Garth Murray

Packing It In

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.

Forwards
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.

Defense
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 last season.

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 defenders.

Finally the new additions of Eberly, Rawlyk and MacIntyre may find themselves in a tough battle to gain spots on the Hartford roster.

Goaltending
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 Holmqvist.

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 establish themselves.

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