2019-20 Wolf Pack season on hold awards
In the 3 weeks since the shutdown of the AHL season due to the current COVID-19 situation, there is still a lot of uncertainty as to what the future holds for the league in regards to the remainder of the 2019-20 season. On March 16th, the AHL announced that play was to remain suspended through the month of April and likely into May with players given the option to return home in the meantime. On Tuesday word came out that the NHL recommended players remain in quarantine through April 15th and would expect the AHL to recommend the same.
Some teams, including the Wolf Pack, Bridgeport and Binghamton, have even taken steps to melt their ice as a means of cost saving as arenas aren’t generating enough revenue to justify the extra expense with the season on hold. Teams have also refunded or working towards refunding season ticket holders for the regular season games that won’t be played. With that in mind, I take a look at the Wolf Pack’s season to this point and hand out a couple of individual awards along with a summary of the season to this point.
Unsung Hero: Mason Geertsen
The Rangers annually have awarded the Steven McDonald Extra Effort award to the player that goes above and beyond the call of duty. If the Wolf Pack had such an award to give a player, for this season it would be defenseman Mason Geertsen. Always one to put forth a tireless effort, Geertsen became a favorite with Wolf Pack fans for his hustle, toughness on the ice, unwillingness to back down for a challenge and always be one to stick up for his teammates. Geertsen came to Hartford after 5 years in the Avs organization via tryout in training camp impressing enough to earn an AHL contract for this season. He took advantage of the opportunity with his hustle and gritty play to show Chris Drury that right choice was made and appears to be the case.
While his 8 assists in 60 games played this season don’t jump off of the stat sheet by any means but more than makes up for it with big hits, good defense and playing with an edge but within limits for the most part. With Geertsen is only signed for this season, the hope is that he does stay in Hartford beyond this season as his contributions have played a large part in what has been a turnaround season for the Wolf Pack.
Top Goaltender: Igor Shesterkin
Hartford was abuzz with the news that The Czar was coming in to start his first season in North America with the Wolf Pack. With the stats and hype about his lights out play in the KHL, everyone knew to take the Pack seriously so long as Igor was in goal. Going into the season as the Pack’s number one over Adam Huska, Shesterkin won his first 5 starts allowing one goal or less in 4 of those 5 which included a shutout. Shesterkin would go on to play an additional 20 games with the Pack and post a record of 17-4-3 with a 1.90 GAA and a .934 save percentage with 3 shutouts.
Despite being called up to New York in January 6th and making only 2 AHL starts since then, Shesterkin’s GAA and save percentage still rank 2nd in the AHL. His play with the Rangers this season has also been as advertised, if not better, and has him poised to be the number one next season with the Blueshirts. Igor Shesterkin is a generational talent among goaltenders and has been the biggest key in the Pack’s 2019-20 season and is the Pack’s top goaltender this season in my book.
Most Improved Player: Vitali Kravtsov
Another Rangers prospect that came to Hartford with the hype of being a 9th overall pick, Vitali Kravtsov, like Igor Shesterkin, was sent to the Pack to begin his first pro season in North America. Unlike Igor, Kravtsov stumbled out of the gate. His early season play was subpar at best, finding himself benched late in games, not playing above the 3rd line and even a healthy scratch early in the season. After 5 games and only 1 assist, Kravtsov decided to exercise his European Assignment Clause and went back to Russia. Kravtsov returned to the Pack in December as the Rangers wanted to take hold of his development. Since returning, Kravtsov found himself playing important minutes and on the power play scoring 6 goals to go with 8 assists in the 34 games since his return.
While he’s made improvements to his game since returning from Russia, he still to find some consistency but does find himself in a position to challenge for a roster spot in New York next season. Vitali Kravtsov has a future with the Rangers and will look to keep the trend going up.
Team MVP: Vinni Lettieri
Entering his third season in the Rangers organization, Vinni Lettieri had yet to establish himself with the Blueshirts and found himself back in Hartford this season. Lettieri managed 9 points in his first 9 games of the season plateaued by the end of November with 15 points (6 goals, 9 assists) in 21 games but many began to question why he had and if he could turn things around. Come December, Lettieri’s season began to turn around as he would go on to score 19 goals and net 13 assists for 32 points in his next 40 games played to bring his season totals to a career high 25 goals which also rank 10th in the AHL, 22 assists fo 47 points, one shy of his career high of 48 points. This surge in offense was enough to earn Lettieri a selection to the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic in Ontario to replace Igor Shesterkin on the Atlantic Division roster where he would go on to score 3 goals and pick up a pair of assists.
With all of the hype surrounding the drama of Vitali Kravtsov and the spectacular goaltending of Igor Shesterkin and with support from line mates such as Matt Beleskey and Steven Fogarty, Vinni Lettieri has managed his best AHL season to date. While Lettieri appears to be heading for free agency this summer, it’s still unclear whether he stays or will go but regardless of what happens, no question that Vinni Lettieri has been the Pack’s most valuable player during the 2019-20 season.
Summing Up the Season Thus Far
With the arrival of John Davidson and his decree that more attention would be centered on player development here in Hartford, many predicted the Wolf Pack would improve after finishing below .500 in 2 of the prior 3 seasons and missing the playoffs the last 4 seasons. Overall, the Pack made great strides this season compared to the prior 4 years. A fresh face behind the bench in Kris Knoblauch, captain Steven Fogarty leading the way on the ice, Matt Beleskey and Vincent LoVerde providing a veteran presence, Vinni Lettieri and Phil di Giuseppe getting pucks to the net, LoVerde with Darren Raddysh leading an improved defense corps, role players like Patrick Newell and Nick Jones playing at key points ahead of Igor Shesterkin and Adam Huska in goal. This year’s Pack team had something great in the works and were on their way to heights that had not been reached in years.
Unfortunately, like the rest of the AHL, roster moves are a plenty and the Pack weren’t immune. The trading of All-Star Joey Keane to Carolina dealt a blow to the defense for which they had yet to recover from prior to the season being suspended. Phil di Giuseppe being called up to New York due to injuries and playing well enough to stay in the lineup with the Rangers over their last several games. Igor Shesterkin’s recall to New York in January leaving rookie Adam Huska as the number one goaltender for a period of time until the Rangers traded for JF Berube from the Flyers. While Huska had many good moments, his overall play was nowhere near the level of Shesterkin and Berube had yet to settle in before the suspension of the season.
Those factors saw the Pack fall from atop the Atlantic Division and among the top teams in the league to fighting for their playoff lives. For this reason, if I had to give the 2019-20 Hartford Wolf Pack’s season, to this point, a letter grade it would be a C+/B-. While this team showed a lot of promise, they began to run out of gas after losing players like Keane, di Giuseppe and Shesterkin as the offense was often stymied, the defense began to show some holes and the goaltending wasn’t as sharp. The future of the team does remain bright with the likelihood of recent signings Patrick Khodorenko, Mike O’Leary, Alex Whalen to an AHL deal as possible roster players next season and possibly Tyler Wall and K’Andre Miller being in the mix. Even though it’s becoming more and more doubtful that the season will continue and a Calder Cup champion would be crowned as each day passes with no hockey, this Wolf Pack team and the New York Rangers have given fans something to look forward to for next year and years to come.