BY: Gerry Cantlon, Howlings
HARTFORD, CT – Get a program for the opening game of the 21st edition of the Hartford Wolf Pack season that begins Friday night at the XL Center against the Charlotte Checkers at 7 pm.
The Wolf Pack will unveil their roster in the home opener as a work in progress. There will be changes as this team moves forward. It is far from a finished product.
Coming off their worst season in franchise history where they finished dead last in the AHL, the organization revamped the roster from top-to-bottom. The scrub/overhaul of the team started with removing the very face of the franchise for the past 20 years, head coach and former team captain, Ken Gernander. The purge continued by eliminating almost every nameplate in the locker room.
It looks like they have not finished retooling yet. Coming off an abbreviated pre-season schedule of just two games against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, seemingly not much has changed getting shutout at home 2-0 and shelled in Worcester 7-1.
Coming off an abbreviated pre-season schedule of just two games against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, it indeed seemed like not much has changed as they were shutout at home 2-0 and then shelled in the rematch played in Worcester 7-1.
“We have started to put some of our systems into place,” new Head Coach Keith McCambridge said. “It’s going to take time to put it into place exactly the way you want it. It will give management time to evaluate players.”
This group will be, by far, the youngest Wolf Pack roster management has ever assembled. With that much youth, the team age average that is 22.6 years of age, there are risks and rewards that come from going in that direction.
“With youth, you get a lot of energy and get a chance to mold those young minds and young players. To teach and mold, that’s the fun part of coaching and with the three-in-threes, with those young legs, that’s on the positive side of the ledger,” McCambridge said.
In addressing the turnover on the team, McCambridge remarked, “There is more changeover in the American Hockey League as opposed to the NHL. Certainly, we have brought in a new batch of leaders here and I’m looking at what we have after training camp. It’s making sure we play the right way and there is no gray area. Players will know what the expectations are. Where they are to be on the ice, and they represent the Hartford Wolf Pack and the New York Rangers well, both on and off the ice.
“You can then see an identity grow. You can’t come in and write on the board this is our identity. You have to form that identity and steer it the right way, and that’s where it forms, and that takes time to form and take hold.”
The new philosophy was evident right at the end of training camp in New York and from the outset in Hartford.
The team dispatched forward Robin Kovacs on Sunday, taking his two goals and minus-27 in 72 games, plus a weak camp in New York and allowed him to return to Sweden. That was accomplished by placing him on unconditional waivers and buying out the last year of his two-year deal. According to the Swedish online publication, Kvallposten, Kovacs is set to sign with Lulea HF (Sweden-SHL) after weighing a competing offer from another Swedish team, Skelleftea AIK.
This newest edition of the Pack is even younger than last year. The exceptions come from the addition of new veterans. Joe Whitney was named the team’s latest captain. He is also the team’s oldest player at 29. Whitney is eight months older than Eric Selleck.
Whitney is coming off what was not his best season. In 2016-17, Whitney played for San Antonio and Tucson. The Reading, MA native, is very eager to hit the ice.
“I have been a captain in many other places, but it’s always an honor and allows me to help show the young players the way. This is a great opportunity. When Chris Drury called me during the summer, he told me what the game plan was for Hartford. I wanted in.
“I’m a Northeast guy. I like the winter. I like the cold. It’s not hockey weather out West. It’s warm all the time. I realize that we have to take advantage of games early, but take them one game at a time.
“I have seen where you miss things at the end when you lose games early. On paper, I might be old, but I feel like I’m 20. I’m 110% healthy and last year I didn’t reach the expectations that I had for myself, and that will happen, but I’m excited and ready to play (Friday night).”
McCambridge knows Whitney quite well.
“I saw him a lot when I was in St. John’s in the playoffs against Albany. I have seen first-hand what he can do offensively and the leadership he provides. He’s a veteran, and that adds to trying to win hockey games, but also he was high on leadership qualities.”
