Springfield Falcons Season Preview

By Doug Manners

After two utterly forgettable seasons, Falcon faithful hope that new head coach Marty McSorley can turn around the sinking ship in Springfield. McSorley brings a wealth of playing experience with him, but has no coaching experience on his resume. However, that didn’t stop the Phoenix Coyotes from hiring him to coach their top minor-league prospects.

THE SUMMER

For the Springfield Falcons, the offseason started early. After being eliminated from postseason contention in late March, the earliest in franchise
history, they finished the season on the first Saturday of April. Less than 48 hours after the final buzzer sounded to signal the end of the season, the Coyotes fired head coach Marc Potvin. The Falcons failed to qualify for the playoffs during both of Potvin’s seasons behind the bench.

The Coyotes would spend the ensuing two months searching for a new head coach. On June 16, the pursuit ended and McSorley was officially named the fifth head coach in Falcons history. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning needed to find an assistant coach after Brad Shaw departed to become head coach of the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. On July 9, they hired Norm Maciver, who had spent the past two seasons in Springfield as an assistant for the Phoenix
Coyotes.

All was calm and quiet for the next four weeks. Then, on August 8, the Falcons announced they would be holding a major press conference the following morning. Word quickly spread that it would be in regards to new ownership. That was confirmed at the press conference, where it was officially announced that the team had been purchased from Pro Friends Inc. by a group of local investors called the Springfield Pro Hockey, LLC. The new ownership group helps bring stability to the franchise, which had been rumored to be leaving Springfield for the past few years.

ON THE MOVE

The Falcons lost some key players during the offseason. The Houston Aeros were the biggest beneficiaries of the Falcons’ losses. Houston’s NHL
affiliate, the Minnesota Wild, signed Springfield’s 2001-02 top scorer and captain Jean-Guy Trudel along with team MVP goaltender Dieter Kochan. Both players leaving large holes in the Falcons’ line-up that will be difficult to replace. Kochan single-handedly stole points for the Falcons last season while putting up very respectable numbers on a weak team. Trudel, one of the league’s elite players, tallied 99 points two seasons ago and had 70 last season while playing in all 80 of the team’s games.

Springfield also lost Wyatt Smith, their second-leading scorer last season with 55 points. Smith was picked-up by the Nashville Predators and sent to their AHL affiliate in Milwaukee. Also, Branko Radivojevic, who had a solid rookie season, earned a position with the Coyotes. On defense, Josef Boumedienne was traded to Ottawa by the Lightning for a draft pick. Boumedienne, who was acquired from New Jersey in November, led all Falcons’ defensemen in scoring last season. And Dan Focht, a mainstay on defense in Springfield over the past five seasons and last year’s plus-minus leader, made the jump to the NHL and is playing with
the Coyotes.

During the preseason, the Falcons saw another familiar face leave. Defenseman Mathieu Biron, who was expected to be one of the team’s top defenseman, was taken in the waiver draft by Columbus. The Blue Jackets quickly dealt him to the Florida Panthers, whose current general manager, Rick Dudley, held the same position in Tampa Bay when the Lightning acquired Biron from the New York Islanders.

Let’s recap the losses. The Falcons bid farewell to their top goaltender, top two scorers and three of their best defenseman from last season’s team. Remember, this is a team that finished with the fourth-worst record in the 27-team league.

LOOKING AHEAD

Marty McSorley will have his hands full as a rookie coach this season. The Falcons have some promising young players on their roster mixed with a handful of seasoned veterans. However, McSorley will have to deal with all the negatives that come with a dual affiliation.

Constant roster turnover will make it difficult for the players to gel and become a team. Last season, 57 different players suited-up for the Falcons. Keeping everyone happy is nearly impossible. With the dual affiliation, roster space is tight. The Falcons are starting the season with 25 players on their roster, which means it’s inevitable that many players will be watching from the stands. And working with players from two different NHL teams isn’t easy. Both the Coyotes and Lightning have their own systems, but in order for the Falcons to be successful, everyone needs to adhere to McSorley’s system.

This is the second and final year of Tampa Bay’s affiliation agreement with the Falcons. They’ve made it very clear that they will not be back if the
Coyotes are. Phoenix is under contract with Springfield through the 2003-04 season and has stated they want their AHL affiliate closer to home. With all of that said, nobody really knows what the future holds for the Falcons. Everything is up in the air at the current time.

POSITION-BY-POSITION

Goaltending – Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Goaltending will either make or break the Falcons this season. The team’s fate rests of the shoulders of Patrick DesRochers and Evgeny Konstantinov. Neither have proven themselves at this level, which results in a lot uncertainty surrounding the team’s goaltending.

After three disappointing seasons, DesRochers needs to step up to the plate and show that he can play consistently well. Over the past few years, he
has either been hot or cold. When he’s on his game, he looks like a player that was taken in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. When he’s not, which has
been the case more often than not, it’s hard to believe he wasn’t just plucked from the beer leagues. If he struggles through the first couple months of the
season, the Coyotes need to cut DesRochers loose rather than having him drag the whole team down with him. Phoenix has three other goalies in its minor
league system (Zac Bierk, Josh Blackburn, Colin Zulianello).

