Wolf Pack players buying what coaches are selling

by Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat

The 2019-20 Hartford Wolf Pack got off to the best start in the franchise’s 23-year history, losing only once in regulation in the first 17 games.

This was with an entirely new coaching staff, and the prevailing opinion inside the locker room seems to be that the biggest key to the quick getaway has been the level of “buy-in” among the players to the structure and culture the new coaches have sought to establish.

“I think all four lines, all six D, both goalies, everyone’s buying into their role,” first-year captain Steven Fogarty said recently, “no matter where they are in the lineup, doing the things the coaches want us to do. And when you have that collectively with everyone, it’s hard to beat. I think just resiliency, too, we’ve had a lot of times when we’ve been down at the end of games and found a way to come back, whether it’s one or two goals, and force an overtime and a shootout and at least get a point. So I think the buy-in, the resiliency, and kind of just never being satisfied, as a collective thing.”

Centerman Boo Nieves added, “We have a really good group of younger guys, and first-year guys, that have bought in to their role, and they’re doing exactly what we need them to do. And nobody really cares who scores that goal, whether it’s late or early or whatever. Guys are just buying in and sacrificing their bodies. We’ve blocked a lot of shots, and our defense has showed. We’re one of the top teams in the league in goals-against, everything. Everybody’s playing their part.”

From the coaches’ point of view, the level of positive response and contribution they have gotten from the team thus far has been gratifying.

“Our group of guys have been outstanding, right from day one, buying in and trying the systems we’ve been teaching,” new head coach Kris Knoblauch said. “Whatever system you have, there’s going to be breakdowns, and when there are breakdowns, that’s when you need your goaltender to make the big saves, and our goaltender has been making the big saves, whether it’s been Adam (Huska) or Igor (Shesterkin). They’ve been playing very well. But also, a lot of sacrifice from our players, defense and forwards blocking shots, especially late in games, when the other team’s pressing and looking for that equalizer. We’ve come up big with those key blocks, and that’s just a team mentality of wanting to win.”

That certainly appears to be a point of pride with the current Wolf Pack group, which has embraced the value of strong defensive-zone play.

Igor Shesterkin was the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month for October. (Photo: Micheline Veluvolu)

“I think as a team, we’ve established early that we want to have a strong commitment to our defensive zone, and our structure through the neutral zone,” said veteran defenseman Vincent LoVerde. “I think the players have bought in, and I think the coaches have done a good job preparing us for those games. The goals-against is kind of indicative of our goaltending and our structure in the ‘D’ zone and the neutral zone.”

“It’s not necessarily a defense-first mentality,” Nieves chimed in, “but when we are in our defensive zone, we’re making sure we’re not leaving the zone without the puck, and we’re making sure we’re blocking shots, staying on our man and just playing solid ‘D’.”

If there was another consistent theme in the Wolf Pack’s orbit through the first six weeks of the season, it was, as Fogarty articulated, “It doesn’t hurt to have those two guys in net, either.

“They’re giving us a chance to win every single night, no matter who’s in the net,” he continued, “and I certainly do think that breaking the puck out and whatnot has been huge this year, and we’re not spending a whole lot of time defending. But at the end of the day, you still need to have a goalie make some big, key saves at big times, and they’ve continued to do that every single game. So I think it’s a pretty good combination, being able to get the puck out of the zone, but also being able to keep it out of our net.”

Vinni Lettieri, the Wolf Pack’s leading goal-scorer the past two seasons, who was pacing the team in points as the quarter-pole of the season approached, raved that, “Our goalies are the backbone of our team right now. And obviously we’d like to help them out a little more, and not have them make ESPN saves every single night, but it’s fun to watch. They’ve been so good, and we’re really happy we have these guys. And it’s pretty amazing that we can just rotate them like we have been. It puts a lot of confidence, a lot of trust, in both the goalies. We’re super lucky to have them, and we’re just going to have to work that much harder in the ‘D’ zone to make their lives easier.”

For the goaltenders’ part, Huska said that, “It’s a big help, obviously, when you know you have guys in front of you who play their ‘A’ game, and that they can score a lot of goals. That makes you kind of comfortable going into games, and you feel that you just have to stop some big chances, just play a good game, and you’ll get a chance to win.

