Outside of the Edmonton Oilers’ Fab Four, who are making it look way too easy in Oklahoma City this year, the American Hockey League hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk for many of the locked-out NHLers busing about the minors.
There’s an exception to every rule, and Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz are piling up the points in OKC, suddenly the AHL’s hottest draw. Schultz, a rookie defenceman out of Wisconsin, is leading the AHL in scoring (18 points in 13 games). Not far behind are Eberle (16 in 13), Nugent-Hopkins (14 in 12) and Hall, who just joined the club following a lengthy rehab from a shoulder separation and has four points in five games.
For every Eberle, however, there’s Adam Henrique — whose Albany Devils played the IceCaps at Mile One last night, and again tonight — who had three goals as of Friday.
And Sean Couturier, with two goals. Chris Kreider, the New York Rangers’ playoff star last spring, who had a goal in 11 games before a date with the Portland Pirates last night. And Brett Connolly, with three goals in 11 games.
“It’s not an easy league,” Alex Burmistrov, the Winnipeg Jets’ lockout contribution to the IceCaps, said this week, “especially when you’re down here from the NHL. Players are playing hard against you, so it’s not easy for us.
“I bet a lot of fans thought I’d come here and score hat tricks every game. It’s not an easy league. It’s tough to score goals ... it’s tough.”
Before last night’s game against the Devils, opening a six-game homestand at Mile One (the Hamilton Bulldogs are in Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by the Providence Bruins next weekend), Burmistrov had two goals and seven assists through 13 games, good enough to lead the goal-challenged IceCaps, but barely totals that would raise an eyebrow.
Of course, Burmistrov and company are generating more attention on the ice, their space to move a little more crowded than, say, Ivan Telegin, the St. John’s rookie winger.
And, in a strange way, the American league — scrambly at times as youngsters learn the pro game — might provide a difficult challenge than the NHL, where systems and positional play are ingrained in the players.
“That’s why it’s the American league,” Burmistrov said. “Everybody is still learning here, everybody wants to play in the NHL and everybody is still trying to develop here. Including myself. It’s a good league to play hockey.”
“Without a doubt, guys are keying in on him,” St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge said. “We sat down a couple of games ago and went over some clips of his shifts, what I’m seeing on my side and what he’s seeing on the ice. When you watch in game speed, and when you watch the game tape, there’s no doubt in my mind teams are keying two guys on him.
“Especially on the power play, there’s pressure on him, and five-on-five, too. They’re really aware of him being an upper echelon guy and taking away his time and space. We talked about him moving pucks and getting to that open space.”
Out in Oklahoma, there was some stir over a recent high stick that caught Nugent-Hopkins in the face, requiring dental work for the 19-year-old, second-year pro and a full wire cage.
Nobody has to tell Burmistrov some American league players are watching the NHL guys, and if there’s a chance for an extra shot or two, well, they’re taking it.
“This is my fourth year in North America and it’s always been like this,” said the young Russian, who despite playing his third pro season is still only 21. “There is a lot of hitting and that’s hockey.”
Thing with Burmistrov, however, is that he sometimes initiates the contact. Like the game in Portland, when the Pirates’ Alexandre Bolduc went to hit the slick centre in the corner. Only Burmistrov leaned into Bolduc first.
“Bolduc was the one who ended up on his back,” said McCambridge, who liked to throw around his body as a minor league journeyman. “Alex is a guy who can play a physical game. He’s right in the battle. He’s not afraid to go to those hard areas, going for pucks in the corners. He has an edge to him.”
Of course, Burmistrov isn’t paid to muck it up. The singers sing and the dancers dance, and Burmistrov is supposed to be putting numbers on the board.
He’s not the only one, of course, on the IceCaps not scoring this season. Prior to last night’s game, only three teams in the East — Albany, Providence and the Binghamton Senators — had fewer goals than the IceCaps, and St. John’s had two more games played.
Burmistrov doesn’t appear overly concerned, confident the IceCaps will, “battle through this together.”
As for McCambridge, he takes some comfort in the fact the IceCaps, on their recent five-game road trip (where they went 2-3), generated more scoring chances than their opponents in all but one game.
“Yes, at the end of the day, you have to find ways to bear down on those pucks and you have to make sure they’re going in the back of the net regardless of how the goalie is playing,” he said. “Guys are getting opportunities, but that being said, we have to ensure pucks are going in.”
On another note ...
I’m not quite sure how to take this. Is somebody trying to tell me something?
I, along with The Telegram’s editor, Kerry Hann, have received a proposal by MAX — Arts, Athletics, Wellness to “re-invent” ourselves.
Bottom line, we have to shed a few or 25 pounds, and the MAX staff are leading the way.
Under the watchful eye of Peter Barbour, Ryan Osmond and others, Kerry and I are hitting the gym and minding our meals in an effort to shed excess girth, just in time for Christmas.
Now while the timing of this endeavour seems superb — just in time for the Holidays, when we can revel with beer and rum, cookies and cake without guilt — not so, says our MAX friends.
Rather, this is a lifestyle change. Thus the “re-invention”.
For the next number of weeks, your correspondent will drag his emerging waistline to MAX to partake in what’s known as Surge Hi-Performance Training, fun stuff that might as well be equated to surgery for the out-of-shape class.
So for the next several weeks, I will occasionally be updating the legion of readers anxious to learn of our progress.
Let us hope at no point will word “ambulance” be used.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org