In 2011, the Binghamton Senators sneaked into the AHL playoffs through the league's crossover rule, which, owing to a format change, no longer exists. As the big club wrapped up their dreadful campaign on a high note (Zack Smith flying fists with Nathan Horton of the soon-to-be Stanley Cup Champions), Sens fans turned towards their AHL affiliate. "The one thing we need," any one of us could be overheard telling another, "is for Bingo to have a good playoff run." With a lineup bolstered by players like Smith, Erik Condra, Colin Greening, and Bobby Butler, as well as WHL call-up Jared Cowen, an invigorated squad under Kurt Kleinendorst gave us what we were looking for.
On a warm April day, Ottawans could be spotted wearing Binghamton Senators t-shirts. Talk of the B-Sens dominated message boards as well as the commentary here on Silver Seven. With far more access to the team than in 2004-2005, there has never been as much focus on the farm. The following year, Sens fans were too busy gushing over moustaches, an upstart team, and Erik Karlsson to pay much attention, or give much concern to the goings on in upper New York State.
You didn't miss much. Binghamton had a bad season. If it could be called a Calder Cup hangover, then the B-Sens had the kind where one stays in bed all day, shying away from light, sound and any kind of activity. However, that wouldn't be a fair characterization of the season. In reality, it was a much-altered group. Hardly a day seemed to go by in the summer of 2011 without a departure from Binghamton or a new arrival. Tim Murray and company had a busy summer replacing players, with a large contingent of the team graduating to Ottawa, and other key pieces finding work elsewhere around the AHL or in Europe. As a result, last season wasn't so much a hangover as it was the result of a gutted roster, re-assembled through free agency and injected with a smattering of youth from the Senators' prospect cupboards. The on-ice product was consistently inconsistent, outshot on most nights, buried on others, leaving goaltenders Robin Lehner and Mike McKenna in an unenviable position. Indeed, Joy Lindsay (who no longer writes on the B-Sens, sadly) pointed out in a July article how Mike McKenna faced the ninth most shots in the AHL, despite sharing the net with Robin Lehner.
Now that locked-out Sens fans are turning their attention back to the AHL, what can they expect this season from a team two seasons removed from the top, and one from the bottom?
It was another summer of change for Binghamton, as the team didn't pursue a new contract with a number of AHL veterans. This, perhaps more than anything else, is a sign from Tim Murray of how the group in Binghamton is going to be structured. A group of players, led by Mark Borowiecki, Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba, Derek Grant, Mike Hoffman et al. have experience in the AHL and will be counted upon to offer leadership. Similarly, Tim Murray sought to shelter some of the younger talent by reaching into the team's wallet to sign Andre Benoit to a one-way, two-year deal that will pay him 300k in the AHL (perhaps he could be a contributor to the Jared Cowen fund). Benoit, a presumptive top candidate for role as team captain following Mark Parrish's departure, was critical to Binghamton's success two seasons ago. He will be an anchor for the team, playing in all situations, with a breadth of experience in the AHL.
Gone are the likes of Rob Klinkhammer, Mark Parrish and Corey Locke (and, uh, Francis Lessard). Stepping into the top-six in place of the journeymen will be players central to Ottawa's rebuild: Jakob Silfverberg, Mark Stone, Shane Prince, and Mika Zibanejad. Often times, it's difficult to discern to what extent an AHL team will shape the NHL roster down the road. Other roster moves included the departure of McKenna--the team brought in slightly-NHL tested veteran Nathan Lawson. As much as the competition will be good for Lehner, if they wanted to make it really tense, they could have looked at acquiring a different Islanders goalie. Even more so than Binghamton's championship team, this iteration of the AHL club is directly tied to the franchise's future. Watching the Binghamton Senators this season will hardly be an exercise in time-killing or futility. The fanbase is going to learn a lot more about how these players play the game in all situations.
Although many fans were head-over-heels for Kurt Kleinendorst and his alliterative name and jolly post-playoff win speeches (Roman Wick sighting!), the relative lack of a spotlight on the teams day-to-day activity makes it more difficult to get a handle on how a coach ticks. Sens fans are more familiar with new bench boss Luke Richardson, given the time he spent with the team, both as a player and as an assistant coach. Judging from his introductory press conference, Richardson seems to have really bought into what Paul MacLean was selling to his staff and the team last year. Speaking of a desire to find the right system for both coaches and players, Richardson repeated an interest in a fast-paced game, but not one devoid of physicality--sorry, Adnan. Richardson gave an inkling to how things might have gone south with some players last season and how he intends to create a different culture, suggesting that "in the last few years, if players had maybe a little bit of trouble in their game... The coaches maybe barked at them a few times and their confidence is low." Expressing a willingness to "talk on a player's level, bring the message, have them understand it, but have a conversation," Richardson indicated that communication will be critical, fostering relationships with players, even if he has to be "a little fiery at times." Sens fans can relate to this style, and also get excited for it.
Richardson seems to have been given a mandate to create an atmosphere focused on development and success in conjunction with one another. "Part of developing here is to help develop here, but [also] help to win here." You can watch Richardson's full press conference here.
There is a lot that needs to change in how Binghamton plays the game for them to be successful, especially in a suddenly very competitive AHL. With an injection of new talent and a new, but familiar approach from behind the bench, a certain level of cautious optimism wouldn't be out of line for Sens fans turning back to the AHL.
Take a read later in the week and beyond, where I'll offer some line projections, get some of your input and keep providing coverage on the run-up to the AHL season.