A new season has brought a new climate for New York Rangers prospects finding their way with Hartford of the American Hockey League.
"The whole culture here is different," said Hartford defenseman Ryan Graves, who is in his third season with the team.
Hartford finished last in the AHL last season with a 24-46-4-2 record and lacked enough top prospects to keep young talent flowing to New York.
Rangers management undertook a massive reconstruction project this past summer.
Assistant general manager Chris Drury became the new GM in Hartford. Drury's first move was to name Keith McCambridge as coach. McCambridge spent last season as an assistant with Hartford after five seasons as an AHL coach in the Winnipeg Jets' organization.
Next came a roster overhaul; five regulars were retained from last season. Hartford has eight rookies, plus 21-year-old goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who is in his first season in North America after playing three pro seasons in Europe.
The Rangers signed veteran AHL forwards Cole Schneider, captain Joe Whitney, and Eric Selleck to help the young players find their way and add some stability. Veteran forward Adam Cracknell, who has played 208 NHL regular-season games, was sent by the Rangers to Hartford last week; also, defenseman Ryan Sproul was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for forward Matt Puempel on Oct. 21.
"For development, this has been a good atmosphere," Graves said.
The early returns look promising. Although three regulation losses in its past four games have left Hartford with a 4-5-0-1 record, it's fifth in the very competitive Atlantic Division. Hartford won 5-4 on Saturday at Lehigh Valley, one of the top teams in the AHL.
Here are some of the players the Rangers will be monitoring as Hartford's remade roster is put to the test this season:
At 18 years old, the No. 21 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft already appears to have figured out the offensive side of the game in the AHL; he has eight points (three goals, five assists) in six games. Chytil, a center, has NHL-ready size (6-foot-2, 202 pounds) and on-ice vision to match.
McCambridge is taking a slow approach in managing the workload of Chytil, who played two games for the Rangers before being sent to the AHL. The rookie is a rink rat, so McCambridge has emphasized the need to preserve energy to handle the grind of a North American schedule.
The typical AHL rookie is 20 years old. The two-year age gap is significant, but Chytil's willingness to take on the challenge of the AHL impressed the organization.
"That two years, there is a little more polish," McCambridge said. "An 18-year-old, you can really see them wide-eyed, learning, and like a sponge taking everything in."
Pionk, 22, was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Rangers on May 1 after two seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
"A lot of teams were after him, so we're really happy we got him," McCambridge said.
A strong skater with an offensive eye and capable of moving the puck, Pionk (6-0, 190) is already playing in all situations for Hartford. Being a right-handed shot, something that's in short supply with the Rangers, gives Pionk another edge.
"He is close, really close," McCambridge said of Graves being ready for a job in New York. Hartford will rely on Graves, 22, to play against opponents' top lines. A fourth-round pick (No. 110) in the 2013 NHL Draft, Graves brings size (6-5, 226 pounds) and a powerful shot.
The Rangers asked Graves to make foot speed and strength his offseason priorities; Graves believed he did, and McCambridge said the training camp fitness results confirmed it.
"Things are trending in the right direction," Graves said. "I think my foot speed is getting better and better. I think it's pretty good, actually. I don't feel like l am ever getting beat or that there is anyone that is too fast for me."
A first-round pick (No. 19) by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2014 NHL Draft, DeAngelo, 22, is with his third NHL organization after the Rangers acquired him from the Arizona Coyotes in a trade on June 23. He started the season with the Rangers and had one assist in eight games before being sent to Hartford.
Combining a polished defensive game with his ample offensive talent is what can put DeAngelo (5-11, 181) in the NHL to stay. He had 43 points (six goals, 37 assists) as an AHL rookie with Syracuse two seasons ago.
Like many AHL coaches, McCambridge utilizes a leadership-by-committee approach. In starting a roster nearly from scratch, Rangers management had a simple priority.
"We wanted to make sure that we surrounded [prospects] with the right type of veteran players," McCambridge said.
Players like that are in demand, but Hartford has a mix of well-respected veterans that can help navigate younger players through early-season growing pains. Schneider is one of the most talented offensive players in the league, and Cracknell and Whitney each can play a top-line role.