The New York Rangers are going through a rebuild, but their AHL team, the Hartford Wolf Pack, are also desperately in need of one as we speak.
The New York Rangers most important rebuild season is coming to a close, and a number of prospects are likely going to move through the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack soon. One of the most important aspects of a rebuild for an NHL team is the organization’s ability to create a uniform environment at all levels. This season, the Hartford Wolf Pack have not been able to achieve that uniformity.
When the Rangers lose games, they have, for the most part, been in them all the way. They are showing scoring, young talent, and a compete level that simply begs for more skill to make them truly competitive. Unfortunately, so many prospects are either passing through a difficult environment on their way to the Rangers, minimizing their development, or putting up deceptive numbers due to the team’s poor play.
In order to maximize the play of new prospects and, most importantly, make them want to stay there in the case of European prospects with out clauses, the Rangers need to overhaul the Wolf Pack, and do it quickly.
Wolf Pack Struggles In The Past
The Hartford Wolf Pack have been a poor team for many years now, and their play has certainly impacted some of the players that have played there. No clearer example exists than Libor Hajek, who went from not even looking like an AHL player in Hartford to looking like a competitive NHL defenseman for the Rangers. Two points in five games, including a goal for the Rangers, versus just five assists in 58 games in Hartford tells a big story.
This season, Michael Lindqvist was waived after scoring three goals in 16 games in Hartford. He returned to Sweden and is a point-a-game player for Farjestad in the SHL.
We can bring it back even further though; Ex-Rangers third round pick Robin Kovacs, still just 22 years of age, is succeeding wildly in the SHL, but scored just twice in 70 games for the Hartford Wolfpack three years ago before being terminated. Obviously, there were other reasons for this, but its obvious why his and teammate Malte Stromwall’s play struggled immensely for Hartford in spite of their skill.
Even looking back at Ryan McDonagh’s Hartford Wolf Pack career shows that his play left much to be desired; in spite of that, he developed into a top NHL defenseman. Some players are able to fight off that culture and make it to the NHL, and others don’t, or can’t. Whether this is on them or the team is irrelevant; the organization must focus on putting out the best team possible to maximize everyone’s potential.
So, how can they do that?
The first step is easy: insert completely new coaching staff. The same philosophy that was had when hiring David Quinn should be used for the Wolf Pack. The Toronto Marlies are wildly successful not only because of their prospect pipeline, but because of the impact of Sheldon Keefe, who will almost assuredly be an NHL coach sooner than later.
The Pack made a coaching change before last season, naming Keith McCambridge the head coach, but he was a holdover from the old regime, having served as assistant coach under longtime coach Ken Gernander.
Second, the Rangers need to make Hartford a focus in their offseason signings and trades. Over the past several years, there has been little emphasis on making high skill AHL signings to help balance that team out and give the young players good teammates to play with. Building up a solid minor league team is an underrated part of prospect development.
Lastly, and this goes hand in hand with coaching: run a true, organized system in Hartford, one that is similar to what the Rangers do. That way, not only is their more structure in Hartford for the young players to adapt to, but the transition to the NHL will be easier since they will already know what to do and where to be position-ally.
The Rangers will notice that, with uniformity and a positive environment in Hartford, their prospects will develop with less mystery, more consistency and more confidence. So, while everyone is focused on Panarin and Karlsson this summer, behind the scenes, GM Jeff Gorton should also be making small deals here and there in the interest of improving the Hartford Wolf Pack.