Farm teams are often the unjustly neglected member of the family. When the big club is considered in the running for Lord Stanley, it casts a substantial shadow, certainly big enough to trivialize the quest for the Calder. However, things were different in Ottawa this last season, and rightly so. By mid-January, the Senators were about twenty points removed from even being whispered in a conversation about cup contention. By early April, the young players who had so energized the complacent squad during the waning months of a brutal campaign were sent back to Binghamton to begin a long playoff run. It was almost stopped short. Down 3-1 against the Los Angeles Kings' affiliate Manchester Monarchs, the Binghamton Senators needed some pretty big things to happen in order to survive the first round. Big things happened. We know the rest of the story, as fans in Ottawa paid closer attention to the team down the I-81 than ever before.
As this season begins, the cupboard is fuller than it has been in years, and Sens fans are constantly appraising the contents. Binghamton begins this year not as much under the shadow of the parent team as under the light of last year's successes and the weight of title defense.
This past summer witnessed a major revamping of Binghamton's roster. Lost either to promotion (Erik Condra, Colin Greening, Bobby Butler), European leagues (Andre Benoit, Roman Wick) or other NHL teams (Ryan Keller, Derek Smith) were seven of Binghamton's top ten scorers. Perhaps most prominent among the list is former captain Ryan Keller, who led by example in scoring important goals in the playoffs at important times. He signed with the Edmonton Oilers over the summer, and has been pretty helpful. Ryan Potulny was only a part of the Senators' organization from trade deadline day through to free agency, but he was an integral cog in Binghamton's championship run. Other players wearing the championship ring, but playing elsewhere include: defenseman Geoff Kinrade will play in the Czech Republic while Cody Bass, who knows the stretch of highway from Binghamton to Ottawa well, is now playing for the Columbus Blue Jackets. For a time, it seemed likely that Kaspars Daugavins, a major contributor and leader in the playoffs, might return to his native Latvia. However, late in the summer Daugavins signed a one-year, two-way deal to remain a Senator. Ottawa native Jason Bailey announced his retirement from hockey during the offseason.
Management was not about to leave roster gaps unfilled. Free agent signings of
Olli Jokinen Mark Parrish, Tim Conboy, Josh Godfrey, Bobby Raymond and Max Gratchev (who formerly spent some time in Elmira), helped to fill the void. The organization also signed two-way defender Lee Sweatt to a two-way deal, but Sweatt, recovering from the foot injury that prematurely ended his 2010-2011 season, retired from hockey to pursue other opportunities.
Going into training camp, I expected to be writing something about (at least) one of David Rundblad, Jared Cowen and/or Stephane Da Costa. Alas, our coaching staff had other plans. To my marginal chagrin, I will not be reporting on their progress and growth, as it will be in plain sight in Ottawa--for now. Still, there's lots of exciting talent that is going to be expected to put up points.
Corey Locke is likely to remain the top centreman in Binghamton. Although he has only received a saucerful of coffee in the NHL, there are few players as dynamic at the AHL level. To be sure, last year's MVP is an important asset. If Da Costa sticks north of the border, Locke will be joined at centre with Jim O'Brien and, although they can pivot to the wing, Louie Caporusso, Derek Grant, Andre Petersson, Pat Cannone, David Dziurzynski, Mike Hoffman, and probably Robin Lehner.
Evidenced by the summertime exodus via free agency and transcontinental signings, last year's tournament team was not overwhelmingly composed of future Senators. Of course, there were the four players now signed to one-way deals, not to mention Jared 'The Mule' Cowen played well, Patrick Wiercioch gained some valuable development and Mark Borowiecki emerged as a future NHLer. However, the rest of the core of defenders and scorers to move on will be replaced by players who may figure into Ottawa's future. Andre Petersson is one such player. Petersson signed a three-year ELC last spring to leave HV71. He has some fantastic highlights up on YouTube, and despite a diminutive frame, he has some wicked hands and can pack a strong shot, too. We had the chance to see glimpses of it during the preseason, and Petersson will get a lot of chances in Binghamton.
After putting up two strong seasons at Michigan State, Derek Grant joined Binghamton in time to be on the 'clear day' roster and to play in the playoffs. Grant received some glowing reviews over the summer and will figure prominently on Bingo's depth chart. Smallish, hard skating, strong and with good hands, forward Louie Caporusso matriculated from the University of Michigan, signed a pro contract and will have his opportunity to show he has the tools necessary to play at a higher level. Coming in to this year's draft, Tim Murray commented that the only player in Binghamton he believed had the tools necessary to play on an NHL top-six, if he worked hard, was Mike Hoffman. It's doubtful TM would repeat that sentiment now...
Mark Borowiecki/BoroCop was the focus of a lot of attention over the course of the rookie tournament in the 'Shwa and training camp in the 'Twa. BoroCop had an outstanding year in Bingo last year, impressed Coach Kleinendorst along with management in Ottawa and changed the discussion on his development-- no longer is it a matter of 'if', but 'when' BoroCop is ready (and 'when' there is a roster spot available). Patrick Wiercioch was a second-round pick, and has time to develop his game at the professional level. The organization has a glut of defensemen topping him on the depth chart, so the Senators can afford to take their time.
Robin Lehner (hunter/death starer/pro-Canada referee critic/professional goalie) will see the majority of starts between the pipes, with reliable support coming the way of veteran Mike McKenna.
Unfortunately, there will be no regular season faceoff between the Calder Cup finalists.
Binghamton faces their first round opponents, the Manchester Monarchs, on two occasions. They will be December 2nd and February 3rd. Hint: These games will probably both go to overtime... Just playing the odds.
Bingo ousted the Portland Pirates (Phoenix Coyotes) in six games in the Atlantic Division Finals. You can see that rematch on February 4th or 18th.
Binghamton's last date before moving on to the Calder Cup Finals was in Charlotte, NC, home to the Carolina Hurricanes' Charlotte Checkers. Binghamton swept the Checkers, who will not get the chance for any regular season redemption.
Always a neat opportunity is to see Binghamton play live, which (without crossing the border) you can do November 13th at Scotiabank Place. Or, if you are in Montreal, November 18th at the Bell Centre. Both of those games will be against the Hamilton Bull Dogs (Montreal's AHL affiliate).
There is always a curious sense of anticipation surrounding a championship group. They will be watched closer than before, and eyed wearily by their opponents. During the summer, I asked Mike McKenna on twitter whether there is any greater pressure playing for a championship team. Mike answered, "pressure every year doesn't change." Touché, sir. These are professional athletes, all of them aiming for the top, regardless. They want to win, and they want to become better players in the process. One thing to be sure of though, is that the Binghamton Senators forced a change in the way we think about our farm team. Let's see what they can do this year.