The Binghamton Senators are in the process of assembling their third team since being brought to life by the NHL’s Ottawa franchise. Their first season in 2002-03 was a successful one, as the Baby Senators took the East Division crown with 97 points. Last year, the squad slipped to fourth in the division, having lost their four best players from the year before: Jason Spezza, Brad Smyth, Antoine Vermette and Brian Pothier. Perhaps the only thing that remained consistent throughout both seasons was that Ray Emery provided often spectacular play in goal. The young Ottawa goalie of the future has appeared in each of the last two AHL All-Star games.
This year, at least to start the season, three of those four departed players will once again be in the line-up for the Binghamton Senators. As long as the NHL lockout is in effect, Spezza, Vermette and Pothier will be in the AHL, after all playing regular roles in Ottawa in 2003-04.
Another prized Ottawa youngster who up until this fall had played two professional seasons without ever suiting up for Binghamton is bruising blueliner Anton Volchenkov. Volchenkov, who missed most of last year because of injuries, will give be expected to bring his bone-jarring hits to the ice, as well as take on a more offensive role.
Volchenkov isn’t the only person making his American Hockey League debut in a starring role this year. Over the summer, former coach John Paddock was promoted to the big club as an assistant coach, so the hunt for a new coach led to Dave Cameron, who is coming off four very successful seasons with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors of the OHL. That being said, because of the work stoppage, Paddock will be sticking around in Binghamton to help Cameron make the transition from junior hockey to the professional coaching ranks.
For the third straight campaign, Emery will be the man between the pipes. An all-star in each of his first two seasons, Emery was arguably better as a rookie than he was last year as a sophomore. There were times where the former fourth round pick was spectacular, but he struggled at times as well. It was in these times, where his back-up Billy Thompson really shined.
Thompson, a rookie last year, also returns, and will try to push Emery for more playing time. Unfortunately for Thompson, it is unlikely that he will play more than the 34 games he did last year unless something goes wrong. Kelly Guard is the third goalie in camp. Guard was signed by Ottawa last year while he was in the process of leading his junior club, the Kelowna Rockets, to a Memorial Cup Championship. It is unlikely that Guard will play much in Binghamton, a year after he broke records in the WHL last year on a team so committed defensively that it would impress even Jacques Lemaire.
Also of note is that Dominik Hasek did take part in the Binghamton training camp, but his situation is up in the air. He is currently on a conditioning stint, but to stay with the team, he would need to sign an AHL contract.
The defense was a weakness for the team last year. Aside from all-star Julien Vauclair, the rest of the group was inconsistent at the best of times. Vauclair will play this year in Europe, but Pothier’s return easily makes up for Vauclair’s departure. Having signed an AHL contract for the period of the lockout, Pothier was on the AHL Second All-Star Team back in 2002-03, and should easily be one of the top blueliners in the league again this season. The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduate is a gifted puck mover who will run what should be a powerful Senators power play.
Pothier will get a fair bit of help on the blueline from Volchenkov, with whom he played at times last year in Ottawa. Cameron and Paddock will probably look to play these two together, and Volchenkov’s timely open ice hits should bring the crowd out of their seats. Volchenkov played only 19 games last season for Ottawa, so health is an issue with the 22-year-old Russian.
The other addition to the defense is Jesse Fibiger, who was signed by the Senators over the summer after three seasons in the San Jose Sharks system, which included a 16-game stint with the big club in 2002-03. Fibiger brings a big frame and solid hockey sense, but little offensive ability.
Binghamton also returns four different players on the blueline. Andy Hedlund put up 23 points last year in his second year with the squad. A fan-favorite, Hedlund gives it everything he has despite limited talent. Also entering his third year with Binghamton is Christoph Schubert, a disappointment thus far in his professional career. Schubert has a fairly complete package, with impressive size, good skating ability, a hard shot and a nasty disposition, but consistently leaves plenty to be desired. Jan Platil is in the same boat, although he is a year younger. After a great junior career, Platil struggled to earn ice time, but has good potential and needs to make significant inroads this year. Neil Komadoski joined the squad at the end of the year after a four-year college career at Notre Dame. He struggled in his brief debut, and will likely start the year as the seventh defenseman.
