Carolina, Tampa Bay retooling in the AHL

, Last Updated: 7:28 PM ET

The Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning have won the two most recent Stanley Cups that the NHL has awarded, but any AHL observer is fully aware of the struggles that the two clubs' AHL affiliates have endured in recent seasons.

This season both organizations continue to have their respective struggles in the AHL. Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, is an uninspiring 5-6-0-0. The Albany River Rats, who host the Hurricanes' AHL prospects along with those from the Colorado Avalanche, are a decidedly disappointing 5-6-1-0 more than a month into the AHL's regular season.

Mediocre to poor records at the AHL level can be the byproduct of neglect from the NHL parent club, poor draft classes, thin organizational depth and so on, but both Albany and Springfield should be prospering much more after the commitment that Carolina and Tampa Bay put forth this past summer. In both cases, the NHL parent clubs sunk a lot of effort into rebuilding their respective AHL operations.

After some wandering through the AHL and the former IHL, both organizations have finally found what look to be relatively stable homes. Carolina shifted their AHL operations to Albany from Lowell, Mass. this past summer. Tampa Bay set up shop in Springfield prior to the 2004-05 season.

Upon their respective arrivals in their new cities, the two Southeast Division organizations set about icing competitive AHL affiliates and upgrading organizational depth.

Under a new head coach, former NHLer Dirk Graham, Tampa Bay made at the time seemed to be a number of useful veteran additions for the Falcons, names like Craig Darby, Shane Willis, Jamie Storr and Terry Virtue all joining the organizational fold in 2004. Proven veterans Brad Tiley, Anders Eriksson and Todd Rohloff all came onboard for 2005-06.

Few could have argued with those moves at the time, but by and large, the moves bombed. The Falcons put together 57- and 65-point seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06, respectively, finishing nowhere even remotely close to a playoff berth.

Once one of the AHL's stronger markets, years of non-playoff hockey have impacted a Springfield team trying to firm its footprint in Western Massachusetts.

Solidifying the Falcons for seasons to come is a worthwhile goal for Tampa Bay, as the Lightning like Springfield's location in the AHL's crowded New England corridor that cuts down on travel time, adds to practice time and makes keeping tabs on Tampa-contracted players and players from other organizations very easy.

"We're very mindful of making sure that we grow that fan base there," said Tampa Bay executive vice president and general manager Jay Feaster. "It's a market that has suffered there for a number of years."

So this summer, the Lightning and the Falcons once again sat down and tinkered with the blueprint. Surely adding the likes of Andy Delmore, who won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's top defenceman last season, and proven goal-scorer Eric Healey qualified as very solid moves. The Falcons received a boost in goal with NHLer Sean Burke's demotion to the AHL at season's start. Respected former NHL head coach Steve Stirling replaced Graham.

"We want to win there," Feaster said. "There is no question. I think that Bruce Landon is one of the best owners in the business, and with my background in the American League, I know how important it is to win for the owner [in an AHL market]."

"You want a partner that you have a good relationship with and you can trust."

Meanwhile, after a robust 2004-05 season with Eric Staal and Cam Ward as their AHL centrepieces, Carolina found itself needing to boost its organizational depth after running into roster last season while based in Lowell. Last season, the Carolina-Colorado partnership in Lowell was left scrambling for players from the lower leagues when injuries and recalls hit.

The Hurricanes found themselves this summer moving into a new locale in Albany, N.Y., a hockey market badly scarred after years of a losing relationship with the New Jersey Devils. With an eye on making a splash in their new home while building up the organizational stable of depth players, the Hurricanes went out and signed Willis, Derrick Walser, Brad Isbister and Tim Conboy to combine with holdovers Keith Aucoin and David Gove.

As part of the dual affiliation with Colorado, the Avalanche provided reliable two-way centre Ben Guite and Matt Murley, who spent last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"You've got to have depth so that you don't get crushed with call- ups and injuries," Albany head coach Tom Rowe said.

The River Rats may have too much depth now, particularly with two NHL parent clubs supplying players. An excess of players who fall under the AHL's veteran rules has left Rowe sitting out top-end veteran AHL players on a nightly basis.

Springfield is a less top-heavy with veterans this season, but adding the likes of Delmore and Healey meant that the Lightning could not be happy to settle for anything less than at least a competitive Springfield team.

"We believe in development," Feaster explained, "and we believe that our guys develop better in a winning atmosphere. But it has been a slow go so far. I think that one of the biggest things so far is that we pretty much have one offensive line [in Springfield]."

