CANTLON’S CORNER: Wolf Pack Season Review
BY: Gerry Cantlon, Howlings
HARTFORD, CT – The sticks, gloves, jerseys, and pucks are all now packed away for the Hartford Wolf Pack. It’s now the fourth spring of the last five where there will be no post-season to prepare for as the Pack, once the standard-bearer for their consecutive playoff appearances, twelve straight, now seems like a distant memory.
On the plus side of things, this year’s squad finished with 23 points more than last year’s, franchise-worst, dead last place team in the AHL. This edition finished one game over .500 at 36-35-6-3 and used 51 players in total t get them there.
“I think we established the culture we wanted. We played at a faster pace. We got the direction we wanted in a leadership group. The progression and direction I’m proud of. It was important to get old, bad habits, out of their collective games, and that takes time between the players and coaches. Gotta help to learn to be a pro, every player is different where they’re at,” Keith McCambridge said upon the completion of his first season as the Wolf Pack’s sixth head coach.
If you look into the numbers, it was still a 50/50 season. The downside 50 saw all too familiar issues that have cropped up the last three straight years.
Of the 34 game’s in which the Pack received points, 25 of them were regular or overtime wins (ROW). Seven of the extra W’s came during the 3-on-3 (OTW) session. Six were lost during that extra time (OTL). Twelve games went beyond OT to the shootout. In the post-OT skills competition, the team went 9 (SOW) – 3 (SOL).
The team displayed a clear penchant for not finishing off teams when they had the lead as they have for the past three seasons. While playing with a lead after two periods, the Pack went 21-2-2-0. When they trailed after two, the team put up a dismal, 4-27-7-1-0.
On the plus side of the ledger, their penalty kill at home was number one in the AHL at 88.2% while on the road, they struggled at 22nd with an 80.5% success rate.
Also on the plus side was their strong record against one of the league’s best, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms who then went 6-0-0-0. Against the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins, they were 3-1-1-1. When playing the Providence Bruins, they were 4-4-1-1. On the other hand, against the non-playoff teams like the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, they were 3-6-1-0. Against the Hershey Bears, one of the team’s worst teams, they were an awful 2-4-0-0. The effort at times against these struggling teams was just plain awful.
During games, the wild levels of inconsistency continued unabated into the last week of the season. The Pack played brilliantly in the last two weeks where they beat the league’s second-best team, Lehigh Valley where they played a good strong team-hockey game. The following night, they fell apart against Springfield, a team who finished below the Pack, but who held a winning record against them 4-6-1-1.
Following that mess, they went to Providence to play the Bruins and the Pack played two awful periods where they generated just 19 shots before more than doubling their game output in the third period alone (21).
This wild inconsistency is what they’ve struggled with as an organization. Even with basically an entirely different team from the season before, too many players are taking nights off while they expect the likes of Vinni Lettieri, Cole Schneider, and Scott Kosmachuk to carry them.
Playing sixty minutes of hockey every three-to-six games, or thereabouts is not a recipe for success. What it does is dig a deep hole which ex[ends excessive energy to trying to get out of. Add in injuries and recalls, it all took their toll on this team.
If the Wolf Pack had either Alex Georgiev and Marek Mazanec in net for the three month stretch from January to March, there’s a good chance we might be talking about a first-round meeting with Lehigh Valley. Without either of them, there was no chance. Chris Nell, Brandon Halverson, Charles Williams, and even Jeff Jakaitis, just couldn’t cut it. It was obvious the organization had no faith in that quartet to carry them.
It would seem that the first order of business for GM, Chris Drury, would be to sign Mazanec when he returns from his Mexican post-season vacation with his family and before he heads back to Slovakia for the summer. He’s earned at least a new one-year, one-way NHL deal to start the season in Hartford. Secure the position with a veteran in place and work on building the rest of the team.
Georgiev will likely be the number two netminder in New York behind Henrik Lundqvist next fall. Ondrej Pavelec will be a UFA and while he was admirable in the role, money would be saved on the cap by promoting Georgiev.
By signing Mazanec, and then allowing Nell and Halverson, who each have one year remaining on their entry-level deals, to battle for the number two spot with the other heading to the team’s new AHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners (ECHL). Moving like that would keep things grounded until UConn’s Adam Huska crosses the hallway from the Huskies’ locker room when their Hockey East season ends in spring 2019.
The Rangers had 13 defensemen at the end of the season within the organization.
John Gilmour is an RFA. Ryan Sproul is a UFA. Neal Pionk, a much-needed right-handed defenseman, makes $925K. Former Pack d-man, Steven Kampfer, has another year at a very cap friendly, $625K. Former Yale defenseman, Rob O’Gara, who was acquired in the Rick Nash deal with the Boston Bruins, is also an RFA. Then, there’s the Brendan Smith issue. Smith has three more years at $4.35 million per. His assignment to Hartford didn’t produce the results the Rangers wanted, and it ended when he broke his right hand and missed the rest of the season. Former Pack, Tony D’Angelo, has another year at $863K.
