Catching up with the Pack, Part 1: The Dearly Departed
Wednesday August 26th 2009, 12:29 am

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.

Denisov being courted by Dinamo Minsk
Wednesday June 17th 2009, 9:41 pm

KHL bottom feeders Dinamo Minsk are hoping to lure Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Vladimir Denisov home to Belarus next season.  In an interview published Wednesday, Dinamo’s Deputy Director of Hockey Operations Sean Simpson told Belorussian sports site PressBall that his club is currently negotiating with the blueliner and fellow Belarus national team player Sergei Demagin, who some will remember signed an AHL deal with the Wolf Pack last summer only to return to Minsk prior to the start of the regular season.

It would appear that Denisov is still planning on taking another shot at the NHL, however. “With Denisov it’s difficult, because he wants to continue his career in North America,” Simpson admitted. “With Demagin it’s a somewhat different situation; he played for Dinamo last season, after all.”

Simpson, who coached Team Canada to the Spengler Cup in 2007, doesn’t seem overly confident that his team will bag two of the country’s most talented players. “I’m not sure that the chances of signing contracts with these guys are great, but we’ll continue negotiations.  We’ll see what happens in the next couple of months.”  Denisov is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent this summer, but in an interview last month the soon-to-be 25-year old made it pretty clear that he expects to be playing outside the New York Rangers organization next season.

Denisov discusses his disappointing season in Hartford
Thursday May 28th 2009, 11:13 pm
Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

Last summer, after getting his feet wet in North America on an AHL deal with the Lake Erie Monsters, defenseman Vladimir Denisov signed his first NHL contract with the New York Rangers.  But despite more than tripling his rookie year point production and finishing with the third best plus-minus rating on the Hartford Wolf Pack (+18) this season, the 24-year old Belorussian made no headway towards attaining his goal of making the NHL.  On the contrary, the Novopolotsk native found himself planted in the press box for all but three of the Pack’s games in January, ultimately resulting in a request for a trade.

That request was refused, and in February the scrappy defender once again found himself with a full-time role on the team, a role which he held on to until a shoulder injury knocked him out of Hartford’s last two regular season games and all but the final two games of their first round playoff series.  Last week, after a trip to Switzerland, where he joined Team Belarus at the World Championship, Denisov discussed his disappointing first (and most likely last) season in the New York Rangers organization with Belorussian sports site Pressball.  Their interview with the soon-to-be restricted free agent is translated below.

Vladimir Denisov: I want in the NHL

A second year in North America didn’t bring Vladimir Denisov nearer to the realization of his old dream — to make the NHL. The Belorussian defender, having signed a contract last summer with the New York Rangers, as a result spent the whole season in the AHL, playing for the farm club of the Rangers, Hartford.

Who knows, had the Novopolotsk native not left Lake Erie, surely over the course of the last regular season he would have kept company with [fellow countryman] Ruslan Salei in Colorado. However, life doesn’t tolerate “what ifs”, and in order to achieve that end [of playing with Salei] Denisov forgot about his shoulder injury and at the first call arrived in Switzerland to help Team Belarus at the World Championship. And his appearance on Glen Hanlon’s squad in the quarterfinal, it appears, became quite a good argument on the resume of our fellow countryman during his search for a new club.

- Did you understand what was risked when you went to the national team at the World Championship, clearly not having recovered? Had a reccurance [of the injury] occurred, you very well may have given up your future career.

- I probably shouldn’t have sped up my recovery in Hartford. But I wanted to help the team in the Calder Cup playoffs. And before I responded to Glen Hanlon’s invitation, I weighed everything properly. Certainly, the fact that my game wasn’t always sharp in Kloten and Berne could be explained by the problems with my shoulder. But I was never one of those players, who, when something hurts, doesn’t go out on the ice. And since I went, it meant that I was aware of the possible consequences. And I tried to drive all gloomy thoughts away. It’s another matter that the Swiss tournament wasn’t very successful for me, which is why I’ve tried to forget about it.

- Is it appropriate to assume that your performance at the World Championship, to the detriment of your health, was [undertaken] with the purpose of catching the attention of scouts, including [those] from NHL clubs?

- This championship has hardly increased the quantity of teams which will want to sign a contract with me in the new season.

