by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
The preseason ended with a jarring one-two jolt for veteran defenseman Steve McCarthy.
An unexpected trade gave him a new address, and a send-down changed his level of play. It was a dizzying stretch that begged for a solid landing spot.
Hello, broad shoulders of Chicago.
That’s where McCarthy finds himself now, with the Wolves, looking at his first extended AHL action since 2001-02. It’d be a stretch to say that McCarthy couldn’t be happier, but he’s at least pain-free, and that’s a great place to start.
"A lot of people ask me how I feel. I’ve told everybody I’m just excited about being healthy," he said. "It couldn’t be a better situation for me. I’m looking for a positive season."
Relatively speaking, it’s hard to see how McCarthy, 28, can go anywhere but up. He played through a bad abdominal injury with Atlanta in 2007-08, a problem that required surgery and a summer of rehab. McCarthy said he was a long shot to make an NHL team last year, so he jumped over to the KHL. There, he got in a mere 18 games before a groin injury sidelined him for good.
"What I’ve gone through the last few years, you have to prove yourself all over again. The biggest thing is I’m healthy," he said. "The last few years I’ve had some issues that have caused some problems."
McCarthy, a veteran of 302 NHL games, anticipated that his fresh start would come in Anaheim, where he signed as a free agent. But in late September, the Ducks traded him to Atlanta and the Thrashers shipped him to the Wolves.
"Any time you get moved that early, it throws you for a loop," he said. "It really doesn’t bother me. I’ve been through a lot in my career. Everything else will take care of itself."
Chicago is probably the only AHL city that could have put McCarthy at such ease. His wife is from the area, and he knows the terrain because he used to play with the Blackhawks. The Atlanta organization is something of a security blanket, too, because he skated with the Thrashers from 2005-08.
"If I spend the whole season with Chicago, that’s fantastic," he said. "My mindset is I want to win. The only thing I have to worry about is playing hockey and winning games."
Let me help
Forward Ben Eaves had every right to show up in Milwaukee’s camp earlier this week concerned with himself first and foremost.
Instead, he stunned Admirals staffers with an introductory salvo that may have been a team first. Before anyone else even brought up the topic, he made it a point to offer his services for community work virtually as soon as he plopped down his equipment bag.
"It’s something I think that’s important to do," he said. "I have a platform to do that. It’s one of the privileges we have as professional athletes. We can do stuff that can affect the community."
A noble intent, for sure, but at this point Eaves would best take care of Admirals fans by first making sure he’s OK.
Eaves, 27, hasn’t had much luck with that lately. In the last four years he’s played in 37 games total. That’s five in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and 32 in Finland. A knee injury that had lingered since college put him on the sidelines for more than two years. A hurt shoulder in Finland last year shelved him for a month. Even now, in Milwaukee’s camp, he’s coming off a pesky groin injury.
The problems had Eaves considering retirement on more than one occasion. Of course, considering Eaves’ family tree, those notions didn’t linger long. His younger brother, Patrick, plays for the Carolina Hurricanes, while his father, Mike, played 324 NHL games from 1978-86 and is now the head coach at Wisconsin.
Ben has yet to play in the NHL. If good luck is a factor in that type of progression, he figures he can start putting a checkmark next to that category.
"I think I’ve used them (all his injuries) up. We all have an allotted number of injuries, games missed," he reasoned. "I’m due for some good luck. Through all these injuries, it’s just reinforced how much I enjoy playing the game. I’m due, and I’m ready to contribute some big things."
Reality check for Zeiler
Manchester Monarchs forward John Zeiler built his game on a scrappy, jolting style. Now, he is the one who must bounce back from a jarring reality check.
Zeiler’s developmental arc has run almost completely contrary to the norm. He zipped up the rookie charts in 2006-07 by playing 56 games for the Monarchs before closing the regular season with 23 games in Los Angeles. The Kings were so impressed with what they saw that they gave Zeiler a pot of gold in the form of a four-year deal. Furthermore, the last two years (this year and next) are one-way pacts.
In his second year, Zeiler began the season with the Kings before dropping down to play roughly half a season with Manchester.
Last year, Zeiler again initially laced his skates as a member of Los Angeles, although a groin injury limited him to 27 games there. Now, in his fourth season, a milepost when many NHL-caliber players are topping off their slow and steady climbs upward, Zeiler was an early cut by Los Angeles and will start the season in Manchester.
Zeiler, 26, takes the demotion as simply an opportunity for him to play hockey again. At least, the brand of hockey that he’s used to, one filled with quality minutes, power-play chances and uninhibited aggressiveness.
"Obviously, I have to start down at the bottom and work my way up," he said. "Hopefully, if they (Los Angeles) don’t want me, somebody else sees me. I’m here at camp now, it’s a noticeable difference (from his first year). My first year, my confidence wasn’t great. I was a grinder. My confidence has skyrocketed playing at this level. I’m skating with the puck. I want the puck. We’ll see what happens."
Defenseman Libor Ustrnul likes to joke around about his alter ego as a cyborg, which is the privilege of someone who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 240 pounds.
His Czech Republic accent gives him a definite Schwarzenegger-esque sound. He is nearly as wide as he is tall, and would look just fine in a black leather jacket and cool sunglasses. He even has a series of tattoos on his left arm, scattered images of pulled-back skin that reveal pistons and gears a la The Terminator.
When life really matters, though, Ustrnul is all flesh, blood and mush.
Ustrnul, a second-round pick by Atlanta in 2000, is fighting for a spot with the Syracuse Crunch. He is returning from a year-long hiatus he took to help his bed-ridden wife, Angela, through a very difficult pregnancy.
"I have to do what I have to do. I didn’t regret it. That’s my family," he said. "Now, it’s back to hockey. I missed hockey so bad."
Ustrnul, 27, has been a stranger from the AHL scene for several years, last playing there in 2004-05 with the Chicago Wolves. He spent the subsequent three years playing in the Czech Republic and Finland.
Mobility issues might make him a borderline AHLer, but his rugged toughness is, well, machine-like. In an exhibition game vs. Binghamton, he went down to block a hard shot and the puck hit him at the top of his neck right below the helmet. He stayed down for a moment, then bounced up, smiled and skated away.
"You have to play hard, whatever it takes," Ustrnul said. "I’m a defenseman. That’s what I’m here for."