Teams prep for season loaded with talent

by Scott Edmonds, The Canadian Press

(CP) — After spending most of last season with the American Hockey League’s St. John’s IceCaps, defenceman Paul Postma was looking forward to some serious ice time with the Winnipeg Jets in 2012.

He’d been signed to a one-way deal and, with perhaps the best Winnipeg blue-liner out for much of the season due to wrist surgery, the cards seemed to be landing in his lap.

"Obviously, I feel extremely bad for Zach (Bogosian), he’s a good guy and heck of a player but, with saying that, it opened up a spot for me," Postma said this week as the IceCaps, the Jets farm team, opened their camp in Corner Brook, N.L.

"It kind of guaranteed me a top-six spot. I was definitely looking forward to the season and I was ready for it but this (NHL) lockout is kind of out of my control, so I’m just going to be in St. John’s for the time being and enjoy it."

Postma isn’t alone. A lot of players who were expecting to graduate this season or were still fairly new in the NHL have found themselves suiting up again in the AHL.

Centre Alex Burmistrov played full time with the Jets last season, where he had 13 goals and 15 assists. But because of the 20-year-old’s entry-level contract, he’s also heading to St. John’s rather than joining some of his teammates in the KHL or elsewhere.

Others, like Postma, were knocking on the door of the Jets, including centres Patrice Cormier and Aaron Gagnon, defenceman Derek Meech and right-winger Spencer Machacek.

"We now have the luxury of having them in the lineup for however long the lockup (lasts)," says IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge.

The same thing is happening throughout the AHL.

Edmonton Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 draft pick in 2011, will be playing for the Oklahoma City Barons. Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils will be back in Albany.

Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals will be in net for the Hershey Bears and Philadelphia Flyers forward Brayden Shenn will be playing for the Adirondack Phantoms.

"The league was good to start with and it just got a whole lot better," says Postma.

It also makes things a little tougher for players looking for work in the league.

"It’s definitely very competitive," Potsma added. "Clearly there’s not enough roster spots out there."

That too has been good for the IceCaps, notes McCambridge, who have picked up veterans Derek Whitmore and Brian Sutherby on professional tryout contracts.

McCambridge, a Manitoba native, is looking to build on the IceCaps’ impressive first-season, now that the hard work of launching the team in its new home has been accomplished.

Winnipeg-based True North Sports and Entertainment owns the Jets and owned the Manitoba Moose AHL franchise, which became the IceCaps. True North leases it to former Newfoundland premier Danny Williams.

"You had the Atlanta team that was in Chicago, bringing them together with the Manitoba Moose guys that were brought into St. John’s and the free agents and draft picks all mixed in together," McCambridge said. "Our challenge as coaching staff was getting those to gel as quickly as possible and I thought we did a pretty good job of it."

Few would argue.

The IceCaps topped the AHL’s Atlantic Division and went to the Eastern Conference final, where they went down to the eventual Calder Cup winning Norfolk Admirals.

Like Postma, McCambridge says the 30-team league is benefiting from the NHL lockout.

"Alex Burmistrov is a player we would not have seen here in St. John’s," he said. "The AHL is going to be a very good league this year."

Not that McCambridge felt they personally had a lot of holes to plug.

"Any time you can push to the final four in the league, obviously there are a lot of positives," he said

McCambridge also knows well that he isn’t the only coach blessed with a talent bump this season: "The rest of the league has the same luxury … the product across the board for the league I expect is very high."

There are only four Canadian teams in the league: St. John’s, the Hamilton Bulldogs, Toronto Marlies and Abbotsford Heat. The Marlies won the Western Conference last season but, like St. John’s, were swept in four by the Admirals in the final.

As a relocated franchise, bringing the AHL back to Newfoundland after a six-year absence, the IceCaps were the hottest ticket in town with regular sellouts at Mile One Centre.

"It’s a smaller scale of what I witnessed taking place in Winnipeg," said McCambridge, referring the buzz around the return of the NHL to Manitoba’s capital.

This season he expects more of the same for the IceCaps, with a little more attention for the league in general if the NHL lockout continues.

And by setting the bar so high last year, he knows the fans will want more this season, but so does he.

"We’re not content," McCambridge said. "We always want to make sure we’re getting better."