SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The AHL’s All-Star Classic annually brings together some of the best young talent in the entire sport of hockey. The vast majority of participants are on the precipice of successful careers, and in less than two weeks, the players bound for Hershey for the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Capital BlueCross will take the first step toward carving out their own legacies.
Since the AHL’s midseason showcase was revived in 1995, more than 94 percent of all AHL All-Stars have graduated to play in the National Hockey League. This month’s NHL All-Star event in Raleigh will feature 10 former AHL All-Stars, including Eric Staal, Patrick Sharp, Patrik Elias, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Kesler, Dustin Byfuglien, Zdeno Chara, and Dan Boyle. Buffalo’s Tyler Ennis and San Jose’s Logan Couture will participate in the NHL’s All-Star Weekend just one year after earning nods as AHL All-Stars and All-Rookie Team members in 2009-10.
Three players from the 1995 AHL All-Star Classic in Providence – Dwayne Roloson (Tampa Bay), Cory Stillman (Florida), and Steve Sullivan (Nashville) – are still active in the NHL 16 years later, and dozens of others have also made their mark as some of the most recognizable names in the NHL through the years.
Goaltender Tomas Vokoun and forwards Andrew Brunette and Patrik Elias were AHL All-Stars together in 1997 before embarking on lengthy NHL careers, and Peter Laviolette – now head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers – was an AHL All-Star captain that year. The 1998 event featured a plethora of future NHL standouts, including two sets of current teammates in Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard of Boston, and Philadelphia’s Brian Boucher and Daniel Briere, along with other NHLers Matt Cullen (Minnesota), Brendan Morrison (Calgary), and Michal Handzus (Los Angeles).
Defenseman Dan Boyle made the first of his two AHL All-Star appearances in 1999 before moving onto an NHL career which saw him capture the 2004 Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay along with fellow 1999 AHL All-Star Martin St. Louis. The 1999 event also featured Martin Biron, John Madden, Cory Sarich, J.P. Dumont, and Francis Bouillon, all of whom remain active in the NHL. Dan Hinote was an AHL All-Star for Hershey in 2000 and won the Stanley Cup the next season with Colorado; current Detroit Red Wing Daniel Cleary lifted the Stanley Cup in 2008 after appearing in the 2000 AHL All-Star Classic; and that year’s showcase also included Miikka Kiprusoff, who then opposed Andrew Ference in the 2001 AHL All-Star Classic before the pair teamed up to help Calgary to the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals. 2010 Stanley Cup champion Brian Campbell of Chicago also appeared in the 2001 All-Star event, as did Roloson, the N.Y. Islanders’ Mike Mottau, and Dallas’ Toby Petersen.
Goaltender Michael Leighton, who helped backstop Philadelphia to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, made his first AHL All-Star appearance in 2002, where he was joined by names such as Jason Chimera, Tom Kostopoulos, Rick DiPietro, and Ron Hainsey. In 2003, a rookie named Jason Spezza burst onto the pro scene with the Binghamton Senators and appeared in his first of two AHL All-Star Classics along with other future NHLers like Brad Boyes, Kurtis Foster, and Trent Hunter. The 2004 event featured future Stanley Cup champions Chris Kunitz and Jiri Hudler along with current Montreal Canadiens leading scorer Tomas Plekanec and top goaltenders Ryan Miller and Kari Lehtonen, who each made their first of back-to-back appearances.
Due in part to the NHL lockout, the 2005 AHL All-Star Classic brought together arguably the greatest collection of talent in the event’s history. Names such as Patrice Bergeron, Jay Bouwmeester, Mike Cammalleri, Dan Hamhuis, Patrick Sharp, Eric Staal, Dustin Brown, Mikko Koivu, Niklas Kronwall, Zach Parise, and others took their talents to Manchester, N.H., that year, and returnee Tomas Plekanec was named All-Star Game MVP.
Over the next five seasons, the AHL All-Star Classic continued to showcase numerous players on their way to NHL careers. Recent All-Star events have featured current NHL stalwarts like Pekka Rinne (2006, 2008), Dustin Byfuglien (2007), Jaroslav Halak (2007), Drew Stafford (2007), Ryan Callahan (2007), Bobby Ryan (2008), Jimmy Howard (2008), Teddy Purcell (2008, 2009), Logan Couture (2010), Tyler Ennis (2010), John Carlson (2010), and P.K. Subban (2010).
