The officiating complaints from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and, ahem, certain quarters of the AHL media raged after Game 5 of the Bears-Penguins second-round series that wrapped up two weeks ago tonight.
AHL vice president of hockey operations Jim Mill hears those complaints and can understand the frustration that comes with losing a playoff game in overtime, but he is standing by his man in stripes, Nygel Pelletier.
Pelletier whistled 23 power plays in that contests, but it was a series of calls in overtime that drew the Penguins' ire. Four Wilkes-Barre/Scranton minors set up two Hershey 5-on-3 overtime power plays. The Bears' potent offence capitalized at the 4:58 mark, with Hershey captain Alexandre Giroux's goal off a scramble in front sending the Penguins home in five games and pushing the Bears onward to the Eastern Conference final.
The goal set off a vociferous protest from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton's Wade Skolney and Dennis Bonvie. Penguins head coach Todd Richards also was not pleased and, along with Bonvie, attempted to garner further explanation after the game from Pelletier in the hallway leading out of Giant Center.
Mill wears many hats for the AHL, and officiating is a big percentage of Mill's workload. A former pro goaltender, Mill personally takes in more than 100 games each season, and a significant portion of his job's mandate is to work to ensure that the NHL's officiating standards on restraining fouls are enforced.
Easier said than done, of course.
The NHL's growing pains in enforcing this mandate have been well-documented. The challenge is especially acute in the AHL, where a more rambunctious, more physical style of play is the norm. AHL play is more scrambly, more prone to defensive breakdowns and a bit less systems-oriented. Mix in those factors with the all-out mentality of most players in the league, and attempting to enforce a strict adherence to the rulebook can frustrate players, coaches and fans.
Among the reasons for sticking to the NHL standard is ease the transition for the large percentage of the AHL,s players who shuffle between the NHL and AHL each season.
"I would agree that it's a challenge," Mill said of enforcing the mandate, "because the players all want to get to the NHL, and they're going to do (everything) to get to the NHL. It's a challenge."
But Pelletier, Mill will argue, enforced those very rules set in place by the NHL.
Certainly it bears noting that for all of his exceptionally strict enforcement, Pelletier did adhere to a very consistent standard. A penalty in the opening minutes of play was a penalty to the bitter end, even if it was to the Penguins' eventual chagrin.
Former NHL linesman Leon Stickle, now an NHL officiating supervisor, was on hand that night in Hershey and reported to Mill that Pelletier's work was strict, adhered to the rulebook standard and was consistent from beginning to end.
Mill later viewed video of the contest and concurred, and whether or not one is in favour of putting away the whistle and letting some transgressions slide during overtime, it would be difficult to argue with the assessments of Mill and Stickle.
Also at issue was that Pelletier was working his second game of the Bears-Penguins series, both of those games having come on Hershey ice. Such a schedule is the norm during the Calder Cup final when the officiating ranks have been slimmed down to the very best officials, but less common during the first and second rounds.
It could be argued that it is best to spread officials out across the AHL map during the playoffs -- work a game in Hershey tonight, a game in Rochester a few nights later and then head westward, all in an attempt to keep things fresh and perhaps avoid the chance for friction between teams and officials.
The AHL has opted that approach at times.
"We do pay attention (scheduling)," Mill explained.
The Bears-Pens series had more than its fair share of contentious moments, and perhaps some familiarity with the history of the series would prove useful to an official.
"There is no issue," Mill said of Pelletier having had worked Game 1 of the teams' series. "In fact, going into Game 5, it's a pretty good idea to have a guy (have knowledge of that series)."
As well, Pelletier, who worked Game 1 of the ECHL's Kelly Cup final on Wednesday night, had worked an ECHL playoff game in Florida the night before the Bears-Penguins tilt. Pelletier had worked only a handful of AHL playoff games this season prior to that night in Hershey.
Was Pelletier more of a, say, ECHL referee than an AHL referee?
No, according to Mill.
In response to that notion, Mill replied, "It's important to have you understand that Nygel Pelletier in our top 10 of officials. He deserved an assignment."
"That was an assignment completely based on merit. He earned it."
