The South Carolina Stingrays hold a record of 20-11-1-3 just past the mid-way point of the ECHL season, good for second in the South Division. Key players in their lineup come from their affiliation with the Washington Capitals and the Hershey Bears, and so do some short-timers.
"Washington’s really good about giving us guys — if players aren’t playing up there, they aren’t scared to send them down,” Stingrays GM and head coach Jared Bednar said. “It doesn’t matter when they were drafted or what kind of potential they have, [the Capitals] want them to play and learn. That’s the thing with these young guys, they need the ice time to improve."
Events up the food chain have created a lot of roster fluctuation. And not just within their system – other AHL teams have come calling.
"We’ve been relatively healthy down here and Hershey has been as well. But the injuries up in Washington had everyone kind of moving up,” Bednar said. “I think we’ve had 12 or 13 different players from our roster play in the American Hockey League this year, which is really impressive. I don’t think we’ve had that combined over the last couple years. A lot of free agent guys too, going up, not just our Washington guys."
Below is a player by player look at the prospects owned by the Capitals.
Travis Morin, C
9th round, 263rd overall, 2004
Coming off a rookie pro year in which he scored 84 points in 68 games for South Carolina, Morin is tied for fourth in the league right now with 44 points. His +16 leads his team. Morin played four games for Hershey last year, but none so far this year.
Is there anything holding him back from playing in the AHL?
"The only thing I can think of at this point is how deep Hershey is and how deep Washington is,” Bednar said. “Obviously Hershey’s No. 1 in the American Hockey League, and they signed a lot of guys. [Morin]’s a guy who’s very consistent for us. From day 1 last year on, I maybe remember a handful of games where he wasn’t noticeably one of the best players on the ice and he’s the same way again this year. He got out to a little bit of a slow start numbers-wise, but now he’s climbing in the league standings. He’s very patient, sees the ice well, just does everything really well.
"I don’t know why he isn’t playing at that level,” Bednar continued. “I don’t see him play at that level when he goes up, so I don’t know what he’s not doing there. But they’re deep at center in Hershey and he just hasn’t gotten an opportunity, whether it’s with Washington…I’ve got to think if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to get a chance with Washington or Hershey next year or if he moves on to another organization. I’ll certainly be the first to promote him because he’s very good at what he does."
And the just-turned 25-year-old isn’t just good offensively. He’s hard on the forecheck, hassles opponents for the puck, and plays tight defense down low. Not to mention he’s a good locker room guy. If the 6’2 195-pound Morin wasn’t under contract by Washington, he would have been snapped up by an AHL team a long time ago.
"Oh, there’s no doubt about it," Bednar replied to that suggestion. "You don’t come out and do what he does and not — he would be gone for sure, there’s no question. But he was drafted by Washington, they saw something in him and for whatever reason it hasn’t worked out and sometimes that’s the way it goes. Sometimes it’s just not the right fit, getting the opportunity."
1st round, 14th overall, 2005
Pokulok has stayed healthy this year, which is very important for him, after struggles with injuries the past two years. Staying concussion-free has enabled him to move forward with development.
"He continues to improve and is significantly better this year than he was last year, and I thought he was good last year,” Bednar said. “He’s earned himself a call-up to the American League this year and they’re really deep on D. It can be tough to stick up there."
Pokulok came out of college early after playing just two years at Cornell University, and would only be a rookie pro this year if he had stayed in school. He won’t turn 23 until the end of May. At 6’5, he has the size coveted on the blue line. But now in his third year pro and end of his entry-level contract, it’s time to prove that as a former first-round pick, he really does have what it takes. Sticking out enough at the ECHL level to force a promotion is his mandate now.
"He’s a very talented individual,” Bednar said. “He’s just got to get a chance and make the most of it when it does come."
Pokulok has 11 points in 21 games with the Stingrays and is +11.
7th round, 209th overall, 2005
Unbound by CHL rules that prohibit junior-aged players from the minor leagues because he was drafted out of Russia, Viktor Dovgan began his minor-league career younger than most. It may have been too early, though, or at least not the right time as Dovgan returned to Russia to play last year for CKSA Moscow. This year he’s back in South Carolina and his coach, who had previously been his assistant coach, thinks Dovgan has improved over two years ago.
"When he first came, he didn’t speak English very well. That was a battle,” Bednar said. “I don’t think everything we were trying to teach him and it was tough. Now he understands a little bit more, he’s understanding the pro game more. We’re playing the same systems as we did a couple years ago as well. Just that language barrier and being able to understand I think is helping his game. He’s been in and out of our lineup, he was hurt for a good portion of the early season and actually just recently when we were short he played wing for us and did a good job."
