Winning a Calder Cup and being a successful team in the AHL seems to have an accepted formula. "The system" and "the farm" are not a secret retreat where players train, play mini-games and are occasionally churned out as perfectly primed NHL-ready talents. Just ask Nazem Kadri. The AHL is a different league with a different pace of hockey, where veteran free agents who will never get more than a sip of coffee rule the day more than future superstars and top-round picks. As a GM of an AHL team, you're expected to compile some combination of budding prospects, formerly budding prospects, future grinders and longtime AHL journeymen.
Being productive in the AHL versus the NHL are often two different skill-sets. To be a winner in the former, your body needs to be conditioned to handle the wear-and-tear of a very physical league, for up to three games in three days. Air Canada doesn't charter many flights--you're riding the bus. A player who can work in a third-line role in the NHL, cycling well from the corners and scoring goals from dirty areas might excel in the AHL. Similarly, a smooth-skating top-line NHL star could be slightly worn down by the drudgery of the AHL schedule. The Corey Lockes and Mike Zigomanises (Zigomanii?) are often the league's leaders and top playmakers.
Tim Murray and the Binghamton Senators have mostly moved on from this formulaic approach. Andre Benoit could be an exception, but Murray also expressed a belief that the top d-man would be able to vie for an NHL role. Gone are Corey Locke, Mark Parrish and
Colonel Klink Rob Klinkhammer. In their place are "the future": Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Stone and Shane Prince. Binghamton is not alone in their influx of young talent--just look at Oklahoma City. The lockout should change the pace of the AHL game.
And so, from an armchair and behind a keyboard, let's try our hand at Luke Richardson's biggest challenge for the season to come: finding line pairings that will make one another and, in turn, the team more successful. For the sake of conjecture, we will forget how Paul MacLean often shifts two wingers with a cycle of forwards and whether or not Luke Richardson will follow in that pattern. Instead, we will offer up full lines. To inspire lots of good debate about where players belong, we'll start with the forwards and will have an article on the defense in the days to come.
The Top Six:
Jakob Silfverberg - Mike Hoffman - Andre Petersson
Only through the first line and already two-thirds Swedish. There are plenty of reasons for it, though. Silfverberg is reigning Elitserien MVP and, though both are still fairly young (Hoffman is 23, Petersson 22) the other two components have at least a season under their belt in the AHL. This campaign is going to be a big test for -ooh, aah- Silfverberg. Sens fans' focus of adoration flowed naturally from Rundblad to Silfverberg this past season and allusions have already been made here and elsewhere between the two. Determining how success in Sweden translates over to the NHL can be tricky, but excitement for Silfverberg hasn't been held back. This is despite Rundblad's failing to win the Calder and Norris in his first season, ultimately getting dealt in the Kyle Turris deal (much to my brother's chagrin- he had purchased a Rundblad heritage jersey and had to have the nameplates swapped). Silfverberg will have an easier path to breaking his way into North American hockey. After a whirlwind two playoff games, he will head to the AHL, presumably to fill a top-line scoring role. He rebuffed offers of a near-guaranteed roster spot to succeed in Brynas last year, but we've every reason to believe Silfverberg is here for good.
Accustomed to playing between thirty and forty games in a full season, with a schedule more akin to European soccer than North American hockey, Silfverberg has to transition to frequent fixtures, a smaller ice surface and a more physical game. Having a player like Mike Hoffman with him should help expedite that process. Hoffman occupies a crowded spot in the Senators' overall depth chart. After their championship season, Tim Murray said that the only player he saw as having true top-six potential, with a fair amount of work and training, was Mike Hoffman. Murray surely wouldn't be caught saying that now, and Hoffman is going to be pushed throughout this season and into the next NHL training camp, whenever that is. The team seems to buy into the high-end abilities of players like Silfverberg and Zibanejad more than they do Hoffman--if he is going to excel at the professional level as he did in junior, this season is where he needs to take charge and show the organization he can continue to grow and mature at every level of the game. Hoffman has a good shot, a better pass and is a decent skater. He played the point often on last year's powerplay and even though he was beat on too many plays that resulted in shorthanded opportunities and goals, his decision-making should have improved. He has the chance to be a leader on a revamped Binghamton squad, and I think he'll take it.
Andre Petersson's progression has been interesting. A mid-round pick with a number of years spent in Sweden, he caught Sens fans' eyes with a few YouTube videos and even more so during last year's preseason. His style is eye-catching, and he's a fun player to watch. Smallish, but with speed, quick hands and a wicked shot, Petersson didn't take the AHL by storm last year. Still, he contributed increasingly as the season wore on, and deserves a shot at a top-line role. Flanked by talented players and an arguably similar, if more well-rounded skill-set in Silfverberg, Petersson could really take off offensively. He should also figure prominently into the team's powerplay plans.
