October 12, 2012

From NEHJ: New crop risin' in the AHL

By Adam Kaufman

Did you know that 88 percent of all NHL players to suit up during the 2011-12 season were graduates of the American Hockey League?

Lockout or no lockout in the NHL, it’s sure to be another banner season across the AHL with top minor-league affiliates once again loaded with talent, including dozens of top players from New England.

With the new season upon us, we’ve combed through the rosters, spoken to the experts and picked 15 New England natives you should keep an eye on in the AHL this season.

Apologies to the likes of Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, Conn.; Springfield Falcons), Chris Bourque (Boxford, Mass.; Providence Bruins), Benn Ferriero (Essex, Mass.; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins), Jimmy Hayes (Dorchester, Mass.; Rockford IceHogs) and John McCarthy (Andover, Mass.; Worcester Sharks), but this list is reserved for the youngsters who have yet to reach the highest ranks in the NHL. Within the next few seasons, we expect they will be.

Barry Almeida

Hometown: Springfield, Mass.

2012-13 team: Hershey Bears

Position: Left wing

Undrafted and perhaps unheralded, Almeida received an American Hockey League contract from the Hershey Bears after totaling nearly as many points (40 in 44 games) as a senior last season at Boston College as in his previous three years combined (52 in 115 games).

Deservedly, he was BC’s co-MVP and an AHCA second-team All-American.

Following a second national championship in three seasons, the 5-foot-8, 183-pound, rock-solid forward turned pro and scored a goal in just his second shift as a member of the Bears, for whom he played two games. Now, his goal is to earn a deal from Washington.

The 23-year-old grew into a reliable two-way player in college and, while he’ll need to add mass, Almeida will look to use his speed and hockey sense as his key attributes against bigger, stronger competition as he transitions into his first full pro season.

“In the pros, you’ve got to be able to play on both sides of the puck,” Almeida said. “You can’t just be an offensive player, getting away with cheating the puck or cheating the game, especially being a small guy. You’ve got to be depended on at both ends of the ice, and hopefully I can translate that to the pro game.”

Mark Arcobello

Hometown: Milford, Conn.

2012-13 team: Okla. City Barons

Position: Center

Arcobello is a small, versatile forward in his third pro season after four standout years at Yale. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound undrafted center/wing earned an NHL contract from Edmonton after impressing in split time between Oklahoma City and Stockton (ECHL) as a rookie. He broke out offensively with 43 points in his first full AHL season to finish second on the Barons in scoring before leading them to the conference finals with 13 points in 14 playoff games.

The 24-year-old is a setup man by nature and a fixture on the power play, but he aspires to contribute on the penalty kill as he gets better defensively in his own zone. Arcobello also hopes to build upon his speed and improve his finishing touch around the net after a 17-goal season.

Demoted early in camp by the Oilers a year ago and without the opportunity to prove himself to the NHL brass in September, Arcobello is motivated to show he belongs at the highest level, but knows it won’t be easy.

“Edmonton has a lot of good young players up there, which kind of makes it maybe a little harder because there are so many top prospects that deserve to be there,” he said. “I’d like to think that if I keep doing what I’ve been doing, getting points and stuff, I’ll get there. I’ll take whatever the staffs in Edmonton and Oklahoma City say to do, improve on those things, and hopefully make that step sooner rather than later.”

Ryan Bourque

Hometown: Boxford, Mass.

2012-13 team: Connecticut Whale

Position: Left wing

If the name rings a bell, it should. The son of Bruins legend Ray Bourque is a second-year pro in the New York Rangers organization, selected 80th overall in the third round of the 2009 NHL draft. The 21-year-old enjoyed a great training camp with the Blueshirts before his rookie season, but he quickly suffered a concussion once assigned to Connecticut that forced him to miss time and later spiraled into bouts with inconsistency. The good news is Bourque finished the season strong and played his best hockey in the postseason, ultimately relishing the shutdown/energy role he’d carved out for himself after two solid seasons offensively in the
QMJHL with Quebec. As an AHL rookie, he scored 14 points in 69 games.

At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Bourque is a fast, responsible defender who plays with a boatload of energy and has a tremendous work ethic. He’d benefit in his second season from shooting more and playing a little more selfishly in order to elevate the offensive side of his game but, for now, he’ll keep building on his strengths.

“With a year under my belt, I know what to expect and that will be a huge help,” Bourque said. “I need to continue what I was doing at the end of last year and try to bring that same energy and that same game. I’ve never really liked to set individual goals for myself but I think as long as I’m doing the right things day-in and day-out, then the statistics will come.”

Paul Carey

Hometown: Weymouth, Mass.

