AHL training camps to be littered with NHL talent
'This has to be the best crop of players league has ever seen,’'says Crunch GM
Gifted young players like Jeff Skinner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will report to training camp this week, but it will be in the American Hockey League and not the locked-out NHL.
Most of the 30 teams in North America's top minor league will start with physical testing either Thursday or Friday before beginning on-ice workouts to get ready for what could be a wild season in the AHL. The regular season opens Oct. 12.
The last NHL lockout in 2004-05 saw some youngsters like Jason Spezza, Mike Cammalleri and Eric Staal sent back to the AHL for the season, but that was a trickle compared to the flood of talent this time around.
Jordan Eberle, Adam Henrique, Adam Larsson, Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Jake Gardiner, Alex Burmistrov and Slava Voynov are among players already established, at least to some degree, in the NHL who have been assigned to AHL clubs.
Top prospects who likely would have started the season in the NHL but will instead play in the second-tier league include Ryan Johansen, Sven Baertschi, Cody Hodgson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Zack Kassian, Nino Niederreiter, Nazem Kadri, Brett Connolly, Louis Leblanc and Ryan Ellis.
Depending on how long the NHL lockout lasts, it could be a spectacular season for the 77-year-old AHL, which had a big boost in attendance during the last NHL lockout.
"I look at the names on some of the rosters and this has to be the best crop of players the league has ever seen," said Julien BriseBois, general manager of Syracuse Crunch, the Tampa Bay Lightning's top farm club.
"We're excited to see how much the level goes up and which teams take best advantage of the players that have fallen into their laps."
The big winner should be the Edmonton Oilers' affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, where coach Todd Nelson will have Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and top U.S. college free agent Justin Schultz join a club already well-stocked with skilled skaters, including speedy Magnus Paajarvi.
Nelson said adding three top talents to his 16 returning players should make for a very competitive team. It could have been four if 2010 first overall draft pick Taylor Hall was not exempted due to injury.
"We felt we had a strong team going in," Nelson said. "With the addition of these three high-level players, it's exciting."
The puzzle for all AHL coaches and managers is that they have no idea how long they will have their best players. The lock-out could end at any time and the Skinners and Eberles will then go back to the NHL.
"It's the AHL, so it's like that anyway," Nelson said. "Guys get called up during the season and it's not that much different.
"Once the lockout ends, those three and probably two or three others will go up. The last couple of years, Edmonton had a lot of injuries and our team changed quite a bit. You just try to do the best possible."
Tampa Bay's top team, the Norfolk Admirals, steamrolled their way to a Calder Cup last season, at one point winning a record 28 regular season games in a row.
But the Lightning have moved their affiliation to Syracuse to be closer to a cluster of opponents in the northeast. Norfolk is now the Anaheim Ducks' farm team.
BriseBois said the Norfolk owners held a banner-raising ceremony in the rink for the 2011-12 team before they left for their new home New York State.
Connolly on board
He said about 60 per cent of the players are back, and the Bolts have sent their most promising young forward Brett Connolly to Syracuse for however long the lockout lasts.
"It might be the best thing that ever happened to him," said BriseBois. "It gives him an opportunity to play a big role on that team and to learn how to play that role at that level."
The Crunch and Norfolk play in the East Division, where the Binghamton Senators will have a regular from the Ottawa defence, Jared Cowan, on the blue-line, along with hot prospects Mika Zibanejad and Jacob Silfverberg. Their camp opens Thursday.
The Toronto Marlies, the Maple Leaf's farm club, were swept in the final by Norfolk and will be gunning to get at least that far again with regular Leafs rearguard Gardiner and forward prospect Kadri in the lineup, as well as Leo Komarov, a former Dynamo Moscow forward who signed with the Leafs.
Their North Division rival, the Hamilton Bulldogs, will have players with NHL experience with the Montreal Canadiens like Leblanc, Mike Blunden and Aaron Palushaj, but most of the attention will be on a crop of junior graduates that includes Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu, Brandon Gallagher and Memorial Cup winners Michael Bournival and Morgan Ellis.
The Calgary Flames' farm team, the Abbottsford Heat, is also in the division and will have the 19-year-old Baertschi among its prospects to watch.
The Winnipeg Jets have their top team, the St. John's IceCaps, open camp on Monday bolstered by Burmistrov. The IceCaps will play three pre-season games against Syracuse in Newfoundland.
Zack Kassian and Chris Tanev will be with the Chicago Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks' farm club.
The players will get their first experience of some new rules that will be tested in the AHL this season.
They include minor penalties for covering the puck with a glove and for batting the puck with a hand in order to win a faceoff.
The league will also try the "hybrid" icing rule, in which the whistle is blown when the puck crosses the end zone faceoff dots instead of the goal line. The aim is to reduce injury-causing collisions from players racing to be first to touch the puck. The rule will be enforced until Nov. 19, at which point a decision will be made on whether to continue.