Whitney will try to be the guy to help replace the scoring lost in Nicklas Jensen’s departure to Finland to join Jokerit Helsinki in the KHL.
“I was hoping we could have them together in the mix. That was my hope, and it’s hard to replace 30-plus goals. Of course, you lean on these type of guys, but some third-year players also have a chance to step up and fill in there. It’s their chance.
Selleck has 438 AHL games on his stat sheet. He was named an assistant captain.
Another veteran on the roster came in the resigning of Daniel Catenacci who arrived in an acquisition at last year’s trade deadline for former captain Mat Bodie.
McCambridge is going to be leaning heavily on his veterans as the season starts.
“Veterans at this level are very important. Not only do they represent how you want the practice to run, and games to take shape, you also want the young players to look at those players and conduct themselves that way on-and-off the ice,” McCambridge stated. “Character in veterans was high on the list and players who do get sent down are invested and interested in the Wolf Pack having success.”
The light will shine brightest in net. Last season was a rocky one with Magnus Hellberg, Mackenzie Skapski and Brandon Halverson guarding the pipes.
Poor netminding, particularly early in games, hampered the Wolf Pack for all of this past season. Better starts are required, not optional.
The team will start the season with two rookie goalies, Alexander Georgiev from Moscow, Russia and Chris Nell. Georgiev played with TPS Turku (Finland-FEL) last year where he went 13-8-4 in 27 games with 1.70 GAA. Nell played four games at the end of last season with the Pack and went 1-3 with a 4.02 GAA. Nell came to Hartford after finishing his junior year with the Bowling Green University Falcons (NCHC) where he amassed a record of 17-14-2 in 34 games and a 2.15 GAA.
“We discussed in the off-season what Georgiev had done over there (in Finland). We’ve been educated on that, and both played well in Traverse City for us, so we got an early idea of what they have. Then, in the big camp, when you have NHL players bearing down on them drilling some shots, I liked the movement we saw and positives to their game. There are always going to be ups and downs for goalies, defenseman and forwards that’s why they are here in the AHL.”
Ryan Graves leads the defense. Entering the third and final year of his entry-level deal, Graves, with 150 games under his belt, now qualifies as a veteran, especially on such a young team. Along with Graves, Garrett Noonan, who came up as a recall from the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, are the two most experienced of the seven rostered defenseman.
“He’s always been a well-conditioned athlete. He took it to a higher level and came into camp and was in the Top 10, so he was in excellent shape. He does have the offensive upside. He has the shot, good vision, and skating, and plays with sandpaper too. Now, he needs to put the whole package together.”
Graves trained hard in the offseason in Charlottetown, PEI and is very much wanting to put last season behind him.
“I just trained hard and played some gold and hit the beach,” said Graves. Last year left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth. Now, we have a fresh slate. Last year is behind us, and I’m ready to get this season started and build on the good camp I had in New York. Sure, there are a lot of defenseman up top, but if I’m ready and play well, if a chance presents itself, I will be ready.”
Graves has offensive upside, but that aspect of his game disappeared as last season wore on. He concentrated solely on being a defensive defenseman, and that didn’t pan out either. While trying to transform his game, his 100-mph shot faded away.
It’s anyone’s guess which Graves shows up on the ice when the Pack play Friday night.
One of the team’s rookie rearguards will be 20-year-old Brendan Crawley, a fourth-round pick out of London (OHL). Crawley inked his three-year entry-level contract on Monday. The Rangers are trying to go back to the formula they have used in the past. Crawley, a right-hander, comes from Dale Hunter’s player factory in London. The Rangers have had a lot of success in the past with Dan Girardi, now with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and to a lesser degree with Tommy Hughes, who’s now with the Hershey Bears.
The rest of the roster fills some gaps and will be tested early on as they take on the fast skating team in Charlotte, a major part of the Carolina Hurricanes upgrade being taken on by the team’s GM, former Whaler great, Ron Francis. Behind the bench as head coach is former Hartford Whaler, Mike Vellucci.
