up a 1.83 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in his 13 regular season games with Hartford, is likely to start with the Ducks new affiliate in Iowa, the ridiculously named Iowa Chops.
New Kids on the Block
A handful of familiar faces will play their first full professional season with the Wolf Pack this season after completing their junior or college careers. The highest profiled of them is New Jersey native and 2006 first round draft pick Bobby Sanguinetti, who has joined the Pack at the conclusion of his junior season in each of the past two springs. In his final OHL season, Sanguinetti’s 29 goals shattered Brampton Battalion’s record for goals by a blueliner (previously 18, held by Rostislav Klesla) and his 70 points (in 61 games) fell just two shy of the club record for points by a defenseman. He lead all OHL defenseman in goals and came in just one behind Ryan Wilson, the leader in points by a defenseman, en route to being named to the OHL’s second all-star team. The Wolf Pack will be hoping he can step in and replace much of the offensive production Hutchinson provided from the blueline last season.
The Rangers 2006 5th round pick, Tomas Zaborsky, also joined the Wolf Pack at the conclusion of his junior season, during which he scored 31 goals and 39 assists for 70 point in 68 games. The 20 year old Slovakian was only able to force his way on to a stacked Hartford roster for 2 regular season games, but in his first ever professional game drew the first penalty of the game and added his first pro point (a primary assist) thanks to tenacious work along the boards — despite his small frame. In his limited time with the Pack he obviously showed the organization enough to convince them to offer him an NHL contract, which he signed on June 2nd. Zaborsky’s set realistic goals for his first full pro season, telling Howlings “my personal goal is to stay in the AHL in Hartford and play there in first three lines and get better and better. I will be happy if I have a really good rookie season in Hartford. That’s what I want from the new season.” Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him spend part of the season in Charlotte adjusting to the professional game.
Harvard graduate Mike Taylor signed an amateur try-out contract with the Wolf Pack at the conclusion of the NCAA season, and played 8 games with the Pack, during which time he put up 4 points, including a two goal, one assist performance in his second pro game on March 29th. At Harvard, Taylor lead his team in points (35) and assists (23), good enough to tie him for 5th in the ECACHL scoring and earn him Second Team All-Ivy League honors. His performance in the spring earned him an invite to the Ranger’s Development Camp in June, where he performed well enough to convinced the organization to sign him to an AHL deal. With a stacked forward line up in Hartford, Taylor is another player who might see time in the ECHL next season.
In goal, Matt Zaba is likely being looked upon to back up Wiikman, after the Rangers signed the 24 year old goaltender to a contract extension on July 1st. Zaba appeared in 28 games with the Charlotte Checkers before a glut of goalies in Charlotte lead to him being loaned to the ECHL Iowa Steelheads. After making his first Steelheads appearance on January 18th, the rookie pro caught fire, recording a 12-4-1 record with a 2.64 goals against average and .915 save percentage, and was named the RBK Hockey ECHL Goaltender of the week for the week ending February 3rd.
Based on which Ranger signings were posted on the Wolf Pack web site, two summer signings appear to be among the possible new faces who could see time in Hartford. The first is 25 year old Swedish forward Andreas JÃ¤mtin, who signed an entry level deal with the Rangers on July 1st. JÃ¤mtin, who’s earned a reputation for being a scrappy pest, put up 17 goals and 13 assists for 30 points in 51 games last season for HV71 on the Swedish Elite League, while helping the team to the SEL championship. His 167 regular season penalty minutes ranked him second on the team. He could spend time in Hartford adjusting to the North American game and smaller ice surface.
Twenty-six year old Aaron Voros made his NHL debut last season with the Minnesota Wild, registering 7 goals and 7 assists for 14 points, while wracking up 141 penalty minutes. Voros, who signed a 3-year deal with the Rangers that will pay him $1.2m next season and $900,000 in each of the next two, was originally drafted by the cross-Hudson rival Devils in the 8th round of the 2001 entry draft. During his second year at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Voros was diagnosed with malignant bone cancer. A tumor behind his knee was later determined to be benign, but part of his femur was removed and complications resulted from one of the six surguries he underwent, leaving him bedridden for 8 weeks and causing a lost of 50 pounds. His dedication to rebound from the experience and perservere on his path to the NHL resulted in him being Minnesota’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy last season. While it seems unlikely he was signed to be sent to the minors, the inclusion of the press release announcing his signing on the Wolf Pack web site makes it look like its at least an option.
