There is not a Rangers fan out there that has not for years been complaining about “what is going on in Hartford.” Whether it has been the players’ performance, the coaching, the scheduling, the facilities, or the officiating, everyone has had their theories and everyone has suggested their fixes. It was to no avail. Nothing that the Rangers tried changing seemed to work and the team missed the AHL playoffs year after year. Now after four seasons of missing the AHL playoffs (and last season placing last in the Atlantic Division), the team has finally gotten off to a great start. As of today, after 12 games, the Wolf Pack are leading the entire league in points and are atop the Atlantic Division. So, how did the team go from last to first?
The first thing to understand is that an AHL team has a dual role. First, and foremost, it is to develop young professional players for their NHL affiliate. The other is to win games. The Wolf Pack had been doing neither in the past few years. Some of that had to do with the talent of the players that were sent to Hartford over the years, some with trades that sent veteran AHL players from Hartford to other NHL teams just as chemistry was being established, and some the philosophy of the Rangers’ themselves.
The Rangers’ win-now philosophy of the 2000s and early 2010s had the team trading draft picks and high-end talent young players for veterans who the team hoped would bring it another Stanley Cup. It almost worked in 2014, but the Rangers failure to beat the Los Angeles Kings in the finals left the team both without a Cup and with a low number of high-end prospects and upcoming first-round draft picks. In fact, the Rangers had no first-round selections from 2013-2016.
The change in the NHL team’s philosophy regarding building from within began before the February 2018 public announcement of the rebuild, but it takes time for some of the players that were drafted in 2017 or traded for in the 2018 trade deadline purge to get to the AHL. But, that is not the whole story, which brings us to the coaching change. Last April, Keith McCambridge, who had been head coach of the Wolf Pack for two seasons, was relieved of his duties. McCambridge, who had been successful elsewhere, was unable to duplicate his previous success though in Hartford and a change was needed.
Very shortly after McCambridge and the majority of his assistants were let go, John Davidson was hired as President of the Rangers. Known as an astute hockey man, who rebuilt both the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets organizations, Davidson and his team took his time appointing a new head coach (several very experienced former coaches were interviewed but either the job was not offered or it was turned down by the offeree). Finally, in late July, Kris Knoblauch was named head coach of the Wolf Pack. A former head coach of WHL and OHL teams, Knoblauch was an assistant coach for the Flyers during the 2018-19 season. The Rangers have also stepped up their direct involvement in the decisionmaking in Hartford. Thus far, this collaboration is working much better than in the recent past.
But, nothing can take the place of the talent a team puts on the ice, and Hartford has plenty of it. To start the season, the Rangers sent down Filip Chytil, Vitali Kravtsov, Boo Nieves, Ryan Lindgren, and Igor Shesterkin. Any one of those players could arguably have remained in New York for the NHL season. Add to that the very talented AHL veterans Vinni Lettieri, Steven Fogarty, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Matt Beleskey and the team was certainly stocked. And so, the Wolf Pack got off to a 7-0-0-1 record, prior to the recall of Chytil and Lindgren. With those two promoted to New York, and Kravtsov deciding to go back to Russia, the team has not been as successful (0-1-0-2) this week, but Shesterkin and Adam Huska are keeping the Wolf Pack in every game. With the somewhat less talented team on the ice, it will now be up to Knoblauch and his team to keep the winning ways going.