Gilmour has NHL speed and an NHL-quality shot, but he’s an adventure in his own end. Gilmour dropped his plus-minus in Hartford from a minus-39 to a minus-18.
Sproul likely will not be back. He was good offensively, but rough on the back end.
Tony D’Angelo is similar to Sproul.
These three players, along with Pionk, were the bright side of the Wolf Pack d-corps. They all went to New York during periods of injury and fit as well there as could be expected.
Where the salary cap is pegged to be next season and the expected draft day trades in Dallas in June will determine just how many of those boys return.
As for who will be a definite part of the 2018-19 edition of the team’s defensive corps is pretty clear.
Brandon Crawley will return. Ryan Lindgren will start and play the full year. Newcomers Sean Day and Libor Hajak will arrive. Vince Pedrie will begin the final year of his entry-level deal.
The Pack will need to find a solid veteran to lead them. Chris Bigras, acquired from San Antonio for Ryan Graves, clearly showed he could handle that responsibility. He was solid on both ends of the ice and was effective in moving the puck up and generating shots from the point. He should be signed quickly to solidify the back end of the roster.
Cole Schneider had a team-high 50 points. He will return for the last year of a two year contract at $325K. Schneider was voted by his teammates as the team MVP. He became part of the troika of assistant captains with Scott Kosmachuk, should also be offered a new deal, and Steven Fogarty. That group would help to settle things down.
Fogarty remains a conundrum. While he plays a solid two-way game, his points came too infrequently. He clearly has the skills to play at this level, but he never cracked the top six all season.
Fogarty is strong defensively but his glaring minus-28 makes you gulp. He did show strong leadership this season and has lots to reflect on in the off-season back in Edina, MN.
“It was very disappointing not making the playoffs, but look where we were last year at this point (dead last in the AHL). Finishing as winning team is a big plus. Not to make too many excuses, but we were a very young team this year. We have a lot to look forward to.”
The missed opportunities are magnified when you’re taking your sticks and player bags in the back of the truck for a trek across the US back home stopping off in South Bend, IN.
“We were six points out of a playoff spot at one point, then we had a tough stretch and fell back. Then we put together a strong streak and we had some of those overtime games that we didn’t need, so that makes it more frustrating.”
Whether he is offered a new deal as an RFA is one of many off-season points to watch.
“You never know (about a contract). This is a business, but I want to be back. This is a great organization and there are lots of good things to come, so we’ll see what happens,” Fogarty, who will participate in a hockey camp at Notre Dame again this summer, said.
Gabriel Fontaine, who handled the defensive center duties all season and was voted the team’s 7th Player Award winner, is expecting more next year. “I learned a lot this season,” He said. “It was a big jump from the Q (QMJHL) and I had a lot to learn. I think I grew a lot and hope to handle the puck even more next year.”
Fontaine will return to Sherbrooke, Canada and will begin his off-season training in Greenwich, New York, Northeast of Albany.
Head Coach Keith McCambridge was pleased with Fontaine’s progression.
“It’s tough for a young player to come in to see where they will be slotted. There are so just so many spots. He used his minutes well and really got a strong feel for the game at the AHL level and what we expected of him. By the end of the year, he was given a more expanded role and did well.”
Then there’s Adam Tambellini who’s at the end of his three-year entry-level deal. Does the team re-sign or move on?
Tambellini had a solid second half of the season after being put on the fourth line with Joe Whitney on January 7th. He was one player who got the message while the other did not (and was traded). He’s worthy of a new deal, but after three years and no recalls to the bigs, it would seem like he’s lost his prospect status at least for the New York Rangers organization.
That could all change, however with the impending new coaching regime coming into New York. It’s likely Tambellini is likely to be included in a draft day deal or released to pursue a new deal elsewhere. Cantlon’s Corner can state that at least three teams have interest in his services.
Boo Nieves is an RFA in much the same boat as Tambellini. He could wind up in a trade package.
Whitney was a mistake by Drury. He never seemed to fit in or brought into what the team wanted of him and at $325K price tag, that didn’t sit well. Whitney was benched as a healthy scratch for more than a week (six straight games) before being dealt off to Hershey after an initial deal with Nashville fell through.
The team needs to vet these veteran players better for next season in order to surround the upcoming influx of young players over the next two years. These kids will need solid support and a locker room guide.
THE CAPTAIN’S CURSE
The last three captains of the Pack have all been traded.
At just 40 games, Whitney had the shortest captaincy ever. On this team, being the team captain used to mean something, but not anymore. A core of three players such as the post-Whitney team did, would be best.