ON THE MOVE
Pending formal approval from the AHL's board of governors that should most likely come today, Calgary's AHL affiliate, the Omaha Knights, will make a rumoured move official and relocate to Moline, Ill., where they will be known as the Quad-City Flames. That city has long been a strong UHL market, leading that league in attendance in seven of the UHL Mallards' 12 seasons.
The market's easy proximity to other AHL depots in Peoria, Chicago, Milwaukee and fellow newcomer Rockford surely was an attraction for the Flames. The market also offers direct flights to major American airline hubs in Chicago and Denver, where Flames prospects can connects for flights to and from Calgary and other points.
Omaha reportedly lost $4 million in two seasons in that Nebraska city, according to the Omaha World-Herald. The Knights finished at or near the bottom of the AHL in attendance in a market in which they were competing with an NCAA program and a USHL team, clubs that were both present prior to the Knight's arrival.
Quad-City will be the Flames' fourth affiliation to dot the North American map since 2003 (along with Saint John, Lowell and Omaha).
Prior to the 2001-02 season, when the Chicago Wolves joined the AHL from the IHL, the AHL had never had an Illinois-based franchise. With the arrivals of Quad-City and Rockford for next season joining Chicago and Peoria, the state of Illinois and its four AHL teams will tie it with New York State, a longtime AHL stronghold. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania each have three AHL cities.
ON THE MOVE -- OR NOT?
The AEG company, which will take over the Hartford Civic Center this summer, and the MSG group that heads the New York Rangers are in negotiations to keep the Blueshirts, affiliation in the Connecticut capital city. It is believed that the two sides are close to a deal, though nothing is official yet.
Lowell's status for next season remains unknown, as reports in the Lowell Sun have the Lowell city council possibly considering terminating the Lowell Devils' lease at Tsongas Arena. Where the Devils' affiliation would head if such a development occurred is unknown, but persistent rumours exist that New Jersey could set up its AHL affiliation in Trenton, N.J. New Jersey owns the newly christened Trenton Devils (nee Titans) as its ECHL affiliate.
COMINGS AND GOINGS
A month-and-a-half before the open to the July 1st free-agent season, the Anaheim Ducks made the first big noise of the Portland Pirates' offseason, signing centre Andrew Ebbett to a one-year deal. The former Binghamton Senator assembled a 26-39-65 rookie season...Wilkes-Barre/Scranton re-signed centre Kurtis McLean, who had a strong postseason for the Baby Pens...Philadelphia also picked up QMJHL sniper David Laliberte, who put together a 50-goal effort in his overage year with the PEI Rocket. Laliberte was a 2004 draft pick who cranked out 298 shots this season with the Rocket. The Phantoms also signed tough winger Darroll Powe, a Princeton product, to an AHL deal after an impressive late-season stint...Carolina re-signed centre Jakub Petruzalek, who went 10-20-30 in 60 games with Albany and Hartford, where he skated before being traded to the Carolina organization for Brad Isbister...The Hurricanes, who will have a sole affiliation in Albany next season and need to beef up the organizational ranks, also signed defenceman Casey Borer, a 2004 third-rounder who played four seasons of NCAA hockey at St. Cloud State...Rockford, the Chicago Blackhawks' new affiliate, could have the services of centre Evan Brophey. The 20-year-old, who is competing in the Memorial Cup for the Plymouth Whalers, went 36-71-107 this season and was a 2005 third-round selection by the Blackhawks...Acquired from Columbus, defenceman Adam McQuaid is a likely bet to skate for the Providence Bruins after a four-year career with Sudbury for the 2005 second-round selection. The deal cost Boston a fifth-round pick...Edmonton has been busy replenishing its organization, as the Oilers need to fully stock their own AHL affiliate next season. So far this month, the Oilers have added 2005 first-round pick Andrew Cogliano and goalie Glenn Fisher from the NCAA ranks as well as Owen Sound defenceman Theo Peckham...Once home to Derek Boogaard, Houston could have the services of another tough WHL enforcer. The parent Minnesota Wild added Matt Kassian, taken in the second round in 2005. Kassian, 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, rang up 162 PIM with Kamloops this season...Manitoba veterans Wade Flaherty and Mike Keane both indicated to Winnipeg reporters that they would like to play next season...The New York Islanders picked up Sean Bentivoglio, an undrafted winger who impressed with the Providence Bruins after being signed out of Niagara University.
