Locke too talented to languish in AHL: Kilrea
Canadian jr. hockey's winningest coach says centre needs to be given offensive role in NHL
The more accolades Corey Locke receives, the more it makes Brian Kilrea shake his head.
Locke’s latest honour was being named an American Hockey League all-star for the sixth time, tying a league record. Not bad considering the reigning league MVP has played only 25 of 46 games this season for the Binghamton Senators because of a broken wrist.
"I feel sorry for him. Every year … he’s gone out there and put up numbers," said Kilrea, Locke’s former junior coach with the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s, who watched him get held off the scoresheet in Monday night’s 70th AHL all-star game, won 8-7 in a shootout by the Western Conference over Locke and his East teammates.
"Next thing you know you’re taking a look around and somebody else on your team has gone up [to the NHL] and stayed. That’s when it gets a little discouraging, I’m sure."
Despite leading four different teams in scoring the past four years — Hamilton, Houston, Hartford and Binghamton of the AHL — Locke hasn’t been able to get more than a sniff at the National Hockey League level.
He played one game for the Montreal Canadiens in the 2007-08 season, the team that drafted the former 67’s star centre in the fourth round (113th overall) in 2003.
Locke signed with the New York Rangers in July 2009 but managed just three games in his one and only season with the NHL squad.
'He’s gifted offensively so give him something to work with and see if he can produce at [the NHL] level. Don’t say: "Here’s a checking line.'— Retired OHL coach Brian Kilrea on former 67's star Corey Locke
He returned to Ottawa in the summer of 2010, signing a two-year deal with the Senators that expires at the end of this season. Locke has played just five games with the parent club, recording an assist, while setting career bests in assists (65), points (86) and plus/minus last season in 69 games with Binghamton.
Top Canadian junior
Kilrea, who watched Locke lead the OHL in 2003 with 151 points and capture Canadian Hockey League player of the year honours, said an NHL club needs to give him time in an offensive role.
"He’s gifted offensively," Kilrea said in a phone interview, "so give him something to work with and see if he can produce at [the NHL] level. Don’t say, ‘Here’s a checking line.’"
Kilrea figured the five-foot-nine, 180-pound Locke would be given an opportunity at full-time NHL employment with Montreal in the 2005-06 season after one year apprenticing with its AHL in Hamilton, where he posted 43 points in 78 games.
But the Toronto native had to wait three more years for a one-game stint, and another two seasons after that for another chance to stick in the NHL.
"In the National Hockey League, unless you’re on the first line, they expect everyone to go out and finish their check," said Kilrea, who retired as the winningest coach in CHL history in 2009 and now works as a part-time scout with the 67’s after two years as general manager.
"Corey’s the offensive talent. He didn’t really have to go out and finish his checks [in junior]. He had to worry about avoiding someone finishing their check. It got to be where [NHL] teams [were] looking for the stereotype player. They’re always looking for someone that goes up and down the ice and finishes their check hard."
Well, that wasn't the case Monday night in Atlantic City, N.J., as the AHL all-stars followed the lead of the NHL with its no-hit tilt.
All-star scoring leader
Locke attempted to pad his own league record of 11 all-star game points, fresh off an impressive performance in Sunday’s AHL all-star skills competition in which he won his heat in the Puck Control Relay and beat St. Louis Blues goalie prospect Ben Bishop during the Pass and Score event.
In Ottawa, the Senators have a good thing going this season as they sit sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 27-19-6 record coming out of the all-star break, meaning Locke’s next chance in the NHL probably won’t come unless a centre goes down with an injury.
"I think he’s got a lot of career ahead of him. You never lose sight, you never quit," Kilrea said. "There’s no quit in Corey. There’s nothing he can’t do."
Kilrea recalled the Calgary Flames giving up on a diminutive forward at age 28 in 2000, only to watch him take off in Tampa Bay and win the Hart Trophy winner as the NHL’s most valuable player. His name? Martin St. Louis.
"It’s just timing," said Kilrea. "Martin St. Louis wasn’t very highly thought of until [Tampa Bay] gave him a chance to see how good he was.
"Maybe someday someone will see it and recognize it [in Locke] and give him a chance and be pleasantly surprised. You take a look at all the teams that aren’t going to make [the NHL playoffs] this year and if they can get a player like Corey … he may be a good buy."
Until then, Kilrea will continue shaking his head.