This week in the AHL

By Joe Tasca

Welcome to the first of what will be a weekly dose of the latest happenings
in the NHL’s premier development league. This column will focus on the
progress of the brightest prospects in the league, with an emphasis on
the top performers of the past seven days. While the purpose of this
commentary
is to provide fans a one-stop destination for comprehensive AHL coverage, it
should be made clear that this feature will primarily consist of a
brief overview of notable prospects. For more detailed information on the
players
and teams discussed in this column, please visit the
various team pages here at Hockey’s Future. Comments and questions are welcomed.

HAMILTON BLOSSOMS

When the New York Islanders signed centerman Jeff Hamilton last summer,
they
weren’t expecting mind-blowing offensive numbers, even at the AHL
level. The Englewood, Ohio native had dominated the ECAC ranks during a
four-year tenure at Yale, posting 173 points in 125 games as a Bulldog.
However, at 5’10” 180 pounds soaking wet, it wasn’t considered
realistic
for Hamilton to duplicate his collegiate output.

Despite the lack of expectations for the local boy, Hamilton quickly
became
a fan favorite during his rookie year, and his 22 goal total was third
on
the team behind current Islanders Trent Hunter and Justin Papineau.
Most of
his damage was done on the power play, as his nifty playmaking ability
and
opportune positioning earned him plenty of time on the man advantage.
Unfortunately, Hamilton’s ice time took a nose dive as the game wore
on.
Then-head coach Steve Stirling was extremely hesitant to play Hamilton
in
the third period of tight games at even strength, mainly because he
didn’t
consider the youngster to be defensively responsible in his own end.

As last season progressed, so did Hamilton’s two-way play. By the time
the
playoffs arrived, Stirling was utilizing the diminutive centerman in
all
situations, including on the penalty kill, albeit sparingly. Despite
his
promising rookie campaign, Hamilton headed into this season with plenty
of
incentive, and a lot to prove.

The evidence has been shocking.

As of today, Hamilton has already surpassed his goal and point total of
last
season, notching an astounding 24 goals and 15 assists in just 30
games.
The Yale graduate has tallied over 28 percent of his team’s goals, which is a
feat
in itself. More impressive, however, is that Hamilton has achieved
league-leading offensive totals while playing in coach Greg Cronin’s
defensive-minded system.

Hamilton has credited his early-season success to the fact that Cronin
never
hesitates to put him on the ice in any situation. It took a year, but
the
26-year-old appears to have finally adjusted to the pro game, after
spending
his first year out of college in Finland, where fancy stick handling
and
risk-taking are encouraged. Hamilton had to undergo a sometimes
frustrating
rookie season under Stirling in order to commit himself to positional
hockey, but that bumpy first season laid the foundation for his dynamic
sophomore campaign.

After impressing the Islander brass at training camp, Hamilton was able
to
earn a cup of coffee with the big club on December 2nd when the Isles
hosted
Washington. Not initially considered a serious prospect coming into
the
season, the youngster has propelled himself onto Mike Milbury’s radar
screen. Indeed, Hamilton’s brief stint of Long Island was nothing more
than a small reward for his spectacular performance early on this season.
Nevertheless, should Hamilton maintain his ungodly scoring pace, the
possibility of another recall cannot be completely ruled out,
especially
considering the surprisingly anemic offense on the Island.

THIS ISN’T SO HARD

Life in the AHL has been good for Wade Dubielewicz thus far. The
23-year-old University of Denver graduate has been nothing short of dominant in his
first
pro season with Bridgeport. In 13 starts, the Invermere, British Columbia
native has posted a stellar 1.22 goals against average, and a league-leading
.949 save percentage. His 10-2-1 record speaks for itself, and his
three
shutouts is good for second in the league behind Hartford’s Jason
LaBarbera.

Like Jeff Hamilton, the Islanders weren’t anticipating this kind of
production from Dubielewicz, despite a solid college career. The lanky
netminder brought impressive credentials with him when he signed a
contract
over the summer, having earned several WCHA accolades. Dubielewicz led
the nation in winning percentage in 2001-2002, finishing with an eye-opening
20-4 record (.833).

The Sound Tigers were hoping to ease Dubielewicz into the pro game. A
devastating hamstring injury suffered early in his senior year at
Denver
limited him to just nine games, so coach Greg Cronin was prepared to
rely on
former Houston goalkeeper Dieter Kochan for most of the year.
Fortunately,
the play of Dubielewicz has presented the first-year headmaster with an
intriguing dilemma between the pipes.

Dubielewicz dispels rumors of him replacing Kochan atop the Islanders’
minor-league goaltending depth chart. “I think the bottom line is that
Dieter is the No. 1 guy,” Dubielewicz said during a recent interview. “He’s
a great person and he’s a good friend. I’m just really trying to learn
from him.”

Don’t be surprised if the student eventually becomes the teacher.

TRADING PLACES

Hulking defenseman Jeff Woywitka is considered one of the prime cuts of
beef
in all of minor hockey. Drafted 27th overall in 2001 by Philadelphia,
the
Vermilion, Alberta native’s four-year career in the WHL culminated in
his
capturing the league’s outstanding defenseman award. A Memorial Cup
winner
in 2001 with Red Deer, Woywitka was coveted by several clubs going into
the
2001 draft.

One of those clubs was the Edmonton Oilers. General Manager Kevin Lowe
publicly displayed his adoration for Woywitka early last week, when he
acquired the 20-year-old in exchange for holdout centerman Mike Comrie
and two draft picks.

“Jeff is a player that we have liked since we first saw him play with
the Red Deer Rebels and he has improved each year,” said Lowe after the
trade.
“We feel that Jeff will solidify our defense for the future. There
seems to
be a huge premium on defensemen in the NHL and when you can get a solid
defenseman that has the upside that Woywitka does, you go after him.”

That’s considerable praise from Lowe, especially taking into account
the
fact he passed up a potential deal with Anaheim that would have landed
him OHL scoring leader Corey Perry. Unfortunately, Woywitka has struggled
somewhat in his first professional season, notching a mere six assists
in 29 games with the Philadelphia Phantoms. Still, Woywitka provided the
Oiler
organization with a glimpse of his offensive potential this past
Friday, as
the youngster tallied his first pro goal in a 5-3 loss to St. John’s.

‘BACK’ IN THE SADDLE

Speaking of the baby Leafs, highly-touted prospect Carlo Colaiacovo
returned
to the lineup this weekend after missing three games with back spasms.
Dogged by back problems in the past, some therapy sessions contributed to a
speedy recovery for the former Erie Otter. He played some of his best
hockey of the season over the weekend, picking up four assists, while
posting a +2 rating.

As one of the last Toronto cuts during training camp, pundits are
anticipating Colaiacovo’s trip to the NHL to be relatively short. Some
Leaf
fans, including outspoken CBC commentator Don Cherry, have been
proponents
of inserting the 20-year-old into the big club’s lineup this year.
However,
the general consensus indicates Colaiacovo could use more seasoning in the AHL, as his -2 overall plus-minus rating is the second worst among
baby
Leaf blueliners.

And while the Toronto native years to don the big-league Leaf jersey
someday, he realizes that day may not come this season. “I came down
here
with a positive attitude to work hard and get better,” says Colaiacovo.
“It’s been fun.”