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.