Chris Rutsch / CT Whale
The AHL season gets underway on Friday night, with Binghamton playing the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Saturday. What will the pairings look like on defense and who will man the crease this year for Binghamton? We take an educated guess.
With the Binghamton Senators set to take the ice for their first regular season matchup of the year on Saturday night, we take a look at how things will line up on the blueline and in the crease. Previously, I took a stab at projecting the forward groupings, and the jury is still out on that one--Binghamton is still carrying a group of 18 forwards. I am at least comfortable in saying that number will have to change in the very near future. At that point, we will have a better idea of whether I'm more like Nostradamus or Harold Camping (that reasonable fellow who anticipated the world was going to end on May 21st).
Of course, the defensive pairings are a little easier source of speculation than the forwards. After all, Luke Richardson and his staff have worked their way down to a final seven. It is a well-rounded group and, in comparison to the forwards, a well-seasoned group of players. Considering the problems Binghamton suffered last year (headlined by the ease with which other teams put the puck into the B-Sens' net), a veteran group of defenders is a significant part of the foundation towards building a winning team. Among the forwards, Binghamton has rookies in Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Darren Kramer, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone and--though not quite a youngster--Jakob Silfverberg. Even the team's 'veteran' leaders such as Mike Hoffman have only two seasons of AHL work under their belts. Indeed, out of seventeen of the team's skaters, there is collectively twelve seasons of AHL experience. That number changes slightly with Hugh Jessiman in the mix, as he has spent the last seven years toiling in the American League.
The defense is going to need to be the rock under this very talented group of forwards. They look to be well prepared for the task.
Figuring this one was pretty simple. Not only did Binghamton use much of this lineup in their final preseason tilt, but these are easily Luke Richardson's top two tools on the blueline. Jared Cowen, who you might be familiar with, spent last season in Ottawa after joining Binghamton for their Calder Cup win. He has all the tools to be one of the best defenders in the AHL. Though we only saw flashes of his offensive ability last year, he put up an excellent stat-line as captain of Spokane. Anyone watching Binghamton's games this year will quickly become accustomed to seeing Cowen out for up to thirty minutes a game, playing in all situations, including the point on the powerplay. Though coming to the AHL is obviously a step backward for Cowen (and hurts the wallet quite a bit), he will surely be looking to make the most of the opportunity, just as Jason Spezza did in 2004-05. With a very strong campaign this year, Cowen could position himself for a bigger role when the NHL unlocks itself.
Andre Benoit was the anchor of Binghamton's blueline during their Calder Cup season and his absence last year (he spent the season playing for Spartak Moscow) was felt like a hole in the roof during a rainstorm. When this offseason rolled around, Tim Murray and co. coughed up a sizable two-way deal of $600k/$300k to patch the hole and bring Benoit back into the fold. He has AHL experience, a fine blend of physicality and offensive abilities and is well-suited for the 1a/1b tandem he will be expected to play with Jared Cowen.
This is another experienced duo for Richardson to roll out. Twenty-eight-year-old Tyler Eckford was a seventh-round pick in 2004, spending three of the last four years as a player in the New Jersey Devils' system, before becoming property of the Phoenix Coyotes, where he played for Portland of the AHL. Eckford had a strong pre-season for Binghamton, and has put up solid offensive numbers in the past, finishing last year with 25 points in 75 games. At 6' and 200 lbs, Eckford has enough size to get by, but offense is his calling card. According to Hockey's Future, Eckford was converted from forward to defenseman in the BCHL. He might start in the top-four, but he is going to feel some heat from prospects lurking on the third pairing for whom the organization has higher expectations. Eckford will need consistent production to lock down his position.
Eric Gryba has come to be an important asset for Binghamton. As a towering physical, shut-down defender who can put in some offensively, Gryba was thrust into a top role last season, for which he may not have been well-suited. Still, he is a tough, hard-playing skater for Binghamton who can play in most situations.
The BoroCop is a leader for this team. Some will be surprised to see Borowiecki on the third pairing, but it is hardly negative statement on his play. The second and third groups are fairly interchangeable and Luke Richardson will have a balanced lineup. The coach will be able to mix and match as he pleases without having to worry about a precipitous drop-off in his defenders.
This is a big season for Patrick Wiercioch. After a very close call last season, Wiercioch bounced back towards the end of the season and played his best hockey in the AHL. Faced with competition for ice time, he is going to have to prove his mettle this year, showing he can be an effective two-way presence in the AHL.
Amid a tough fight for spots in Binghamton, Claesson pulled through as the team's seventh defender, an admirable achievement after being drafted in the fifth round last year. Positivity trickled in through the World Juniors last year and through his regular season in Djurgardens. Offense is never going to be his specialty, but Claesson can make himself valuable to this team with dependable defensive play. Management obviously felt it was more appropriate to have him adjusting to the North American game than to spend a season in Sweden's second league. Also, there is the question of Ottawa's potentially frayed relationship with Djurgardens. It is pretty unlikely Claesson spends too much time in the press box. He will get his chances.
No, they won't be playing at the same time. However, the two should be fairly close in minutes. We covered this logjam recently, but since then, word has leaked out that Nathan Lawson refused to report to Elmira of the ECHL (a tip of the hat to The 6th Sens for that nugget). Last season, Mike McKenna came in as a veteran presence to provide mentorship and a little competition for Robin Lehner. The result was that the reigning AHL Playoff MVP was relegated to the 1B slot, finishing the season with less time on the ice than McKenna saw. Nathan Lawson was brought in to play a very similar role this year, but the lockout has changed the dynamic in net. Though it is a difficult position for Lawson to be in, Bishop's AHL stint may prove helpful for the organization as a whole. This stand-off between Lehner and Bishop was going to happen at some point- this season should light a fire under both of them. Nathan Lawson might still be on the AHL roster, but Tim Murray will be expected to do something about that shortly- a two-goalie duet is almost necessary at the AHL level, but a triplet won't function as naturally.