It has become a little bit of a Hartford tradition under
the tenure of Rangers General Manager Glen Sather...out with the old and in with
the new, and this off-season is certainly no different. While Neil Smith
was loyal to a handful of veteran players, Sather has preferred instead to use
the Pack as a testing ground for almost anyone and everyone. The AHL
club's ability to succeed was further put to the test last year with an
inordinate number of injuries, call-ups and trades that lead to an impressive
total of 18 players dressing on the blueline during the year, including veteran
forward and Hartford captain, Ken Gernander.
Although things are expected to be a little calmer this
year, there has still been a significant number of moves this off-season that
look to shape the team as the summer winds down. Gone are veteran forwards
Nils Ekman (trade), Roman Lyashenko (passed away), Dixon Ward (free agent) and
John Tripp (free agent), who together accounted for 102 of the team's 255 total
goals scored. Another 59 goals were scored by players who were either
moved during last season or have left since the disappointing first round exit
in the playoffs.
In their place are a number of new faces, and we take a
look at who might be worth looking at in the coming year both in Hartford and
perhaps in New York.
Leading the way for the Wolf Pack this year will undoubtedly be the trio of
Cory Larose, Paul Healey and Ken Gernander (it is believed the Rangers exercised
their contract option). The three veterans will be called upon to provide
the bulk of the scoring in the upcoming season with Healey providing some depth
for the Rangers in the event of injuries. Joining the veterans will be
newcomers Chad Wiseman (trade), Jed Ortmeyer (free agent) and late 2002-03
season additions Jurij Stals and Lucas Lawson. It is unclear how much
scoring will come from the four young forwards, although newly appointed
Hartford GM Jim Schoenfeld will be hoping that McGill and Fotiu can find some
diamonds in the rough.
Returning from last year along with Larose and Gernander,
will be Layne Ulmer, Bobby Andrews, Benoit Dusablon, Garth Murray and Richard
Scott (who re-signed over the summer). Murray in particularly will be
looking to put last year's injury plagued season behind him and re-establish
himself as a legitimate NHL prospect. Scott too will be looking to build
on his return from injury last year and may find himself with a few games with
the parent club if his services are required.
The Rangers will also be hoping they can sign Harvard
stand out Dominic Moore to a professional contract, an addition that would help
balance a forward corps that appears to lack scoring punch. On the
defensive side, the veteran duo of Gernander and Healey could be joined by
Murray, Ortmeyer and perhaps Wiseman and Lawson too.
Forwards to Watch
The player of course to watch will be Dominic Moore, a free scoring center
at Harvard, he most certainly has the skills to be successful. The
question marks over Moore are whether he will be signed in time to attend
training camp and perhaps the pre-season, as well as his ability to adjust to
the professional game. In particular it will be interesting to see if the
high scoring forward can adjust to the increased speed and traffic he will see
in the AHL.
As mentioned previously, Richard Scott will be looking to
re-establish himself as a legitimate NHL option again. Scott played five
games with the Rangers in 2001-02 before having a season ending injury that
prevented him from attending camp in 2002. Murray too needs to establish
himself after a disappointing and injury filled year and looks far from being an
NHL prospect at this stage of his career.
Finally the trio of Ortmeyer, Lawson and Stals will
provide some interest, if for no other sake than they are all relatively new to
the team. Ortmeyer and Lawson finished up their NCAA careers and look to
establish themselves as hard working two-way forwards and perhaps a shot at a
call-up to the NHL, while the Latvian born Stals is a relative unknown Ranger
draft pick who finished his junior career late last season and joined the Pack
for a handful of games.
At the very least it looks as if there will be plenty of
competition in camp.
As mentioned previously, Hartford's defense was often times a disaster
area in 2002-03. Injuries, trades and call-ups to New York decimated the
blueliner corps and lead to numerous combinations and variable
consistency. With Chebaturkin (free agent), Karpa (free agent) and Wilson
(bought out?) gone, the defense will take on a somewhat younger feel in the
upcoming season...but younger doesn't necessarily mean worse.
Returning from last year will be Lawrence Nycholat, Matt
Kinch, Pat Aufiero, Bryce Lampman, Jeff State, Dean Arsene and Craig
Weller. A number of those players will more than likely find themselves in
Charlotte, especially with the additions of Fedor Tjutin, Dan Eberly, Rory
Rawlyk and Steven MacIntyre to the club.
It appears likely at this stage that Nycholat, Tjutin,
Kinch and Lampman will form the core with potential for almost any of the
remaining players to stake their claim for the final one or two starting spots.
Defensemen to watch
The player of course on everyone's minds is Fedor
Tjutin. The gifted defenseman had a difficult year in Russia and still
needs work according to Rangers Assistant GM, Don Maloney. Beyond Tjutin
the focus will most likely be on Bryce Lampman who started his professional
career last season with a quiet but steady introduction to the AHL.
Lampman will be looking to continue his progression with more steady play and
perhaps an increased focus on his offensive ability which was curtailed somewhat
Another to watch might be Lawrence Nycholat, who at the
age of 24 looks to be the oldest defenseman on the roster. Nycholat who
was acquired in the trade that sent goaltender Johan Holmqvist to Houston, had a
breakout season last year and looked the most confident of all the Hartford
Finally the new additions of Eberly, Rawlyk and MacIntyre
may find themselves in a tough battle to gain spots on the Hartford roster.
With Johan Holmqvist gone to Houston in a trade last season along with
the trade for Jussi Markkanen, the Rangers have freed up space for Dan Blackburn
to play in Hartford. Blackburn, who has seen inconsistent ice time with
the Rangers, has struggled after a promising start and could use the extra
playing time he would receive in the AHL. Sharing responsibilities with
Blackburn will most likely be Jason Labarbera (yet to re-sign at the time of
writing) who finished last season strongly, allowing the Rangers to move
Scott Meyer's brief stint with the team appears to be
finished after a disappointing sophomore season and the future of the other
netminders in the system (Wandler, Snee and Sunberg) appears to remain with the
ECHL and beyond.
The one wildcard may be Henrik Lundqvist who is attending
the Rangers prospect camp for the first time. The Swedish goalie put up
impressive numbers in the Swedish Elite League last season and finished with an
impressive 1.45 goals against average and a save percentage of .948 with Västra
Frölunda. Still it may be too soon for the 20 year old netminder to make
the move, and with the number of goaltenders in front of him, it would appear
that another year in Europe is on the cards.
Goaltenders to watch
Without a doubt the main focus will be on whether Blackburn can re-establish
himself in Hartford. The 20 year old netminder may very well find it tough
going behind an inexperienced squad, but the key will be how he reacts to the
increased playing time and potential tough times with the Pack.
Overall it appears that the Wolf Pack will
once again find it difficult to establish any sort of consistency during the
season. But with the focus on building towards an NHL career, the team
appears to be better positioned to give younger players the opportunity to