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Blue line storylines from the Pack

A look at three defensemen who are having solid seasons in Hartford

New York Rangers v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New York Rangers season isn’t the only 2018-19 campaign that’s halfway over. This season, the Hartford Wolf Pack were expected to improve from their 34-33-9 record from 2017-18. Thus far, the Wolf Pack are 17-16-4 in head coach Keith McCambridge’s second year behind the bench. That record places the Wolf Pack in sixth place in the Atlantic Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference.

A few weeks ago Blueshirt Banter’s own Adam Herman sparked a great deal of discussion and debate with a piece he wrote about Libor Hajek. Today, we’re going to look at three more Hartford Wolf Pack defensemen and discuss what they’ve done in the first half of the season.

Chris Bigras

One silver lining of the Wolf Pack’s rocky season has been the play of 23 year-old defenseman Chris Bigras. Bigras was acquired by the Rangers on Feb. 26, 2018 in exchange for Ryan Graves who recently scored a goal against his former team. Bigras may not have had a taste of NHL action this year, but he has already set a new personal best for points and primary assists recorded at 5v5 in an AHL season.

Bigras has found a way to build off of the impressive 13 points he picked up in 18 games in Hartford last season after he joined the team from the San Antonio Rampage. Through 37 games this year, the former first round pick has 19 points, 14 of which have come at 5v5. He’s also fourth among the Wolf Pack’s skaters in 5v5 primary points.

New Jersey Devils v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

According to, Bigras is leading the Wolf Pack with an average eTOI* (estimated ice time) of 16.91 at 5v5. His 26.54 relative goals for percentage is the best on the team and is a clear outlier from the rest of the Wolf Pack’s defense. Before recently being released by the team, Vince Pedrie’s 9.15 Rel GF% was the second-highest among Hartford’s blueliners.

Per Jeff Craig’s AHL Tracker, Bigras has been paired with Rob O’Gara for 50 percent of the even strength goal events he’s been on the ice for. After O’Gara, Bigras’ most frequent partner — if we are measuring by goal events — has been Hajek at 32.1 percent. Seven of the eight points that O’Gara has picked up at 5v5 this season have been secondary assists, which one could infer as evidence in support of Bigras’ value to the Wolf Pack’s top pair.

Naturally, some of Bigras’ production is tied to the fact that he has spent a lot of time on the ice with Peter Holland who is one of the AHL’s top players. That adds some context to Bigras’s impressive 64.91 5v5 GF%, but it shouldn’t take too much away from how solid he has been as the Wolf Pack’s top defenseman. It’s also worth noting that Bigras is 23, and only half a year older than Neal Pionk.

*= For those who are curious about eTOI and the methodology behind it, check out Hayden Speak’s post on the stat.

John Gilmour

Gilmour was recently named to his second AHL All-Star Game where he will be looking to defend his title as the AHL’s Fastest Skater.

This is a big year for Gilmour. He played 28 games with the Rangers last season and is reaching the end of his window to prove that he’s more than an AHL-caliber player. However, most would agree that at 25, the odds are already stacked against Gilmour

Through 37 games, Gilmour is averaging 2.34 shots per game, which has made him the seventh-highest volume shooting defenseman in the AHL. He’s also tied for third among all AHL defensemen in primary points (all strengths) and has already hit 10 goals this season — five of which have come on the power play.

The fleet-footed defenseman has broken even in terms of goal differential at 5v5, which is encouraging. Gilmour is also on pace to shatter his previous high for points in AHL season. Going by goal events, his most frequent partner at even strength this season is rookie Ryan Lindgren. Lindgren has five assists, 39 PIM, and 23 shots this season. One has to wonder if Gilmour’s goal differential would look change if he had a different partner through the first half of the season.

Brandon Crawley

Crawley, 21, is in his second year of AHL hockey and has already blown his rookie performance with the Wolf Pack out of the water. Through 27 games this year — Crawley missed Hartford’s first five games with an injury he sustained at the Rangers training camp — the former fourth round pick of the 2017 Draft has picked up 12 points. Last year he scored just five points in 64 games with Hartford after making the jump from the OHL to the AHL.

Coming out of college, Crawley was billed as a physical defensive defenseman who was making significant strides in his play with the puck. He’s playing a bigger role this season for Hartford and — judging by goal events he has been on the ice for — he has most frequently been paired with Libor Hajek. Although, recently, he was scratched in favor of Sean Day. When he is in the lineup, he definitely brings a noteworthy physical presence for a 6-foot-1 defenseman.

The fact that Crawley has the worst 5v5 goal differential (-9) on Hartford’s blue line is discouraging, but it isn’t altogether surprising considering how young of a pairing he and Hajek are. It’s also important to recognize the strides he has taken this year in regards to his production. Crawley has the best primary scoring rate among Wolf Pack blueliners and already has six primary assists at 5v5 this year. As it turns out, Crawley is also tied for 13th among AHL defensemen in 5v5 primary assists. That’s pretty impressive considering the time that he’s missed and the role that he is expected to fill in Hartford.

Crawley wasn’t a popular pick among many fans and analysts, but he’s undoubtedly grown this season. He’s still tough as nails, but is also finding a way to add more offense to his game which could make Lindgren a valuable player to compare and contrast him to. As the Wolf Pack season marches on, it will be interesting to see if he can keep this level of production up.

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