AHL should enjoy renaissance during NHL lockout

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AHL should enjoy renaissance during NHL lockout

NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. Its widely acknowledged in hockey circles the 2004-05 AHL season was the best in recent memory of the league.

Why wouldnt it be, of course, given the caliber of skaters playing in the league for a full 80-game season while the NHL players were locked out?

Patrice Bergeron, Jason Spezza, Eric Staal and Jay Bouwmeester were among the notable young and inexperienced NHL players shipped to the AHL during that season.

They turned it into a year-long highlight reel for the league while so many other players retreated to Europe just as theyre doing right now.

Staal, Chuck Kobasew, Chad LaRose and Cam Ward were among a star-studded group of Lowell Lock Monsters when the local team still served as the minor league affiliation for the Carolina Hurricanes. Hockey fans in the area still talk about how much fun it was to watch those players while still in the embryonic stage of their hockey careers, and that same experience will repeat itself in numerous AHL outposts throughout the year.

Bergeron had just one year of NHL experience under his belt in Boston when he arrived in Providence, and was a far different, more polished and well-developed center when he next stepped back onto the NHL ice. The same is expected again this season in the AHL as the NHL work stoppage is pushing some of their best young players to outposts like Providence, Springfield, Manchester and Worcester in the American Hockey League.

The better competition that you play against, the better that youre going to get, said P-Bruins coach Butch Cassidy. Some of these defensemen are going to see guys like Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier that have already played a year in the NHL, and theyre going to have a better taste of what theyre up against. It should make them better and raise their level of play if theyre up to the task.

I was in Norfolk in 04 and I thought it was great. Guys like Spezza and Staal and Bouwmeester were all down in the AHL. I think it helped them become leaders of their teams as well. Its a chance for the young guys. I know theyd rather be in the NHL . . . who wouldnt? But if they approach it the right theyll be able to improve their games too.

Thats something of a consolation prize for fans that will be missing out on the NHL action while they work on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

It also means the AHL will again be a near perfect incubation league for young prospects like Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner as they attempt to turn the corner and transform themselves into NHL players. Theyll be able to see just how good the top tier of NHL players are with such skill prominently spread out over the league, and experience just how consistently challenging it will be to maintain that level traveling up the ladder of pro hockey. In a worst-case scenario both will be battle-hardened and ready to challenge for NHL jobs if theres an entire season lost to the frustrating blight of the lockout.

Both Knight and Spooner, of course, embrace a challenge that will only make them better players.

It will be a great experience for me along with everybody else in the league. Guys getting sent down would have been playing in the NHL, so having that caliber of player will push guys like me, said Spooner. Its my first year and Im going to make some mistakes, and those kinds of things will just make me better as a hockey player. Im excited to play against guys like that.

This season Jordan Caron and Chris Bourque are the most notable players with NHL experience on the Bruins, but thats the tip of the iceberg when it comes to NHL alumni in the AHL Eastern Conference. Cody Hodgson will be skating for the Rochester Americans after he torched the Bruins for two goals last year as a member of the hated Vancouver Canucks. Former Boston College standout Chris Kreider will be one of the leading players on the Connecticut Whale after lighting up in the playoffs as a member of the New York Rangers.

The Adirondack Phantoms have Schenn, Couturier and Erik Gustafsson all skating in the AHL during the lockout, and thats a team the P-Bruins will be battling early and often. The 2011 NHL Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner and New Jersey Devils rookie forward Adam Henrique will likewise be skating in the American Hockey League when NHL jobs would have been a foregone conclusion in a lockout-free world.

Even though its the American League, Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien are here watching us right now. Theyre not over in Europe. Im not sure there might be better exposure for us then these American Hockey League games, said Bs center Christian Hanson, who signed with the Boston organization this summer. Its the second-best league in the world behind the NHL on a regular basis, so to add NHL players only makes it better. I wish we were playing Oklahoma City tomorrow. Bringing those young guys down is awesome and I wish we were opening with them tomorrow night.

Edmonton Oilers studs Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle will both be skating for Oklahoma City in the Western Conference, but thats a team the Providence Bruins wont be seeing unless they make it deep foray into the postseason amid a year-long lockout. Some of the P-Bruins players were a little disappointed they wont get a chance to suit up against that tandem during the regular season.

But that kind of excitement and anticipation highlights just how good the American Hockey League can be again this season, and how higher it will rise than the NHLs junior varsitydevelopmental league

Will one of those players dominate like Spezza did for the Binghamton Senators while piling up 117 points in 80 games eight years ago to win the AHL scoring title?

Perhaps the better question will be: will anybody care?

Lets be clear: Nobody is under the illusion the AHL will take the place of NHL action during a lengthy lockout. Thats not going to happen, and nor should it happen unless players and agents decide to band together for a WHL-style league to rival the stodgy NHL.

But it does give rabid hockey fans that little morsel of a crumb of the sweet taste provided the NHL after its gone dark for at least the next few months.

Thats the best anybody could hope for while Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr figure out a way to bridge a billion dollar difference in opinions over revenue, and its what hockey lovers everywhere will have to grudgingly settle for.

Acciari, Heinen called back up to Bruins

Acciari, Heinen called back up to Bruins

BRIGHTON, Mass. – The Bruins made a few roster moves after a slogging 4-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche earlier this week, with an eye toward getting some competition going among the forward group, and perhaps spark a team struggling offensively.

