Sports

NHL lockout means AHL will be stocked with top talent

With NHL training camps cancelled because of the lockout, Troy Ward will be tasked with getting the Abbotsford Heat up to speed in a hurry. - Abbotsford News file photo
With NHL training camps cancelled because of the lockout, Troy Ward will be tasked with getting the Abbotsford Heat up to speed in a hurry.
— image credit: Abbotsford News file photo

An NHL work stoppage can throw a wrench into the best-laid plans, and Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward knows that full well.

"Heading into the last lockout, I had a chance to join the Islanders organization as an assistant coach," said Ward, reflecting on the 2004-05 season, which saw the entire NHL schedule wiped out due to labour strife.

"But because of what they were probably going to do structure-wise to NHL coaches and salaries, I opted not to take that route and stayed at the University of Wisconsin (as associate head coach)."

Ward, as it turns out, may have dodged a bullet by passing on the Islanders job – the once-proud New York franchise has been an on-ice disaster in recent years, missing the playoffs six of the past seven seasons.

But in any event, the latest NHL work stoppage – it began at midnight Saturday with the collective bargaining agreement expiring and the team owners locking out the players – will transform the hockey landscape for as long as it persists.

The American Hockey League, for starters, suddenly becomes the top pro hockey league on the continent.

It's a scenario last seen in 2004-05, when the AHL was sprinkled with stars-in-waiting who would have otherwise been in the big league. Then as now, players age 22 and under who were on entry-level contracts were allowed to be sent down during the lockout.

Jason Spezza of the Binghamton Senators was the league MVP and top point producer; Mike Cammalleri of the Manchester Monarchs was the leading goal-scorer; and the Rochester Americans' Ryan Miller took home the Baz Bastien Award as best goalie.

The Philadelphia Phantoms, starring Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, won the Calder Cup, and other future luminaries in the league included Eric Staal, Ryan Kesler, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Marc-Andre Fleury.

The current crop of AHL-bound talent is highlighted by the Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers' affiliate. They'll boast an impressive collection of their NHL parent club's young studs, including Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz.

Other budding stars sent to the AHL include Jeff Skinner (Carolina Hurricanes/Charlotte Checkers), Cody Hodgson (Buffalo Sabres/Rochester Americans), Adam Henrique (New Jersey Devils/Albany Devils), Sean Couturier (Philadelphia Flyers/Adirondack Phantoms), Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals/Hershey Bears), Slava Voynov (L.A. Kings/Manchester Monarchs) . . . and the list goes on.

"Every team will have that trickle-down," Ward noted. "It's a good thing for the Fraser Valley area – whether you like the Heat or you just like a good brand of hockey, you're going to see a lot of hockey's future at this level. It's going to be exciting."

The Heat's roster has been fortified by the likes of Sven Baertschi, T.J. Brodie and Lance Bouma.

Brodie and Bouma spent the bulk of last season with the Calgary Flames, while Baertschi, a 19-year-old forward entering his first full pro season, is the organization's top prospect. He averaged two points per game in the Western Hockey League in 2011-12, and scored three goals in five games with the Flames during an emergency recall in March.

"Sven's a dynamic guy," Ward said. "He has electricity to him, though his feet and through his hands, where he can make things happen at any given time in a game.

"It's a pretty exciting time to be a coach in the American League, to have that calibre of player coming through. Based on the five (NHL) games he had last year, we might have never seen him in Abbotsford."

LOCKOUT A BOON TO AHL ATTENDANCE

If 2004-05 is any indication, the influx of talented players combined with the absence of NHL hockey should provide a natural box-office boost for AHL teams. During the last lockout, attendance increased 6.5 per cent during the regular season, and the league set a total attendance record by drawing over seven million spectators (including playoffs).

The Heat, who have struggled to draw fans and meet revenue projections during their three years playing out of the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, are surely hoping to see an increase on the 3,545 fans per game they averaged last season. They appear well-positioned to take advantage of the NHL's absence, though, as 10 of their first 13 games are at home.

"When the NHL is in full operation, our players don't get as much attention," Ward noted. "Now, this is a chance for a lot of these kids to really take the bull by the horns and say, 'I'm here, I'm in this organization, and I'm a really good player.' The attention they're going to garner is going to be exciting for them, both short-term and long-term."

TOUGH TASK FOR COACHING STAFF

As fascinating as the AHL figures to be, the NHL's absence also sets teams back in terms of preseason preparation.

Typically, players arrive in Abbotsford with a week or two of Flames training camp under their belts. The youngest among them have also attended a prospects tournament in Penticton prior to that.

This season, Heat training camp begins on Sept. 28, and the first game is two weeks later vs. the Peoria Rivermen on Oct. 12. The Heat will not have any exhibition games due to Abbotsford's far-flung location relative to the rest of the league – and the Penticton prospects tourney was cancelled – so it's on Ward and the Heat coaching staff to craft ultra-efficient practices to get the players up to speed in a hurry.

"It's going to be a different start," Ward acknowledged. "We play Peoria the first weekend, and they're probably going to go through a minimum of three exhibition games. We won't get that luxury this year, so we'll have to prepare a little bit harder (in practice).

"To me, our speed and the pace we play at is the most critical component we have to put in. And we have to put that in on our own."

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