September 18, 2012

AHL: Pirates roster stronger with lockout

By Paul Betit pbetit@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It didn't take long for the Phoenix Coyotes to fill out the Portland Pirates' roster.

A few hours before the owners of the 30 NHL teams officially locked out their players Saturday night, the Coyotes assigned 26 players to the their AHL affiliate.

Originally, all of those players were scheduled to report Friday to the Coyotes' training camp at the Jobing.com Center in Glendale, Ariz.

Unless an agreement is reached on a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NHL Players' Association within the next few days, the entire group will now report Sept. 28 to the Pirates' training camp in Portland.

The Pirates' roster, like every other team in the AHL, just got stronger.

"If (the lockout) continues past opening day, first of all, we're going to have a number of players who otherwise would not have been in the AHL, some young, highly-skilled NHL players, playing in our league," AHL president Dave Andrews said. "It is a bit of an opportunity for us. At the same time, it's not something we wish on the NHL. I think the sport generally is better off having the (NHL) playing. The sooner it gets resolved, the better it is for everyone."

Andrews said the AHL already has a deal to televise some of its games on the Sports Canada network. Negotiations are being held to provide hockey programming to regional networks in the United States, he added.

Because of the lockout, Andrews expects the AHL to experience a bounce in attendance.

In 2004-05, when the NHL players were locked out for the entire season, attendance in the AHL topped 7 million for the first time, a 6.5 percent increase from the previous season. Last year, total attendance in the 30-team league was 6.7 million people.

"Obviously, we'd much rather be in a position where our NHL club is about to open its camp, its early (training) sessions," Pirates' CEO/managing partner Brian Petrovek said. "But when you look at the group of athletes we're going to be getting, it does raise the bar in terms of expectations and excitement."

Heading the list of assignees to the Pirates' training camp is Oliver Ekman-Larsen, a 21-year-old defenseman from Sweden who spent all of last season playing for the Coyotes. He had 13 goals and 19 assists in 82 regular-season games and had a goal and three assists while playing in all 16 of Phoenix' playoff games.

"If a guy like Ekman-Larsson is starting the season in Portland, you know something is going on, huh?" said Phoenix assistant general manager Brad Treliving.

Ekman-Larsson is one of five players assigned to the Pirates' training camp who were first-round picks in an NHL entry draft. Other first-rounders include defensemen David Rundblad in 2009, Chris Summers in 2006 and Brandon Gormley in 2010 and goalie Mark Visentin in 2010. Rundblad, originally drafted by the St. Louis Blues, and Summers spent part of last season in the NHL as did defenseman Michael Stone, a third-round pick in 2009. Gormley and Visentin are rookies.

Five other players who were assigned to the Pirates over the weekend were second-round picks, including forwards Chris Brown in 2009, Phil Lane in 2010, Jordan Martinook in 2012 and Ethan Werek in 2009 and goalie Mike Lee in 2009. Werek played for the Pirates last season. The other four second-round picks are rookies.

Two other players, forwards Chris Connor and Rob Klinkhammer, also spent time in the NHL last season before signing with the Coyotes over the summer.

A total of 29 players are scheduled to report to the Pirates' training camp, four fewer than a year ago when camp opened. Forwards Evan Bloodoff, Darian Dziurzynski and Maxime Villemaire will report to Portland's training camp on AHL contracts. Bloodoff spent most of the last season with the Pirates.

A total of 12 players who will be in the Portland camp played for the Pirates last season.

If the lockout continues beyond opening day, Portland Pirates head coach Ray Edwards said he will have to assign a few players to the Gwinnett Gladiators, the Coyotes' ECHL affiliate in Georgia.

"We kept 24 or 25 guys around here last season," he said. "If nothing changes, you're looking at four or five guys making their way down there, but a lot can happen in two weeks."

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