Not a soul in the NHL could question the New Jersey Devils' hockey acumen when it comes to their NHL affairs, but AHL observers have found plenty of fodder surrounding the Devils' AHL doings with which to quibble over the past six seasons.
But those criticisms may just cease if Lou Lamoriello can filter the Devils' NHL success down to their farm system, and steps that have been taken over the past six months may once again make the Devils the model for player development.
For going on close to 15 seasons, the Devils have assembled and re- assembled with meticulous care an NHL unit that can serve as a blueprint on how to build an organization from the ground up.
As well, the Devils hold a reputation for taking care of their personnel, both financially and in regard to quality-of-life issues. It is not a coincidence that no less than the likes of Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias eschew riches elsewhere to remain in North Jersey playing under the discerning eye of Lamoriello, the Devils' jack-of-all-titles.
With a sparkling new arena on the way for 2007-08 in downtown Newark, N.J. and another crop of promising young talent (for starters, goaltender Jordan Parise and forward Stephen Gionta, siblings to a pair of current Devils regulars) on board, the Devils look to be in good shape for several years again, particularly if Brodeur continues to hold up under his staggering workload.
But the Devils' AHL operation has been in tough for the past six seasons, an ugly stain for an otherwise model organization.
During the 1990s, the Devils used the AHL to churn out talent in a way that had not been seen since the Habs and the old Nova Scotia Vees were cranking out the names like Larry Robinson and Yvon Lambert during the 1970s.
However, since the 1990s drew to a close, the Devils' AHL picture has been nothing short of an embarrassment. A talent pipeline that once pumped out Brodeur, Elias, John Madden, Sergei Brylin, Colin White and Brian Gionta along with a slew of talent now playing elsewhere in the NHL has slowed considerably in recent years.
Playoff experience for the youngsters?
The Devils' AHL affiliate has played all of five postseason games since the turn of the millennium, none of them since April 19, 2000.
For that matter, even playoff races have been rare for the Devils' AHL charges. Last season, the Devils' AHL team, Albany, went 25-48-4- 3, good for dead last in the Eastern Conference.
So, few tears were shed in Albany when the Devils departed after last season, leaving in tatters a once-proud New Jersey-Albany marriage that dated back to 1993.
Needing a new AHL affiliate, the Devils bought the former Lowell Lock Monsters and set up shop just outside of Boston. This new set- up means that the Devils can now run their AHL operation entirely as they see fit. As Lowell's owners, any shortcomings this year in Lowell will fall squarely on the Devils' shoulders.
One such change this season is a new head coach, Kurt Kleinendorst, who has spent the past five seasons on the Devils' scouting staff. A downright pleasant, hockey-savvy and positive sort, Kleinendorst will embark on his first AHL head-coaching job this season and has the tall order of healing the festering wound that the Devils' AHL side has endured for so long.
Former NHLers Kevin Dean and Chris Terreri will serve as assistants to Kleinendorst.
Before entering the scouting ranks, the Minnesota-born Kleinendorst accumulated coaching experience with the Devils (as an assistant) as well as in the ECHL, the former IHL and in the United Kingdom. Twice in his coaching career Kleinendorst has won coach-of-the-year honours, once in the ECHL and once in the UK, where he also won a championship.
"That's an understatement [that Albany struggled]," Kleinendorst acknowledged when asked about the Devils' AHL situation in recent seasons.
Kleinendorst believes that a New Jersey-Albany divorce proved best for all parties involved.
"It ended up toward the end being a bad marriage. I think that everybody that was involved knew that it probably was a good idea to break ties, not just for us, but for the ownership [in Albany]."
Owning the Lowell franchise and running things the New Jersey way should yield dividends, Kleinendorst states.
"We're in a good situation because we are the ownership, and we do own the team. We've been able to go in and make some improvements to the facility, the locker room and just do everything that we can do so that we don't have any excuses."
What needs to change with the Devils' AHL picture?
"I don't know that we have to change the overall culture," Kleinendorst said, "but I think that there are some things that I've been made aware of that we feel that we need to do a little differently. "I'm not going to say 'better,' but 'differently.'"
One of those things would be building a winning culture.
"Obviously, we've got some work to do. Our top priority is development. Every American League team is there for a purpose [development] and nobody would tell you differently."
But development goes hand in hand with winning, says Kleinendorst.
"I think that my philosophy is that we can accomplish [development] and at the same time win enough games to feel like we've had a successful season as well."
"You want to develop a winning attitude."
To that end, the Devils picked up Justin Papineau, a forward not incapable of a 30-goal season, from the New York Islanders organization while reliable veteran AHL defenceman Mike Mottau headed over from the Peoria Rivermen.
Lamoriello is not stopping at the AHL level, either.
The Devils this week again reached into the till and this time took a much more unconventional step, purchasing a majority ownership stake in the ECHL's Trenton (N.J.) Titans. Located just one hour south from what will be the Devils' new home in Newark, the Titans play in the 7,605 Sovereign Bank Arena, an AHL-calibre building.
Very few NHL teams own their ECHL affiliates, and ties between NHL and ECHL teams can sometimes be rather limited in scope. But the Devils are all about structure, and this move now gives the Devils a very structured baseball-style developmental chain.
Whereas Lowell will serve as the Devils' AAA affiliate, a place where they can develop their top prospects and house their first- recall players, Trenton will serve as the Devils' Double-A affiliate, an even more nurturing environment for grooming diamonds in the rough.
The Devils can utilize their new ECHL affiliate as a means of affording ice time to young prospects who are very rough around the edges and might otherwise be lost in the AHL shuffle. Stashing a fifth goaltender in the organization in the ECHL can also be a move that allows a young netminder to receive a heavy dose of regular game action.
