The Rangers’ AHL affiliate, Hartford Wolf Pack, has played five of the only 24 scheduled games this season. And although the team, which is stocked with Rangers’ prospects, started off really well in its first two games, it is now on a three-game losing streak. Because of the pandemic conditions and geography, the team schedule consists of only two opponents–Bridgeport (NY Islanders) and Providence (Boston Bruins). That means that Hartford faces each of those teams 12 times.
The results of seeing the same team over and over include the fact that your opposition begins to understand how your skaters and goalies play–they adjust and, very quickly, they take away those opportunities and exploit netminders’ weaknesses. With the third game against Providence in two weeks, that certainly was the case for Hartford on Saturday when the Pack lost by the score of 4-2. This happens every season and to every player, and is often the reason why players jump out to quick starts to their seasons and then their scoring tapers off. But good teams and good players adjust along with their opponents, as Hartford and their players must now.
Success for an AHL team not only depends on the players overcoming that player adjustment factor, its fortunes depend on things external to play on the ice. In this case, of course, there is COVID-19 and geography. But there are others. Although the whole idea of any team (AHL or otherwise) is to play to win games, one of the major purposes of an AHL affiliate is to develop players to the point of being NHL-ready–and then once ready, that player leaves the team by being called up to the NHL. A sort of an inherent conflict, and one that must drive coaches at this level crazy. If your players are too good, they leave the team for greener pastures. This year, potentially, this is particularly true, in that there is an NHL “taxi squad” that needs to remain (at least partially) full, so players that might be in the AHL are in New York. Plus there is no ECHL team in Maine from which to give players’ tryouts.
But on the brighter side, CHL players who are normally too young to play in the AHL can play there this year while their CHL teams/leagues are on COVID hold. And goalies with NHL experience that are on the “taxi squad” can easily be sent down to get AHL playing time. Both of these changes in the pandemic year assisted Hartford during its first two games of the season. Veteran professional netminder Keith Kinkaid was in between the pipes for those contests, and he gave up only two goals on 52 SOG. Kinkaid was an absolute beast between the pipes in those games. After the Pack’s first two games, however, Kinkaid was sent back to New York to be a member of the “taxi squad,” and has not been seen in Hartford since.
As for the boost from a junior player’s membership with Hartford, 19-year-old defenseman Braden Schneider played in the Wolf Pack’s first and second games. Schneider, who was the Rangers first-round pick in the 2020 draft, was on the first pairing with Wolf Pack captain and 10-year professional hockey veteran, Vince LoVerde. He played in all situations in both of the winning games. But, because of the agreement with the CHL that, when Schneider’s WHL team training camp opened, he (and other young players in the same position) would be sent back to juniors, he had to depart. This was a big loss to Hartford–Schneider was terrific and definitely looked ready for the AHL. This is not to take away from the players that remain on the team, but since Kinkaid and Schneider’s departures, the goaltending has been very shaky and the spark that Schneider provided just is not there.
One would hope that Hartford’s other goaltenders would fill Kinkaid’s spot between the pipes in at least an adequate manner. But the goaltending in the three games since Kinkaid departed has not been impressive. Tyler Wall and Adam Huska share the netminding duties, with 2020 Rangers fourth round pick Dylan Garand backing them up (Garand has not been called back to the WHL because his team is not scheduled to play). Wall is a first year pro who had a pretty bad two games–he allowed seven goals on 33 shots. Granted most were not his fault, but some of those shots were “must” stops to keep your team in the game. It appears that Wall is actually a victim of the pandemic right now, in that, if the Rangers’ ECHL affiliate, Maine, was playing, Wall likely would get a chance to play at the lower level to gain experience and confidence with pro play. Lest that sound harsh, there is no shame in that (many an excellent NHL goaltender has spent time in the ECHL), and it says nothing about whether Wall will eventually make the NHL. But without an ECHL team to send him to, Wall will have to find his way at the AHL level. Jeff Malcolm, Hartford’s fairly new goaltending guru, will definitely help, but it would have been much better for him to at least have the option of playing at the AA level.
Huska has more experience than Wall does (he has been playing professionally since the Spring of 2019), and it was he who was between the pipes for Saturday’s game. It was his first game of the season, and there were mistakes in front of him that led to chances, but it was far from his best game.
Everyone at every level knows that it is very hard to win if you do not have excellent goaltending. This team is young and at risk of losing momentum without some solid play between the pipes. It is hard to develop skaters and keep their energy up when the team is losing all the time. Some of this can be solved by sending Kinkaid down to play a few games. Hopefully, this will be done before this short losing streak goes on any longer. The Wolf Pack were already showing a lack of energy in the last period on Saturday. The Rangers and Kinkaid can steady that ship and should asap.
As for some of the Rangers’ prospects in Hartford:
Morgan Barron–Barron is playing almost exclusively on the wing, but he is taking a lot of defensive zone faceoffs. He is going to the net often, where he often is very effective. Barron looks good but, by his own admission, he is still working on adjusting to the speed of the pro game. He is making some defensive mistakes, but Barron should get a long look in New York next year.
Tarmo Reunanen–Reunanen continues to impress on the power play and the offensive side of the puck. He is still working on the defensive part of his game, but generally, he is the most NHL-ready of all the younger players in Hartford.
Patrick Khodorenko–Khodorenko has been on a line with Ty Ronning and Will Cuylle. After starting on the “fourth line” in previous games, this weekend, the line was promoted to a top six role. Although they did not post any points on Saturday, the three continued to show excellent chemistry and Khodorenko can be counted on to win faceoffs in critical situations.
Hartford’s next game is Tuesday at 1:00 pm. Watch my twitter account #HFNYRangers for updates.