“Igor is a great guy, a great partner, on the ice and off the ice, and I think it’s good that we can push each other every game. I think that’s the big plus.”

As for what has contributed to the significant buy-in the coaches have received from the players, Lettieri said, “The coaches have been great for us. They’re very personable, working on a lot of clips with each individual guy. It’s not so much in a big group as it is individually. We’re doing a little bit of everything, we have our team meetings three or four times a week, and then we have our individual meetings occasionally as well. I think that’s helping a lot of guys, and we have a great group of guys here. Everyone has bought in, and you really just can’t hide anyone on a great team. That’s when you look at Stanley Cup teams, or whoever it is, who’s won championships, everyone buys in. And it doesn’t matter, from top to bottom, any guy could score at any given moment.”

There’s that “buy-in” again, and Fogarty analyzed, “I think it’s just the overall character of the guys. You’ve got to put your personal goals maybe aside, or just realize that when the team’s doing well, you’re going to have your individual success. And certainly the coaches, guys are trusting what they’re doing and buying into that, sacrificing personal accolades to overall help the team, and really focusing on what the coaches want us to do.”

“The coaches have been awesome,” Nieves said. “We’ve been winning, but they’ve been keeping us honest. Practices have been good, a lot of flow, a lot of skill. And I think we have a good group of leaders, a good group of older guys and veterans, and the younger guys have come in and they’ve wanted to do what need them to do. So it’s definitely a collective effort.”

Along with assistant coach David Cunniff and associate head coach Gord Murphy, Kris Knoblauch has brought a new culture to Hartford.

LoVerde noted that, “There’s been quite a few guys brought in who weren’t here last year, so that changes the chemistry of the team, but I think when you look around the locker room, we have a ton of great players and, on top of that, a ton of great people. So we enjoy being around the rink, we enjoy hanging out with each other, and I think that’s helped our early-season success so far.”

It’s not as though everything has gone the Wolf Pack’s way in the early going, either. The team lost its most productive forward, Filip Chytil, and defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who had been a top-pair guy, to recall to the parent New York Rangers October 28. Also, wingers Gabriel Fontaine and Matt Beleskey have missed significant time due to injuries, creating somewhat of a void on the left side. Improved depth throughout the organization, though, has helped mitigate the impact of those absences.

“In any organization, when somebody gets called up, it’s ‘next man up’,” Knoblauch said. “And we feel we’ve got some good players. We started opening night with some guys definitely capable of being in the American Hockey League that weren’t on our roster. Like (Ville) Meskanen, who had an excellent rookie season, he spent the majority of the first part of the season watching, not being able to play. But as guys moved on, and we had injuries, it allowed him to move up into our top nine, sometimes top six. And I think no matter what player, whether it’s ‘Mesky’ or another player, when called upon, they’ve stepped up and played well.”

The likes of Lewis Zerter-Gossage, Ty Ronning, Ryan Dmowski and Jeff Taylor have been brought in from the Wolf Pack’s ECHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners, and been integrated seamlessly, while others have climbed their way up the depth chart.

“We’ve had that ‘next man up’ mentality,” Nieves said. “Guys have gone down with injuries, and guys have stepped up and played well. And when guys get called up, guys have come up here, and they just want to make a difference. And they’ve done that.”

Fogarty added, “That’s one thing about this league, that there’s always turnover and you’re losing guys or gaining guys. When guys are being able to step into the lineup, they’re doing so very well and, again, buying into whatever role they’re put in and doing a good job at it. So it’s been huge.”

So far, so very good for the Wolf Pack, but there seems to be a keen sense throughout the roster that it is very early, and that many stiff challenges lay in the road ahead. The Wolf Pack have done themselves a big favor by chalking up so many points this early in the season, but there is plenty of work still to be done.

LoVerde, a player who has won two Calder Cups in his seven previous seasons as a rock-steady AHL blueliner, put it this way:

“I think we’ve got the guys, and the team, who will recognize that yes, we’ve gotten off to a good start, but we can’t be complacent, we can’t rest on our laurels of what we’ve accomplished so far. The AHL’s a tough league to play in, I think the guys recognize that. You have to be able to compete each and every single night, which we’ve done up to this point. That being said, we need to build on it. Teams are going to continue to get better throughout the league, and we need to continue to get better ourselves.”