Dan Catenacci and John Albert are RFA’s. Likey neither will return. Both will be with another AHL team or head to Europe next season. Matt Beleskey has two more years at $1.9 million per remaining. He’s trade bait or might be a buyout candidate. His time in Hartford was barely recognizable on the playing meter.
Peter Holland, one of Drury’s better moves, along with Mazanec, did well in 16 games. He also has a good start in New York but disappeared by the end of the year. He carried a contract of $300K-AHL and $650K-NHL. He’s unlikely to be back and will try to hook up with another NHL team or off to Europe.
Up front for the Pack will be a slew of newcomers next year. They will include Brett Howden (acquired from Tampa Bay), Tim Gettinger (draft choice), and Ty Ronning (draft choice).
Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Vinni Lettieri (a team-high 23 goals), Dawson Leedahl, and Ryan Gropp will all return and be the core members of the roster that starts next season. Toss in some of the Rangers’ ten draft choices in this upcoming draft and this year’s training camp will quite possibly be the most competitive in Hartford in quite some time.
Andersson (Sweden) and Chytil (Czech Republic) have been assigned to their countries World Championship squads for the tourney that will be held in Copenhagen and Herning, Denmark from May 4-May 20.
There have not been any official transactions for either player, but they were not listed on the roster. Add in that equation that Rangers GM, Jeff Gorton, said at his end of the season press conference, that he was evaluating the request for both players.
COACHING AND STAFF
There could possibly be some staff changes coming to Hartford. With more than ten years of coaching behind him as both a head and an assistant coach, McCambridge, who stabilized the team and kept control of a room that Ken Gernander had lost in his last three years, could be elevated as an assistant in New York. Only Lindy Ruff and goalie coach, Benoit Allaire, remain as coaches from last season. It will all depend on who is hired to replace Alain Vigneault who was fired at the end of the season.
“I’m like the players. I want to get an opportunity in the NHL too. I enjoy working with the younger players and getting them developed and ready to get to the top level. Some coaches are in a rush to get to the NHL, I’ve been working on my craft since 2003 starting in Alaska. Training players here in Hartford has been fun, and like I said, in this business in the summer you never know.”
Sounds like he’s interested in making the step up now.
Drury and the Rangers may toss the Hartford GM job to Jed Ortmeyer, who’s the current Director of Player Development. It was Ortmeyer who conducted the post-season exit interviews with McCambridge and assistant coach Joe Mormina.
There are also likely to be support staff changes that don’t make the headlines, but that perform essential roles in the day-to-day operations of a hockey team.
The bottom line on all of this? It’s going to be a very busy off-season in Hartford.
The first AHL coaching casualty of the season is ex-Pack Sylvain Lefebvre who’s been relieved of his duties in Laval. He’s been the head coach of the Canadians’ AHL affiliate for six teams in three different Canadian cities. It started with the Hamilton Bulldogs for three years, the St. John’s IceCaps for two and the maiden season of the Laval Rocket.
Assistant coaches Nick Carriere (son the Laval GM, Larry Carriere) and Donald Dufresne stay for now.
Congrats to Lehigh Valley’s Phil Varone on being named the AHL MVP.
Toronto’s Garrett Sparks wins the Baz Baztien Top Goalie award.
Teemu Pulkinnen of Chicago wins the last regular season CCM Player of the Week honors.
Two former Sound Tiger goalies have landed playoff goalie jobs as emergency third netminders. CJ Motte goes from Quad City (ECHL) to the Chicago Wolves and Joel Martin stays within Michigan going from Kalamazoo (ECHL) to Grand Rapids
Former CT Whale, Chris McKelvie, was named the new head coach at Bethel (MN) College (MIAC), a Division III school in Minnesota. McKelvie spent two years with the CT Whale and four in Albany before retiring. He joined his twin brother Zach as an assistant coach at Army over the last two years. They have a younger brother, Ryan, who’s the head coach with the Wenatchee (WA) Wolves (NAPHL).
UConn’s defenseman, Joseph Masonius, has left Storrs a year early and signed a deal with the Wilkes Barre/Scranton Penguins for 2018-19 as well as an ATO deal for the Calder Cup playoffs. Masonius will be in Charlotte this weekend. He was drafted by Pittsburgh in the sixth round in 2016.
Another college player signing and just the second for Europe is Casey Kubara who returns home from Nazareth College (UCHC) to the CBR (Canberra) Brave in the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) that start their 31 game regular season next weekend.
There are now 138 Division I players who have signed pro deals. 164 total players have signed North American or European pro deals with 20 leaving school early.
One of the two remaining Danbury Trashers (UHL) players still actively playing continues for another season. Jared Mudryk leaves ERC Selb (Germany Division-3) for ECDC Memmingen (Germany Division-3) for 2018-19.
