March 25, 2012

From NEHJ: Portland's shooting star

By Dan Hickling

Admittedly, the sample size was a small one.

Just 13 games. 

David Rundblad piled up six goals and four assists in his first 13 games with the Pirates. (Dan Hickling/New England Hockey Journal)

But the glints of David Rundblad’s shiny offensive skill set were too bright to be overlooked.

It might have been the way he piled up points — six goals and four assists — for the Portland Pirates from that moment in December when he arrived in a trade from Ottawa to the Phoenix organization.

It might have been that eye-popping first pass out of the defensive zone.

You can’t teach it the way he does it — hitting the needle’s eye from 75 feet away.

And you can’t imitate it either, not unless you’re Nicklas Lidstrom, Rundblad’s Swedish countryman and inspirational father figure.

Lidstrom, of course, is the tre kroner gold standard for every Swedish kid, and the traces of his game found in Rundblad’s are more than coincidental.

“Of course,” Rundblad said. “He’s been playing here for 20 years. He’s probably the best Swedish player ever. He’s one of my idols. I try to (pattern) my play like his. I like the way he handles the puck and shoots the puck. He’s an offensive guy, too.”

Puck wizardry is something that came naturally to Rundblad, long before he grew to be 6-foot-2 and a solid 200 pounds.

“I’ve been playing like this my whole life,” he said. “Since I was a little kid, I always liked to have the puck and handle it. So, of course, I was always practicing a lot of it. I’ve been playing like this for many years, now. I’m just trying to improve myself every year.”

Rundblad’s puck-moving chops became evident from the moment he landed in Portland, following the swap that sent disgruntled center Kyle Turris to Ottawa.

He scored in his Pirates debut, and wound up his first four games with three goals and an assist.

“He’s a great young player,” said Portland’s Tyler Eckford, who has been Rundblad’s blueline partner as often as not. “He sees the ice really well. He’s big and has a great shot. And he’s got instincts galore.

“He’s young, but he’s proven right now that he can make an impact. That’s what you look for from your young guys.”

What the 21-year-old hasn’t picked up yet is seasoning, a key ingredient for turning AHL promise into NHL production.

That, of course, comes with playing big-boy minutes in all situations, which in part explains the unseemly minus-10 rating he rolled up, much of it coming while facing the opposing top lines.

Eckford said he’s found Rundblad to be a good listener and a quick learner.

“I have to talk to him a lot,” Eckford said. “With me being an older guy, I understand the system. For a younger guy like that who maybe hasn’t played the North American style, it’s always helpful when you have a guy helping you out. That’s what we do. We’re a team.”

Said Rundblad, “It’s been important for me to get some games in and get some ice time. They (the Coyotes) sent me down to improve my defensive game. They’ve got me doing that. Of course, it doesn’t come automatically. But you’ve got to play a lot.”

That he’s logging big minutes in Portland, and not in the NHL with Ottawa is something of an unexpected development.

Senators general manager Bryan Murray went out of his way to acquire Rundblad a year ago from the St. Louis Blues, who had made him their first round choice (17th overall) in 2009.

Murray gave up a 2010 first-round spot for Rundblad, who by that time had signed with the Blues but had opted to stay in Sweden last year.

That was before fellow Swede Erik Karlsson had emerged as Ottawa’s version of Lidstrom Lite, and old-timers Sergei Gonchar and Pavel Kubina began to sip from squeeze bottles filled at the Fountain of Youth.

After spending two months in and out of the Ottawa line up, Rundblad found himself frozen out all together.

Even so, he said, the trade to the Coyotes came as something of a surprise.

“I had no clue that it was going to happen right now,” he said. “But Phoenix is a good team with a good coach, and I think it’s a great situation for me. In Ottawa, they have a lot of good young ‘D,’ so it was tough to find a spot. But (this) is a good spot for me.”

Judging by first impressions, it could be a very good spot, indeed.

Portland goes all out

Portland Pirates managing owner Brian Petrovek (Norwood, Mass.) has long talked about bringing an outdoor game to Southern Maine.

And that’s before the AHL ever staged any of its outdoor events — in Syracuse, Hartford, Philadelphia and Hamilton — each of which were the centerpiece of a larger hockey celebration.

And while the notion hasn’t been cast aside completely, Petrovek said that such an event will have to wait a while.

“It continues to be a live idea,” Petrovek said. “I was interested in perhaps making it part of our 20th anniversary celebration next year. But right now, it’s into the weeds on the cost side of it. …We decided not to go there with everything we have going on to focus on the indoor game.”

The proverbial elephant in Petrovek’s office is the upcoming major facelift in store for the Pirates home rink, the Civic Center.

While details for spending the nearly $33 million allocated by Cumberland County voters are being hashed out, one idea in the works gaining steam is to close the building for a full year and do the entire makeover at once.

That would displace the Pirates for next season (2012-13), forcing them to find another venue — most likely the Colisee in Lewiston — in which to celebrate their 20th birthday.

Even a two-year rebuild likely would force some scheduling impositions on the Pirates.

Needless to say, that would make the staging of an outdoor game at Fitzpatrick Stadium rather low on the priority list.

“To add another layer to (our core business) to figure out how to put time and energy, money and staffing into an outdoor game is just too much, in my estimation, to try and do,” Petrovek said. “But it is still on my radar as part of an anniversary campaign. I think it is something that at some point would be a great event for Portland.”

One item that remains firmly on track, Petrovek said, is the Pirates’ commitment to the expansion of MHG Ice Centre in Saco, Maine, which sits about 20 minutes south of Portland.

Construction is expected to begin soon on a second ice sheet at MHG, as well as a full dressing room for the Pirates, who will use the facility as its full-time training (on and off ice) and administrative home.

Petrovek said that he and Ron Cain, a co-owner of both the Pirates and MHG, will finalize the timetable this week.

“We’ll call Saco home for year-round, high-performance practice and training,” Petrovek said. “That’s still very much the objective. We’re working hard to make that happen.”

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

Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com