Off the ice, the move is an excellent move for the Devils, particularly given that they battle the Philadelphia Flyers for the loyalties of hockey fans in the state of New Jersey. Located in the centre of the state, Trenton is something of a rough north-south dividing line between Philadelphia fans and New Jersey fans (to say nothing of those with Rangers loyalties).
For now, at least, Trenton will remain an ECHL centre, but certainly it could make for an attractive AHL port should the Devils' excursion into Lowell not work out in the long-term. Lowell averaged 3,635 last season, fourth-worst in the AHL, and the Devils' deal in Lowell as it stands at the moment only extends the Devils' AHL presence in Lowell through the 2007-08 season.
AHL loses long-time Hartford hockey player
Sad news came out of Hartford this week with the passing of long- time Hartford hockey writer Jack Lautier. Just 53 years old, the long-time Bristol (Conn.) Press hockey writer lost his battle with lung cancer this week.
One of the decent men of hockey, Lautier knew of what he wrote. In addition to the role of devoted hockey dad and the sort of travel that it entails, Lautier also stayed active, playing the game on an amateur basis. Lautier provided Canadian-style passion for the game and some New England-style fervour to a state that has had its hockey ups and downs over the years.
Lautier carved out a niche as a treasure trove of all things Hartford Whalers and wrote a number of books during his 30 years of professional writing. After the Whalers departed Hartford, Lautier covered the Wolf Pack.
Lautier brought with him to the AHL his NHL-style sensibilities and the perspective of age. His story-telling made for many a good tale about a Whalers team that has seen its memories slowly begin to fade away over time.
Lautier leaves behind a wife and two sons.
Mandatory visors debut
Thursday afternoon's Lowell-Philadelphia tilt in Voorhees, N.J. opened the AHL's preseason slate. The low-key affair also marked the debut of the AHL's new rule making the use of visors mandatory.
Both teams iced rosters with a decidedly youthful slant to them for the afternoon affair, so mandatory visor use was nothing new for a collection of players fresh out of the CHL and the NCAA.
But there was a learning curve for one old-time AHLer. The last time that defenceman John Slaney donned a visor prior to this season, he was wearing Cornwall blue, red and white with the old OHL Royals back in the 1991-92 season.
Said Slaney, "I know what the whole concept is, to be safe, but as much as you don't think that it takes [your vision] out of play, it actually does take your vision out of play because it's something that you haven't been used to wearing."
Philadelphia's Stefan Ruzicka, who spent time in the OHL wearing a visor, was tagged with a 10-minute misconduct for not having his visor in the proper position.
In a move that could hardly be considered surprising, the AHL announced a trio of rule changes this week that will keep it in step with the NHL.
Player sticks will now be allowed a maximum curvature of three- quarters of an inch, an increase from the previous one-half inch.
During shootouts, the home team can opt to shoot first or second.
Finally, teams must request stick measurements prior to the shootout beginning. Unsuccessful challenges will result in the team making the challenge lose its next shootout opportunity. If the challenge is successful and an opponent's stick is illegal, the guilty team will lose one attempt. The law-breaking player will also sit out the rest of the shootout.
AHL referee to try Europe
Movement between the AHL and European hockey is nothing new. Players and coaches have been making such a move for decades.
But according to HockeyRefs.com, a web site dedicated to all things officiating, former AHL referee Bob Langdon will be heading over to Denmark this season for a brief stint in November.
HockeyRefs.com also reports that Langdon will do a mix of AHL and UHL games this season and will head off in January to train for a career as a police constable.
AHL Remembers Bailey, Bavis
It has been a classy move on the AHL's part in recent years to make honouring the memories of Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis a regular occurrence. The two Los Angeles Kings scouts, who both had solid AHL ties, were among the victims of United Airlines flight 175 in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In what seems to have become an annual tradition, the AHL has made sure in recent seasons to remember the two each September.
Bailey, a native of Lloydminster, Sask., carved out an long pro career with Boston, Detroit, Washington and Edmonton. The tough winger also spent a season with the Hershey Bears. The always outgoing Bailey was no stranger to AHL rinks via his scouting work. Along the way, Bailey was a part of seven Stanley Cup-winning teams.
A Massachusetts product, Bavis spent two seasons in the AHL in the early- to mid-1990s with the Providence Bruins and the old Fredericton Canadiens. Among his teammates in the AHL were Peter Laviolette, Brian Savage, Turner Stevenson and Donald Brashear.
The memories of the pair now live on through charitable organizations.
The Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston has received much of the proceeds through the Ace Bailey Children's Foundation. More information on Bailey's foundation can be found at http://www.acebailey.com.
The Mark Bavis Leadership Foundation provides annual grants in the range of $1000 to $5000 US to youngsters to be used for school tuition and other extracurricular activities. More information on that organization can be found at http://www.markbavisleadershipfoundation.org.
The Rochester Americans have finally named an assistant coach to replace the departed Doug Houda. Moe Mantha, who spent time as an AHL coach with the Anaheim organization and lost a job in the fall- out of the Windsor Spitfires' off-ice scandal last season, will step behind the Amerks' bench to work with incumbent head coach Randy Cunneyworth.
After a quiet summer, the Grand Rapids Griffins finally struck, signing AHL sniper Jeff Hamilton. Last season with Bridgeport, Hamilton poured in 24 goals over just 39 regular-season games.
The Griffins also picked up grizzled centre Kip Miller, a former Griffin. Last season with a bad Chicago team, Miller went 19-40-59 with the Wolves.
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