- What did you think about the fact that your fellow countrymen, the Kostitsyn brothers, decided not to go to the national team and to take care of their health?

- I returned to Novopolotsk just last weekend and therefore haven’t spoken to them yet. I too heard many critical statements in reference to the Kostitsyns, but my opinion is: whatever journalists wrote and fans said, they don’t know the true reasons. Since the brothers missed the World Championship, it means there were valid reasons. Besides, it soon became clear, that Sergei had surgery and Andrei had problems with his groin. But next year they will come to the national team and [then] what? Everyone in an instant will begin to talk [about] how they’re good, how they help the team and glorify the country?

- Do you think you might have made a mistake last summer when you didn’t wait for offers from Colorado and signed a contract with the Rangers? As you know, over the course of the season the Avalanche was beset by a wave of injuries, and called up a lot of youth from their farm club. If you had remained in Lake Erie, you already would have debuted in the NHL…

- I’ll confess, I thought about it. But, as they say, you can never guess where you’ll find [something] or where you’ll lose [it]. So it turned out, that I changed to a club in which it wasn’t possible to play in the NHL. I hope, that it wasn’t possible [just] for the time being. I look at things philosophically: everything happens for the best. And the year in Hartford wasn’t spent for nothing. My second season in North American was easier than my debut [season]. First of all because I improved my knowledge of English. Second, I adapted to the local style of play. But if I were to compare it to the previous season, my performance in Lake Erie was more positive.

- What was impossible to achieve in Hartford?

- To make my way on to the main team of the New York Rangers. This is very unfortunate. Except for one early exhibition match, the coaches of the NHL club didn’t give me any more chances for some reason. Yet last fall when I left for Rangers training camp, I expected, if not to fight for firm spot on the roster, then to at least get the opportunity to prove myself. But for some reasons unknown to me my stay on the New York squad was limited to three weeks and one duel. I’ll confess, after such treatment my emotions sank — I understood that head coach Tom Renney didn’t trust me. Under a two-way contract I had to go to Hartford and fulfill the agreement.

- Perhaps, that you only played one exhibition match for the Rangers can be explained by the fact that the team prepared for the Victoria Cup with Magnitogorsk and played the [regular season] roster?

- That’s one of the reasons. But there were six defensemen on the Rangers with one-way contracts. They were kept on the roster. The others were sent to the farm club in the AHL. Why remember New York’s training camp? To be honest, I already don’t think of it.

- But still the statistics give evidence that the year in Hartford was not spent in vain.

- Indeed, in this sense there is nothing to complain about. I surpassed my personal record for points in a season by far. Though the surge in productivity didn’t surprise me: the Hartford coaches preferred [an] attacking [style of] hockey and weren’t obsessed with defensive schemes. No problems with adapting to Hartford arose. Though at times injuries interfered with things, which is why I only played sixty games.

- Was it only [injuries] that prevented you from playing? If I’m not mistaken, for almost a month head coach Ken Gernander held you in reserve, alive and healthy.

- There was a period when the coach for some reason decided that I was tired and it was necessary for me to rest. Though before midseason I invariably appeared in the first or second defense pairings and had a lot of playing time. When I suddenly ceased to find myself in demand, I immediately asked about a trade. But the trade didn’t take place: the leaders of Hartford assured me that I was a key player on the team, needed by the club. Nevertheless, they didn’t allow me to play. I repeatedly asked what was going on, but didn’t hear a specific answer. However, in North America its not accepted to explain why this or that person remains in reserve. You come to the arena in the morning, look for your name on a list. If it’s there, you go out and practice and prepare for the game, if not, you work in a separate group. It was good that by February, everything was normal, and I returned to the roster.

- What thoughts visited you in January?

- I wanted to understand the situation and decide how to go on. And my agent and I met with the managers and coaches of Hartford, and searched for a way out.

- That meeting with the advisers didn’t bother Ken Gernander — a living legend in Hartford?

- No. No one even concentrated on that. I had a regular working relationship with the coach. He is the boss, I am the subordinate for whom it is necessary to follow his instructions.

- I would hardly be mistaken to assume that in Hartford you associated more with Russian [Artem] Anisimov.

