While the New York Rangers have been a thrilling team in recent seasons, the Hartford Wolfpack, their AHL squad, has quietly been worth watching as well.
New York reached the Eastern Conference Finals three times in four season, thanks in part to various Wolfpack alums. Dan Girardi and J.T. Miller each played 100 games for both the Rangers and Wolfpack, while Jesper Fast, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei, and Marc Staal all spent time with the Rangers AHL team.
Traditionally, New York hasn’t had any reservations about sending their top talents to the AHL for seasoning, making the Hartford Wolfpack an exciting team to watch on an annual basis.
Last season the Wolfpack took a step back, going from an Eastern Conference Final berth to missing the playoffs altogether. Heading into the 2016-17 campaign, however, the Wolfpack will have a transformed roster that should open some eyes.
They will likely lose Brady Skjei for good, but otherwise, few players that are expected to graduate just yet. Leading scorers Chad Nehring and Jayson Megna have left for other organizations, but they were veterans unlikely to crack the NHL roster. Left are the youngsters, the players that are truly worth watching on the Hartford Wolfpack, including the returning team captain, Mat Bodie.
Starting on defense, Hartford will host Bodie, nearly-NHL ready prospect Ryan Graves, recent third round pick Sergey Zborovskiy, recent signing John Gilmour, and long-time Wolfpack Tommy Hughes.
The rest of the defense will be filled out by developing prospects or fringe-NHL veterans, but the inclusion of Bodie, Graves, and Zborovskiy is significant.
Bodie looked impressive in his first season in the AHL, moving from just another NCAA signing to a potential helper for the Rangers this upcoming season. Graves opened many eyes last season, winning the hardest shot competition in the AHL All-Star Skills Competition, scoring 21 points, and earning further coverage as a legitimate NHL prospect. From Sean Hartnett:
[Graves’] time could come soon. On Tuesday, Rangers director of player personnel Gordie Clark stated that he thinks Graves could push for an NHL roster spot out of training camp. Graves will be a player to watch during the preseason and is hoping to follow in Skjei’s footsteps.
As for Zborovskiy, the 2015 third round selection will get his first taste of pro hockey this season. He wasn’t the highest-touted selection in the draft, nor has he shined much in his junior career, but carrying the expectations of a third round pick, the Russian defenseman will be worth keeping an eye on.
John Gilmour didn’t set the AHL on fire, but as a puck-moving, speedy defenseman, he has some potential to add some firepower to the Wolfpack’s defense. At age 23 Gilmour is less of a project and more of a hopeful candidate to step his game up.
Up front, the Wolfpack will have a new look, too. Although Nicklas Jensen, Boo Nieves, and Adam Tambellini will likely return as top forwards, New York has plenty of new blood in the mix.
Michael Joly and Ahti Oskanen have been added. Also in are Adam Chapie, Ryan Gropp, Robin Kovacs, and Malte Stromwall. Chapie will likely be no more than a depth forward, but his defensive game allows for some optimism about his ability to help the Wolfpack’s bottom six.
Gropp, Kovacs, and Stromwall is where things get most interesting. Gropp and Kovacs were drafted in the second and third rounds of the 2015 NHL Draft and immediately impressed in their respective leagues. Moving quickly through juniors and into pro hockey, each will be playing for the Wolfpack for the first time in the 2016-17 campaign.
Both Gropp and Kovacs are projected to be NHL players, but the pair will likely need months if not an entire season in the AHL to be NHL-ready. This means they will have time to develop their respective games in the AHL, making the Wolfpack’s top six fascinating to watch. Stromwall was a teammate of Kovacs in 2015, likely placing the pair on the same line in 2016-17. Stromwall isn’t as highly rated, but as a speedy skater with the ability to put up some points, he cannot be overlooked as a potential future NHL player himself.
In net, Magnus Hellberg and Mackenzie Skapski will be the options for the Wolfpack. Hellberg’s ceiling is expected to be as backup in the NHL, but would likely be the first man called up should Henrik Lundqvist or Antti Raanta suffer an injury.
Skapski, best known for starting his NHL career with two wins against the Buffalo Sabres, will look to have a bounce-back season after spending parts of last season in the ECHL. Now healthy, Skapski will look to prove he belongs in the AHL and eventually the NHL, as he was once a top goaltending prospect for the Rangers. The Wolfpack will still boast a couple of NHL-ready goaltenders, something that can’t be said for most AHL teams.
Stay tuned, the Hartford Wolfpack season should be a lot of fun to watch.