-Big news from Yale who will be involved in the Fourth Annual Friendship Four series in Belfast, Northern Ireland in November. It will take place around Thanksgiving. UConn will host the Chinese National team in an exhibition contest in the week after Christmas.
The IIHF Under-18 World Championship begins on Thursday in Magnitogorsk and Chelyabinsk, Russia, The games can be seen on the NHL Network.
The US lost to Canada 6-4 in a highly entertaining opening game. Jack Hughes had three points and Oliver Wahlstrom had two goals.
Plenty of CT connections on this squad.
On the ice leading the way will be a name you’ll hear often in the next several years, Avon Old Farms goalie and Darien native, Spencer Knight. He’s a BC commit who, at 6’4, isn’t draft eligible for another year. A former fellow Winged Beaver, Jack DeBoer, a BU commit, played for the US National U-18 Team this season. DeBoer is the son of current San Jose head coach, Peter DeBoer.
He leads a strong team with plenty sons of former NHL’ers on the team.
Adam Samuelsson, the youngest son of Ulf Samuelsson, the Whaler great and former Ranger, Wolf Pack and Avon Old Farms assistant coach. Mattias Samuelsson (no relation) is the son of former Nighthawk Kjell, Alex Turcotte is the son of former NHL/AHL player, Alfie Turcotte and Jake Pivonka, who’s the son of former NHL’er Michal Pivonka.
Current Quinnipiac University head coach Rand Pecknold is an assistant coach on the team.
There are a few names of note in the U-18 tournament in Russia for the Czech Republic. Zack Malik, the son of former Whaler, and Beast of New Haven, player Marek Malik. Canada features Jack McBain, the son of a former New Haven Senator, Jason McBain. He is one of the assistant coaches. That person is former Whaler, Jody Hull. The last note is the Belarus team was one of three goalies in Danill (Demid) Yeremeyev, son of former Wolf Pack goalie Vitali Yeremeyev.
The IIHF Division 1 Group A tourney in Budapest, Hungary is underway. The Italian team’s top goalie is former Sound Tiger, Frederic Cloutier. The Polish team has a dual citizen in Mike Cichy (New Hartford, CT) and the head coach is former Whalers assistant coach, Ted Nolan.
The Division 2 Group in Tilburg, Netherlands features Australia among the six teams and dual citizen Cheshire native and Hartford Jr. Wolf Pack alumni, Rob Malloy. He will play his fourth international tournament for the Mighty Roos. Serbia one of the other six will be coached by ex-Wolf Pack, David Urquhart.
The IIHF Division 2 Group B tourney starts in Granada, Spain. One of the six countries, New Zealand, has one of its assistant coaches is Berlin native, Adam Blanchette, also a Hartford Jr. Wolf Pack alumni.
The Allan Cup tourney is underway in Rosetown, AB. They seek the King of Canadian Senior league hockey. A few familiar names abound
The Bethune (SK) Bulldogs-Jeremy Reich ex-Sound Tiger, Elsipostog (NB) Hawks-Matt Stefanishion ex-Wolf Pack, Lacombe (AB) Generals- ex-Sound Tiger Adam Huxley, host Rosetown (AB) Red Wings- ex-Wolf Pack Garett Bembridge and a pair of ex-Sound Tigers Lukas Sutter and Jordie Johnston and Stoney Creek (ON)-Ex-Wolf Pack Tyler Donati and Brett Leggett and ex-Sound Tigers Rob Hisey and Ryan O’ Marra.
A few new Euro champions crowned.
In Norway, the Storhamer Dragons won their first title in ten years beating Lillehammer IK 4-1 in the title game. The playoff MVP was ex-Pack Kodie Curran with 29 points in 14 games. He handed the title trophy first to fellow Canadian Christian Larrivee who has played nine years in Stormer.
Former Wolf Pack Josh Nicholls was also on the team.
Curran has signed a deal to play for Rogle BK (Sweden-SHL) next season.
The Swedish Hockey League LeMat Trophy final is set with the Vaxjo Lakers to play Shellelftea AIK that features ex-Sound Tigers Mark Katic and former Wolf Pack players Mike Kostka and the assistant coach Bert Robertsson.
-Ex-Pack Philip McRae goes from Assat Pori (Finland-FEL) to Schwenniger (Germany-DEL) for 2018-19.
The Dundee Comets won the short season (20 games) Scottish National League (SNL) title knocking off the Paisley Pirates..
In Kazakhstan, Arlan Kokshetau won the Kazakh title in six game winning game six 1-0 over Nomad Astana.
HDD Jesenice won the Slovenia title beating HK Olimpija Ljubljana in the championship title by the core 4-1.
The Greek Hellenic Sports Foundation for Winter Sports announced their will be the Greek Hockey championships over the next three weekends with championship decided the first weekend of May. The tourney will be played in Athens and Thessaloniki.