Are the Rangers building a winner in Hartford?

new york rangers

Head coach of the New York Rangers top farm team in Hartford ,Kris Knoblauch (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

With two more depth signings, the New York Rangers are turning over the Wolf Pack roster

The New York Rangers signed two more players late Friday.  It won’t make any headlines, but with the signings of center Jonny Brodzinski and right winger Anthony Greco, the Hartford Wolf Pack will have a new look next season.

The roster

There will be some players vying for a job with the Rangers who could end up in Hartford.  They include forwards Vitali Kravtov and Morgan Barron.   Defenders in that category are Anthony Bitetto,  Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov and K’Andre Miller.

Since last March, the Rangers or Hartford have gone on a signing spree, inking 13 more new players to contracts for 2020-21:

  • Jonny Brodzinsk, C
  • Anthony Greco, RW
  • Kevin Rooney, C
  • Colin Blackwell, C
  • Patrick Khodorenko, C
  • Austin Rueschhoff, RW
  • Justin Richards, C
  • Mike O’Leary, LW (Hartford contract)
  • Alex Whalen, RW (Hartford contract)
  • Paul Thompson, RW (Hartford contract)
  • Zach Giuttari, RD (Hartford contract)
  • Keith Kinkaid, G
  • Tyler Wall, G

Returning Wolf Pack players include:

  • Ty Ronning,RW
  • Patrick Newell, RW
  • Tim Gettinger, C
  • Steven Fogarty, C
  • Gabriel Fontaine, C
  • Jake Elmer, RW
  • Brandon Crawley LD
  • Darren Raddysh, RD
  • Vincent LoVerde, RD (Hartford contract)
  • Mason Geertsen, LD (Hartford contract)
  • Adam Huska, G

There are some players under contract to the Wolf Pack and not the Rangers and they may return:

  • Nick Jones, RW
  • Greg Chase, LW
  • Ryan Dmowski,  LW
  • Shawn McBride, C

Finally, here’s a list of the players from the 2019-20 Wolf Pack roster who won’t be returning:

  • Ryan Gropp,LW
  • Boo Nieves, C
  • Matt Beleskey,LW
  • Danny O’Regan, C
  • Vinni Lettieri, C
  • Sean Day, D
  • Nick Ebert, D
  • J.F. Berube, G

Last season

So why the turnover?  It’s worth looking at last season.

There were a lot of accolades for the Wolf Pack and their coaching staff as they had  an excellent season and were destined for a playoff berth before the season was halted.   Under Coach Kris Knoblauch the team finished with a 31-20-11 record, their best record in five years.

But the won-lost record doesn’t tell the whole story  In reality, all of the success can be attributed to one factor, Igor Shesterkin.   The rookie Russian goalie had a spectacular season for Hartford before he was promoted to the Rangers in January. He had a 17-4-3 record with a 1.90 Goals Against Average and a .934 save percentage.

If you take out two games against Charlotte in December when he allowed eight goals his goals against average would drop to 1.69 and his save percentage would improve to .942.  As we said, spectacular.

The issue for Hartford is what they did when Shesterkin was not with the Wolf Pack.  They won only eight of 24 games for a Shesterkin-less record of 8-12-4.   In games Shesterkin didn’t get  a  decision in, their record was 14-16-8.   Winning 14 of 38 games is not  recipe for success.

The bottom line is the Wolf Pack rode Igor Shesterkin to their early success and were barely hanging on after he left.  They were offensively challenged with only one player, Lettieri, among the top 60 scorers in the league and he was 21st overall.

It had to be obvious to Hartford GM Chris Drury and the Rangers brain trust that they needed to make some changes.

There were some other issues last season.  Vitali Kravtsov returned to  Russia rather than play in Hartford.  While there were many reasons for that, including financial, it was a disheartening turn of events for the highly touted draft pick.  Lias Andersson quit on the team for reasons that have only been hinted at.  Ryan Gropp was suspended after he was demoted to Maine.  That’s an awful lot of drama for a farm team.

The importance of the mission

The primary mission for Drury is to make the Wolf Pack a seamless feeder club for the varsity in New York.  That’s the challenge that Knoblauch was given and the verdict is not in after one year. .  Without the Shesterkin factor, the Wolf Pack coaches can now be judged on how well they develop the young players who will become New York Rangers.

Next season, success in that mission will be crucial to the development of baby Rangers like K’Andre Miller, Morgan Barron, Justin Richards, Austin Rueschhoff, Patrick Khodorenko and Tyler Wall.  They need to play in a system that will prepare them so that if they do get called up they can make the transition seamlessly.

A winning attitude needs to be cultivated and the Rangers have to hope that free agent additions like Rooney,  Blackwell, Greco and Brodzinski will be winners.  It’s more important than you think.

Just ask the Tampa Bay Lightning, the perfect example of an organization that developed a farm system that prepared their players to play the right way.  Of the 13 players signed or drafted by the Lightning who appeared in the playoffs this championship year, 11 played for the AHL Syracuse Crunch. The Crunch have made the playoffs six of the last eight years, getting to the Finals twice.   The only two who didn’t get AHL time were Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos.

Building a farm system similar to the Tampa model is the right idea, let’s see if the Rangers can do it and end up with the same result.