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Three Takeaways from the 2021 Wolf Pack Season

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Let’s talk Hartford

NHL: New York Rangers at Boston Bruins Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 AHL season was unlike any other and that was especially true for the three teams in the Atlantic Division, one of which was the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Hartford finished a 24-game season with a record of 14-9-1, which was good for second in the Atlantic Division behind Providence — the Bruins went 15-6-4. You might notice that the Bruins played one more game than the Wolf Pack, that’s because there was a postponed game between Hartford and Bridgeport that was never rescheduled.

So, what can we learn from an unprecedented AHL season like this? Well, whatever conclusions we draw about the team and the players that are most relevant to the future of the Rangers come bedazzled with asterisks. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from this 24-game sample of AHL hockey. Let’s dive in.


Morgan Barron is the real deal

Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way, shall we?

Barron had 21 points in 21 games to lead the Wolf Pack in scoring before he was called up the Rangers at the tail end of the 2020-21 season. What stands out the most to me from his rookie season in Hartford is that he finished second on the team in Rel EV GF% (21.21) — behind Johnny Brodzinski — and that 17 of his 21 points were primary. In other words, he played a massive role in Hartford’s offense.

He was one of five rookies in the AHL this year who averaged at least 1.0 Pts/GP. Remember, this Hartford team looked very different this year. In addition to being without Igor Shesterkin, the Wolf Pack also lost their three highest-scoring forwards from last year — Vinni Lettieri, Danny O’Regan, and Steven Fogarty. There was a vacuum that needed to be filled and Barron, Tim Gettinger, Jonny Brodzinski, and Ty Ronning did that.

In many ways, Barron was everything the Rangers were hoping he’d be in his first season of pro hockey after three great years Cornell. He may not be the most coveted prospect in the pool but he is showing he has at least some of the tools to be a middle-six winger at the NHL level. That makes him an absolute home run as the 174th pick of the 2016 Draft.

Tarmo Reunanen exceeded expectations

Like Barron, Reunanen isn’t an top-tier prospect but that doesn’t mean the NHL isn’t in his future. Many have him pegged as an expendable prospect, especially after he failed to impress after being called up to the Rangers at the end of the season. But let’s turn our focus to what he did in Hartford that had people buzzing about him before he made his NHL debut.

Reunanen was the Wolf Pack’s most impactful defenseman this year, especially in the offensive zone. He led all blueliners on the team in scoring with 17 points in 21 games. Two of his four goals were scored on the power play and eight of his 13 assists were primary and, per pick224’s data, he had an eTOI/GP of 21.29 — the heaviest workload on the team. However, he was almost never used on the penalty kill. That is definitely a red flag when it comes to how the coaching staff perceived his play in his own zone.

Philadelphia Flyers v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

The Finnish defenseman isn’t a kid; he’ll be 24 next March — but this was still his first season playing pro hockey in North America. Overall, Reunanen looked really comfortable handling the puck at this level. He consistently made great decisions with the puck, especially in the offensive zone, and finished the season with two minor penalties in 21 games. That, too, is an encouraging sign for a guy adapting to a more physical league.

There is work to be done with his play in his own end but Reunanen has definitely kept the window open to a future in the NHL with his play this year. He’s a talented puck-carrier and passer and every team needs defensive prospects with those tools in their system.

Goaltending woes

The Wolf Pack had a winning record and, generally speaking, a successful year, but goaltending wasn’t one of the team’s strengths. In fact, it may have been the team’s greatest weakness.

Adam Huska led the pack with 734:06 minutes played and earned nine of the club’s 14 wins. He had a .890 Sv% and a 2.70 GAA against an average workload of 24.44 SA60. Those numbers are hardly inspiring but they are a clear cut-above the numbers that rookie netminder Tyler Wall posted — an .856 Sv% and a 3.58 GAA against a workload of 26.65 SA60 in 502:09.

To be clear, goals against average is a really poor tool to evaluate goaltenders. You could make a similar argument for save percentage when it is presented without context. Unfortunately, the public data we have for goaltenders in the AHL is definitely underwhelming. So, we have to make due with what we have. Fortunately, I am familiar with this process because of my coverage of the women’s game where data is even scarcer.

What we do know is that the Wolf Pack had the second-best penalty kill in the division and their 81.9 percent success rate was middle of the pack in the league. So this wasn’t a case of them getting lit up while shorthanded in a short season. We also know that the Wolf Pack finished the year with an average shot differential (all strengths) of +4.83 SOG/GP. That indicates they averaged more shots on goal but it tells us nothing about the battle of quantity vs. quality and what Huska, Wall, Keith Kinkaid, and Dylan Garland had to face.

NHL: JUN 29 Rangers Prospect Development Camp Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With all of that said, it’s clear that Wall had some trouble adjusting to the pro game. He finished his collegiate career at UMass-Lowell with a .918 Sv% and a record of 58-34-10. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt here because of how unprecedented this season was. He made 10 appearances and posted a save percentage above .910 in just two of those. Chances are, he got to spend less time with the Rangers’ resident goalie guru than he would have liked because of protocols. It also takes goalies longer to develop because goaltending at the pro level is incredibly difficult.

Does this mean the Rangers should be concerned about their goalies in the AHL? Well, again, this was a really goofy year. Huska is a pending RFA who is sure to get qualified because he was the best of the bunch and Wall has another year left on his ELC. There’s a chance that Chris Drury might look into adding a veteran in the mix in Hartford but, as a whole, the defense should improve as it develops and that should help the guys in net.

Data courtesy pick224.com, theahl.com, and EliteProspects.com.