AHL should enjoy renaissance during NHL lockout


AHL should enjoy renaissance during NHL lockout

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.

Rask helped off ice at Bruins practice after collision


Rask helped off ice at Bruins practice after collision

BRIGHTON, Mass – Tuukka Rask had to be helped off the ice midway through practice Wednesday when it appeared rookie Anders Bjork crashed hard into the Bruins No. 1 goaltender in a drill. 

Coach Bruce Cassidy didn't have much in the way of an encouraging update on Rask following practice: "He left early. We had a line rush drill where there was obviously contact around the net. He's being evaluated. Hopefully, he's fine, but we don't know anything until he gets checked out."


Rask never returned in what looked like another streak of bad luck for the B’s. Rask is off to a slow start at 1-3-0, with a 3.30 goals-against average and .882 save percentage, but Boston can ill afford to lose their top goalie right now.

The Bruins continue to look for the right mix of players at the start of the season and they’ve called up a couple of forwards off to hot starts in Providence for a look.

Big, skilled Slovakian winger Peter Cehlarik and AHL scoring champ Kenny Agostino have both been called up while it looks like some struggling NHL veterans, perhaps Matt Beleskey and Frank Vatrano, might be hitting the pine.

The two call-ups, along with Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson were off to a red-hot start in Providence: Agostino leads Providence with two goals and five assists for seven points (tied for third in AHL) with a plus-four rating in three games this season. Cehlarik is second on the team with two goals and three assists for five points with a plus-three rating in three games with Providence.

Patrice Bergeron was again wearing the maroon no-contact jersey at practice on Wednesday while participating in line drills, and it would appear it’s going to be a stretch for him to be available vs. the Canucks. Adam McQuaid returned to practice on Wednesday, so Ryan Spooner was the only injured Bruins regular that wasn’t able to suit up and practice with the team.

Tuukka Rask had to be helped off the ice midway through practice when it looked like Anders Bjork crashed hard into the Bruins No. 1 goaltender in a drill. Rask never returned in what looked like another streak of bad luck for the B’s. Rask is off to a slow start at 1-3-0, with a 3.30 goals-against average and .882 save percentage, but Boston can ill afford to lose their top goalie right now.

Here are the line combos and D-pairings from Wednesday afternoon’s practice with it looking like David Backes might be up for a possible return on Thursday:  

Backes, on mend from bout with diverticulitis, may return Thursday


Backes, on mend from bout with diverticulitis, may return Thursday

BRIGHTON -- While there will clearly need to be sign-offs from the medical staff, the Bruins aren’t ruling out a return from David Backes for Thursday night’s game vs. the Vancouver Canucks.

Both Backes and Patrice Bergeron returned to Bruins practice with the rest of their teammates on Tuesday morning at Warrior Ice Arena, but it was only the 33-year-old Backes that practiced fully without any limitations.

“He skated a little while we were away and a full practice today, so we’ll consult with the medical staff going forward with his plan,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “Potentially he could be an option for Thursday, and I think that should sort itself out in the next couple of days. We’re no different than anybody else, right? We’d like to have our full complement, and some of the guys we’re missing are glue guys that could really add that element to some of the kinds of games that got away from us.”


After the team practice, Backes said that he’s been skating for the last four days and that he’s lost about 10 pounds over the last couple of weeks while adjusting to the medication and dietary treatments for diverticulitis. It wasn’t a complete shock to Backes given some of his family medical history, but he wasn’t expecting anything like that to hit him in the prime of his professional athletic career at just 34 years old.

“I have a family history of it, but this is kind of unfortunate timing and unfortunate circumstances. Hopefully I take care of this, get it behind me and not have to ever think about it again,” said Backes. “The first couple of days it was tough to just stand up straight or do anything, and then you’re on a ‘no exercise’ regimen for six or seven days. So progress . . . certainly. A return . . . we’ll see. Long-term prognosis we’ll have to discuss with the really smart guys.

“You don’t have much appetite, to deal with pain you take a painkiller and then that slows down digestion and just makes it even worse. So you’re stuck there…and it really drains your energy. I was on a liquid diet there for a few days and lost about 10 pounds. I don’t suggest that as a crash diet for anybody.”

He’s come a long way from being stuck in a Mass General hospital bed during Bruins opening night against the Nashville Predators, and Backes is hoping he’ll be all the way back to playing sooner rather than later. The Bruins right winger skated in a third line spot with Riley Nash and Tim Schaller on Tuesday, and said he’s actually even consulted a bit with former Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, who battled his own stomach issues with Crohn’s Disease during his NFL career.

“I was like a kid in a candy store before practice. You have that carrot of Game 1 dangled in front of you and then taken away, and finally you’re back with the guys on the ice after they’ve been gone a week. Knowing what the results have been you want to interject a little energy out there while knowing that we’ve got 77 games left to establish ourselves, and find our game,” said Backes. “I felt good out there and it was nice to be back on the ice. I was smiling most of the day knowing that I’ll hopefully be playing some ice hockey in the future.

“We’re working to get that strength back and to return me to a productive member of this hockey team, which is going to be on the upswing here shortly. It’s not just due to me, but because guys are putting work in as a group. I’m trying to be as educated about it as I can, so I can be available as often as possible and as productive as possible when I am available.”

There are medical hurdles that need to be traversed by Backes before he can return, but once it becomes a matter of toughness and grit then he’ll be suiting up again for the Black and Gold, and that moment might be coming soon.