2012-13 team:
Lake Erie Monsters

Position: Right wing

Paul Carey finished his collegiate career on a high note at Boston College, not only with a second national title in three seasons but also as a main cog in the team’s offensive attack with three goals in the Frozen Four. In all, it was a productive senior year for the Eagles assistant captain, whose point total rose in each of his four seasons. A Colorado draft pick in 2007 (fifth round, 135th overall), Carey ended the season with a pair of AHL games for Lake Erie.

The 24-year-old is a strong skater and playmaker who displays lots of energy and isn’t afraid of taking the puck to the net or doing the dirty work. At 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, Carey’s physical game evolved in college and he grew stronger along the walls and in the corners. He’ll need to continue to improve positionally on defense at the next level and work on his consistency, but he knows the key will be building on what made him so successful in college.

“I’m gonna try to bring the same energy and use my skating as my number one asset,” Carey said, “whether that’s forechecking, backchecking, creating time and space for myself to make more plays, or whatever else I have to do. I’m just hoping to impress the coaching staffs, play every game and play in all different situations on the ice.”

Charlie Coyle

Hometown: East Weymouth, Mass.

2012-13 team: Houston Aeros

Position: Center

As the only first-rounder on this list, it’s conceivable that Charlie Coyle would have broken camp with Minnesota if not for the NHL lockout.

The 20-year-old power forward was selected 28th overall in 2010 by San Jose before getting dealt to the Wild in 2011. He was the Hockey East Rookie of the Year with Boston University in 2010-11 and spent the first half of last season with the Terriers before deciding to leave school for the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs to focus solely on hockey.

After a second consecutive appearance with Team USA at the World Junior Championships, Coyle helped the Sea Dogs to a league title and a spot in the Memorial Cup semifinals. Coyle’s numbers were staggering in the playoffs, scoring 15 goals and 34 points in just 17 contests.

He’s physically mature at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, and he knows how to use his body. Coyle has good hands, an excellent release, plays strong and smart, and he’ll be featured at both center and wing. Like anyone at his stage of development, he just needs to experience the daily grind of the pro game.

“It’s obviously a long season,” Coyle said. “Going from Saint John, you play more games (than in college), but I haven’t really done something like this before. I need to focus every day in practice, in the gym or wherever it is, putting in 100 percent, working hard and getting better. If you put the time and effort in, I believe things will work out.”

Tommy Cross

Hometown: Simsbury, Conn.

2012-13 team: Providence Bruins

Position: Defenseman

Cross closed out his fourth season at Boston College in grand fashion, captaining the Eagles to their second national championship in three seasons. Equally noteworthy for Cross, however, was his ability to stay healthy after a rash of knee injuries throughout his college career.

The 23-year-old reigning Male Eagle of the Year is as known a commodity as there is on this list, having been drafted by the Boston Bruins in the second round (35th overall) in 2007. Cross followed up his time at BC with two games in Providence, giving fans a brief look at the steady, reliable blueliner. While he has to keep working on his footwork and in-zone coverage, he’s capable of being a shutdown defender, has a good stick and makes a great first pass. Plus, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, Cross’ strength inevitably will become a bigger part of his game as he learns to be more physical.

Humble, mature beyond his years and certainly a born leader, Cross knows what it takes to win and what it will take to advance to the next level.

“I’ve just got to focus on being consistent and playing my best hockey, and let the people in the organization (decide what happens),” he said. “It’s up to me to play my best and improve because if those two things don’t happen, then you don’t get a chance in the NHL. Hopefully an opportunity comes up, and when it does, I’ll embrace it.”

Brian Dumoulin

Hometown: Biddeford, Maine

2012-13 team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

Position: Defenseman

Dumoulin’s freshman season at Boston College was great. His next two seasons were otherworldly. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound NHL-ready blueliner is a two-time All-American, the first two-time winner of the Hockey East Best Defensive Defenseman honor, a two-time recipient of the Bob Monahan Award as the Best Defenseman in New England and a two-time national champion, and he was a Hobey Baker finalist as a junior, not to mention the Eagles’ co-MVP.

Simply put, the 21-year-old Dumoulin is big, strong, consistent on both sides of the puck, makes a great breakout pass, logs a ton of minutes, and he’ll play in all situations. There are few flaws to his game, aside from perhaps a need to improve upon his ability to create separation.

Drafted by Carolina in the second round (51st overall) in 2009, Dumoulin was traded to Pittsburgh last June, and the first-year pro is excited for what awaits when the NHL comes calling.

“There are over 75 games in the AHL season, and (Pittsburgh’s) gonna need players who show up every day and move the puck up to the forwards because their organization has some of the best forwards in the world,” he said. “If they have the puck on their sticks, magical things are going to happen. That’s a key for me, moving the puck and being consistent defensively and offensively.”

