Catching Up with the Pack: 2010-2011 Season Preview
Saturday October 09th 2010, 5:13 pm

When the Hartford Wolf Pack finished outside the playoff picture for the first time in it’s 13-year franchise history, it was clear that changes needed to be made.  With a locker room rumored to be more me-first than team-first the club struggled to a 36-33-6-5 record that only looked that good because of a season-ending 11-4-0-0 push that proved to be too little too late.  And so it should come as no surprise that nearly half the players who closed the season wearing a Wolf Pack jersey find themselves elsewhere as Hartford’s fourteenth season — and final campaign using the Wolf Pack moniker — kicks off.  Without further ado, here’s a look at the changes that were made and what the upcoming season may bring for the New York Rangers top farm club.

The Dearly Departed

The Wolf Pack will start the new season missing its two most prolific forwards and top four defenseman from the 2009-2010 season.  Leading scorer Corey Locke and P.A. Parenteau, who would have easily eclipsed Locke’s 85 points had he not missed 45 games due a concussion and extended call-up with the Rangers, both departed for what they hope will be greener pastures, with Locke Binghamton-bound after signing a two year deal with the Ottawa Senators and Parenteau hoping to reprise Matt Moulson’s break-out 2009-2010 season with the Islanders.  Interestingly, neither veteran was even offered a new contract by the Rangers.

On the blueline, veteran Corey Potter is destined to become the Wizard of Wilke-Barre after signing as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Like Parenteau and Locke, Potter wasn’t offered a deal by the Rangers, despite being one of the team’s leaders on the blueline in each of the last three seasons.

Having been eclipsed on the organizational depth chart by defensive prospects like Matt Gilroy and Ryan McDonagh, former first round draft pick Bobby Sanguinetti was dispatched to the Carolina Hurricanes at the NHL Entry Draft in June.  The two-time AHL All-Star fetched pair of picks and will start the season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers after being the final cut on the Carolina blueline.

Finnish free agent Ilkka Heikkinen, who matched Sanguinetti for the lead in scoring on defense, made it clear by the Olympic break that he was disapponted with the lack of NHL opportunities he’d been offered and signed with Sibir Novosibirsk of the KHL before the AHL post-season had even come to an end.

Forward Andres Ambuhl, like Heikkinen a high profile free agent signed out of Europe the previous summer, found himself a healthy scratch in Hartford by the end of the season, thanks in large part to the AHL’s limit on veteran players.  He returned to his native Switzerland following the season, where he signed with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National A league.

Goaltender Matt Zaba, who stole the starter’s job from Miika Wiikman in 2008-2009, promptly lost the title to Chad Johnson last year, and followed Ambuhl to Europe in the offseason, signing with Italy’s HC Balzano.

Rounding out the notable departures were part-time defenseman David Urquhart, who signed an AHL deal with Montreal’s affiliate in Hamilton, forward Derek Couture, who signed with the Victoria Salmon Kings, ECHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, and Paul Crowder, who’ll join his brother Tim with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL.

The Wolf Pack will also start the season without defensive stalwart Michael Sauer, who earned the opportunity to open the season with New York thanks to a strong pre-season and a little help from his non-exempt waiver status.

New Kids on the Block

Despite losing a number of key veterans in the off-season, Wolf Pack General Manager Jim Schoenfeld brought in just one veteran replacement for 2010-2011.  Twenty six year old forward Jeremy Williams led the Grand Rapids Griffins with 63 points in 77 games 2009-2010, his lone season in the Detroit Red Wings system after five years with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.  He and Norwegian free agent signing Matt Zuccarello will have large skates to fill as they bid to replace the offense lost with the departure of Parenteau and Locke.  The 5-foot, 9-inch Zuccarello, who was this summer’s prized European free agent signing, will need to adjust to the smaller North American ice surface and more physical style of play in the AHL quickly if in order to provide the offense the Wolf Pack is looking for.

Three additional new faces will round out the forward corps to start the season:  Chris McKelvie kicks off his professional career after completing four seasons at Bemidji State University.  In a six game amateur try-out with the Wolf Pack last spring, McKelvie picked up two goals and an assist. Kelsey Tessier, an unsigned fourth round 2008 draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche, will attempt to overcome the size disadvantage brought on by his 5-foot, 9-inch frame and show the talent that once had him projected to be a top 50 draft pick.  Similarly-undersized Brandon Wong will be a sure-fire local favorite after spending four dynamic seasons at nearby Quinnipiac University, where he finished second in team history in goals and fifth in points. All three are with the Wolf Pack on AHL deals.

The Hartford blueline has been almost completely remade, and will be led by NHL veteran Wade Redden, who’s $6.5 million salary made him a cap casualty in New York.  Provided he doesn’t arrive with the same chip on his shoulder that burdened previously exiled cancer Patrick Rissmiller, his experience will be invaluable on an extremely inexperienced defense corps.

