Having honed their skills in the AHL during the lockout, young players like Carolina's Eric Staal are becoming stars
Hurricanes sensation Eric Staal didn't adore every minute of his postgraduate American Hockey League year--getting stuck in a bus during a blizzard in Hartford does not build character as much as a profound distaste for the Greyhound life--but the extra season in the A has helped turn the 21-year-old center into a dangerous scorer and a surprise candidate for the Canadian Olympic team. Because of the lockout-driven demotion, Staal, a first-round draft pick in 2003 who seemed overmatched as a rookie with Carolina in '03-04, has gone from being a Lowell (Mass.) Lock Monster to a lock as a franchise NHL player. "Playing 22, 23 minutes a game in the A and having some success there made me a lot more confident," says Staal, who has led the Hurricanes to the top of the Southeast Division and through Sunday was tied for third in the league in scoring with 28 points.
The lockout rocked the NHL, but among the ancillary benefits has been the emergence of young players who apprenticed for an additional season in the minors. The 6'3", 189-pound Staal, who added an extra gear to his already powerful skating, and the Senators' fabulous center, Jason Spezza, who improved decision-making, used the year to advance from promising to dominating. Meanwhile, a season with the AHL champion Philadelphia Phantoms transformed highly touted Flyers defenseman Joni Pitkanen, 22 (16 points at week's end), from a Bambi on the blue line into a puck-rushing, physical force. "That was the old hockey they were playing down there, all that hooking and grabbing and holding," says Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford. "They learned how to fight through that."
Even a player of lesser portfolio, 25-year-old Kings goalie Jason LaBarbera, who was the AHL's MVP in 2003-04 but was going nowhere in the Rangers' organization, benefited from working with New York's new goalie instructor, the celebrated Beno√Æt Allaire, while playing for the Hartford Wolf Pack. LaBarbera signed with Los Angeles as a free agent in August and through Sunday was 8-2-1 for the upstart leaders of the Pacific Division.
"Our team is a product of the lockout," says G.M. Dave Taylor, whose Kings nightly dress as many as nine players who were in the AHL last season. "These guys might have been eight- or nine-minute players if there'd been an NHL season, but last year they didn't have to shuttle back and forth. These AHL guys just picked up where they left off."
The anomalous lockout year provided a window to the ways of old-time hockey. Three decades ago the then dominant Canadiens routinely let future stars marinate in the minors. In the 1990s, when the Devils were a power, they made young talent spend time at finishing school. (Goalie Martin Brodeur had one full AHL season and 2001 Selke Trophy winner John Madden had two.) But in the salary-capped NHL, there seems to be less inclination to keep potential impact players in the AHL. "With the cap and the league becoming more competitive, teams will be looking for an early return [from players] more than ever," says Rutherford.
With the retirements of greats like Brett Hull, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens, this postlockout season is a demarcation line in NHL history. While it is premature to proclaim Staal, Spezza and Pitkanen as the league's heir apparents, on their first report cards of '05-06, they all get an A.
WHY NO NHLERS?
Players question league's ad campaign
Canucks right wing Anson Carter got a message from an actor buddy last summer, saying he was going to Vancouver to film an NHL commercial. Considering his pal Chris Walley's hockey is limited to a weeknight garage league, the nine-year veteran was intrigued. "I was watching TV during training camp," says Carter, "and, boom! There he was. I started laughing. He's one of the guys facing off in the 'My NHL' commercial."
For Carter, the ad campaign isn't exactly his NHL. He and some other high-profile players, including Kings center Jeremy Roenick, are stunned that the league used actors rather than players in its postlockout relaunch commercials. "Now that we're in a partnership, pretty much all the guys would have done what they could to help grow revenues," says Carter. "The other leagues, they're always promoting their players. Not us." The league says it wanted to portray a typical player in its ads, not feature an individual star. Carter, however, believes that it could have had Calgary's Jarome Iginla or Pittsburgh rookie Sidney Crosby take the draw instead of his buddy. "The good thing," says Carter of the well-built Walley, "is at least Chris looks like a hockey player."
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BILL WIPPERT (STAAL)
RAISING 'CANE Staal's extra year of seasoning has helped him develop into a top scorer.
STREETER LECKA/GETTY IMAGES (INSET)