The Hartford Wolf Pack finished 2017-18 with a record of 34-33-9. First year head coach Keith McCambridge and his team missed the playoffs by 11 points, but that result means very little without the appropriate context.
Remember, the Wolf Pack finished last in the AHL last season with a record of 24-46-6. McCambridge and Hartford general manager Chris Drury found a way to win 10 more games this year while dealing with a major roster overhaul, the frequent loss of players to NHL call-ups, and some chaos in the goal crease. One could argue that the Wolf Pack’s record of 34-33-9 this year was a tremendous success.
Today we’re going to focus on the final 18 games of the Wolf Pack’s season — the games that the team played after the NHL’s February 28 deadline. In that span Hartford averaged 2.89 goals for per game while surrendering an average of 3.5 goals against per game. As damning as those numbers may appear to be, McCambridge’s club managed to go 8-8-2 in the last 16 games of the regular season. Here are some of the skaters who stood out in the last chapter of the AHL season.
Chris Bigras, Defenseman
Chris Bigras joined the Wolf Pack on deadline day as a result of Jeff Gorton dealing Ryan Graves to the Colorado Avalanche.
The change in scenery brought out the best in Bigras. In 18 games with the Wolf Pack he put up 13 points from the blue line; nine more points than Hartford’s second-highest scoring defender in that span. So, yeah, he made a pretty big difference. It’s also important to note that he had six points in 20 games with San Antonio before being traded.
Contract Status: Bigras will be a 23-year-old RFA on July 1.
Bigras is a smart left-handed defenseman. Next season he will either be a mainstay in Hartford’s top four or will be doing everything he can to earn a spot on the Rangers’ bottom line. The former scenario is far more likely than the latter, but Bigras did a fine job standing out on the Wolf Pack’s devastated blue line at the close of the season. The Rangers’ front office definitely took notice.
Cole Schneider, Forward
Cole Schneider was one of the proven AHL producers that Gorton added to the Rangers’ farm team in the 2017 offseason. Schneider’s production dipped this year, but he still did exactly what he was expected to do for Hartford. The New York native led the Wolf Pack in scoring with 50 points in 76 games.
In the final 18 games of the season Schneider took his game to another level. He led the team in scoring by a wide margin with his 17 points — 12 of which were primary — in that span. Five of those points came on the power play.
Contract Status: Schneider is 27-years-old and is signed through 2018-19 (UFA).
Schneider is a career-AHLer that will continue to provide offense and some leadership in Hartford next season.
Vinni Lettieri, Forward
Vinni Lettieri had an eventful 2017-18. In his first full year as a pro Lettieri put up four points in 19 NHL games, led the Wolf Pack in goals (23 in 55 GP), and got into a fight with his teammate Brendan Smith that resulted in Smith’s season ending prematurely. Yep. That happened.
In the final 18 games of the AHL season Lettieri led the Wolf Pack in primary points (13) and goals (nine). He put up 11 of his primary points — seven of which were goals — at even strength in the final chapter of the 2017-18 AHL season. The undersized rookie embraced his role as a driver of Hartford’s offense with enthusiasm. Lettieri averaged 2.78 shots per game in the last 18 games after averaging 2.49 shots per game in the first 37 games of the AHL season.
Contract Status: Lettieri is signed through 2018-19 (RFA). He’s 23-years-old.
Will Lettieri make the 2018-19 Rangers roster? There’s no way to know until we actually know, but one has to imagine that he will be given every opportunity to battle for a spot in New York’s bottom-six. If he’s not playing for the Rangers, he will again be a difference maker in Hartford.
Cristoval Nieves’ 21 points in 40 games this season with the Wolf Pack wasn’t much of an improvement on the 18 points he had in 40 games last season. But the New York native was a key cog in the machine for Hartford. The two-way center killed penalties and provided depth scoring for the Wolf Pack in his second full AHL season. He also put up nine points in 28 games with the Rangers this year.
In the final 18 games of the Wolf Pack’s season Nieves played 16 games and put up 10 points, including two power play goals and a shorthanded goal. He finished the year with five points in his last six games and was one of the team’s difference makers at even strength.
Contract Status: Nieves will be a 24-year-old restricted free agent on July 1.
Can Nieves be an NHL fourth liner? We will never know unless he gets another chance. It’s important to remember that Nieves has played just 88 career AHL games and 29 career NHL games. He has earned another year in the organization.