One of the more notable Wolf Pack additions is defenseman Brian Fahey. The 27-year year old former University of Wisconsin Badger played a key role in the Chicago Wolves’ run to the Calder Cup Championship this past season, and he will be counted upon to fill a portion of the role Andrew Hutchinson filled last season. Not as offensively skilled as Hutchinson, Fahey still contributed 37 points during the regular season, and 10 more in 24 playoff games, and he’ll add a more physical presence than Hutchinson. This is apparently the first NHL contract for the former 4th round Colorado Avalanche draft pick, suggesting he might stand an outside shot at winning the 7th defense slot, but most likely he has been signed to add a veteran presence and winning attitude to an AHL team that should be capable of getting well beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Also on defense, the Rangers signed 24-year old defenseman Vladimir Denisov. As with Fahey, this is Denisov’s first NHL contract, after the undrafted Belorus native made the decision last season to come over to North America on an AHL contract in hopes of working his way up to the NHL after spending the previous season with Lada Togliatti in the Russian Super League. A physical defenseman, Denisov is not afraid to fight, and ranked 3rd on his team in penalty minutes last season — that on a team that included former Ranger and Wolf Pack defenseman and loose cannon Dale Purinton. Denisov will spend the summer training with Keramin Minsk of the Belorusian Extraliga along with brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and might challenge for the spot as 7th defenseman, but most likely will start the season in Hartford.
Rounding out the additions on defense is 23-year old David Urquhart, who signed an AHL contract with the Wolf Pack on July 17th. A 2008 graduate of McGill University, Urquhart captained his team to the Ontario University Athletics championship last year, the first league title captured by McGill since 1946, while picking up 7 goals and 16 assists for 23 points in 39 games. In 2006-2007 he was named McGill’s team MVP and earned Second Team All-Canadian honors and in 2008 brought home the Richard Pound Award, annually awarded to a graduating McGill student-athlete for outstanding proficiency and leadership. In describing himself to Howlings recently, Urquhart explained “I am a hard skating, puck moving defenseman. I like to throw the body around when the time is right and I’m always striving to improve on my weaknesses and look forward to the challenge of playing in the AHL.” With a dearth of bodies on defense, Urquhart has a good shot at sticking in the AHL, but could be a candidate to spend some time in the ECHL as well.
Long before the 2007-2008 hockey season even ended, on March 12th, the Rangers announced the signing of 20 year old, undrafted, free-agent forward Justin Soryal. Soryal, a tough-nosed player who’s made a name as a fighter, showed last season that he could also play hockey, putting up 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points to go along with his 140 penalty minutes for the Peterborough Petes of the OHL. Soryal will likely be looked upon to replace some of the toughness Hartford lost with the departures of Lessard, Fritz and Gratton.
Finally, a couple of Ranger-drafted prospects will make their first appearances in Hartford this season. Ryan Hillier, a third round, 84th overall, draft pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, was signed to an NHL deal in early April after a 34 goal, 38 assist, 72 point performance in 70 games with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Hillier finished second on his team in goals and tied for second in points, while piling up a career-high 79 penalty minutes. He attended but couldn’t participate in on-ice workouts at the Rangers development camp in June due to an hernia, which may or may not affect how he prepares for his upcoming rookie pro season.
And last but not least, 2007 7th round draft pick David Skokan was signed to an AHL deal last week after completing his junior career with Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL. In his final junior season Skokan put up 19 goals and 21 assists for 40 points to go along with 92 penalty minutes in 53 games. But that was dwarfed by his impressive performance in the World Junior Championships for Team Slovakia, where he tallied 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points in 6 games — good for 4th over all in the tournament. In the “Q”, the 6′, 190 pounder made a name for himself as a pest, but also showed an ability to come up big in the clutch. He too could spend time in Charlotte this season as he adjusts to the pro game.
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