On the AHL road…

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 26: Forward Pascal Rheaume #21 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning during a game at the Continental Airlines Arena on October 26, 2005 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Lightning defeated the Devils 6-3. (Photo by Andy Marlin/Getty Images)

by Patrick Williams

An unfortunately missing ingredient in the AHL is the blockbuster trade and its accompanying side dish, trade talk.

So the AHL blockbuster deal that sent Albany veterans Pascal Rheaume and Ray Schultz westward to the San Antonio Rampage for the still-young-enough Brad Ference last month perked up what has been a mostly quiet AHL trading post.

The NHL marketplace is still sorting itself out in the post-lockout era. But if the Sergei Fedorov and Joe Thornton deals are at all benchmarks, then the NHL marketplace figures to be a busy one, even if the deals are not always strictly hockey-based.

Canadian Hockey League teams swing deals all the time. And heaven knows that all sorts of roster machinations take place in the ECHL.

But the AHL? Not so much.

AHL prospects are dangled as trade-bait all the time by their NHL parents and are often included within larger NHL-level deals.

But straight-up deals done mostly for the benefit of the AHL affiliates and involving only AHL players remain very rare.

Last season Utah and Philadelphia swung a Peter WhiteJon Sim “loan” that was, for all intents and purposes, a trade.

Both players needed changes of scenery badly, and, within an AHL context, the deal was a blockbuster, even if White was very much on the downslope of what had been an exceptional AHL career. Sim helped carry the Phantoms on his back for much of the 2004-05 season before the Mike RichardsJeff Carter cavalry arrived for the postseason.

So, the Albany-San Antonio (oops, New Jersey-Phoenix) deal was a deal with real AHL implications, even if salary-cap relief at least played some role for the Devils, who relieved themselves of Rheaume’s salary.

After a promising start with a roster that seemed to possess a nice mix of talent and experience, the River Rats are back to their usual raunchy ways, helping to tarnish what was once one of the AHL’s stronger markets.

San Antonio is only slightly better off these days. Phoenix prospects are on their third AHL city in as many seasons, and now sit in the AHL basement and are going nowhere fast. The revolving door that swung so freely last season in Utah continues to spin. Solid character guys like Martin Sonnenberg are left to wither.

Suffice to say, both teams needed new looks and badly.

Rheuame wins big in the deal. He gets a fresh start with a new organization that does not have the NHL depth that the Devils do. Should Rheaume see time in a brick-red Phoenix sweater this season, it would not be a surprise at all.

“It’s a great move for him,” said Albany head coach Robbie Ftorek. “It’s a different opportunity for him.”

Ference benefits in that he escapes a stale situation with the Phoenix organization. Once a regular on the Coyotes’ blue line, the 26-year-old from Calgary badly fell out of favor with Phoenix and was sent to San Antonio early in the season.

Now Ference gets a new start, and he very much is a first-recall candidate to see time in New Jersey on the Devils’ blue line this season if he can pull his career back together. The losses of Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer have left the Devils rather thin on the back line.

As for Schultz, a quality character veteran who captained Milwaukee to the 2004 Calder Cup, well, he hardly wins in this deal. Not expected to have a shot at cracking the Phoenix line-up, the big stay-at-home veteran merely exchanges one bad situation for another, having to traipse halfway across the continent in the process. And where the River Rats mostly have a favorable travel schedule, Schultz now has to deal with San Antonio’s rough travel.

Certainly the deal caught the Albany dressing room off guard. Rheaume and Schultz both were popular veteran faces.

“That trade was very surprising,” Albany winger Ryan Murphy admitted. “I didn’t see it coming. I think Ray didn’t see it coming.”

Veteran Bobby Allen was taken aback as well.

“It was a tremendous surprise. To say it came out of left field would be an understatement, I think, for the guys in the room.”

Both admitted that the leadership void was an issue that would need to be taken head on, particularly by the remaining veterans.

“They’re tough guys to lose,” Murphy acknowledged. “We’re going to have to step up the leadership in the dressing room to replace them.”

Allen and Murphy are both solid pros and took the moves in stride. Schultz was Allen’s neighbor in the Albany dressing room, but life goes on for the River Rats.

“Whoever we have in this room,” Allen said, “is who we’ve got to win with.”

Monday saw another AHL-flavored move, this one a two-for-one deal that sent forwards Eric Meloche and Patrick Sharp to the Chicago Blackhawks for solid two-way winger Matt Ellison.

Sharp had fallen out of favor with Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock, and after returning from a mix of early-season injuries, Meloche found himself buried on the third and fourth lines with a mediocre Phantoms team.

Meloche’s fortunes did not improve outwardly from the move, as he landed back in the AHL with the Hawks’ Norfolk affiliate.

With the NHL’s Eastern and Western conferences now mixing and teams criss-crossing North America, scouts have buzzing around lately.

Might there be more movement on the AHL floor? Stay tuned.

Edmonton prospecting for oil
Do not be surprised if the Edmonton Oilers set up shop in the American midwest next season. The Iowa-Hamilton split is not working for the Oilers, and the Ty Conklin situation — Conklin is currently on a conditioning assignment with the Hartford Wolf Pack — is the latest nail in that coffin. Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe was put in a tough spot this season by financial considerations, but Lowe is too savvy to let this situation drag on into a second season.

From Erie to Long Island
It is not the New York Islanders’ Chris Campoli playing major minutes or quickly sliding into the defensive mix on Long Island that makes him an NHL defenseman and by extension a less-heralded poster boy for AHL-style player development.

