Fri, November 5, 2004
Pack hope Hamilton is the missing piece
By Patrick Williams
Jeff Hamilton led the AHL with 43 goals during the 2003-04 season.
The one, um, weakness that the Hartford Wolf Pack bore in 2003-04 was
the lack of a bona fide goal scorer.
Even so, on their way to a regular-season Eastern Conference title
last season the Wolf Pack picked up Alexandre Giroux from Binghamton
and Hamilton?s Jozef Balej, two dangerous offensive weapons added to
head coach Ryan McGill?s lineup.
Only the lights-out play of Andy Chiodo and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
Penguins in the Eastern Conference finals denied the Wolf Pack a
meeting with the eventual Calder Cup champion Milwaukee Admirals.
McGill?s club remained remarkably intact over the summer, losing
Jamie Pushor and Cory Larose most notably. For all their success last
season, Hartford was a very young team, doing it mostly with
prospects rather than a crew of AHL veterans. With no NHL this
season, youngsters that might have earned jobs with the New York
Rangers, players like Fedor Tyutin and Jed Ortmeyer, stayed in
And adding Blair Betts, intriguing rookie defenseman Maxim Kondratiev
and stay-at-home blueliner Jeff MacMillan made up for the roster
All in all, the Wolf Pack found themselves in good shape heading into
training camp this past September, and Hartford was the trendy pick
of many to challenge the Senators for top billing in the Eastern
Conference this season.
But that is where Wolf Pack management came into play. Recognizing
that perhaps the roster lacked a bona fide sniper to compete with
some of the offensive firepower around the Eastern Conference,
general manager Jim Schoenfeld went to work.
After a stretch of sour, indifferent hockey from a dour crew of
veterans a couple of seasons back, the Wolf Pack have regained their
spot as perhaps the Eastern Conference?s top power.
Trying to rebuild an organization at the AHL level is a tricky
proposition at best, something akin to hitting a moving target as
recalls and steady player movement play havoc with AHL rosters.
But Schoenfeld has concocted the right mix of player development and
winning hockey in Hartford. In doing so, he has worked to satisfy a
demanding hockey crowd in Hartford, all the while grooming prospects
for future work in New York.
So, thats where Jeff Hamilton comes into the picture. Still young
enough to have some developmental upside, he was a 43-goal scorer
with Bridgeport and picked up the AHL?s Willie Marshall Award for
leading the league in goals. He squeezed in his NHL debut with the
New York Islanders and spent time with Team USA in the 2004 World
Championships in the Czech Republic. An AHL First-Team All-Star, he
also appeared in the 2004 AHL All-Star Classic in Grand Rapids.
Certainly not a bad breakout season for Hamilton, who had spent time
in Finland before catching on with the Sound Tigers.
Hamilton set about this summer to find a contract for 2004-05. Coming
off his 2003-04 season, his expectations were high, apparently a
little too lofty for Islanders management. Negotiations with the
Islanders stagnated well into September, leaving Hamilton with the
possibility of the hockey season starting and him out of a job.
With Hamilton floating around out there on the free-agent market,
Schoenfeld acted. Hartford had plenty to offer the 27-year-old
Hamilton and signed him to an AHL contract on Oct. 10, just six days
before the season opener.
The Connecticut factor also came into play for Hamilton, who grew up
in-state and played college hockey at Yale. Hartford, like
Bridgeport, offers Hamilton a chance to stay close to home.
Connecticut also indirectly factored into Hamiltons thinking in that
the Wolf Pack and Sound Tigers are just 55 miles apart and meet up on
a regular basis. Seeing the Wolf Pack last season, Hamilton found the
Hartford to be a very familiar bunch.
Even more familiar for Hamilton was the game that Hartford also
plays, a team-wide system that is mostly similar to that employed in
Bridgeport. McGills defensively oriented system emphasizes a net-on-
out approach. The goals come from bearing down and capitalizing on
scoring opportunities when they come about.
Hamilton has been slow to start with the Wolf Pack. Having missed all
but the final few days of the preseason after signing with the Wolf
Pack, he has been working himself into game shape.
Through four games, he managed to collect a goal and an assist before
spraining an ankle last weekend at Portland.
If Wolf Pack management finally locked up Hamilton, it was Wolf Pack
back-up netminder Steve Valiquette, a close friend and former Sound
Tigers teammate of Hamilton's. Valiquette went about selling Hamilton
on the virtues of playing up I-91 in Hartford and helped sell the
forward on life with the Wolf Pack and McGill.
Hamilton played under Bridgeport head coach Greg Cronin, a solid
player-oriented coach, something that will appeal to any player.
McGill is considered a top-notch players coach, widely known around
AHL circles for his teaching skills. Demanding and something of a
perfectionist, McGill also has a very patient side and righted the
career paths of several young Rangers prospects over the past two
Explains Hamilton: I heard a lot of good things about how hes a good
teacher of the game. Thats what Im here for. Im still developing.