While Redden will provide the experience, Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko will be undoubtedly be looked upon to lead the blueline on the ice.  Both came to the organization via the trade that sent Scott Gomez to Montreal, and the pair were the final two cuts from Rangers training camp.  McDonagh is coming off a three year career at the University of Wisconsin which culminated in a trip to the NCAA championship game last spring, where he and teammate Derek Stepan the lost to fellow Rangers prospect Chris Kreider’s Boston College.  The 23-year old Valentenko, perhaps the biggest surprise at the Rangers training camp, is trying to get his career back on track after two injury-marred seasons in Russia which limited him to just 15 games combined.  Prior to returning to his homeland, the bruising blueliner spent a season with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldog’s, where he was named the team’s top rookie and won its hardest shot competition in 2007-2008.

Rangers 2008 third round pick Tomas Kundratek and fellow 2008 third rounder Jyri Niemi, who was acquired by the Rangers from the New York Islanders last spring in the first trade between the two clubs in 37 years, will look to solidify their positions in the Rangers organizational pecking order during their first pro seasons.  Lee Baldwin, who earned a free agent deal with New York after a single season at the University of Alaska Anchorage, could find himself in a battle for ice time on the Wolf Pack bottom pairing, and could possibly see some time in the ECHL.

In goal, Cam Talbot will take over the back-up job after signing a free agent deal with the Rangers in the offseason.  The 23-year old comes to the Wolf Pack following three seasons at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where he backstopped the Chargers to a 15-44-6 record with a 3.10 goals against average and .907 save percentage in 70 career games.

Back in the Fold

A trio of returnees will start the season on Hartford’s top line. Captain Dane Byers, veteran center Kris Newbury, who joined the squad in the deal that sent fan favorite Jordan Owens to Detroit last spring, and third year pro Dale Weise will be looked upon to set the tone for the team both on and off the ice.  The gritty trio was dynamic down the stretch last season, with each scoring at just under a point-per-game pace over the final two months of the campaign.

On the second line, Brodie Dupont and Evgeny Grachev are expected to be joined by newcomer Zuccarello.  Dupont is entering his fourth season in the AHL and coming off a down year statistically, in which he was moved from left wing to center and skating primarily in a checking role.  He’ll start the season back on the left wing, while Grachev has been moved to the middle in an effort to get the sophomore more engaged in the play.  The 20-year old Russian is coming off a disappointing freshman campaign which saw him score just one goal in the final 38 games of his first AHL season.  For the Wolf Pack to be successful, Grachev will need to rediscover the scoring prowess that made him the Ontario Hockey League’s rookie of the year in 2009.

Other returnees up front include journeyman Ryan Garlock, who stuck with the squad following a late October call-up and finished with 20 points in 59 games, and tough guy Justin Soryal, who enters the season with the goal of rounding out his game and proving he can do more than throw punches.  Devin DiDiomete, who underwent major hip surgery in the offseason, continues to rehab with the team but isn’t expected to join the line-up for at least another month.

On defense, only two familiar faces will start the season with the club.  Despite telling Blueshirt Bulletin’s Bruce Berlet that “there’s no (bleeping) way I’m coming back here” at the end of last season, Nigel Williams is in fact back with the Pack, though its unclear how long that might last or how prominent a role he’ll play.  Jared Nightingale, who played 51 games for the Pack after earning a call-up in late November, can add some toughness on the back end, but is likely to find himself in a battle for ice time.

In goal, Chad Johnson returns as the undisputed starter following an up-and-down rookie season which saw his development stalled by frequent call-ups to ride the bench as the back-up in New York.  With Marty Biron assuming the full-time roll of occasional stand-in for Henrik Lundqvist, Johnson should be able to focus on becoming more consistent, a goal the entire squad will be striving for when the puck drops at the XL Center in Hartford at 7pm Saturday night.

Outlook

With no obvious replacement for the offense provided by Locke, Parenteau, Sanguinetti and Heikkinen, the Wolf Pack will need Grachev and Zuccarello to perform to their potential, and hope for a pleasant surprise from the blueline, which lacks an obvious offensive powerhouse.  Depth and inexperience will be a concern, particularly on the blueline, and significant call-ups or injuries — such as the bevy of blueline bumps and bruises that derailed the team last January — could once again send it into a tailspin.  On the plus side, the lack of star power will force the club to adopt a more balanced, team-first approach, which should make it harder to play against and provide for a healthier locker room.

Bottom line: Despite its inexperience, the team will surprise the pundits and fight their way into the post-season, but exit early to deeper and more dynamic Atlantic Division competition.

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