- Yes, basically I spent time together with Artem. We lived in the same building, but on different floors. But my wife didn’t arrive with my daughter in the States until November. Naturally, all attention switched to my loved ones in a flash. I had already made myself at home in Hartford by that time, settled domestic questions.

- With the arrival of your family your concerns have surely increased?

- Yes, but they’re pleasant cares. I looked forward to my wife and child’s [arrival] very much, I missed them. When we found ourselves together again, the remaining issues faded into the background.

- But January’s playing problems could have thoroughly beaten you up psychologically…

- There was such a time. On those days I tried not to lose heart, to panic, I held myself in check, believed in the best. I drove gloomy thoughts aside. My family helped a great deal. Coming home, I was plunged into family affairs and forgot about work. Including the problems which had arisen.

- Did your wife and child attend games?

- Yes, they often went to our games. My daughter took a little stick, cheered, clapped her hands. Did she recognize her dad? I don’t know, but my wife showed her where I was on the ice.

- What is Hartford itself like as a city?

- Small, by American standards, one hundred and twenty thousand people. An hour’s flight from New York. Calm, quiet, no special entertainment. We lived in the center, not far from a big park where we mainly walked with our child.

- In small little towns fans usually know each player by sight.

- In others, perhaps, but hockey isn’t very popular in Hartford. They follow the basketball team of the local college more. Seven to eight thousand fans came to our games only on weekends. On weekdays we were lucky if there were 3-4 thousand.

- How did you get on with your teammates?

- On the team, besides Anisimov and I, from the Old World there were also Finnish goaltender Miika Wiikman and Swedish forward Andreas Jamtin. The rest were residents of the USA and Canada. I associated with everyone equally, but didn’t make any friends. The attitude towards hockey overseas is a little bit different than in Europe. You come to practice, and afterwards everyone goes home right away.

- It doesn’t happen that you stay after work, to spend time in cordial company, to associate in an informal setting?

- In North America people have a different mentality. But what is there to discuss, since they so long ago acquired it. It’s clear that they don’t keep aloof from hockey players who come from Europe, because we have a common cause, and what’s the point in splitting up team into cells. The same would happen if a Canadian arrived in Belarus. I’m sure he would come to communicate more with his fellow countrymen, than with Russian-speaking guys.

- Does the intense AHL schedule, especially on the road, intimidate you any longer?

- Last season in Lake Erie was spent adapting to the new schedule and frequent long road trips. Now I’ve already gotten used to them physically and psychologically. However, when we played the fourth game in five days, it occurred that I felt my functional state was far from optimum — there was no crispness.

- In the autumn [fellow Belorussian] Sergei Demagin was also in Hartford…

- He completed the whole pre-season, and constantly took the ice in scrimmages. But before the start of the season the coaches dispatched him to the fourth line [and] cut down his playing time. As far as I understood, the coach wanted Sergei to immediately start to show something. For him, quite logically, it was necessary to adapt to the new conditions, to learn the language, to adapt to a different style. It’s possible that the Hartford leadership didn’t want to wait.

- As a result, Sergei returned to Dynamo Minsk. When you ceased to make the roster, didn’t thoughts arise to leave for home or Russia?

- Frankly speaking, at times I deliberated over that choice. But in the end I decided to remain in North America and to continue to try to make my way to the NHL.

- Over the course of the season did the coaches of the Rangers hint at an opportunity of a call up to the main team?

- Such things are not disclosed in advance. Generally they simply tell the player that he’s going “up” or “down”. At each Hartford game there were many scouts from various clubs. That’s why the New York squad knew not only about me, but about members of other AHL teams.

-Your contract has ended. What next?

- My rights belong to the Rangers. Therefore, I don’t know where I’ll spend the next season.

- There weren’t tempting offers after the Swiss World Championship?

- It’s possible only to guess about my further fate in hockey. Behind me is a tense year. There are some offers from clubs in North America and Europe, but I’ll concern myself with the search for a new work place, most likely, at the end of June. Now I wish to have a proper rest. Most likely, I will spend my holiday at home in Novopolotsk, I’ll have a rest from America. Besides, it is necessary to heal my shoulder once and for all. Within a few days I’ll visit Minsk, and consult with doctors. And in July, I think, I’ll start training.