Danton Heinen and Noel Acciari were brought up from Providence to skate with the big club on Saturday morning at Warrior Ice Arena and gritty Anton Blidh was returned to the P-Bruins after a solid stint as a fourth-line energy guy for the Black and Gold. 

Jimmy Hayes and Colin Miller were the late skaters off the ice following morning skate, so those will be the healthy scratches for the Bruins with both Acciari and Heinen in the lineup for the Black and Gold tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden.

Heinen has been tearing it up for the P-Bruins lately with four goals and seven points in his past five games with a plus-2 rating, including a couple of two-goal games for a Providence team that’s starting to heat up. 

Otherwise, things looked fairly similar for the Black and Gold, who didn’t make any changes to the struggling top power-play unit that was a disaster on Thursday night in the first period. It was Patrice Bergeron in the bumper role, Ryan Spooner on the half-wall, David Backes at the front of the net and David Krejci and Torey Krug manning the point positions. 

Here are the Bruins projected line combos and D-pairings based on the morning skate: 

 
Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak

Heinen-Krejci-Backes

Spooner-Nash-Czarnik

Schaller-Moore-Acciari/Hayes

 
Chara-Carlo

Krug-McQuaid

Morrow-K. Miller

C. Miller

Rask

 

Bruins power play looking for some upgrade answers

Bruins power play looking for some upgrade answers

BOSTON - It would appear things can’t continue the way they are for the Bruins' power play. 

After a disastrous first period helped dig them a hole in a 4-2 loss to the lowly Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night, there was some pretty serious soul-searching going with a man-advantage that has been both toothless and mistake-prone on far too many nights. 

In the Colorado loss a couple of early power-play possessions, one that was completely ineffectual with zero meaningful possession or shots on net and then a second that turned into a Nathan MacKinnon shorthanded goal, dropped the B’s into a hole they couldn’t climb out of. The shorthanded sequence was particularly damning with a desperate Torey Krug diving to keep a puck in the offensive zone, and then watching helpless as MacKinnon beat him to the loose puck and then took off down the ice behind the last line of B’s defense. 

Krug placed the blame on himself for the high-risk play at the offensive blue line, but it’s hard to wholly blame somebody that was using hustle to try and make something happen offensively. 

“I thought they were tired, and if I could keep it in then we keep them hemmed in and get them running around. At the end of the day, it’s a 50-50 play, but maybe early in my career, I learn that now and probably won’t do it anymore. Sometimes you’ve got to go through those things to learn,” said Krug. “It’s just one of those plays I thought instinctively I could get there and keep him hemmed in, and you could even tell when he went in on the breakaway that he was tired.

So, if I keep that in and we keep them hemmed in, hopefully we get a couple chances. But we’ve got to be better, some of our better players on our team, and we’ve got to take the onus on ourselves to start capitalizing on opportunities and changing the game for our team.”

Nobody is going to reasonably suggest that a dangerous power-play guy like Krug be removed from the special-teams unit, but clearly something needs to change. The Bruins are tied for 25th in the NHL on the power play with a 14.1 percent success rate, and they can’t blame lack of opportunities because they’re middle of the road when it comes to power-play chances this season. 

Only the Flyers, Stars and Blackhawks have allowed more shorthanded goals than the Bruins (four) in 28 games played as well, so the Black and Gold essentially aren’t playing good defense or offense on the power play this year. Krug saie that it’s a mindset thing and that the Bruins need to get back to the confident, energetic way they attacked penalty kills last season. 

“We want to make plays, we want to help our team. It’s not like we’re out there not trying to make plays or anything, but we just have to be better,” said Krug. “We’ve got to have better focus, crisper passes, making quick plays to the net and making things happen. I feel like right now we might just be standing there, [just kind of] static, just hoping that things are going to happen and we’re not making them happen. 

“So, we’ve got to change our mindset, and like I said, those guys on that unit are the guys that will go to work and make sure we’re better next time for our team.”

But it goes beyond simple approach. The Bruins lost their second-leading PP goal-scorer last season when Loui Eriksson signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Other top unit PP performers like David Krejci,  Krug and Ryan Spooner haven’t been as good this season. Still, perhaps the biggest reason is the all-around offensive disappearance of Patrice Bergeron, who had 12 goals and 13 assists on the PP last season for a team-best 25 power-play points. This season, Bergeron has one goal and two points on the PP in 25 games and has been neutralized by opposing penalty kills from his “bumper” position roving up and down the slot. 

The Bruins are determined to ride things out with Bergeron both five-on-five and on the PP, and rightfully so, given his quality, productive body of work with the Bruins. He’s Boston’s best player and you don’t ever go away from those guys. 

But Bergeron has been ordinary for the Bruins on the PP after being extraordinary last season, and not much is going to change with the B’s man advantage unless No. 37 begins to find the range, confidence and short-term quick burst that’s needed for the B’s power play to flow through him like a well-oiled scoring machine. A greater impact by David Backes on the net-front power play could help and an uptick in PP production from Krug, Krejci and Spooner would obviously be welcome for the Black and Gold. 

But the Bruins power play is designed to play off Bergeron’s many qualities and strengths when he’s at his best, and a big part of the B’s troubles and Bergeron’s troubles are linked together because No. 37 has been less than his best in a season that’s been challenging for him from the very beginning.