June 18, 2011

From NEHJ: Hopes reign, despite Calder Cup drought

Luke Adam of the Portland Pirates (photo: Dan Hickling)

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

New England isn’t a place where one expects to encounter a drought.

Too many trees, mountains, streams, lakes. And there’s that ocean, the Atlantic, the one that gives the division housing the AHL’s seven New England teams its name.

Yet the newly completed 2010-11 season left everyone in the region feeling a little parched, in a Calder Cup kind of way.

It’s been 11 years — in 2000 — since the Cup came home to New England.
That was the year the Hartford Wolf Pack knocked off all comers — including the defending champion Providence Bruins — to win their Calder.

This year, there were Calder Cup hopes, legitimate ones, in fact. But once again, the locals came up dry in that department, which isn’t to say that the whole season was a wash.

Young stars were developed, and old stars rediscovered their game. And some very entertaining hockey was given to the regions fans.
What follows is a deeper look at the year that was, and the year to come:

Portland Pirates

A lot of things went right for the Pirates in 2010-11. They captured the Atlantic Division regular-season flag after a tough fight with the Manchester Monarchs.
They produced the AHL’s Rookie of the Year (Luke Adam) for an unprecedented third consecutive season, and made first-team All-Stars out of defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani and winger Mark Mancari.

Ah, but there were glitches in what could have been a stellar postseason.
After ousting Connecticut in a tough opening series, the Pirates went out quietly against Binghamton in Round 2.

As for the future, questions abound. Portland could find itself with a new NHL parent (its fourth in eight years) if the Sabres are successful in buying the Rochester Americans (and there is no reason to think they won’t be), and shuffle their prospects much closer to Buffalo.

And the November referendum to approve desperately needed upgrades to the aging Civic Center is looming large.

Manchester Monarchs

If Portland wasn’t going to win the Calder Cup, then perhaps it was going to be the Monarchs.

However, the Binghamton Senators ruined that notion with a string of overtime successes in a seven-game, opening-round victory.

Respected head coach Mark Morris wrapped up his fifth season in Manchester, and one wonders when he’ll be moving up or moving on. Either event could happen, and if it does, assistant Scott Pellerin, the former UMaine star, would be a lock to move up.

Under Morris, defenseman Slava Voynov and center Andrei Loktionov emerged as high-end prospects for the Kings.

Connecticut Whale

Left for dead in November, the Whale effected a dramatic midseason U-turn that boosted them into the playoffs.

This coincided with their “rebranding” from their former personas, the Hartford Wolf Pack, as former Whalers owner, showman Howard Baldwin, returned to town.

Whether they’ll remain a New York Rangers affiliate will have to be sorted out.
The best guess is that they will — for a while longer, anyway.

Worcester Sharks

A year after winning the Atlantic, the Sharks finished out of the money in 2010-11. As in previous seasons, the emphasis was centered on getting players ready for San Jose and little else.

To that end, winger Benn Ferriero (Essex, Mass.) headed the cast of Sharks who had their fill of cross-country flights between Central Mass. and South Bay.

Springfield Falcons

Did we ever mention that the Birds have been a playoff no-show for 10 consecutive seasons?

Even so, there is a sense of hopefulness around the Nest.

Local businessman Charlie Pompea purchased the club during the season, putting an end (for the near term, anyway) to the notion of the Falcons moving out of Springfield.

The Falcons’ cast includes some emerging talents such as defenseman David Savard and wingers Matt Calvert and Tomas Kubalik.

Providence Bruins

After more than a decade of uninterrupted playoff appearances, the P-Bruins found themselves out of the Calder Cup hunt for the second consecutive year.
That isn’t what cost third-year head coach Rob Murray his job. Zach Hamill did.

More accurately, Murray was scapegoated by Bruins management for the slow (or minimal) development of some prospects, including Hamill, who was the first draft pick made on B’s GM Peter Chiarelli’s watch.

Murray will remain with the organization as a pro scout, while assistant coach Bruce Cassidy, the former head man with the Washington Capitals, is expected to move up to take the Bruins’ reins.

Bridgeport Sound Tigers

The Islanders can be counted on to operate outside the box. Which explains how Jack Capuano (Cranston, R.I.) received a midseason promotion from the Bridgeport bench to the big club across Long Island Sound while the Tigers were marooned in the Atlantic Division cellar.

Even so, Capuano did a creditable job with the Islanders and was rewarded with a contract extension, although neither they nor the Sound Tigers under interim coach Pat Bingham ever made it out of the basement.

Bingham was not retained after the season, which means yet another new voice on the Sound.

Somehow out of the chaos, rookie Rhett Rakhshani developed into a terrific player.

Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com