Mika Zibanejad - Stephane da Costa - Mark Stone
It didn't take long in Binghamton training camp for Zibanejad to make his way to the left wing. It makes sense--as has been speculated in months past, with Jason Spezza and Kyle Turris filling the top pivot roles for Ottawa in years to come, the switch had to happen at some point. He had an up and down year last season. There was a superb preseason, a quiet nine-game audition in the regular season, an inauspicious return to Swedish Elite hockey, an overtime gold-medal winning goal, a concussion and the apparent enmity Ottawa management feels for Djurgardens and their treatment of the sixth overall pick, as well as the team's relegation. Still, it hasn't hurt his standing much as one of the team's most exciting prospects, even if many fans were, and perhaps remain ready to jump ship in a bid to land a top winger. He belongs in the top-six, and that's where he'll likely be when the season starts.
Just as with Justin Schultz this past season, the fervour around Stephane da Costa the year before was palpable. Fans were left waiting with bated breath as da Costa considered between a select few teams, after league-wide interest. He finally settled with the Senators, presumably because of a fast-track to the NHL and great potential to be on the starting roster come the start of the 2011-12 season. And he was. But it didn't last too long. The French centreman simply wasn't ready. Although his passing skill was exhibited from time-to-time, he didn't offer enough offensive production to merit a full-time NHL job. So, he ended up in the AHL, where he enjoyed mild success. He was not a star on the team, but did contribute. This season, da Costa will have to ensure he is critical to Binghamton. If not, he will become a college free agent closer to the ranks of Fabian Brunnstrom, and less like a moderately successful Dustin Penner or Tyler Bozak. A role in the top-six will be tough to hold onto, but da Costa still looks poised to get a real opportunity at hanging on.
As for Mark Stone, well, obviously. In spite of those nagging complaints about his skating ability, Stone is considered one of the Senators' top prospects. With his ability to score consistently in the slot and a physical presence, to say nothing of his fantastic touch on saucer passes, Stone would have competed for a spot with the big club, but will do well to continue developing in Binghamton.
Shane Prince - Pat Cannone - David Dziurzynski
This is where the guessing game turns more to picking names out of a hat. Look at the list of twenty forwards headed to Binghamton training camp and you will quickly realize why Tim Murray saw no need to be overly active in the free agent market for forwards. The reality of this team is that talented players are going to be limited in their roles owing to a glut of capable hands. Indeed, it would be more productive to have some younger prospects playing top-line minutes in Elmira. More on that.
Shane Prince is coming off two extremely productive seasons with the '67s. His inclusion on the third line is an indication of the tools Luke Richardson has at his disposal this season. The initial impression would be that Binghamton should be rolling three scoring lines for the season. Where consistency is lacking, changes can be made on the fly. Not much separates Shane Prince on the third from da Costa on the second.
Patrick Cannone has been with the team for just over a season, having signed as a college free agent before the run to the Calder Cup. He produced well last year for the team and was actually one of the more dependable scorers. Still, organizational expectations would seem to focus on Stephane da Costa more so than Cannone. He'll battle the former for time, but could feel some heat for his job as well.
Little known to Sens fans, David Dziurzynski could be a real wild card on this team. By the end of the year, he may have solidified his role and played his way into the conversation. Or, he could be toiling in Elmira and looking to move on. When put on a top line this past season, one couldn't ignore Dziurzynski. He has speed and a strong net drive, but one would find it hard to believe when looking at his numbers. It's a common trend with some of the veterans on the team, but this seems like a make-or-break season for Dziurzynski.
Hamilton and Cowick are both character producers on this team. Their NHL future, if they are to have one, would be as bottom-line grinders, and they will be an important facet on the B-Sens. Derek Grant received some real praise before last season, but didn't quite measure up. While his offensive production has room to improve, the tall centreman is a smart player, strong skater and has more than enough hockey IQ to get by.
There's a full troupe. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Jakub Culek, Louie Caporusso, Cole Schneider, Brad Peltz, Hugh Jessiman and Darren Kramer. Pageau, high-scoring out of the QMJHL, will do well in a top-line roll in Elmira. Same thing goes for Culek, who finished his junior career on a high after a disappointing campaign before. Kramer is also turning pro out of the WHL. Caporusso and Schneider spent time with Binghamton last year and will be in it tight to win a roster spot this season. Though many harboured Filatov-esque hopes of rehabbing Hugh Jessiman, he will have to perform his way into real opportunities. All of these players are simply victims of numbers. The roster realities created by a lockout make for very entertaining hockey in the AHL, but also keep some prospects out of what is suddenly the best league in North America. Good news for fans of the Elmira Jackals.
Come back late in the week for a look at the defense and make sure to share your opinions on my unrestrained conjecture in the comments!