There is a lot of buzz surrounding the 2019-20 New York Rangers, but they aren’t the only team in the organization that underwent major changes over the summer.
The Hartford Wolf Pack enter the 2019-20 season with a new coaching staff, a cabal of new veterans and role players, and, most importantly, some highly-skilled rookies. Furthermore, the team’s most valuable player from last season, John Gilmour, is gone. Gilmour signed with the Buffalo Sabres on a much-earned one-year, one-way contract. One way or another, this Wolf Pack team is going to look very different from the one we saw last season.
There’s a prime opportunity for both new faces and returning players like Vinni Lettieri and Steven Fogarty to carve out bigger roles for themselves as a result of the Wolf Pack’s roster overhaul. Head coach Kris Knoblauch is heading into Hartford’s training camp with far fewer biases than we’d see clinging to a coach in his second or third year at the helm. It’s a pretty level playing field.
We asked Blueshirt Banter’s contributors to select the player who was most likely to finish the year as Hartford’s MVP and to pick the player who was most likely to finish as the runner-up. Here are the three players we expect to carry the torch for the new-look Wolf Pack.
We had nine contributors submit votes for this roundtable story; six of them picked Shesterkin as their MVP. Traverse City Shmraverse City.
Before anyone starts to hit the panic button about CBJ scoring 5 goals on Shesterkin in <30 mins, this is one game in a prospect tournament with limited structured play. He's still the goalie who posted a .935 Sv% in 6542:35 of KHL regular season hockey.— Mike Murphy (@DigDeepBSB) September 6, 2019
Shesterkin, 23, is widely considered one of the top goaltending prospects in the world as a result of his excellence in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg over the last four years. And while it’s true that Shesterkin definitely benefited from playing behind an elite team, he has elite-level quickness and will be working with famed goalie guru Benoit Allaire. Think of Shesterkin as a particularly brilliant clump of clay that is being placed in the hands of the world’s best sculptor and you’ll begin to understand why so many are expecting big things out of the Russian.
“Henrik Lundqvist is my idol since I was a little boy, so I very much look forward to seeing him on the ice and learning what he does on the ice,” Shesterkin told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen in July. “Playing with him someday on the same team, obviously there is some work to be done in that regard.”
Last season, the Wolf Pack’s goalies struggled behind the team’s slapdash defense. Marek Mazanec’s .903 save percentage was the best on the team among goalies who appeared in more than two games. The good news for Shesterkin is that this year’s blue line looks much improved.
Rookies Yegor Rykov and Tarmo Reunanen should both make an immediate impact as a result of their experience in the KHL and Liiga, respectively. There are also more veterans in the mix on Hartford’s blue line, including Zach Tolkinen, Vince LoVerde, and Jeff Taylor. At the moment, it’s hard to say how the roles and pairings are going to shake out. Associate head coach Gord Murphy — who ran the Philadelphia Flyers’ defense for four-and-a-half seasons — will definitely have a say in that.
Shesterkin will have to adjust to the North American ice surface and adjust to the language barrier, but that could be less of a problem for goalies due to the often solitary nature of the position. Much like it was an overreaction by some to sweat over his boxcar stats in the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, it would be an overreaction to break the glass and hit the panic button if he stumbles out of the gate.
The Wolf Pack are going to go through some growing pains — which could become exacerbated by Tony DeAngelo’s holdout — and Shesterkin is already under the spotlight because he’s already been tabbed as the successor to Henrik Lundqvist. How he manages that noise while adjusting to the AHL game and his new team will be a big story this year. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Lettieri, 24, is coming off of a 23-goal, 25-assist season for the Wolf Pack in which he played in 48 games. It’s unlikely that the Minnesota native and Golden Gopher alumni will establish himself as a scoring threat at the NHL level, but Lettieri has undoubtedly earned that title in the AHL.
Last season, Lettieri finished second on the Wolf Pack in primary points per-game (0.71), behind only Peter Holland (0.83). His 3.79 SOG/GP also led the team by a wide margin, which is likely why the Wolf Pack’s offense seemed to wither when he was up with the Rangers. What kind of impact he makes this season will be directly tied to how much of the year he spends in Connecticut and, of course, the players he’s on the ice.
Last year, Steven Fogarty was on the ice for 50.8 percent of the Wolf Pack’s even strength goals that Lettieri was on the ice for; Ryan Gropp was a distant second at 33.8 percent.
“You kind of do have to be selfish, in a way,” Lettieri told theAHL.com in an interview last March, “because you can’t have three passers on a line, and then you can’t have three shooters on a line. So that’s when it comes down to the coaching staff putting guys together that fit well. [Gropp] will take his shots when he can, but he has that speed, and he can really break out of zones and help move the puck. And then you have [Fogarty], who’s an unbelievable puck-handler and usually finds me quite a bit. He’s usually thinking pass to me before he shoots, which is very unselfish, but that’s just the kind of guy he is, on and off the ice.”
The scrappy, undersized volume-shooting forward led the Wolf Pack in goals in his rookie season in 2017-18 and put up the same number of goals in seven fewer games last year. Newcomers to Hartford including Danny O’Regan and Ryan Dmowski should help give the team a better attack this year, but are unlikely to usurp Lettieri’s role as the Wolf Pack’s de facto triggerman.
Rykov finished just one vote behind Lettieri as the team’s projected MVP by Banter’s contributors. Like Shesterkin, this will be his first year playing hockey in North America. But, also like Shesterkin, he joins the Wolf Pack after accumulating some valuable experience in the KHL.
Rykov averaged 19:24 TOI/GP for HC Sochi last season, which ranked second on the team behind former NHL blueliner Jyrki Jokipakka. That was a big step up from the 12:33 TOI/GP he averaged with SKA in 2017-18, so it was a little alarming to see him finish the year with just three goals and six assists. Although, it’s worth mentioning that all three of his goals were scored at evens. He also had three assists in six games in the KHL postseason.
That lack of production seems to be the primary reason why The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked him as the Rangers’ 18th best prospect in the farm system. However, Banter’s own Adam Herman ranked Rykov as the team’s ninth-best prospect. Herman admits that Rykov isn’t a “sexy” player, but points out that there’s still a lot to like.
It’s important to point out that Rykov played for a team that finished 14th in scoring and had the 16th-best power play in the KHL last year. That’s quite a different experience than playing in a depth role for SKA. With all of that being said, it would have been nice to see him produce a bit more last year.
Rykov looked solid and composed at Traverse City, which was a good sign considering how many defensive breakdowns spoiled games for the Rangers’ prospects. He should log heavy minutes with the Wolf Pack this year because of the experience he brings to the table and his potential to develop into a solid NHL player. It goes without saying that he comes from a different mold than Gilmour, but he could still provide a valuable stabilizing presence to the blue line.
Other players who received votes for Hartford’s 2019-20 projected MVP or MVP runner-up were: Steven Fogarty, Vitali Kravtsov, and Lias Andersson.