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Baby-faced trio powering Barons

With a team as young as the Cleveland Barons this season, it’s not surprising to see a rookie among the team’s leaders in offense. However, what you don’t expect is three first-year professionals hammering home nearly 29 percent of the team’s total offense and 34 percent of its goals scored.

But, that is exactly what Steve Bernier, Josh Hennessy and Mike Iggulden have done for the Baby Sharks heading into the AHL’s All-Star break. Move over Rush, the Rock ‘n’ Roll City is witnessing a new power trio.

Interrupt a game of hallway soccer and all three players will kick you the same response as the key to early success: opportunity.

“I prefer it this way,” says Bernier, talking about playing for a predominantly young team. “I know I’m getting more ice time and experience than most players my age around the league.”

The opportunity transcends beyond skating a normal shift as all three players have played a pivotal role for the Barons’ special teams. Bernier has expressed his appreciation to the club by scoring 10 power-play goals, tied for second among first-year AHL players.

Hennessy and Iggulden have contributed an additional 26 power-play points but also find themselves killing crucial penalties.

Of course, the Barons 27th-ranked penalty kill has been a point of contention all season long. It’s with that in mind when the same three players, appreciative of opportunity, express regret for ill-timed mistakes.

“It’s part of the learning curve I guess,” says Hennessy, a former 2003 second-round draft pick of the Sharks. “Unfortunately with a young team we make mistakes than can cost us games.”

No one knows the cost of mental errors more than the gray-haired Barons head coach, Roy Sommer. However, as the bench boss will point out, it’s those blunders that lead to success in the long run.

“It’s instant experience,” says Sommer, leading the Sharks’ primary affiliate for the seventh straight season. “You look at (Grant) Stevenson, (Josh) Gorges, (Doug) Murray, all three of those players made the jump from our league to San Jose this season and all three were able to dive right in and succeed in any situation.”

The statement by Sommer is proven by the three former Barons who made their NHL debuts this year. Stevenson ranks fourth in the Sharks lineup for power-play goals, while Gorges and Murray are seventh and eighth in average ice time, respectively.

For Steve Bernier, a former first-round draft pick by the Sharks (16th overall, 2003), the first-year success was fairly predictable. After all, he posted a team-leading 31 goals for Moncton in his first year of junior hockey leading to a QMJHL All-Rookie Team selection.

Josh Hennessy has picked up 38 points while skating in all 52 games for the Barons in 2005-06.

The Vanier, Que., native is on pace for 35 goals and 76 points this year, certainly beyond respectable numbers for a 20-year-old still growing into his mammoth 6-foot-1, 215-pound body. The former Wildcats captain has already earned his first NHL call-up this season and according to San Jose vice president and assistant general manager Wayne Thomas, the folks out west like what they saw.

“He played very well during his stint in San Jose scoring his first NHL goal,” said Thomas. “It is important with young players to get ice time, however, to work on building consistency from shift to shift and to work on the details of the game. He’s doing a good job at both. We expect him to be a player with the ability to score goals on a consistent basis and to add a physical dimension to our hockey club in the future.”

Of course, improving your game to realize the NHL dream is what it’s all about for every player in the AHL. That’s why Josh Hennessy is so appreciative of his opportunity to play in so many situations.

“I’m trying to work on the details of my game,” said Hennessy, a Sharks second-round pick in 2003. “The things in a game that most fans don’t realize are where I need to improve the most. Basically, I want to get better at anything that would keep a guy in the [AHL].”

Whereas Bernier’s game is built on power, Hennessy’s ice surface to success is freshly flooded and prepared for speed. Another former captain in juniors, Hennessy posted three consecutive seasons of more than 80 points with Quebec in the QMJHL. He also enjoys quick starts to his career, finishing seventh (just three spots behind Bernier) in rookie scoring during the 2001-02 campaign with the Remparts.

“He has great vision and is a phenomenal passer,” says Bernier about his roommate, Hennessy. “He plays both ends of the ice well and his skating is his best asset.”

The two highly drafted forwards entered their professional careers with lofty expectations, of themselves and from others. However, their partner in offensive crime, Iggulden, has emerged from out of the locker room to post impressive numbers and compete with Hennessy for the team’s top centerman position.

Mike Iggulden is third on the Barons with 13 goals.

The four-year letterman at Cornell never produced a college season of more than 10 goals, yet surpassed that total just 28 games into his first pro season. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound forward was invited to training camp by San Jose after displaying his skills for six games with the Rochester Americans following his senior year.

He impressed the Sharks enough that they signed him to an AHL contract where they could keep a close eye on his development; hockey folks often label this type of player as a “project”. Well, the beaker swished around and the teal colored smoke that emerged produced hockey’s version of a “five-tool” player.

“He just always seems to get the job done, no matter what the situation might be,” says Hennessy about Iggulden. “He gets the puck to the net, has great hockey sense and a strong work ethic.”

Iggulden’s development has taken off so drastically that San Jose signed him to an NHL contract in January, penciling him into their future plans as a two-way NHL pivot. It takes a lot to get the quiet St. Catharines, Ont., native to talk about himself, but Iggulden is quick to point out how valuable the ice time he has received has meant to his game.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for me with tons of ice time,” says Iggulden. “Youth also gives our team a lot of energy.”

The season is more than half over and the energy Iggulden refers to will be tapped in an effort to make the post-season. The Barons trail a North Division playoff spot by 10 points, with 28 games remaining on the regular season schedule. But, if you’re expecting a team with nine rookies in the lineup to panic over the challenge, you’re missing the idea. As Bernier says, it’s all about the experience and opportunity.

“We’re very hungry to win every game,” says Bernier. “This experience of having to win a lot of games will be a good test of our character.”

Character — just one more quality tacked on to the rookie experience.