Vince Pedrie played nine games last year after being signed out of Penn State. Pedrie showed mobility and talent for carrying the puck out of the zone and a good shot on the powerplay.
Neil Pionk is a right-handed shot out of one of the stronger national college programs, the University Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Last season, the Bulldogs were in the Frozen Four.
Rounding out the rearguard is Alexei Bereglazov, who went undrafted in either the NHL or KHL. Bereglazov will need to make the usual adjustment Europeans face in transitioning to playing on the smaller surface than what he was accustomed to playing on in Russia.
“Alexei has shown flashes of what we were told he had in Traverse City. Over the course of a month, his habits have gotten better. He’s shown better awareness (on the ice) and more structured, better plays with the puck as time has gone by. He is dealing with the language barrier, the different ice surface, and systems. It’s a lot to take in. From when I first saw him more than a month ago, he has made some really good strides,” McCambridge said.
For the Checkers, up front, they feature a rookie, Nick Schilkey from Ohio State. Schilkey scored 27 goals in 35 games for the Buckeyes and was a Hobey Baker candidate last year. He had seven points in two pre-season games last weekend against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, including a hat-trick.
Also up front for the Checkers is another young forward in Alexsi Saarela, a former Rangers high draft pick. Saarela and Schilkey will be a massive test for the Pack’s defense right off the bat.
For the Pack, up front will be Whitney, a long time Pack killer (39 points in 33 career games), and Cole Schneider, a UConn product coming off a healthy year in Rochester. Adam Tambellini, in his third and last year of his entry-level deal, will look to make an impression to warrant another contract from the Rangers. Catenacci, a seven-year veteran, will also be one of the work-horses to lead this team both in five-on-five as well as on the power play. This group will be asked over the first six weeks mainly, to keep the Pack in contention as the new blood gets acclimated to professional hockey and the Rangers’ systems.
Boo Nieves, who at times last season showed flashes of excellence with his size and speed last season, enters his second year. Last season, Nieves saw it end early from a concussion. He is expecting a breakout season.
Forward Vinni Lieterri, who had a nine-game audition at the end of last year after completing his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota, had a good showing in the Traverse City prospect tournament as well as in training camp in New York.
“He has the speed you want on your team,” McCambridge said. “He had a strong camp in New York, and he will be an important part of our offense.”
It’s a brand new squad looking to change the Wolf Pack look and start the season on a strong note.
Congrats to ex-Pack, Tanner Glass, on making the Calgary Flames roster. The 33-year-old vet still can chip in a few goals, hits and will get in a few scraps and will add plenty of physical play. As the NHL and AHL have moved away from players like Glass, what he and players like him bring is a component every team needs.
Glass made his debut Wednesday in the Battle of Alberta against the Edmonton Oilers. In his 9:21 of ice time, Glass recorded three hits and had the first NHL fight of the season with Edmonton’s Zack Kassian. Calgary lost 3-0 to ex-Wolf Pack, Cam Talbot, who pitched a 24 save shutout.
Congrats to Tage Thompson (Orange/UConn) on making the St. Louis Blues.
The former UCONN Husky had a solid camp that began by leading the Traverse City tournament in scoring. Thompson is the son of ex-Pack, and current Bridgeport Sound Tiger head coach, Brent Thompson. Tage had 11:26 of ice time in his debut against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Thompson drew the penalty that led to the Blues second goal in the second period. Olli Maatta tallied on a powerplay to tie the score at two.
Wade Megan (Salisbury Prep) was also on the final Blues roster was a scratch Wednesday night.
John Hayden (Greenwich/Yale) made the Chicago’s Blackhawks roster and made his debut Thursday night with an assist, his first NHL point. Hayden also had five hits, four shots on goal in the 14:19 he saw in ice time in a 10-1 thrashing of the Penguins.
The expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights feature former a Wolf Pack in centerman, Oscar Lindberg. They also have ex-CT Whale, Jonathan-Audy Marchessault, and former Sound Tiger, Griffin Reinhart.
