Friday, October 19, 2012

NHL Fire in Lieu of the Lockout, Round 4: AHL All-Stars

Recently, it was put out that the NHL owners had made a 50/50 offer to the players. This news gave hope to NHL fans like me who have been acting like everything is just fine, but in reality, we are a little bit empty. For those of us who let our hopes cloud our judgement, I will quote a memorable South Park episode, "aaaaaand it's gone." The NHLPA quickly sifted through the owners PR-embracing rhetoric and found the offer far off from the 50/50 deal it claimed to be. And now, according to reports, the two sides are farther away then ever.

As painful as the lockout has been, there is still plenty of Fire in Lieu of Lockout, or Ice in Lieu of lockout for you hockey purists out there, for us to write about. As a current resident of the great city of Albany New York, I have the fortune of having a major asset in getting through this horrible lockout: The Albany Devils. 

Although I am certainly no fan of their NHL affiliate (guess who?), having a local team to go see live is the perfect remedy, for now. For a grand total of $14 a ticket, with the student discount of course, I got to sit second row, right next to the glass with a large group of friends, at the Albany Devils season opener last weekend as they took on the LA Kings' affiliate (coincidence?) in the Manchester Monarchs. In addition to the cheap tickets, beer was only $6, compared to the $10 you'll likely pay at NHL arenas. Needless to say, I had a good time. I had donned my Blair Betts Rangers jersey, was with a friend who repped his Anaheim Ducks, another who was decked out in his Sabres gear. More in our group were not hockey fans, just college kids trying to have some beers and a good time. But for us Iceheads, it was really something. In line for beers, I had a conversation with a NJ Devils fan with a jersey that read "Rangers Suck" on the back, and I couldn't even be mad. As hockey fans alike, we both understood the pain the other felt, and the enjoyment of seeing live hockey, even if it was the minors. 

All in all, I had a great time. It wasn't the first Albany Devils game I had attended, but under these circumstances, the experience was different. It also has served as the inspiration of the next installment of NHL Fire in Lieu of Lockout, because as I looked at some of the players in the game, I saw some familiar names. Guys who had battled each other for the Cup just a few months ago were on the ice against each other! And while a lot of star players have crossed oceans for bigger paydays, there are still some talented, younger players doing work in the American Hockey League.

One such player is Adam Henrique, who I had the pleasure of watching in the baby Devils season opener, and was a standout rookie for the big boy Devils last year. A 51 point season, as well as adding 13 in 24 playoff games, cemented his status as a future star in this league, and he certainly would be a top player in the NHL if it were playing this year. Joining him with the Albany Devils, was Chara-sized d-man Adam Larsson, another standout rookie last year who would have been an NHL star this year.

Henrique sporting no mustache in his fresh-to-death, lockout edition Albany Devils jersey. 

Another young standout, who was not playing in the game I attended but still might benefit from having to play in the AHL, is Rangers rookie sensation Chris Kreider. Kreider leaped onto the scene and joined the Rangers for their playoff run last year, and quickly made his presence felt. Jumping from an NCAA title with Boston College, to the NHL Playoffs is quite the leap, but he showed he could compete. His quick skates, strength, and hockey sense will be on full display with the Connecticut Whale this season.

Kreider and the Connecticut Whale started out their 2012 AHL season 0-2, perhaps only because he didn't play in the season opener.

The Oklahoma City Barons, affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, may have also struck gold during the lockout. Two of the last three first overall picks, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall, will all apply their trades this year in the A. The Oilers also had the other first overall pick, Nail Yakupov, but since he has never played pro before, he has defect back to his native Russia for the time being. The other two, are joined by another former Oilers first round pick, Jordan Eberle. Together, these three players might make up the best trio to play in the minors together. All three are super talented players who light up NHL goalies regularly, and together combined for 181 points in the NHL last season.

Oklahoma City Barons head coach Todd Nelson talks with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, right, and Jordan Eberle during Friday’s American Hockey League game against the Lake Erie Monsters at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

On defense, young gun Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the pride and joy on the Phoenix Coyotes system. The young Swedish Blue-liner put up 10 points in 15 games during his only AHL stint, his first season in North America. Now, he has the experience of a full NHL season, and a long NHL Playoff run to the Western Conference Finals. The Portland Pirates are thrilled to have him, though, they could probably use a web designer or two before they get carried away.

The Adirondack Phantoms, affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, have also benefited from players coming down to the minors. Young guns Brayden Schenn, and Sean Couturier made big impacts with the Flyers last year. Both have the potential to be top players in this league, and by this league I mean the NHL, for years to come.

Obviously, this list is far from complete. To play in the AHL, with or without a lockout, is a true test of ability, and there are many players in that league capable of playing in the NHL. Many have had their cup of coffee and their great story, others are waiting for their turn. But during this lockout, the best of the best are doing their time in the AHL, and should the lockout come to an abrupt close, these are the guys that will be right on call to start their NHL seasons.

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