AHL: Great Hockey Still Exists In North America

TANEV AND THE WOLVES LOOKING TO GET THINGS GOING EARLY

For now, there’s no NHL hockey to pay attention to. In its stead hockey fans are left with several options: you can find other things to do on game nights, you can pay attention to simulated seasons or you can obsessively follow (and be constantly outraged by) the tit-for-tat of labour negotiations between the NHLPA and the NHL… Or, alternatively, you can pay attention to hockey leagues that are still playing. The best such league in North America is the AHL, and locals might give the Abbotsford Heat and the Canucks’ affiliate the Chicago Wolves a shot at “filling in the gaps” while the lockout drags on. Hey, its better than watching a video game, isn’t it?

Let’s preview the Heat and Wolves seasons, and see if, even if the NHL’s absence we can whet your appetite for hockey!

Heat games are sparsely attended, but the team itself is actually pretty good, so hopefully the NHL lockout can help change that. They made the playoffs last season despite the fact that the injury riddled Flames were forced to lean heavily on Heat mainstays like Lance Bouma, pint-sized Paul Byron and Krys Kolanos. Those guys will play permanently in Abbotsford this season, which, alone will help.

In addition to those three, the Heat will have NHL defenseman TJ Brodie on the roster which, is a big deal considering last season’s Heat iced a patchwork blueline group that was definitely the team’s Achillies heel. Joining Brodie along the blueline is former Canucks defenseman Steve McCarthy, who made the Heat after a tryout. McCarthy is an experienced journeyman with quick feet, and an excellent first pass. Between the two of them, they’ll bring a good deal of additional stability to the blue-line.

Most of the attention for Flames fans, however, will be focussed on Swiss phenom Sven Baertschi. The undersized Baertschi has an uncanny knack for controlling games at both ends of the rink. He’s under-sized, but his defensive instincts are stellar and his quick hands and ability to anticipate the play make him a terror when he’s forechecking. While he’s a solid two-way player, Baertschi’s bread and butter is in the offensive end. He’s got a deceptive backhand, excellent speed and the rarer ability to make creative plays at top-speed on the rush. I’m guessing that the chance to watch Baertschi do his thing alone should help put butts in the seats out in the Fraser Valley this season. Here are the three goals he scored in the NHL last season (he hit the scoresheet last night as well):

The Abbotsford Heat opened their season with a game against the Peoria Rivermen on Friday. The Heat came out on top 4-1 and play the 2nd game of the double header tonight.

After a stellar regular season, the Chicago Wolves were unceremoniously bounced in the first round by all-world goaltending prospect Jakub Markstrom and the San Antonio Rampage. The Wolves will look to re-orient their game this season, and attack more on offense under new coach Scott Arniel. Arniel is familiar with Vancouver’s deployment patterns (having coached in the organization previously with the Manitoba Moose) so look for this season’s Wolves to push the tempo, forecheck aggressively, deploy a modified Umbrella on the power-play, play conservatively on the penalty kill, and specialize the first and fourth lines along the same lines as the Canucks.

One of the chief beneficiaries of Arniel’s up-tempo play, and specialized deployments could be Jordan Schroeder – who excelled at even-strength last season, but wasn’t given enough of a chance to produce with the man-advantage. He’ll start the season on a line with Bill Sweatt and Zack Kassian, and I expect that line to be deployed in a two-way fashion so that the team’s two top forward prospects can work on their all around game. Darren Haydar will drive the bulk of the offensive production – in all likelihood for the Wolves – and I’d expect him to get the “Sedin treatment” from coach Arniel.

Along the blue-line, expect would be NHLer Chris Tanev to log major minutes in all situations, along with Kevin Connauton. Certainly the Wolves’ defensive-corps looks to be very sturdy to begin the season, but there could be an adjustment period initially. Last season’s Wolves relied heavily on Nolan Baumgartner to chew up the “tough minutes” against the opposition’s top-players. With Baumgartner moving behind the bench this season, Tanev, Connauton and even Yan Sauve have a massive opportunity to step up and impress the Canucks brass.

In net for the Wolves, Eddie Lack doesn’t have anything left to prove at the AHL level. But while he’s been stellar for two seasons, he’ll be angling to convince Canucks brass that there’s no need to bring in a veteran backup should the lockout end, and the team finally trade Roberto Luongo. Expect a motivated Lack to pace the Wolves this season. They should be contenders to win the Western Conference.

The Wolves open their season tonight against the Rockford Icehogs at 5 PM PST.