The Hartford Wolf Pack concluded the 2016-17 campaign by losing its fourth contest in a row to the Springfield Thunderbirds by a score of 5-1. The loss, unfortunately, was reminiscent of the Rangers’ AHL-affiliate all season long. The Wolf Pack finished dead last in the American Hockey League with an abysmal 54 points.
In the Atlantic Division, where Hartford finds itself at home with six other clubs, the sixth-place team was none other than Springfield, who finished their downed season on a “high” note with 75 points. Springfield was also responsible Friday evening for mathematically eliminating from playoff contention the Wolf Pack’s cross-state rivals, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The Sound Tigers, the AHL-affiliate of the New York Islanders, finished fifth-place in the division with 92 points.
But before I send this into a plunging depression, allow me to highlight four players.
After being shopped around and sent on a carousel ride from organization to organization, forward Taylor Beck found himself in Hartford for the end of this season. His final 16 games saw him produce six goals and 10 assists. In 56 total games played in the AHL this season, Beck posted 66 points. His totals were good for best amongst all Hartford players in terms of season-totals. Beck was originally drafted by the Nashville Predators in the third round (70th overall) in 2009.
Forward Nicklas Jensen came in second place in points for the Wolf Pack. In 70 games, Jensen scored 32 goals and assisted on 23 more (55 points total). Jensen did not appear on the scoresheet in seven games with the New York Rangers on call-up duty.
Centerman Marek Hrivik came in third-place in points for Hartford. In 56 games for the Wolf Pack, Hrivik netted 16 and tallied 24 helpers. Hrivik was recalled by the New York Rangers for a month from December 6 to January 7 to play fourth-line duty in the absence of Pavel Buchnevich from the lineup. In 16 games with the Rangers, and an average time on ice of 10:29, Hrivik managed to pick up two assists, one on the power play against Arizona on December 29. Prior to his early December call-up, Hrivik had led the Wolf Pack in points.
On Sunday, it was announced by the Rangers that Magnus Hellberg was recalled from Hartford to join the club. While it is unlikely that Hellberg will see his first NHL Playoff game from the crease (barring injury to Henrik Lundqvist and/or Antti Raanta, knock on wood) calling him up will only benefit the netminder. He will get to be present for a clinic on how to (hopefully) remain calm, cool, collected, and focused in the face of being down by a game in a playoff series as the Rangers fell 2-1 in the series against the Montréal Canadiens on Sunday evening.
Hellberg, 26, appeared in 36 games with the Wolf Pack this season, posting a 12-15-1 record, along with a 2.95 goals-against average, a .903 save percentage, and 1 shutout. He allowed two goals or fewer in 10 of his final 16 AHL appearances this season, and posted a shutout on Mar. 31 vs. Hershey.
The 6’6”, 209-pounder already appeared in two games with the Rangers during the regular season in 2016-17, posting a 1-0-0 record, along with a 1.53 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. He stopped 22 of 24 shots he faced to earn his first career NHL win while making his first career NHL start on April 9 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the last game of the regular season.
It has become abundantly clear, however, the lack of consideration given by the New York Rangers organization to the scouting and development programs. The Rangers, under the management of Glen Sather since joining the organization in 2000, has established a long-standing tradition of acquiring top talent and trading them away for already established talent. Players often develop elsewhere, and the Rangers leverage draft picks and depth trading chips to make more acquisitions.
To Sather’s credit, there have been some great gems to emerge from the Rangers’ prospect pool, including current Rangers Henrik Lundqvist, JT Miller, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal. I have neglected to mention guys like Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, and former-Ranger Carl Hagelin here, to name a few, because they spent several seasons developing in college hockey programs, becoming NHL-ready despite limited-to-no time spent with Hartford (or, formerly, the Connecticut Whale). Furthermore, “Slats” committed pure theft by way of acquiring current captain, Ryan McDonagh, from the Habs in a trade that sent, among others, an aging and already -declining Scott Gomez to Montréal. Perhaps the bad karma is now coming back to bite the Rangers in the rear-end. While that can be said about a full range of Sather’s moves, I digress.
Actually, that was a perfect segue into the current situation for the New York Rangers. Here we are, in Henrik Lundqvist’s 12th season in the National Hockey League. After a tumultuous season posting his worst career statistics, Lundqvist has done everything possible to keep the Rangers respectable against Montréal. But unless the Rangers can get their act together, the future for the organization looks bleak – both in the short-term and long-term.