Konstantinov is coming off a disappointing season in Pensacola of the East Coast Hockey League. However, he was recalled by the Falcons late in the
season and turned in some impressive performances. His only other experience at this level came in 2000-01 with Detroit of the now-defunct International
Hockey League. Konstantinov was shelled that season, although the woeful Vipers (who finished dead last in the league with 52 points) likely played a factor
in his struggles. But, much like DesRochers, he has a lot to prove.

The bottom line is that the Falcons must receive solid goaltending in order to be successful. Without it, the only place they’re headed to is an early tee time in April.

Defense – The Falcons are slightly more experienced on defense than they were last season. The lone rookie blueline is Michael Schutte, who played with the University of Maine last season. Second-year professionals Goran Bezina, who had a shaky rookie season, and tough guy Martin Grenier, who led the Falcons in penalty minutes last season, are both back in Springfield for their
sophomore seasons.

The most experienced man on defense will be veteran Darren Rumble, who spent the past two seasons in Worcester. Rumble can contribute both offensively and defensively, leading all Worcester defensemen in points last season while leading the team in plus-minus in 2000-01. He was awarded the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman with Philadelphia in 1996-97. Another defenseman with experience is Dan Smith, who spent four seasons in the Colorado Avalanche organization before playing in Finland last season.

Two other players returning on defense are Tampa Bay’s Kristian Kudroc and Harlan Pratt. Kudroc is looking forward to a fresh start under
McSorley, while Pratt hopes to spend more time in Springfield after splitting last season between the AHL and ECHL within both the Tampa Bay and Carolina
organizations.

Forwards – The Falcons only have two rookies playing forward, but one of them will be under the spotlight this season. Highly-touted center Jeff Taffe ranked second in the nation in goals last season while winning the NCAA Championship with the University of Minnesota. Taffe has the potential to
dominate the AHL like Daniel Briere. The other rookie is Martin Podlesak, who averaged a point per game in juniors last season.

Other players that the Falcons will be counting on to light the lamp include Ramzi Abid, who finished fourth in scoring last season, and Erik Westrum, who finished a point behind Abid with 42. After having a terrific training camp with Tampa Bay, right wing Nikita Alexeev will be counted on to become a more consistent scorer after tallying only five goals in 35 games with the Falcons last season. Jason Jaspers, when and if he returns from Phoenix, will be another key piece of the scoring puzzle for the Falcons. Other forwards returning from last season are Dmitry Afanasenkov, Martin Cibak, Matt Elich and Peter Fabus.

For leadership, the Falcons will look to players like Rob Murray, Ryan Tobler, Yves Sarault, and even Shane Willis, who surprisingly was sent down by Tampa Bay and cleared waivers. Willis was the AHL Rookie of the Year in 1998-99 with New Haven and has spent the past two seasons in the NHL. Tobler finished second in power play goals last season while also racking up 215 penalty minutes. Sarault was signed to a PTO by the Falcons to bring some more veteran leadership to the team. He’s a veteran of 106 NHL games and 559 professional games. Murray is just 53 games shy of 1,000 career AHL games, a milestone reached by just five other players. The AHL’s all-time penalty minutes leader is back four his third stint with the Falcons, but was a healthy scratch for both of this weekend’s games. Murray, who is 35-years old, may not see much action with the Falcons this season.

The only other two forwards not to be mentioned so far are Darcy Hordichuk and Boyd Kane. Hordichuk was acquired by Phoenix from Atlanta at the trading deadline last season. He won a Turner Cup Championship in the IHL with Orlando two seasons ago and accumulated a whopping 369 penalty minutes in 69 games played. Kane, who was acquired by Tampa Bay on
Thursday from the New York Rangers in exchange for Gordie Dwyer, will help out with scoring more than Dwyer. He tallied 17 goals and 22 assists in 78
games played with Hartford last year, but also collected 193 penalty minutes.

COACHING

The hiring of Marty McSorley received a lot of attention for a minor league employing. This was of course due to the infamous “incident” involving
Donald Brashear in Vancouver. All eyes will be on McSorley, although expectations for his team are very low. The Hockey News predicted the Falcons
to finish last in the East Division. The York Daily Record (Hershey, PA) even went as far to say, “First-year coach Marty McSorley will attract a lot of attention which is good, since his young team might not be.” Nobody expects the Falcons to compete for anything this season. Therefore, there is little pressure on McSorley to succeed.

However, in his first weekend behind the bench, McSorley already proved he knows how to do something that former coach Marc Potvin never figured out
in his two seasons with the Falcons. Communication. McSorley was in constant communication with his players throughout the game. On the other hand, Potvin
rarely moved behind the bench. His arms were always folded and his mouth rarely opened.

On paper, the Falcons are at the bottom of the league. Teams like Hartford, Worcester, Bridgeport and Binghamton clearly have more talent and experience than the Falcons do. But the game isn’t played on paper. Don’t expect the Falcons to be hoisting the Calder Cup in June, because the odds of that occurring are very unlikely. However, if McSorley can keep his team motivated, and the goaltending is solid, a playoff berth is very realistic for the Falcons.