Hartford Wolf Pack offseason to-do list highlighted by coaching decision

Steve Smith
Credit: Hartford Wolf Pack

The hockey season may be over, but it’s still going to be a busy summer for the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Interestingly, though, most of the heavy lifting for the 2024-25 roster has been done since the New York Rangers signed draft picks Victor Mancini, Dylan Roobroeck, Jaroslav Chmelar, Hugo Ollas and Byrce McConnell-Barker late this season and the youngsters already got their feet wet in the American Hockey League

There’ll still be some veteran minor-league additions to the roster this summer, but the roster is largely set.

Yet there’s still plenty of things going on with the Wolf Pack this offseason.

Let’s examine the top three areas on the Wolf Pack’s offseason to-do list.

Related: Early look at 2024-25 Wolf Pack roster, including Brennan Othmann

Rangers must decide who will coach Wolf Pack

Wolf Pack interim coach Steve Smith
Credit: Hartford Wolf Pack

After the Edmonton Oilers hired Kris Knoblauch away from the Wolf Pack in November, Steve Smith was named interim coach and guided Hartford into the Calder Cup Playoffs, where they were eventually swept, again, by the Hershey Bears in the Atlantic Division Final.

It is believed the Rangers are interviewing candidates to coach the Wolf Pack next season, including Smith, who could have the interim tag removed.

The next head coach must continue to develop prospects in a winning culture. A critical role in the organization, Hartford’s next coach is responsible to oversee the next batch of potential candidates for the big club. The Rangers turned around their AHL franchise with the hiring of Knoblauch in July 2019. Gradually, Knoblauch shifted the culture while the Rangers retooled with veterans who fit general manager Chris Drury’s mold of having NHL experience and ability to be productive in the AHL, like Riley Nash and Jake Leschyshyn.

This coaching hire may take a while. Knoblauch’s hiring was announced on July 29, 2019 after the Rangers interviewed numerous candidates.

Last season was Smith’s first opportunity to lead a bench after being an NHL assistant with the Calgary Flames, Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres between 1997-2021, and then with the Wolf Pack from 2021 to when he was named interim coach. Smith had a tough task of leading the group that dealt with injuries and call ups all throughout the year. While there was success and struggles under his tenure, Smith’s biggest upside was his ability to get buy-in from players regardless of contract. The Wolf Pack fought in each game last season and players from the ECHL and tryouts provided impacts in their brief stint. He trusted the roster and it delivered when the time was needed, especially in the late stages of the season and playoffs.

We will see, though, if the Rangers believe Smith is the right choice to remain in charge or if they possibly seek a younger coach on the rise like Knoblauch.

Related: Brennan Othmann among three players who could Rangers lineup next season

Wolf Pack home in line for upgrades

The Wolf Pack’s home, the XL Center, turns 50 years old in 2025. Major upgrades have been needed for years, and now it appears the former home of the Hartford Whalers in the NHL will receive somewhat of a facelift.

Wolf Pack fans know the long road of plans to upgrade the ageing venue. A decade of numerous attempts to modernize the XL Center struggled as the state-operated building was not a priority in Connecticut’s legislature. Overseeing renovations and the building is the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA).

Over the past two years, XL Center’s operator, Oak View Group (OVG), had interest to assist in building upgrades, and the CRDA and OVG are in the midst of finalizing a public-private partnership to modernize the home of the Wolf Pack. Finally.

The current plan had a budget of $107 million. However, after review of bids, CRDA went back to the drawing board when the state provided additional funding for renovations ($80 to $125 million) as the estimates were exceeded by $40 million. Now, CRDA is reviewing the latest round of bids and if the money shakes out well, the partnership will commence and upgrades will happen.

This is significant for the Rangers AHL affiliate as this will provide long-term stability. In addition, the partnership includes a structure change as OVG would be responsible for operating deficits (instead of Connecticut) and profits would be shared if they reach a certain threshold. Wolf Pack games are beginning to draw well with OVG focusing on the team’s revenue. Since the 2021-22 season, Hartford experienced a 56 percent increase in ticket sales.

The summer of 2024 is a crucial time for the Wolf Pack and XL Center.

Wolf Pack need new lease to remain in Hartford

Tied to building upgrades indirectly, the Wolf Pack are expected to sign a new lease at XL Center. In the AHL, long-term leases are considered five years or more. In recent years, Providence (Boston Bruins) and Bridgeport (New York Islanders) have renewed leases for 10 years. The Wolf Pack are coming off a five-year deal, which began before the 2018-19 season and concluded in 2023-24 (an extension was granted due to the postponed COVID-19 season).

While there was uncertainty with the XL Center, the Wolf Pack’s lease was designed as a two-year deal with three one-year renewal options. The new lease could be structured differently as it’s expected this new lease will mirror the fate of renovations. If all goes well, the Rangers could have a long-term lease for their minor-league affiliate. In past years, the Rangers have commented on their relationship, emphasizing they are happy to be in Hartford and are satisfied with the relationship.

Ricky Milliner is a Hartford Wolf Pack season ticket holder. While growing up, he discovered hockey by attending a... More about Ricky Milliner

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