Maine Hockey Journal

Portland Pirates Season Preview

Portland, ME – It’s that time of year again. The leaves are beginning to change and the temperature is starting to drop. In fact, I needed to turn my heat on for the first time this season; it’s amazing that only less than a month ago I had my A/C blasting because it was in the low 90’s.

It can only mean that the start of the hockey season is right around the corner.

Another sign that hockey is upon us is training camp’s across the NHL are now in full swing or in the case of the Anaheim Ducks coming to a close as they prepare for their trip to England.

Some AHL camps have begun while others will open this week. For the Portland Pirates, they will take to the ice on Wednesday, however, with many unanswered questions. In fact, their season will be a giant question mark until the Ducks make several important decisions regarding who will and who won’t be with the Portland Pirates this season.

“We’re kind of assessing that right now. I’d say we are in a work in progress on our farm team,” said Anaheim GM Brian Burke. “We’re not sure precisely what Portland is going to look like.”

Not being one to live in the past, but to use it as a tool to prevent past errors in judgment. It’s something the Ducks will need to look upon as they form this year’s version of the Pirates, in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last season.

Portland was faced with several obstacles last year and while they tried to meet them head-on with the experience of Pirates’ Head Coach Kevin Dineen, it was just too much. They lacked offense, scoring only 225 goals all season. That was down from 308 goals, in the season prior. Another way to examine the reduction in scoring would be that Portland had an average drop of a goal per game. The Pirates lost 12 games by one goal last season, losing a potential 24 points. Portland only missed the playoffs by seven points and repeating as division champs by (you guessed it) 24 points.

Hindsight is an amazing tool when you look back on the Portland Pirates, but to be fair offense wasn’t the only issue. The team was inexperienced; they faced a rash of call-ups due in part to injuries suffered by players in Anaheim. However, there were also several blunders on the part of the Anaheim Ducks management during the year such as the off-season signings of Travis Green, Stan Chistov and Ian Moran as well as the loss of Michael Leighton to re-entry waivers. The Pirates could just never recover.

“Our goal is to be a playoff team at that level [the AHL] every year, and last year we failed,” said Burke.

So will the 2007-08 version of the Portland Pirates be better than last year?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to that question because we still don’t have all the answers from Anaheim as far as player’s to be assigned to Portland. They’ve assigned 16 players already, but the Ducks currently have 27 players still in camp and need to get down to 22 players when they take to the ice on October 3 in Detroit. As mentioned earlier, the Ducks will begin the season in England this week; they’ve been given special permission to carry extra players until they return. It was announced they would carry 24 active players so that means the Ducks will have players on the roster that could potentially still be assigned to Portland in time to start the year.

Currently, the Ducks have injuries to several key players including J.S. Giguere, Sammi Pahlsson, and Mathieu Schneider, which means the Ducks will need replacements for them until they return.

For the Pirates, goaltending will be suspicious, but again it depends on Anaheim. Over the summer, Brian Burke made several attempts to trade Ilya Bryzgalov after he signed J.S. Giguere to a four-year deal cementing him as the number one goaltender for the Ducks, while at the same time signing Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller to a one-year deal.

Hiller is without a question one of the best goaltenders, not yet playing in the NHL, but he’s in a precarious position because Bryzgalov is still with the team and Giguere is currently recovering from off-season surgery. Hiller will most likely start the season with the Ducks in London, but should see time in Portland as the number one goaltender until Burke is able to deal Bryzgalov. The Pirates will greatly benefit from that as a result.

Fighting for the role as the Pirates second goaltender will be Gerald Coleman, J.P. Levasseur and Bobby Goepfert. Coleman and Levasseur both excelled in training camp under Anaheim Goaltending Coach Francois Allaire. Coleman is still with Anaheim, preparing to head to England, but he should have the nod when he returns. He’s currently entering his third year as a pro, his second with the Pirates. His play last year was much like a light switch (one moment he’s on, and then he’s off). With the exception of his junior career with the London Knights, his pro career hasn’t been the smoothest. According to those who you speak with, many of his issues arise from how he was developed during his time in the Lightning organization. With the Ducks, they hope Allaire will right the ship and get this kid back on track, playing as he did with the London Knights. Levasseur’s situation is a close comparison to David McKee; he will likely play a back up role to Coleman until Hiller arrives in Portland and then play as much as possible for the Pirates ECHL affiliate in Augusta, GA as they don’t want to rush this kid, who is the future number one goaltender for the Ducks. Goepfert, signed over the summer will likely see limited action in a Pirates uniform this season, but is certainly a wildcard. Drafted in the third round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was a standout at St. Cloud St., but couldn’t come to contract terms with the Penguins and as a result, he became an unrestricted free agent.

