Last season the Hartford Wolf Pack were not a good hockey club. They finished third in their division and did not qualify for the 2014 AHL Playoffs. Most AHL rosters are a bit of a revolving door, but last season the Wolf Pack experienced that on a whole other level. Two Rangers role players, Arron Asham and Darroll Powe, were buried in the minor leagues last season and the cream of the crop in terms of prospects- Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and Cam Talbot, were plucked from the minors to play with the big club. The Rangers robbing the Wolf Pack of the little talent that they had had a devastating impact on Hartford's season, particularly the loss of scoring and goaltending. It also didn't do any favors for the development of the prospects learning the ropes of the professional game. However, that is exactly what the Wolf Pack is there for; to develop players and get them ready for the Rangers whenever they need them.
Still, you'd prefer to see the kids in the farm system learning how to win and playing on a successful team. Having a few veteran guys on the team, especially NHL veterans, is never a bad thing. However, if a large portion of the roster is made out of demoted role players and/or guys who are called up from the ECHL to simply fill a jersey and a roster spot, it's a very poor recipe for the successful development of valuable prospects. In short, you want your AHL affiliate to be a competitive, complete team that can successfully execute the system of the NHL head coach and prepare prospects for the rigors and challenges of the NHL game. Last year's Wolf Pack roster simply wasn't good enough to be a successful hockey club in the AHL.
And this offseason the Rangers addressed that problem head on.
Note: Listed above are players who were once or are now under contract with the Rangers, this list does not include players signed by the Hartford Wolf Pack.
As you can see, a great many of the Rangers' offseason moves were made to improve the quality of their AHL affiliate. This included acquiring some players who have had a lot of success at the AHL-level including Cedrick Desjardins, Chris Mueller, Chris Bourque, and Matt Hunwick. If nothing else, the Wolf Pack should be looking at some significantly improved scoring depth and some much better goaltending from what they had in the 2013-14 season. The Wolf Pack are also going to be getting some new faces on the blue line including free agent signings Mat Bodie and Peter Zamorsky (it is speculated that Zamorsky has a deal in place to play in Europe if he doesn't make the Rangers out of training camp).
Although there are still some concerns about center depth with the Wolf Pack (the addition of Mueller is a big help), the depth at both wings and at the blue line is very encouraging. One of the group of new defenders- Mike Kostka, Matt Hunwick, and Steven Kampfer will make the Rangers' roster as the seventh defenseman (or perhaps challenge John Moore for the sixth spot), and the other two will join the Wolf Pack. Having NHL bodies on the blue line in the AHL is a pretty big deal and it will likely be a great influence on the Rangers' two best defensive prospects that are currently in the AHL- Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath.
Having a true AHL starter like Cedrick Desjardins is a huge deal for a team that was a hot mess with goaltending last season. You can read what I wrote about the Desjardins signing here.
The Wolf Pack will have the Bourque brothers, Ryan Haggerty, Danny Kristo, Marek Hrivik, Andrew Yogan and potentially Jesper Fast to give the team some bite on the wings (you can read more about Danny Kristo and the big season he needs to have HERE). It's likely that Fast will be up with the Rangers at some point (and perhaps even make the roster out of training camp) but it is hard to imagine him not spending some time with the Wolf Pack. With Mueller and Lindberg as the first and second line centers on the team, the Wolf Pack's top six looks a lot more imposing than it did a season ago, especially after the departure of J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider. The Wolf Pack will also have veterans Nick Tarnasky and Ryan Potulny (signed a deal with Hartford) to add some more depth and energy into the bottom six.
Although most of the guys in Hartford are guys that will likely never get promoted to a regular role in the NHL, the Wolf Pack roster now looks like one that can have some success at the AHL level. A lot of people might debate how important it is to have a successful affiliate team in the AHL but there's no escaping the fact that you want your prospects to experience success and a playoff atmosphere at the professional level before they are tested on the big stage in the NHL. You want them to play with talented and competitive players like Chris Mueller and Chris Bourque. You want them to see what it takes to be a pro on and off the ice. The right group of veterans mixed with the right group of promising kids and prospects is what makes a great AHL team great. Let's just hope that the Wolf Pack have taken a step towards that goal with the additions to the club this offseason.
Let me know what you guys think in the offseason- do you envision a better year for the Wolf Pack? Will we be seeing Dylan McIlrath in the NHL at some point this season? Does Kristo have the tools to play in the NHL? Does Conor Allen get enough attention? Are you happy with Desjardins as the guy who is third on the depth chart in case Hank or Cam Talbot goes down with an injury?
Let's go Rangers.