Dovgan was living away from his wife and newborn infant during the 2006-07 season. His family was supposed to come over to live in Charleston around Christmastime, but as of last week, had not yet come.
At his natural position of defense, Dovgan has been playing alongside Pokulok on South Carolina’s top pairing. The 6’2 blueliner can make a good pass, but at times has some stickhandling issues. He has eight points in 24 games. On the defensive end, his -6 is the worst on the team among players who haven’t carried over a minus from another team.
"The sky’s the limit,” Bednar said of Dovgan. “He skates real well, shoots the puck well, and plays with an edge. Physical guy and when he’s doing that, he can be very effective."
Josh Godfrey, D
2nd round, 34th overall, 2007
Godfrey has spent the majority of the year with the Hershey Bears, but did a stint in the ECHL to get more playing time.
"He hadn’t seen a bunch of ice time up there for a period of time, so it was time to get him down and playing," Bednar explained.
Godfrey made a good adjustment to pro hockey out of the OHL. But consistency is an issue for the soon to be 21-year-old, as with a lot of young players.
"He’s obviously a talented kid,” Bednar said. “The guys often come down to us a little bit rusty and then quickly improve over a two-week period because they’re just playing more. They’re put in more situations and then their talent starts to show. He certainly has that — great shot. Our power play was doing pretty well when he was down, because he’s a threat — he can shoot the puck and he can really skate. He has all the talent, that’s for sure."
The 6’1 Godfrey played seven games with the Stingrays, posting three assists.
Also spending a short time with the Stingrays was Steve Pinizzotto, who posted 10 points in 11 games from the wing. One other Washington connection is Ben Boudreau, son of Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who has played 20 games for the Stingrays, posting three points.
2nd round, 34th overall, 2006
Neuvirth had a few bad games to start the 2008-09 season, but most of the season has played remarkably well for a 20-year-old. His two years in the OHL and the playoff experience they brought helped prepare him for pro hockey. Neuvirth is fourth in the ECHL in GAA at 2.13, and eighth in save percentage at .924. His record is 6-6-0.
Bednar said he sees NHL potential in all the players that Washington sent down, but Neuvirth may be on the quickest track to get there.
"Just from listening to the Washington guys talk, they know what he can do. They talk about him and [Simeon] Varlamov very similarly and Varlamov is playing in the NHL up and down with Hershey. [Neuvirth]’s been great for us and it’s just a matter of time to move up the ladder."
Goaltending partner Bobby Goepfert had a lot to say about the rookie, as he does about most things. He described Neuvirth as shy, perhaps due to the Czech’s still-developing English skills.
But, Goepfert said, "He’s a fast typer. He likes his laptop, so he communicates well that way."
Goepfert said the two had a good relationship on and off the ice, and that he sees Neuvirth like a kid brother because he’s so young. The two alternated games in net with South Carolina, and were both recalled to Hershey at the same time.
"Up in Hershey you could tell he was more nervous, but you can see he’s talented,” Goepfert said. “He just needs to play and get shots, get comfortable. He’s got a bright future."
Goepfert said that Neuvirth approaches his job in a businesslike manner, as did his rookie partner JP Levasseur (ANA) last year, but that "if you hang around Neuie enough, you just start laughing — you can tell he’s 20 sometimes."
Goepfert laughed at the thought of giving Neuvirth any tips though.
"In hockey?" he asked incredulously. "Naw, I don’t have any advice. I’m just trying to keep the puck out of the net. He gets some chuckles out of the way I make some save sometimes."
A couple weeks ago, Neuvirth let it slip in an interview with Hockey’s Future that he had worn a tiger print skirt and heels to the rookie party. Goepfert was a wealth of information on the topic.
"I think he enjoyed it a little bit too much to be honest with you,” Goepfert said. “He picked it out himself, we just said wear something embarrassing and he came in with leopard print. And … uh … he looked good — for a guy in leopard."
A thin guy, Neuvirth even had he legs for it. "Yeah, pretty good — hairy," Goepfert commented. "But he pulled it off."
And as far as the heels went, Goepfert said, "You would think he’d take them off at some point during the evening, but he didn’t, he stayed in character the whole night."
This is about the only outfit of Neuvirth’s that Goepfert approved of though. The suspender-clad Goepfert criticized Neuvirth’s European flip-flops and capris.
"Fashion faux-pas all over," he said.
Good thing Neuvirth has a uniform to wear most of the time.