Last summer, I expressed many concerns from Rangerstown. I explained that New York needed a hero and, for the sake of Rangerstown, Jeff Gorton would be that hero. Soon thereafter, General Manager Jeff Gorton made a few personnel transactions and prolonged the Rangers’ playoff streak another year. But for how long will Gorton be able to acquire outsiders and keep playoff hopes alive while giving away draft picks like candy? For how long will Gorton be able to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps in mortgaging the future of the franchise before plunging the organization into the abyss for a Dark Ages rivaling that of 1998-2004?
Ironically, the Hartford Wolf Pack’s only Calder Cup victory came in 2000, Sather’s first year with the organization. The Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale have in fact posted above .500 records since 2005-06 when the format has changed to go along with the NHL. However, this past season was the worst since 05-06. The 2012-13 season was the worst prior, where the Wolf Pack went 35-32-6-3 for 79 points.
The Pack even won the Division in 2014-15. That year, the squad went 43-24-5-4 with 95 points.
While one down year may not seem so bad at first glance, a poor year for a farm team means a potentially disastrous future for the NHL-affiliate. But even worse, we are finally seeing the negative effects from the lack of draft picks, first-rounders in particular, which had been traded away to gear up for past postseason runs (Martin St. Louis, Keith Yandle ring a bell?). Was it worth it? Probably – the Rangers do not go to the Finals in 2014 without the moves Sather made; 2015 does not come close either. Had a Stanley Cup been paraded down the Canyon of Heroes in 2014 or 2015, this is a subject that goes largely undiscussed. But now the Rangers must face the consequences. And a 54-point season for Hartford is just the start.
For almost two decades with Glen Sather in the picture, the Rangers strategy has been mostly retooling, rather than fully rebuilding. As needs arose, the Rangers have mortgaged its future, year-after-year, to patch current needs. But this strategy has never really been carried out with much foresight.
Act now, worry later.
The Rangers are in a perpetual state of putting band-aids on larger problems, allowing the team just enough success for the fans to continue to put up with the fact that the Rangers are no longer poised to seriously compete for the Stanley Cup. Now, as the elder monarch along with his Court (core) of veteran knights (no, not the Golden kind), do their best to pass the torch to the few youthful warriors on the squad, the Rangers find themselves traversing further away from the Holy Grail of hockey.
Am I being somewhat dramatic? Perhaps. If there’s any inkling of doubt in what I have pointed out, I invite the Blueshirts to prove me wrong Tuesday night on Broadway. If there is any smidgen of hope in advancing to the next round, the Rangers will not hesitate to show it when the puck drops at Madison Square Garden for Game Four. But if the Rangers play anywhere near as badly as they did on Sunday, we can expect another five-game first-round exit just like in 2016, followed by the aforementioned.
To say the Rangers’ organization does not have any talent in the pipeline would be a lie. Igor Shesterkin appears to be a viable replacement to King Henrik’s throne when the time is right. Shesterkin just won the Gagarin Cup with his Kontinental Hockey League squad, SKA St. Petersburg (Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk are also players for SKA). Shesterkin was taken 118th overall (fourth-round) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
Ryan Gropp has been developing quite well with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League. His numbers have steadily increased to an impressive 84 points in 66 games. In the playoffs, the 20-year old has a goal and four assists in four contests. Gropp was chosen 41st overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Gabriel Fontaine, who signed an entry-level deal with the Rangers last week, has been performing quite well in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In 59 games this season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, Fontaine had 23 goals and 29 assists (52 points). In 11 playoff games so far, he has four goals and five assists.
As of Monday evening, going into the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the Rangers have a first-round pick for the first time since 2012 where defenseman Brady Skjei was chosen 28th overall. Sure, the Rangers have always drafted better in the later rounds (Lundqvist was a seventh-rounder, for example). While the organization has had some decent fortune later on, the lack of picks in recent years has surely reflected itself upon the Wolf Pack several years later. Even if Gorton’s strategy from here on out is to hang onto picks, the Wolf Pack will be projected to perform poorly due to lack of depth and talent.
At best, this means the Rangers, who will continue to be strapped by constrictive contracts (Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and beginning July 1, Derek Stepan), will likely continue the patch-and-go method. Likewise, a firm rebuild, with a strong foundation upwards (see Toronto Maple Leafs), will either have to wait, or will never happen. Unless some prospects develop quicker and reach higher potentials than projected (Brady, I believe in you), the Rangers organization could be sailing some incredibly trepid seas in the coming years.
Until then, hang-on for the ride Tuesday as the Rangers look to even it up against the Canadiens.