For fans of the Hartford Wolf Pack, it might take a little time to get used to all of the new faces around the Civic Center these days. Entering their sixth season, the Wolf Pack underwent a major facelift this past summer, with the addition of a new coaching staff and several new, younger players.
The changes began on June 27 when Hartford General Manager Al Coates named Ryan McGill the third head coach in team history, and paired him up with long-time Rangers and Whalers fan favorite Nick Fotiu, who was named assistant coach. McGill, who at 33 is the youngest head coach in the AHL, impressed Rangers management with his structured systems and his attention to detail with younger players. Having captured the 2002 Memorial Cup as head coach of the Kootenay Ice, the former NHL defenseman is excited about taking the next step at the AHL level.
“I have some big shoes to fill, but I’m excited,” said McGill, who replaced long-time Wolf Pack coach John Paddock. “It’s going to be a younger team and I think winning is very important to develop younger players. That goes hand in hand. And I think it’s great that fans expect winning teams. If you don’t put any pressure on yourself to try to win at the same time you develop, then why are you here?”
The steady development of prospects is what the Rangers are excited about under the McGill-Fotiu tandem. When the organization made the decision not to pick up the contracts of veterans Jason Dawe, Brad Smyth and Terry Virtue over the summer, they made their decision with the intent of passing along that valuable ice time to youngsters such as Mike Mottau, Fedor Tutin, Garth Murray, Patrick Aufiero, David Inman, Bobby Andrews, Layne Ulmer and Benoit Dusablon, a mix of Blueshirt draft choices and free agents acquired over the past few summers. By giving these players more responsibility and added ice time, the Rangers are hoping to develop a strong ‘feeder system’ to the NHL in the near future.
Like most AHL teams, this Hartford squad is still a mix of talented youngsters and seasoned veterans. Captain Ken Gernander was re-signed on July 15, beginning his ninth season in the Rangers organization, and will be looked upon, once again, to be the leader of this group. In addition, the Rangers added free agent forwards Ted Donato and Nils Ekman and defensemen Vladimir Chebaturkin and Joel Bouchard to help in the ‘experience’ category with over 1,100 combined NHL games listed on their resumes.
While the Wolf Pack have lost Jamie Lundmark, who earned AHL All-Rookie honors in 2001-02 and earned a roster spot with New York after an impressive Training Camp, they gained forwards Rico Fata and Roman Lyashenko and defensemen Tomas Kloucek and Mike Mottau, who were among the last cuts to the Blueshirt roster just a few weeks ago. These players, who will unquestionably work to get back to Broadway during the season, will provide valuable skills and leadership to the team.
Size and toughness is also a component that Coates and Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather have addressed. With the addition of free agents Garrett Burnett (6’3, 242 pounds) and Dean Arsene (6’2, 210 pounds) and Gordie Dwyer (6’3, 215 pounds) via trade with Tampa Bay last week, the Pack will have their share of players who are willing and able to defend themselves as well as stick up for their teammates when things get rough. Also add rugged forward Richard Scott to the mix, who is recovering from a season-ending knee injury suffered last season.
Between the pipes, the Wolf Pack are looking strong with a trio who each are capable of being the number one goaltender. Johan Holmqvist, Jason LaBarbera and Scott Meyer have combined for 106 AHL games over the last two seasons, providing McGill with many options as the season rolls along.
As fans catch a glimpse of the players early this season, many new faces will be revealed. Change isn’t always easy, but fans will find out shortly that this new-look group that has been assembled will be an exciting team to watch in 2002-03.