by Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat
Vinni Lettieri led the Hartford Wolf Pack in goals last season as a rookie, with 23 in 55 games, and was able to match that total in only 43 AHL outings this year.
The former University of Minnesota Gopher recently had a four-game goal-scoring streak, in which he lit the lamp six times, including his first pro hat trick March 10 vs. Hershey, after a team season-high five-game streak earlier in the year. His most recent hot scoring coincides with playing on a line with fellow Ranger prospects Steven Fogarty and Ryan Gropp, and Lettieri points to the chemistry enjoyed by that trio as a key to what he has been able to do.
“I’m just having a lot of help from my linemates, I credit all my success to them,” he said. “I just continue to shoot the puck, like I always have. Sometimes the puck goes in a little more than others.”
While Lettieri seems certain to surpass his rookie-year goal threshold, and has been wiring the puck into some extremely small spaces behind opposing netminders lately, he maintains that he is not necessarily doing anything differently in his approach to shooting the puck.
“If you pick your corner anywhere, it’s probably going to go in, no matter what league you’re in,” Lettieri said. “I continued to work on my shot throughout the summer, like I always have, I didn’t put too much emphasis on changing my shot up at all, coming to the next level. The only thing I think that you could change is your release. That’s always been an emphasis of mine growing up, is just having a quick release, to surprise a goaltender.
“But once again, my linemates have been tremendous. The guys work so hard, so honestly it’s not really surprising to me, and that’s just kind of the culture we have around here. Even though we’re not sitting well in the standings, we continue to work on our game throughout each practice and each day, no matter if we’re winning or losing. It’s just got to stay consistent.”
Lettieri led the Wolf Pack club in shots on goal as the team headed into the final 10 games of the regular season, so it’s not like he was passing up a lot of shot opportunities, but given the power and accuracy of his shot, the Wolf Pack coaching staff, and even his linemates, have encouraged the 5-foot-11, 191-pound Lettieri to think shot even more. No hockey player wants to be thought of as selfish, but when you are possessed of as good a weapon as Lettieri’s shot, there can be such a thing as being too unselfish.
“You kind of do have to be selfish, in a way,” Lettieri agreed, “because you can’t have three passers on a line, and then you can’t have three shooters on a line. So that’s when it comes down to the coaching staff putting guys together that fit well. ‘Gropper’ will take his shots when he can, but he has that speed, and he can really break out of zones and help move the puck. And then you have ‘Fogs’, who’s an unbelievable puck-handler and usually finds me quite a bit. He’s usually thinking pass to me before he shoots, which is very unselfish, but that’s just the kind of guy he is, on and off the ice. For me, sometimes I can get a little bit unselfish. But we work on our shot all the time, so honestly it doesn’t matter who gets the shot on our line, we all three have really good shots, but if I get the opportunity, I’m most likely going to shoot.”
In the view of Lettieri’s centerman, Fogarty, Lettieri’s shooter’s mentality creates offense for the whole line.
“If it’s not in the net, there’s rebounds, and any time there’s rebounds, that’s when the other team starts to scramble,” Fogarty explained. “It’s a good way to create offense, whether it goes in or doesn’t go in. There’s always pucks laying around.”
“I like the speed of that line,” Wolf Pack head coach Keith McCambridge said of the Gropp-Fogarty-Lettieri troika. “Obviously Ryan can get up and down the ice real quick. Vinni has the same, that straight-line speed, and Steven sees the ice so well. He’s able to distribute it to both of them, and when we don’t have it, Steven’s one of those players that he’ll go and get it and be a retriever. And you’ve got two real good shooters that can find those openings when they’re exposed.”
Lettieri agreed, saying, “We’re moving the puck a lot to each other and just finding ways to get open. And when you get open, the puck’s usually on your tape. So we’ve been absolutely tremendous. Fogs is having a fantastic year, and so is Gropper. All three of us have been working pretty well together, and I think it’s not so much skill as it is hard work, and just finding that chemistry.”