On defense, the Pirates will also have many questions that will need to be answered over the course of the season, but in terms of right now. The Pirates should have a promising balance of youth and veteran leadership. While not at the forefront of the Pirates coaching staff, having Scott Niedermayer on the fence its makes it difficult to gauge how the Pirates will look. If he were to return then, it would be the likely demotion of a couple defensemen currently in Anaheim. More than likely Kent Huskins and Maxim Kondratiev would be the ones sent to Portland, forming one of the best defensive nucleuses in the AHL. Add Eric Weinrich, Aaron Rome, Brian Salcido and Joe Callahan plus Ducks prospects Brandon Mikkelson and Brett Festerling and the Pirates defense has that perfect balance of youth and skill with veteran leadership. Should Kondratiev or Huskins not be sent down, which is very likely at this time, the players who are in Portland currently will have to step up their play. Last season, Brian Salcido was most likely Portland’s best defenseman, especially at the end of the season. The crowd at the CCCC was very hard on him for most of the year and even at the end, it was difficult for him to win the crowd over, but with a renewed sense of optimism and his work ethic over the summer, I could easily envision him as one of the leaders of the Pirates defense core

“We signed a couple guys we think will help [in Portland]. We’ve got a couple holes in our big club. We have to see who sticks here,” said Burke. “So I really don’t know what to expect in Portland yet. Certainly, we were disappointed last year that we were not the top team.”

The Pirates should benefit from some of the moves that Brian Burke made over the summer. With the acquisition of Joe Callahan, the Pirates will retain their grit on the blueline, but the Pirates will also gain upfront with several signings. Andrew Ebbett was signed to an entry-level deal after putting up 65 points (26 goals, 39 assists) on a poor Binghamton Senators team last season. He’ll most likely be paired with Stephen Dixon (acquired in a trade with Pittsburgh for Tim Brent) and Dan LaCouture (signed as a free agent). Along with returnees Matt Keith, Mike Hoffman and prospect Bobby Bolt, the Pirates should have a group of forwards, who can score.

One player who many have their eyes on is Bobby Ryan. Will he play in Portland or has he earned a spot in on the Anaheim Ducks roster as a top-six forward?

This is the biggest question of all. He was quiet during the pre-season until the final game where he put up four assists. However, let’s remember that was hardly playing against the Vancouver Canucks best line-up or for that matter their best goaltender. If he did that against Roberto Luongo, then I think he would have silenced the critics. Giving Ryan credit, from his first year in Portland to training camp this year he’s undergone a great transformation, but can he do it for 80 games. That remains to be the question, would it be beneficial for him to play as many minutes as possible in as many games as possible or play 10-to-15 minutes a night. Points are valid in either direction. Should he play in Portland this season, it’s likely he will be in the running for AHL rookie of the year, putting up 80-to-100 points.

With all the wonderful things said about the Pirates so far, there is a certain reality that has to be looked at. The Pirates are going to be in tough this season, not saying they can’t prevail, but the Atlantic Division has improved as a whole. I’m just not sure that the Pirates have improved yet. With all talk about positional players, camp will decide what type of team the Pirates will be this season.
The Springfield Falcons will be vastly improved, now that they are affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers, the Worcester Sharks will certainly be stronger (Anaheim fans witness that first hand) and Division champions Manchester Monarchs will continue to be a force as usual. The Devils have made an effort in getting better and Providence as expected with be a strong rival for the Pirates. Hartford is the only team that I think lost something over the off-season, but they haven’t missed the playoffs since they joined the league.

If the stars aligned for Portland, meaning they have Hiller, Ryan, Carter, Miller and Niedermayer comes back and the Ducks have minimal injuries then I think the Pirates will could find themselves skating with a little silver mug come June. If not then the Pirates could find themselves sweeping the basement floor by Christmas.

Remember one thing, when the parent team does well, normally their affiliates suffer and don’t do as well. Hershey (Washington) had back-to-back Calder Cup appearance while the Capitals struggled.

The last organization to win the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup in the same year goes back to 1995 when New Jersey/Albany won and it’s only happened three times in the 70-plus years of the AHL. Portland/Anaheim came close in 2005-06 as both teams appeared in the Conference Finals.

Overall, the Pirates should be somewhere in the middle. They should match their totals from last year and if the coaching staff makes the correct adjustments, the team could find themselves competing for home ice advantage.

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