Defending the Pack: a look at Hartford’s impressive defense
On October 27th, 2019, the Hartford Wolf Pack played the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, their in-state rivals, at Webster Bank Arena. This was a game where the Pack had fallen behind during the second period but came back to win in overtime 3-2 on a goal by defenseman Darren Raddysh.
At this point of the season, the Wolf Pack had recorded a standings point in all nine games they had played, including that game in Bridgeport, going 8-0-0-1 in that span. A big reason for the excellent start had to do with the play of defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who was among the final cuts made by the Rangers before the beginning of the season despite a good camp. Even Rangers head coach David Quinn had commented that Lindgren was right on the doorstep of being called up. In those nine games, Lindgren had a highlight-reel goal in the Pack’s second game of the season and an assist in their shutout win over Springfield. He also was a +8 with six penalty minutes.
The following day, October 28th, he and forward Filip Chytil were called up by the parent club and inserted right into the lineup, picking up right where he left off and with very little sign of a return to Trumbull St. any time soon. This no doubt was a blow to the Wolf Pack’s defense, as he had played a big part in their improved play early on in the 2019-20 season, and it showed early on.
The first game played by the Wolf Pack without Ryan Lindgren wasn’t pretty as they fell 4-1 to the Laval Rocket on October 30th, and then dropped their next two in shootouts against the aforementioned Rocket and the Belleville Senators by scores of 2-1 and 5-4, respectively. In those games, the Pack defense didn’t look as sharp as they had in previous games and produced a couple of costly turnovers that led to some goals against.
Veteran defenseman Vincent LoVerde had paired with Lindgren while he was in Hartford and continued to show why the Pack had signed him, a solid defender with a little bit of scoring touch while Lindgren got most rushes started and provided grit on the back end. Since then, LoVerde has still been good but not as good, a couple of mistakes here and there. But, after a few games, he has seemed to adjust to the new pairings, particularly with Darren Raddysh. Not just LoVerde, but the rest of the defense needed some adjustment as Lindgren had shown himself to be an up and coming team leader – who was selected as an alternate captain. His departure meant players needed to step up big time on a team that was already relying hard on the defense to keep them in many low scoring games.
Among the surprises this season have been Joey Keane and Mason Geertsen. Keane was a much talked about defenseman during his time in Rangers camp last season and in the Ontario Hockey League, where he scored eight goals to go with 31 assists in 66 games with Barrie and London. Having his ticket to Hartford in hand, especially after Tony DeAngelo was signed, Keane has been on a tear to begin his pro career with 10 points (6G, 4A), which is second on the team to Vinni Lettieri and tied for fourth in the AHL amongst rookies. His six goals are also good for second in the league amongst rookies with Owen Tippett of Springfield just ahead of him. Those six goals also lead all AHL defensemen in the category. His defense is suspect at times, but it appears Joey Keane could be a steal for the Rangers.
Mason Geertsen was brought in by the Pack on a tryout in camp after spending four seasons in the Colorado organization and earned himself a contract with his size, grit, and speed. He has the Wolf Pack’s only fighting major this season and has proven he can take some punishment. Not known for offense, even during his days playing for Edmonton and Vancouver of the WHL in juniors, Geertsen certainly impressed during training camp and is quickly becoming a fan favorite in Hartford with the way he plays.
Sean Day was another highly touted defensive prospect while in juniors after putting up some good offensive numbers, particularly during 2016-17 with the Windsor Spitfires, where he scored 12 goals to go with 20 assists in 58 games. Day joined the Pack to start the 2018-19 season but got off to a rough start that saw him assigned to the Maine Mariners of the ECHL. He played well enough to be named to the ECHL All-Star game but was called back up to Hartford and hasn’t looked back. This season started well for Day with an overtime winner against Bridgeport in the second game of the season.
So far, his season hasn’t been as bad as it was last year, but he was expected to produce a little more; it just hasn’t happened yet. A couple of costly turnovers haven’t helped, and he’s been a healthy scratch for a couple of the Pack’s games. That being said, his last few games show he’s been working on getting things turned around. Let’s hope he keeps trending up.
Nick Ebert, Darren Raddysh, and Jeff Taylor complete the Pack’s defense corps and have been generally solid for Kris Knoblauch’s squad. Ebert started the season with Belleville and played in only one game before being acquired by the Rangers as part of the trade for Vladislav Namestnikov and has two goals and an assist in nine games for Hartford – including the tying goal against Laval on October 25th.
As mentioned, the solid and reliable Darren Raddysh was acquired last season in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for Peter Holland. Raddysh has two goals and two assists, which includes the OT winner in Bridgeport before the Lindgren call up.
Lastly, Jeff Taylor, who has seen the least amount of action of any Wolf Pack defenseman this season, has made the best of his time on ice with an assist in two games. Taylor had spent the last three seasons split between the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and their ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers, before signing an AHL deal with the Pack this offseason.
The Wolf Pack came into this season with high hopes for their defense and haven’t been disappointed despite losing Ryan Lindgren to recall and a slump that saw them go winless in the three games since. This past weekend seemed to show that they might be getting themselves back in order and rebuilding some chemistry after a pair of wins against the Hershey Bears this past Friday and the Providence Bruins this past Sunday.
It also can’t be stated enough that the coaching has a lot to do with the success of the Wolf Pack defense, who’ve also allowed the second-fewest goals in the AHL only trailing Utica. Joe Mormina and Keith McCambridge didn’t have what it took, but early indications are that Kris Knoblauch, David Cuniff, and Gord Murphy do. There’s still a lot of hockey left in this season, but if the Pack can keep their defense playing the way they have the first 15 games of the season, which has propelled them to the best 15 game start to a season in franchise history, the future will look very bright.