HELMER RAKES IN ACCOLADES … It’s been a whirlwind week and a half for defenseman Bryan Helmer, who captained Hershey to the past two Calder Cup titles but was sitting at home in Ontario until Oklahoma City signed him as a free agent on Jan. 7. Helmer is making the most of his opportunity with the Barons thus far, as the 38-year-old rearguard shows 10 points (3-7-10) and a plus-5 mark in just six games. That already puts him nearly a third of the way to the 32 points he put up in 71 games for the Bears in 2009-10.
Named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday, Helmer passed John Slaney last Thursday to become the AHL’s all-time leading scorer among defensemen when he recorded two goals and an assist at Peoria. He then put up a goal and two helpers the next night against the Rivermen, giving Helmer back-to-back three-point efforts, something he had not accomplished since Nov. 30, 2006, as a member of San Antonio.
Currently sitting with 520 points (123-400-523) in 988 regular-season contests, Helmer is 12 games away from becoming the seventh player in AHL history to appear in 1,000 contests. The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native has a chance to move into sixth place all-time in games played by season’s end, with current Providence head coach Rob Murray (1,018 games) next up on the list.
NORFOLK RIGHTS SHIP … The Norfolk Admirals stormed out to a 17-6-4-1 start to the season by Dec. 11 but then struggled through a stretch which saw them win just twice in their subsequent 10 outings (2-4-3-1). Norfolk snapped out in a big way last weekend, though, with three victories in as many days – two on home ice over Bridgeport and one in Charlotte – for its first three-game winning streak since a similar weekend sweep from Dec. 3-5.
Led by 2011 AHL All-Star Johan Harju (15-13-28), Mike Angelidis (14-10-14), and captain Chris Durno (13-16-29), the Admirals already feature nine players who have reached double-digit goal totals, two more than any other team in the AHL. Norfolk’s league-leading offense (3.66 goals per game) has been a main reason why the club ranks second in the East Division at 22-10-7-2 (53 points) as the Admirals attempt to garner their first berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs since 2007.
ETC. … The road team has won each of the first eight meetings this season between Norfolk and Charlotte… As of Tuesday morning (Jan. 18), the top seven teams in the West Division were all separated by just five points, while the eighth-place team – Rockford – had played the fewest games (40) of anyone else in the division… Houston had won five straight shootouts prior to Sunday’s 3-2 loss to Grand Rapids, but the Aeros are still 4-0-0-1 in their last five overall… Manitoba’s Sergei Shirokov earned an NHL recall to Vancouver on Monday after extending his scoring streak to a franchise-record 12 straight games (10-5-15) over the weekend… Portland’s Mark Mancari, who is on a seven-game scoring streak (4-5-9), recorded his 200th career AHL assist on Sunday at Springfield… Lake Erie rookie Mark Olver had gone without a point in six straight games before recording 4-1-5 in three road tilts last weekend, all victories… Rockford goaltenders Hannu Toivonen (two) and Alec Richards (two) have combined for four shutouts this season after IceHogs netminders totaled two shutouts during the entire 2009-10 campaign… 2011 AHL All-Star goaltender Brad Thiessen (18-4-0, 2.12, .918) of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton had allowed six goals on his previous 134 shots faced (.955) before allowing four goals on 10 shots in Sunday’s 6-3 loss at Connecticut… Albany rookie Adam Henrique has posted 10 points (4-6-10) in his last 11 games, and the Devils bring a season-high four-game winning streak into the new week… Charlotte forward Nick Dodge’s consecutive games-played streak ended at 201 games on Friday; Dodge’s teammate Chris Terry and Grand Rapids’ Jamie Johnson now share the AHL lead with 123 straight games played… Bridgeport is 0-5-2-0 thus far in January after registering an 8-3-0-1 mark during December… San Antonio (4-0) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (4-0) are the only AHL teams yet to lose a shootout this season.