Brian Flynn

Hometown: Lynnfield, Mass.

2012-13 team: Rochester Americans

Position: Center

Flynn enters the pro ranks as one of the most prolific scorers to ever come through the University of Maine. In four seasons, the former Black Bears co-captain amassed 156 points (69 goals, 87 assists) in 153 games to rank 11th on the school’s all-time scoring list. Flynn’s best season was his last, finishing tied for 10th in the nation with 48 points. Undrafted, the 24-year-old’s performance earned him an NHL contract with Buffalo, and he closed out 2011-12 with five games for the Sabres’ top affiliate in Rochester.

Regarded as a solid all-around player, Flynn was a model of consistency in college, showing the ability to provide offense at will with the help of great hands and masterful vision.

At the next level, however, he’ll have to add muscle to his 6-foot-1, 185-pound frame and avoid a pattern of letting his weight dip over the course of a long season.

“You have to have linemates that you jell with well and have chemistry with out there,” Flynn identified as a key to success in the AHL. “There are going to be ups and downs, but the more you can minimize those downs and just be consistent then, by the end of the season, points and everything else will figure itself out.”

Brian Gibbons

Hometown: Braintree, Mass.

2012-13 team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

Position: Center

With one pro season under his belt, Gibbons has his sights set on a more consistent season in his second year in Pittsburgh’s system.

The 24-year-old forward was an offensive force in the first month of his rookie season — notching nine of his 30 total points — but he was more pedestrian the rest of the way and failed to produce a point in nine playoff games.

However, at 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, the undrafted Gibbons is a speedster with dynamic vision and an innate ability to create space and find teammates in just the right spot. Boston College fans may remember that well as the two-time national champion recorded 164 points (56 goals, 108 assists) in 160 games with the Eagles to rank tied for 15th on the school’s all-time scoring list.

“It felt good to have some success early in the AHL to prove to yourself that you can play at that level and get some more confidence in your game,” Gibbons said. “With that being said, there are a lot of things to work on. You’ve always got to watch film and look at areas to improve. Over the course of the year, my offense slowed down but I think I became a better overall player in some other areas of the ice and hopefully that will translate into success this year.”

Joe Lavin

Hometown: Shrewsbury, Mass.

2012-13 team: Rockford IceHogs

Position: Defenseman

A versatile and reliable defender, Joe Lavin’s talents didn’t go unrecognized as a first-year pro last season in Rockford, where the Chicago fifth-round pick (126th overall in 2007) finished as the IceHogs’ Rookie of the Year following a college career split between Providence and Notre Dame.

After a slow start at the professional ranks, the 23-year-old totaled 17 points on the blue line and became a regular player in all situations, relishing his time on the penalty kill.

At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Lavin’s strength is his skating ability. He’s agile, jumps up into the play and possesses a solid two-way game. He’s learned the importance of consistency from the veterans around him and must build upon a strong second half, where he evolved into more of an agitator who still needs to be tougher and grittier to make it to the next level. For now, though, it’s all about playing effectively and often.

“There’s nothing better than having coaches instill their confidence in you and throwing you out there for huge minutes each night,” Lavin said. “It’s doing that every single night. I think a lot of guys question why some guys are in the NHL, but they consistently bring whatever they can bring to the table. There were times last year when I was really good and times when I was really bad, but it’s the consistency that the NHL guys look for and that’s going to be my biggest focal point.”

John Muse

Hometown: East Falmouth, Mass.

2012-13 team: Charlotte Checkers

Position: Goaltender

Muse will tell you he’s not satisfied with his rebound control. To this point, though, it hasn’t mattered. He’s a proven winner. After two national championships and countless other trophies and distinctions in his four years as a starter at Boston College, the goaltender capped his first year in the pros with yet another title as he backstopped Florida to the Kelly Cup, earning ECHL playoff MVP honors thanks to an 11-2 record and 1.78 GAA. The undrafted 24-year-old also enjoyed success with Carolina’s top affiliate in Charlotte, going 10-3-2 with a slim 1.81 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, garnering him his first NHL contract.

Muse isn’t a big guy in net, just 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, but he uses that size to his advantage with quickness and precision playing the angles, and he’ll frequently challenge shooters atop the crease. The second-year pro will contend this season for the No. 1 job with the Checkers, feeding off the confidence he’s built from years of winning.

“I have a lot of quiet confidence,” Muse said. “I’m not a cocky guy, but I’m definitely confident. Wherever I’m playing this year, I have confidence in myself that I’ll continue to win and I’m gonna do my best. If the opportunity arises that I can be called up, I’ll take full advantage of that.”

Will O’Neill

Hometown: Salem, Mass.

