Binghamton begins drive for another Calder Cup run
With plenty of turnover, it's a new group of B-Sens hitting the ice for 2011-12 season
|Calder Cup playoff MVP Robin Lehner will have a major role to play for the Binghamton Senators in the season ahead as assumes the bulk of the team's goaltending duties (Photo by Darren Abate/pressphotointl.com/AHL).
Once that moment passes, the Binghamton Senators will get down to the business of building another Calder Cup contender in front of the home folks at Broome Country Veterans Memorial Arena. The B-Sens get their 2011-12 American Hockey League campaign underway with a pair of home contests — tonight against the Hershey Bears and Saturday vs. the Toronto Marlies.
But the team head coach Kurt Kleinendorst sends out on the ice tonight won't exactly resemble the team that last June, brought Binghamton its first crown in nearly three decades of AHL participation. Gone are captain Ryan Keller, top blueliners Andre Benoit and Derek Smith, playoff scoring hero Ryan Potulny and heart-and-soul forward Cody Bass, while the likes of Zack Smith, Colin Greening, Erik Condra and Bobby Butler have all graduated to full-time employment with the big club in Ottawa.
"We've changed. This is a completely different team," Kleinendorst said with an eye toward tonight's opener. "We had a lot of turnover. That's what you get in the American league, but how we're going to be ... I'm not exactly sure. We'll just have to wait and see."
The B-Sens aren't without building blocks. AHL scoring champ and most valuable player Corey Locke is back for another season, while returnees Mike Hoffman and Kaspars Daugavins showed through training camp in Ottawa that they're ready for bigger roles. Hoffman, the former Quebec Major Junior league most valuable player, opened plenty of eyes with his performance in the Calder Cup playoffs after spending part of the season with the Elmira Jackals of the East Coast league.
"He's on the verge of a breakout year," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of hockey operations and player development. "If he's committed and he works and if he plays the way Kurt wants him to, he could have a huge breakout year."
On the blue line, Kanata native Mark Borowiecki — who impressed many with his efforts at Senators training camp — figures to become a bigger force for a defence corps that also returns Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba and Craig Schira.
Perhaps the most important returnee of them all is goaltender Robin Lehner, who sat behind fan favourite Barry Brust for much of last year, but emerged in a big way in the post-season. The 20-year-old Swedish netminder earned playoff MVP honours after backstopping the B-Sens to the Calder Cup crown.
"Anybody will tell you that it always starts with goaltending," said Kleinendorst. "We feel pretty good about Robin and the way he's matured as a hockey player. He's matured a lot as a person. He's still got a ways to go, but he sure is making some progress, which is fun to watch.
"He's going to get his opportunity (this season) and I've got to believe we're going to need Robin. We're going to need Robin early on, especially."
If all goes according to play, the Senators would like to see Lehner make 60 starts in Binghamton this season, with backup Mike McKenna handling the rest. That would set him up to make the jump to the NHL.
"(Lehner) needs to take another step," said Lee. "He has to have a full season and prove he's an NHL goaltender. He had a great run last year (in the playoffs), which is perfect. Now he's got to back that up with another great season. He's still a young guy and he still needs a lot of minutes at the professional level.
"You can understand how he would have liked to have played at the NHL level, but probably when he looks back down the road, this will be the best thing for him — to play a huge role and an important role on that team."
The Senators fortified the veteran component on a young team with the addition of forward Mark Parrish and blueliner Tim Conboy, two players with plenty of AHL and pro hockey experience.
"When you look at those two guys in particular, the leadership jumps out at you," said Kleinendorst. "One of the things I talked about a lot last year was that I had so much appreciation for my core players, my core leaders. And if it hadn't been for them, we don't win a Calder Cup.
"I don't know if I want to make comparisons, but I can tell you that Conboy and Parrish are going to be a part of that core. So that's definitely a benefit to us."
At the end of the day, however, Kleinendorst said it'll take a collective effort to succeed.
"Last year we had a group that, if you took a look at us, we certainly had some quality players, but our strength was our group," he said. "If you look at the lineup we have this year, I can't imagine any other way we're going to get it done. It's going to have to be by committee, it's going to have to be by everybody. There's no way we're going to rely on any one individual or one line."
Goaltenders — Robin Lehner, Mike McKenna.
Defencemen — Mark Borowiecki, Tim Conboy, Eric Gryba, Bobby Raymond, Craig Schira, Patrick Wiercioch.
Forwards — Pat Cannone, Louie Caporusso, Corey Cowick, Kaspars Daugavins, David Dziurzynski, Derek Grant, Maxime Gratchev, Wacey Hamilton, Mike Hoffman, Francis Lessard, Corey Locke, Jim O'Brien, Mark Parrish, Andre Petersson.