With less than two weeks remaining before a team of New York Rangers prospects — many of whom will spend the upcoming season in Connecticut’s capital — arrive in Michigan for the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, its time to take a look at how the Hartford Wolf Pack roster is shaping up for the 2009-2010 season. Since the summer hockey doldrums are still in full effect, we’ll stretch our analysis out over three posts: One introducing the new faces that will call Hartford home, another looking at returning players, and a third serving as a farewell to those who have moved on. We’ll start off with that last group first.
The Dearly Departed
Each summer AHL rosters undergo a dizzying amount of turnover. Players leave for greener pastures, hoping for a better shot at making the big show, or simply a more prominent role or more comfortable salary on the farm. For some, the realization that their NHL dreams are unattainable sets in, and they cross the ocean for the higher salaries and new experiences of the European Leagues. And still others find themselves shipped off to another city as a result of the parent club’s summertime roster re-shuffling. All three of these scenarios played out this summer for the Pack.
Perhaps the most prominent of the sunny season’s departures is that of Wolf Pack captain Greg Moore, who signed an NHL deal with the hated Islanders in early July. Moore spent three years in the New York Rangers system, and had what looked to be breakout year in 2007-2008, when he scored 66 points in 72 games. His performance earned him an invite to the AHL All-Star Classic and multiple trips down the “Greg Moore Highway” to New York, where he suited up for six games. But his offensive production dropped off precipitously in 08-09, resulting in a reduced role for the 25-year Maine native. Having moved to center the season before, Moore was the odd man out behind fellow pivots Artem Anisimov, Patrick Rissmiller and Mike Ouellette, and bounced around the line up, playing the part of utility player. That’s an admirable role, but rarely one that leads to NHL success, and so Moore opted for a fresh start in the Islanders organization.
The aforementioned Ouellette and Tommy Pyatt made up two-thirds of Hartford’s most consistent and hard-working trio last year, but only their linemate, Jordan Owens has a shot at being on the roster when the puck drops on the new season on October 3rd.
After splitting his rookie year between Hartford and Charlotte of the ECHL — his development derailed by an early-season high ankle sprain — Pyatt made good progress in his second professional campaign last year, sticking with the Wolf Pack for the entire season and putting up a respectable 37 points in 73 games. A player who’s effort level could never be questioned, but with limited size and offensive upside, Pyatt was deemed expendable by the Rangers and sent to Montreal as part of the Scott Gomez salary purge in late June.
Ouellette was an integral part of the Wolf Pack penalty kill and the team’s top face-off man for two years running. Another hard worker with limited offensive ability, his development stagnated last season and, unlike Owens, who was able to turn an AHL deal and into a contract with the Rangers, Ouellete wasn’t able to earn himself an NHL pact. Faced with another season in the AHL, the 27-year old Dartmouth graduate opted to see the world, and will spend next season in Croatia with KHL Medvescak Zagreb of the Erste Bank (Austrian) Eishockey Liga.
Brandon Sugden played the part of heavyweight in a division which had few heavyweights. When not throwing punches, he struggled to hold down a regular shift on the Wolf Pack’s fourth line. Good with fans and a willing to show rookie scrappers Justin Soryal, Devin DiDiomete and Dale Weise the ropes, “Sugar” opted to sign an AHL deal with last year’s Calder Cup champions, the Hershey Bears, this summer. With Soryal having earned himself a reputation as a feared fighter prior to suffering a season-ending hand injury, the other two previously mentioned soon-to-be-sophomores and a handful of incoming players who’ve shown some ability to brawl on the roster, there should be little concern about the Wolf Pack’s ability to stand up for itself in Sugden’s absence.
At the age of 27, Brian Fahey earned his first NHL contract last summer with a strong performance on the Calder Cup-winning Chicago Wolves the season before. But the Illinois native couldn’t live up to any of the hopes the organization might have had for him. One of the last cuts by the Rangers at the start of the season, Fahey never really seemed to fit in in Hartford, and his play never matched its Calder Cup billing. He spent the majority of the season on the bottom defense pairing, and capped off the campaign with a dreadful -5 performance in the Wolf Pack’s game four playoff drubbing by Worcester. Despite the fact he played only a single season in Hartford, a change of scenery seemed necessary. The swap that sent him to Colorado is a move that’s good for both sides: the Rangers organization adds another young defenseman to their stacked corps of defensive prospects while Fahey gets a fresh chance to try to achieve his NHL goals — and live a little closer to home if he doesn’t.
When Vladimir Denisov signed with the Rangers last summer, he did so (perhaps naively) believing he had a shot at making the NHL. Instead, he spent almost the entire month of January as a healthy scratch in Hartford. It’s hard not to like the way he played the game: a hard-nosed defenseman who wasn’t afraid to throw his body around (even if it sometimes meant taking himself out of the play) and was willing to stand up for his teammates (even if he sometimes went over the line and took unnecessary penalties). As a fellow Russian language speaker, he helped Anisimov feel more comfortable in Hartford, and deserves kudos for that — and for finishing a +18 behind only two other players on the team. Denisov made his disappointment with his time with the Wolf Pack known soon after the season ended, and it was clear that the decision not to return was a mutual one. As yet unsigned, Denisov has offers from both Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and Dynamo Riga of the KHL, but is holding out hopes for a one-way NHL deal. With that as his goal, it’s likely his summer will prove as disappointing as his season in Hartford was.
Mark Bell was brought in to provide some stability and leadership down the stretch, and fulfilled that role admirably enough. Injuries hampered his production in the playoffs, but he was never part of the long-term plans. Unsigned by anyone as of yet, the re-signing of P.A. Parenteau, arrival of Corey Locke and potential return of Rissmiller leave no room for Bell on a roster where prospect development is the focus.
Two more players — Chris Murray and Brock McBride — played bit parts with the Pack during the 2008-2009 season but will not be returning. Murray proved a capable call-up from Charlotte early in the campaign, but was the odd man out when Michael Sauer returned from off-season knee surgery. The 24-year old defenseman has signed with the Lowell Devils and will get the opportunity to face his old friends from Hartford eight times over the course of the upcoming season, should he stick in the AHL.
McBride joined the Wolf Pack on an amateur tryout contract after completing his final season at St. Lawrence University and played eight regular season games and five in the playoffs, before spending the final game of the Pack’s season serving a suspension for a dangerous and ill-timed hit on Worcester’s Brendan Buckley in game five of the teams’ first round playoff series. McBride was released from his ATO following the Pack’s first round playoff defeat and signed with the Syracuse Crunch in early July.
Later this week we’ll take a look at who’s left from the 2008-2009 season and what roles they’re likely to fill for the organization in 2009-2010.
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