As long as Spezza and Vermette are with the team, this group of forwards is as powerful as any in the league. Spezza put up 54 points in only 43 games in 2002-03 with Binghamton, while Vermette led the team in scoring with 34 goals and 62 points. Spezza could challenge for the league scoring title if the NHL lockout wipes out the entire schedule. Vermette will not only be counted on for scoring but for his play on the penalty kill. It is Vermette’s defensive prowess that had since-fired Ottawa Head Coach Jacques Martin dressing Vermette over Spezza in last year’s playoffs.
Spezza and Vermette are not the only two players in Binghamton because of the lockout. Josh Langfeld and Chris Kelly both would be in the NHL if not for the work stoppage, but will be in Binghamton for the duration of the impasse. Langfeld especially was scoring at nearly a point per game pace last year before being called up to Ottawa. He never looked back and put up 17 points in 38 games in the NHL. Kelly only played four games in Ottawa on an emergency recall, but during that time, showed the Senators enough to be re-signed. He also tore a knee ligament that more or less spoiled the rest of his season. The former London Knights captain will most likely join Vermette as a penalty-killing specialist, as well as be asked for some offensive contributions.
Last year’s top two scorers, Denis Hamel and Charlie Stephens also return. Hamel had a great year last year as the club’s captain, making the AHL’s First All-Star Team. A physical force with offensive punch to boot, Hamel may not carry as much of an offensive responsibility with the forward ranks bolstered as a result the NHL’s lockout, but he’ll be a core player regardless. Stephens was at times a dominant force last year. Acquired by Ottawa during the winter from the Colorado Avalanche, Stephens has long been an enigma of a player, possessing both great size and significant offensive talent, but is as inconsistent as they come.
One player to watch for Binghamton is top prospect Brandon Bochenski. A big, talented winger, Bochenski left college early after three very productive seasons with the University of North Dakota where he played with New Jersey Devils top prospect Zach Parise. Bochenski may be a bit slow to start, but he has scored at every level thus far, and has the size to thrive in the professional ranks. Grant Potulny is another Senators forward prospect who comes to Binghamton this year from the college ranks. He played in a handful of games at the end of the year, and has captain written all over him, whether it is in the NHL or in the AHL depends on his play in Binghamton.
The only player joining the squad from another organization is Pat Kavanagh, who joins the Senators organization from the Canucks system. An Ottawa native, Kavanagh was the Manitoba Moose’s second leading point scorer and top goal scorer last year. He also has a good frame and has appeared with the Canucks in each of the last three years.
The fourth line will be occupied by players such as returnees Arpad Mihaly, Greg Watson and Brian McGrattan, and could include newcomers Gregg Johnson, Derek Campbell, Rob Fried and Danny Bois. Mihaly and McGrattan are both unlikely to lose their roster spot, but Watson did not perform last year and is by no means secured a roster spot. Rob Fried, an invitee, graduated last year from Harvard, and had not only a strong Senators Rookie Camp, but so far has been impressive in training camp.
Few teams in the AHL stand to benefit as much from the NHL’s labor impasse as Binghamton. Spezza, Vermette, Langfeld, Kelly, Pothier and Volchenkov are all in Binghamton instead of Ottawa as a result of the lockout, and because of this, the Senators may be one of the league’s best teams. Should the NHL resume play this year, Binghamton will take a serious hit. It is hard to imagine them not improving on last year’s mediocre performance, considering they have a stud goaltender, two NHL quality blueliners, and three powerful forward lines.
Binghamton opens their 2004-05 season in Albany on Friday, October 15th.
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