Injured, but making the final cuts were ex-Pack, Marek Hrivik (Calgary), ex-Sound Tiger, Carter Verhaeghe (Tampa Bay), and Cole Cassels, the son of former Whaler, Andrew Cassels (Vancouver).
The Rangers assigned defenseman Sean Day back to the defending Memorial Cup champion, Windsor Spitfires. He joins Ty Ronning (Vancouver-WHL) and Tim Gettinger (Sault Ste. Marie-OHL) as the top Rangers prospects playing Canadian juniors.
The Wolf Pack record in season home openers is 10-9-1. There was a 3-3 tie back in 2003 with Bridgeport. The team’s home opener record is .500 at 6-6-1 including a 4-2 win over Charlotte in 2010-11. Of their 21 home openers, they have played four times, the most of any team, against Springfield followed by three with the Sound Tigers.
In 21 years, six of the teams they played in openers are no longer in the league. Those teams include New Haven, Philadelphia, Albany, Manchester, St. John’s and Quebec.
Vellucci was recently made head coach of the Checkers after being moved from a Carolina assistant GM to replacing a former Whalers and Rangers player as well as an assistant coach as well with the both the Wolf Pack and Avon Old Farms, Ulf Samuelsson.
Vellucci was a junior head coach and GM for the former Plymouth Whalers (OHL) for 13 years.
The Checkers have Ulf’s oldest son, Philip Samuelsson and Josh Wesley, the son of former Whaler, Glen Wesley, and nephew of Blake Wesley, both on defense. Up front, the team has ex-Yale University Bulldog, Andrew Miller.
The Checkers lost forward Steven Lorentz for the opening night contest after receiving an instigator penalty in the last five minutes of regulation. He is under suspension by the AHL for one game. After the suspension, Lorentz goes to Florida (ECHL).
The last time these two teams met was in 2010-11 when they split a four-game series with each team winning their home matchups.
The Wolf Pack host the Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Sunday at 5 pm. The Phantoms feature former Yale Bulldog goalie, Alex Lyon. The coach is former New Haven Nighthawk, Scott Gordon.
A few familiar names were among the last cuts in the NHL and sent to the AHL include ex-Pack players Dylan McIlrath (Grand Rapids), Jayson Megna (Utica), Brandon Mashinter (San Jose), Ryan Malone (Iowa) and Brian Gibbons (Binghamton). Also ex-Sound Tigers Chris Lee (Ontario) and J.F. Berube (Rockford) and Ken Agostino from Yale (Providence).
Matt Carey was released from his training camp tryout by Hershey but signed a PTO contract with Grand Rapids.
Another AHL’er off to Europe is Shane Harper who played last year with Springfield and Albany and some time with Florida (NHL). Harper signs with Lada Togliatti (Russia-KHL). Harper’s signing makes 86 AHLer’s who have signed in Europe or Asia from last year.
Even just five games with the team qualify Andreas Jamtin as an ex-Pack. The Swedish Sean Avery goes from Farjestads BK (Sweden-SHL) to Sheffield (England-EIHL).
ECHL camps are about to get underway.
A few more collegians are late signees. Those names include Brian Morgan of UConn who inks a deal with Jacksonville (ECHL), Chris Izmirlian (Yale) who signs with Brampton (ECHL) and Connor Doherty (Sacred Heart), who heads to Worcester (ECHL).
To date, 271 collegians have signed pro deals in North America and Europe including 207 Division I players.
Former Yale player, Gus Young, was assigned to Florida (ECHL) from San Antonio camp. Ex-Pack, Shane McColgan, returns from Tilburg (Netherlands) and is in camp with Manchester (ECHL). Michael Joly heads to Colorado (ECHL) by San Antonio.
The Sound Tigers split up the Jones twins, sending Kellen (Quinnipiac University) to Worcester (ECHL) while keeping Connor. Both are grandsons to former New Haven Blades player, Terry Jones.