The likes of Lettieri, Fogarty and Gropp also are representative of a crop of second- and third-year pros who have taken hold of much of the leadership responsibility on the Wolf Pack squad. The Hartford roster still includes experienced veterans like Matt Beleskey, Bobby Butler and Shawn O’Donnell, but the loss of former captain Cole Schneider, as well as Peter Holland, to trades left some leadership openings for younger regulars to step into.
“When I go on the ice, it’s really no longer about trying to be a leader or anything,” Lettieri said. “It’s just do what you do best, and I let that lead by example. I let my hard work and my on-ice stuff kind of lead, rather than me getting up there and saying something.
“I’ve prided myself on my hard work throughout my whole career, and it helps hanging around guys like Steven Fogarty a lot because they do the same thing. When you get a group of guys that work hard, it’s just really easy to go to work every day. And it’s really contagious in the room because now, at this time of the year, you’ve got about half the room gone from practice (on to the ice) 15 or 20 minutes ahead. So now people are almost challenging you, so you’ve got to get dressed a little bit earlier. It’s almost like a race to get out there. It’s really good to see because it just shows that no matter where you are in the standings, everyone still cares about their game.”
In McCambridge’s view, having younger players take more ownership in leading the team is the ideal situation for organizational growth.
“In my experience, that’s the way you want your team to progress,” the Wolf Pack bench boss said. “At the beginning of the year, you have some of your older veterans that are leading the way, that are taking bigger bites out of the minutes on the ice. But now, as you start to push your way through the season, what you want is that development, those younger players now starting to get a better understanding of how they need to play the game and the trials and tribulations of an American Hockey League season. And on the back half now, when your younger players have developed, now they’re taking those bigger bites out of the key minutes.”
The next challenge for Lettieri is to take the confidence he has generated with his Wolf Pack scoring numbers and translate that to the NHL level. He has gotten several looks from the parent New York Rangers, including the first month-and-a-half of this season and 19 games of action his rookie year, but the offensive production has not clicked yet at that level for the Excelsior, Minnesota, native. When the next chance at the big time comes, Lettieri does not plan on changing the approach that has made him such a dangerous player in the AHL.
“I think my mindset’s been the same,” he said. “I guess it’s just a little bit more difficult, with the role change and getting 20 minutes (of ice time) down here and six, seven minutes up there. It’s not that I don’t have the same mindset, it’s just that the roles are a little bit more limited, in terms of turnovers and getting in-zone pressure and whatnot. But whether I’m on the fourth line or first line, it doesn’t matter. When you get an opportunity to shoot, you’re going to shoot it.”
McCambridge feels that Lettieri is progressing nicely towards being a difference-maker at the next level.
“The thing for Vinni is, at this level here he’s leaned on a little bit more in an offensive role,” McCambridge said. “And it’s that balance in his game, where he’s creating scoring chances, but also playing through people, playing on the right side of the puck, those good habits that, when he gets his opportunity with the New York Rangers again, whatever line he slots into, third, fourth line, he’s playing the game the right way. He’s giving you that momentum, and he’s giving you that ability to defend well. But also if, in those roles, he gets the chance at that level, then you’re able to add some offense from him as well.”
Lettieri is keenly aware of that balance, and is candid in his assessment of his all-around game.
“I still have room for improvement,” he said. “It’s definitely a big emphasis of mine, that I’ve put on myself since I got to college. I think everyone at the University of Minnesota helped me a lot to become a better defensive player, and ever since I got here, the coaching staff here, and up top, have really helped me become a better defensive player too. I’ve really put a lot of emphasis on that, even though it might not look like it sometimes, at some points in the game.
“I think it all starts in the defensive zone because when you make that easy play to the middle, or the easy play off the wall to your linemate, it’s amazing how much easier the game becomes. You don’t really get bogged down in the defensive zone. I actually love the defensive zone, and just taking responsibility in that, and I think it all starts from there.”
McCambridge has recognized, and appreciated, that eagerness to improve.
“I like where his game’s at,” McCambridge said of Lettieri. “Vinni takes a lot of pride in his game. I’ve had lots of opportunities to sit down with him and have chalk-talk, also teach through video. He always comes to the rink with a purpose, whether it’s practices or games, that he wants to get himself back into the National Hockey League. We like the progress, where his game has gotten traction and building off playing that solid 200-foot game.”