Portland Pirates 2011-12 season preview

By Andrew Sykes
Photo: Jordan Szwarz (left) will be starting his first professional year with the Coyotes in 2011-12. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Portland Pirates have taken over as the new AHL affiliate of the Phoenix Coyotes and they will be looking to continue what had been a tremendously successful affiliation with the Buffalo Sabres. The Coyotes AHL club will be looking to improve upon on a good season a year ago when they finished with a 33-22-2 record but failed to reach the playoffs; something the organization hasn’t accomplished since the 2007-08 season.

Now in Portland, the team will feature what should be a good mix of veteran players and some energetic youngsters.

Forwards

Up front the team will look vastly different than it did a year ago with only Matt Beaudoin, Matt Watkins, Colin Long and Ryan Hollweg returning from last year’s squad. Newcomers include the likes of prospects and first-year pros such as center Ethan Werek who was acquired in trade with the New York Rangers, and a bevy of others including Jordan Szwarz, Brett Hextall, Darian Dziurzynski, Spencer Bennett, Scott Fleming, and Evan Bloodoff.

Big wingers Alex Berry and Kevin Henderson are two guys who played 70+ games in the AHL last season and will be expected to play a physical style as well as provide some leadership for the younger players.

Depending on how things shake out, the club could return leading scorer and top forward prospect Brett MacLean, but he remains in the Phoenix training camp and figures to have a good shot at making the team. They could also get Viktor Tikhonov back as the young Russian’s NHL hopes for this year continue to be up in the air, but the possibility of acquiring the services of the slick Andy Miele would perhaps be the biggest addition.

Miele was last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner racking up 71 points in 39 games at Miami of Ohio University. The small but highly skilled forward has been impressive at both the Coyotes rookie camp and the main camp and has made a strong bid at sticking with the club

Defense

The Phoenix organization is stock-piled with young defensemen and fans will be able to see some of them in Portland this year. Michael Stone, Mathieu Brodeur, and Nick Ross will be back for another year of minor-league duty while Maxim Goncharov and Chris Summers are two top-notch rearguards that the Pirates would love to see be returned from Phoenix. The two are battling for one of the final spots on the Coyotes roster so one of the two should be in the Portland line-up come opening night.

Last year’s leading scorer among defensemen Garrett Stafford is back and will be joined by fellow AHL veterans Dean Arsene and Nathan Oystrick along with newcomers Shane Sims and Dylan King.

Goaltending

There are just two goalies currently attending the Portland training camp but both are quality AHL keepers with experience. The once promising Justin Pogge is a veteran of five AHL seasons, and although he has never quite developed into the player many thought he would back when he led Canada to a gold medal at the World Junior Championship, he is still a very reliable guy to have between the pipes.

The other net-minder at camp is 24-year-old Marc Cheverie who was acquired in the off-season in a trade from the Florida Panthers. After a dominating three year career at the University of Denver, Cheverie struggled in his first pro season. He played 15 games with the Rochester Americans a year ago compiling a 2-7-1 record and a porous 3.91 GAA.

Coaching

Despite failing to make the playoffs in each of his two seasons at the helm, Ray Edwards is back behind the bench for the Coyotes AHL affiliate. An assistant dating back to the 2007-08 season, Edwards led the club to a solid 40 win campaign a year ago and although it wasn’t enough to reach the post-season, he has been able to guide the team in the right direction despite not having an overwhelming depth of talent.

Prospects

There will likely be at least two prominent defensive prospects playing on the Phoenix blue line this season in Oliver Ekman-Larsson and David Schlemko.

Outside of those two defensemen, forwards Ethan Werek, Jordan Szwarz, Darian Dziursynski, and Evan Bloodoff are all coming off career years with their respective junior teams in the CHL, while Brett Hextall did the same in his final year at the University of North Dakota. Free agent acquisitions Spencer Bennett and Scott Fleming will also be in the mix with both players hoping to stick with the AHL club.

Defensive prospects Mike Stone, Mathieu Brodeur, Nick Ross and either Chris Summers of Maxim Goncharov will be back on the blue line and will need to produce solid seasons as the Coyotes continue to draft first-round defensemen who will eventually push these players down the depth chart.

The lone goaltending prospect is the newly acquired Marc Cheverie who is looking to re-gain his collegiate form after a rough first season in the minors.