Rather, there is something about the NHL environment that is just a bit different from that in the AHL. Same goes for the NHL player versus the AHL player.

Campoli has that NHL look to him. Call it poise. Call it composure or maturity. Perhaps it is the typical NHL dressing room having the presence of players in their late-twenties and thirties, married and with children, that gives the typical NHL player a more polished approach, both on and off the ice.

Whatever the reasons, Campoli has fully acclimated himself to his NHL surroundings and fit in quite well. Two years ago, Campoli was skating in the OHL with Erie. Now he is well on his way to becoming a fixture on the Islanders’ blue line in years to come.

Campoli was penciled in as a spare defenseman with Bridgeport heading into last season. Despite a bad 2004-05 season for the Sound Tigers as team, Campoli emerged as one of the team’s brightest spots in a pairing with fellow youngster Bruno Gervais.

“I just went in there wanting to learn, wanting a chance,” Campoli said. “And that’s what they gave me.”

A year in the AHL did wonders for Campoli, and the deep talent pool last in the AHL helped accelerate Campoli’s development. He was named to the league’s All-Rookie Team in 2004-05.

“I don’t think that I could be playing here if it wasn’t for my year (in the AHL),” Campoli said. “(The quality of the AHL last season) was a challenge, especially for a guy just out of junior.”

Campoli’s maturity has impressed his Islanders peers.

“He’s a very mature kid,” veteran Brad Lukowich said. “A defenseman doesn’t really mature until 25, 26, 27. And he’s doing it at 21. You just love having him around.”

Former Bridgeport head coach Greg Cronin, who is now the head man at Northeastern University, and smart hockey man Dave Baseggio helped accelerate Campoli’s growth.

“Dave was great. He’s a good friend of mine. He’s a big reason (why I’m in the NHL). I’m thankful for the opportunity he gave me, as well as Greg and (Islanders head coach) Steve (Stirling).”

Campoli expects to see his former blue-line partner, Gervais, join him on Long Island before long.

“Bruno will have his time,” Campoli predicted. “He’s a great player.”

Phaneuf in the AHL? Hardly
The preseason talk that Dion Phaneuf might begin his pro apprenticeship in Omaha now seems laughable for two reasons.

First, all that Phaneuf has done over the first two months of his pro career is step right on the NHL’s best blue line and become a steady top-six guy in a solid pairing with veteran Roman Hamrlik.

Secondly, his skill set would dwarf that of the typical AHL defenseman, even a veteran back-liner. The AHL is for refining 99.9 percent of the players one sees skating in the NHL on any given night. But certain players are just flat-out special, and Phaneuf is one of them.

Thanksgiving throw-down
On the eve of the American Thanksgiving, a pair of Maritimers provided great theatre in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Charlottetown, P.E.I., product Jason MacDonald and Antigonish, N.S., native Dennis Bonvie have staged one of the AHL’s uglier feuds over the past few seasons. Borne out of a dispute that began during their time as teammates in Wilkes-Barre during the 2000-01 season, bitter feelings have lingered ever since.

Two of the AHL’s best-known villains over the past decade — the sort of players that the NHL and AHL need to retain rather than allowing them to slide off to Europe in favor of cheaper, less-talented 20-year-olds who should be serving ECHL apprenticeships — MacDonald and Bonvie opted to settle (or at least add another chapter to) their score during their first encounter this season.

The pair chirped during warm-up prior to the Bruins-Penguins encounter on Nov. 23 at Wachovia Arena.

Providence head coach Scott Gordon had MacDonald in the Bruins’ starting line-up, which is not out of the ordinary.

Pens coach Michel Therrien countered with Bonvie, and the two wingers lined up for the opening face-off. As soon as referee Dean Morton dropped the puck, off came the gloves, providing the sort of scene that has become increasingly rare, even in the AHL.

Bonvie and MacDonald circled for close to a minute before they began throwing. MacDonald hung in for most of the battle, but Bonvie then tagged him with a number of shots that put MacDonald on his back.

Still, MacDonald deserves credit for obliging Bonvie, especially on Bonvie’s home ice. MacDonald is a solid middleweight, but nowhere near the caliber of a Bonvie. For all the chatter that Bonvie is not the fighter that he once was, he is still a top-ten scrapper and a tactician.

But MacDonald mostly acquitted himself well.

The teams next meet on Feb. 19 in Providence.

South Florida to Siberia? Via Rochester?
The well-traveled Alexander Karpovtsev embarked on one of the strangest job relocations in a long while. Karpovtsev, who made a brief pit stop in Rochester, was shipped off by the Florida Panthers to Russia’s Sibir Novosirbirsk, which happens to be in the Siberian heartland.

Karpovtsev did not work out well in Florida and was dispatched to Rochester last week, though he never suited up for the Amerks. Earlier in the season, Victor Uchevatov made the same Florida-to-Russia one-way trip via Rochester.

This weekend’s top games
Friday: Houston at Rochester — The Amerks have slowed badly with the losses of several key forwards and goaltending recalls.

Saturday: Manitoba at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — The Penguins are an absolute force, and the Moose are just one point out of a first-place tie in the Western Conference. That this get-together features two former Montreal head coaches and buddies – Manitoba’s Alain Vigneault and the Penguins’ Michel Therrien – adds another interesting wrinkle.

Sunday: Peoria at Chicago — The Wolves, last season’s Calder Cup runner-up, have been downright awful this season. The Rivermen are a very solid group, and a clunker at home to Omaha earlier this week should shake up Steve Pleau‘s club. This is a solid Midwestern rivalry.