According to Eurohockey.net, Cory Larose (Chicago), Andy Hedlund (Hershey), Tomas Malec (Bridgeport), Eric Meloche (Philadelphia), Brad Moran (Manitoba), Curtis Murphy (Houston), Doug O'Brien (Portland), Peter Ratchuk (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton), Mattias Weinhandl (Houston) and Erik Westrum (Toronto) are among the notables who have either confirmed or unconfirmed deals to play in Europe next season. Keep in mind that some deals have exit clauses and are simply a back-up deal for players in the event that a contract to play in the AHL next season cannot be found.
Binghamton (Dave Cameron, who is off to OHL St. Michael's), Houston (Rob Daum), Bridgeport (Jack Capuano replacing Dan Marshall) will all have coaching changes for next season...Lake Erie, the new Cleveland-based affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche, will have a pair of former long-time NHLers running the show. The Monsters will be headed by former Albany assistant Joe Sacco and new assistant coach Sylvain Lefebvre...Sacco's departure from Albany was filled by long-time Albany defenceman Geordie Kinnear, a volunteer coach this season with the River Rats...Springfield, Edmonton's new affiliate, will have a new old head coach in Geoff Ward, who coached the late Edmonton Roadrunners in 2004-05 (as well as earlier stints with Edmonton affiliates in Toronto and Hamilton)...Like Ward, Worcester head coach Roy Sommer has coached in multiple AHL cities under the same organization banner. Sommer has coached San Jose affiliates in Kentucky, Cleveland and now Worcester...San Antonio head coach Pat Conacher so far has survived the organizational purge in Phoenix that has cost, among others, Mike Barnett and now-former San Antonio general manager Laurence Gilman their jobs with the organization...There have been rumours that Hartford head coach Jim Schoenfeld may hand over the coaching reigns to current assistant coach Ken Gernander in order to concentrate on management duties. A long-time AHL captain, Gernander would be a very capable head coach...Bridgeport's coaching staff makeover was completed with a new-old face in Pat Bingham, who returns to the Sound Tigers as an assistant coach after an earlier stint...The parent St. Louis Blues extended the contracts of Peoria head coach Dave Basseggio and assistant coach Brent Thompson and added Davis Payne as a second assistant. Payne coached the Blues' ECHL Alaska affiliate this season.
With the Calder Cup playoffs on track to end perhaps as late as slightly past mid-June, the AHL is on pace to be the last pro league in the world still playing...Edmonton will make history next September when they become the first NHL team ever to take its rookie camp to the Northwest Territories. Yellowknife, located 512 km from the Arctic Circle, will host that portion of Edmonton's training camp, and it is possible that some of the faces there could end up in the AHL next season...As the Oilers' farm system stands now, only three members of their most recent sole affiliate, the 2004-05 Edmonton Roadrunners, may skate for Ward next season. That trio -- Mathieu Roy, Kyle Brodziak and J.F. Jacques -- all spent time with the one-and-done Edmonton team...Roy would be the only holdover from the 2003-04 Toronto Road Runners...Three of Ward's former prospects -- Doug Lynch, Rocky Thompson and Jeff Woywitka -- skated together for part of this season with the Peoria Rivermen...Buffalo and Florida will be the only teams to resort to splitting an AHL affiliate (Rochester) next season...Hershey broadcaster John Walton surmised that big winger Scott Barney, who has been an offensive force for the Bears in the playoffs, may be the franchise's best-ever deadline-day acquisition...Edmonton prospect Rob Schremp had successful surgery to repair a tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Schremp suffered the injury in the final weekend of the regular season and finished with 17-36-53 numbers in his rookie AHL season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton...Veterans Mathieu Darche of Worcester and Hershey's Peter Vandermeer both were elected this week to serve as player representatives on the executive committee of the Professional Hockey Players Association. The AHL's CBA expires this August.
Patrick Williams covers the AHL for SLAM! Sports and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the SLAM! Sports AHL Blog at blog.canoe.ca/ahl.