Indeed, part of Springfield's problem has been the players who made the cut in Tampa Bay. Centre Eric Perrin and defenceman Doug Janik, both top-notch AHLers, both might have been expected to begin the season with the Falcons.

They never arrived in Springfield, however, as the pair both made the cut with the Lightning out of training camp.

Now, the Falcons do have the luxury of having an NHL veteran like Burke in Springfield to help tutor Finnish goalie prospect Karri Ramo. Putting any long-time NHL goaltender in the AHL for the first time in his career certainly bears the potential for problems, but the word is that the Burke situation and its dynamics have gone well for the Falcons.

And having Burke in Springfield and playing is preferable to having him withering in Tampa Bay as a third goaltender to Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist, particularly in terms of eventually being able to move Burke to another situation that would enable his return to the NHL.

"The reality of the situation," Feaster explained, "is that he is going to have to stand on his hand and show that he can still play, and then as teams go along and have some goaltending trouble, then I think we should be able to [make a move]. The big thing is that Burke needs to be playing."

The River Rats are in the midst of a Western Conference trip taking them through difficult stops at Milwaukee, Grand Rapids and Peoria. Springfield hosts the powerful Portland Pirates tonight. This weekend would be as good as any for both teams to put up a big weekend.

And so with the season still rather early, Tampa Bay and Carolina are hopeful of turning the corner.

"I hope so," Feaster said. "Certainly it has been frustrating."

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The Boston Bruins shipped out G Hannu Toivonen and D Mark Stuart to Providence. Brian Finley, who has found new life in Providence, will replace Toivonen in Beantown.

San Antonio picked up some additional muscle when the Phoenix Coyotes assigned tough guy Josh Gratton to the Rampage.

Bridgeport loaned forward Matt Koalska to the Hershey Bears on Wednesday.

BOLTS, FLYERS SWAP AHLERS

A pair of disappointing clubs in the opening month, Springfield and Philadelphia, hooked up on a trade on Thursday. The parent Tampa Bay Lightning sent gritty winger Darren Reid to the Flyers for playmaking centreman Daniel Corso.

Reid, 23, is a gritty third-year pro who should add some abrasiveness to the Phantoms' lineup. The Alberta native had a goal in 10 games with the Falcons this season.

The 28-year-old Corso returned to the AHL from a European stint. Corso battled an injury early in the season, but he managed a point- per-game pace with the Phantoms (2-4-6 in six games) this season and is at least a reasonable recall option for the Lightning.

For Philadelphia, given the unexpected presence of a number of veterans in the AHL with the Phantoms - Nolan Baumgartner and the recently recalled Petr Nedved, for starters - the trade relieves the Phantoms of a veteran in Corso.

NUMBERS

Chicago's Jason Krog leads the AHL in scoring with 25 points. Krog's 16 assists lead the AHL as well. Teammate Darren Haydar trails Krog by four points.

Mathieu Darche of Worcester and his 12 goals lead the AHL.

Hartford's Dale Purinton leads the AHL with 58 penalty minutes.

OVERTIME

Chicago forward Jason Krog won AHL player of the week honours for the week ending Sunday. Krog went 3-7-10 in three games, including a seven-point effort last weekend in a 10-5 win at Peoria. The seven- point outing was the most in the AHL in close to eight since November 1998 when Providence's Randy Robitaille and Landon Wilson both put up seven points in a 14-2 win at Syracuse.

Chicago has outscored opponents, 38-15, in seven road wins so far this season.

The AHL will introduce its 2007 AHL Hall of Fame class next Wednesday. Induction ceremonies will be held during the AHL All-Star Classic in Toronto in late January. Tickets for the AHL All-Star Classic also go on sale this coming Monday.

The Bridgeport Sound Tigers logged a ridiculous 2,622 kilometres on the bus last week, somehow also managing to squeeze in four games in five days. Leg one had the Sound Tigers heading from Connecticut to southern Virginia for a game at Norfolk. From there, the traveling road show moved on to Binghamton, N.Y. for last Friday's game with the Senators. A Maine-bound overnighter to Portland followed. The Sound Tigers finally arrived home in the early hours of Sunday morning from Portland, slept in and then hit the ice for a late- afternoon home date with Hartford, losing 2-1.

Patrick Williams can be reached at patrickwilliams@canoemail.com.


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