2012-13 team: St. John’s IceCaps

Position: Defenseman

After four standout years at Maine, compiling 101 points and 263 penalty minutes in 141 games, Will O’Neill made an immediate impact when he jumped to the AHL late last season. The former Black Bears captain spent several weeks with St. John’s following the conclusion of his college career, and he tallied three points in seven regular-season games with the IceCaps before practicing and learning from the stands as that club advanced to the league’s conference finals.

At 24 years old, O’Neill enters his first full season as a professional as a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman with great vision and hockey sense. He’s a force on the power play and has tremendous offensive instincts. The Atlanta/Winnipeg draft pick (210th overall in the seventh round in 2006) is very physical as well, though at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, he’ll have to continue adding to his frame while also picking up his foot speed.

The son of a hockey coach — his father, Bill, leads the bench at Salem State — O’Neill knows learning comes from doing.

“In pro hockey, there’s obviously a big step from college to the AHL, and AHL to the NHL, but it’s all about getting an opportunity and taking advantage of it,” he said. “The more experience I have in St. John’s, the more games I play and the more situations I’m in, I think will only help me for when I get that chance in Winnipeg. I have to be prepared.”

Paul Thompson

Hometown: Derry, N.H.

2012-13 team: Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins

Position: Right wing

Thompson went undrafted, but he was given an NHL contract from Pittsburgh after exploding offensively in his final two college seasons at New Hampshire. The 2011 Hockey East Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Award finalist finished his time with the Wildcats with 55 goals and 112 points in 140 games. That offensive touch was limited to 10 goals and 25 points as a rookie for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, but the 23-year-old was more focused on doing the little things in his transition to the pros.

Thompson’s rookie season was given a jolt after a brief one-game demotion to Wheeling of the ECHL in December, but he welcomed the opportunity as a wakeup call, quickly earned his way back to the Penguins and remained in the lineup for much of the season.

The 6-foot-1, 201-pound forward will continue to work on his footwork and his consistency in year two as he fights for more ice time, particularly on the power play. Fortunately, he ended last season playing his best hockey.

“I need to continue playing the way I was playing at the end of last year and build off of that,” Thompson said. “Hopefully that translates into better offensive numbers and a bigger role offensively on the team. I’m focused on trying to get off to a good start and playing the way I know you need to play to have success in this league.”

Chris Wagner

Hometown: Walpole, Mass.

2012-13 team: Norfolk Admirals

Position: Center

Following two productive college seasons at Colgate, the 21-year-old Wagner enters the pros as a confident and physical power forward still growing into his body. The 6-foot, 195-pound playmaker finished second on the Raiders in scoring last season and sixth in the country as just a sophomore with 51 points, including a team-high 34 assists, totals that came as little surprise given his unselfishness and dynamic offensive touch. While he will have to get faster and develop a quicker release, Wagner sees the ice and moves the puck well, and he loves to post up in front of the net.

A 2010 selection by Anaheim (fifth round, 122nd overall), Wagner shines from the faceoff circle out, and his varied skill-set should open some eyes.

“My goal is to play every game, and hopefully have a pretty big role, whether as a defensive forward, a goal-scorer, or whatever else they want me to be,” Wagner said. “The key is consistency. If I play the best I can play night-in and night-out, then I don’t think I’ll have a problem being an everyday player in the NHL. I have to skate better and get my feet quicker. The NHL is fast now, and it’s gonna get faster. It’s not as much a physical game anymore as it is a skating game.”

David Warsofsky

Hometown: Marshfield, Mass.

2012-13 team: Providence Bruins

Position: Defenseman

Warsofsky battled issues with consistency and intensity early in his rookie year last season, but he had a strong finish with Providence to carry him into the summer. The offensive defenseman is a sound decision-maker with the puck and distributes well, which helped him register 24 assists among his 29 points. Warsofsky has a strong release and certainly would benefit from shooting more, especially on the power play, where he has the potential to run things.

The 22-year-old’s bread-and-butter, though, is defense. He’s quick, intelligent and reliable, rarely putting himself in a bad position. Though small at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, Warsofsky is durable, knows his physical limitations and he’s earned the trust of his coaches, resulting in a regular shift in most situations.

Selected by St. Louis 95th overall in the fourth round in 2008, Warsofsky is Boston property after a 2010 trade, and he’s eager to wear the Black and Gold.

“My goal every season is just to get better every day,” the Boston University alumnus said. “I want to go to the rink and improve on the little things and know that I left the rink a better player than when I got there. Hopefully, I have a lot of playing time ahead of me but, at the same time, you want to get that opportunity as soon as you can. I’m ready for it whenever the Bruins think I’m ready also.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @AdamMKaufman
Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com