The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks had a moderately successful 2003-04 AHL season. Despite icing a relatively young team (featuring seven AHL rookies who played in more then 40 games), the Ducks managed to have a short, but surprising
playoff run to end the season. They put away the defending Calder Cup Champions, the Houston Aeros in a three game qualifying series and then
took the regular season champions, the Milwaukee Admirals to seven games.
Eighteen players who saw time with Cincinnati last season are returning to
the squad, however, the team will remain quite young. The Ducks top three leading
scorers from last season are playing elsewhere, so Coach Brad Shaw will need
to find scoring from other sources. He’s positive about the upcoming year, commenting at the recent Rookie Tournament, “We will have a lot of fire power and I actually like a lot of teams in our division. It will be great hockey and it will be fun.”
Thanks to the NHL lockout, Cincinnati will be relying on the talents of Ilya Bryzgalov for at least part of the season. In 2003-04,
Bryzgalov was one of the busiest netminders in the league, leading the AHL in
minutes played and coming in second overall in saves. He’s penciled in to back up Anaheim
goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere whenever the NHL begins again. A three-year veteran of the AHL, Bryzgalov’s size and agility could eventually lead to an NHL starting position.
Behind Bryzgalov, Eddie Ferhi and newly signed veteran goaltender Fredric Cassivi will battle for backup duties. Ferhi had a hard time playing
consistently last year after such dominant play with Sacred Heart in 2002-03. His inability to be trusted led to Bryzgalov’s increased workload.
Cassivi played last season with the Chicago Wolves, Atlanta’s AHL affiliate, backing up Kari Lehtonen.
It is expected that he would shoulder the starting duties if the NHL season begins and Bryzgalov heads to Anaheim.
Mark Popovic will again be counted on to lead the Cincinnati blueline. Last season, Popovic was the only regular holdover from the 2002-03
season to finish the year with the team. Comments made by Coach Brad Shaw at
the Rookie Tournament seem to indicate that Popovic might have the inside
track on an NHL job when the league resumes play. Shaw said that Popovic returning to the AHL “just delays the inevitable. If he gets another 35 games season down there, I don’t think it will hurt him.”
Tomas Malec and Kurtis Foster will also be in the hunt for NHL time when play resumes, but for now, they will both provide an added offensive punch to Cincy’s lineup. Malec was acquired in mid-June from Carolina for Martin Gerber, while Foster was acquired shortly after,
at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft from Atlanta for Niclas Havelid. Both players have had limited NHL experience, but they will benefit from some polishing at the
AHL level. They will be counted on to replace the offense provided by departed veterans Chris Armstrong and Mike Mottau.
Shane O’Brien will be looking to build on his strong rookie campaign.
The former St. Michael’s Majors standout was impressive at this summer’s
Rookie Tournament and could be knocking on the door to the NHL sooner than
expected. Meanwhile, Juha Alen, Cincinnati’s other sophomore blueliner hopes to make sure he will get the playing time he needs to
develop. Last year, Alen had difficulty getting ice time, especially in offensive situations.
The Mighty Ducks blue line will feature one fresh-faced rookie. Aaron Rome joins the organization after being unable to come to a deal with the Los
Angeles Kings. Rome plays a stay-at-home game
with a bit of an edge. He’ll be competing for playing time with hard nosed stalwart Sheldon Brookbank. Brookbank will continue to provide grit
and strong defensive play, but might find himself on the outside looking in.
Despite losing five of their top six leading scorers, Cincinnati could boast a
lineup that is more offensively dangerous then last year. Tony Martensson returned to Sweden to play for Linkoping at the end of
last season, while Keith Aucoin, Chris Armstrong, former captain Casey Hankinson and Mike Mottau all will not be returning to the Ducks.
Leading the new charge up front are four of Anaheim’s first round draft selections, all of whom could be headed to California if and when lockout comes to an end. Joffrey Lupul (7th overall in 2002) spent only limited time
in the AHL last year (5 points in 3 games), but he enjoyed a strong rookie
campaign with Anaheim. As long as the lockout continues, he’ll be one
of Cincinnati’s top snipers. Stanislav Chistov (5th overall in 2001) split
last year between the AHL and the NHL, but his skill alone proves that he can
dazzle and put up points. If he scores as much as he did during Cincinnati’s
playoff run last year, he could position himself favorably for a breakout
season. Mikael Holmqvist (18th overall in 1997) spent as much time on the injured reserve last season as he did in either the NHL or the AHL.
The former SM-Liiga player needs to bounce back from an abdominal injury that saw him miss most of last season. Alexei Smirnov (12th overall
in 2000) needs to step up and begin to tap into his potential. The Russian has size and talent but his inconsistency led to him splitting time between
the blueline and the forward corps last season for Cincinnati.
Behind that impressive group, two former college players look to pick up any
remaining offensive duty. Chris Kunitz was fourth on the team in scoring last season, despite considerable NHL time. The former Hobey
Baker nominee plays a solid two-way game and is another candidate to be in Anaheim when the season resumes. Meanwhile, Curtis Glencross only played
a handful of games with Cincinnati last season, but really turned heads at the Rookie Tournament over the summer. The former Alaska-Anchorage star
combines a tough gritty game with plenty of offensive skill.
Joel Perrault and Pierre Parenteau will again provide solid two-way play. Perrault could break into the top six due to Cincinnati’s
lack of depth down the middle. Both players don’t look able to move up in
the lineup too much while the NHL lockout is ongoing, but their play during
the Rookie Tournament indicates they are ready for additional time and
Tim Brent and Dustin Penner will both be entering their first professional season, but the similarity stops there. Brent was twice-drafted
by Anaheim and could see a lot of time due to the Ducks lack of centers. An OHL grad, Brent is slightly under-sized but plays a gritty two-way game
that should translate well for his first AHL season. Penner was signed over the offseason before entering his junior year at the University of Maine.
Blessed with tremendous size and excellent skills to match, he needs time and seasoning in order to put the full package together. Because power
forwards generally take longer to develop, expect the team to take it slow with this imposing winger.
Cory Pecker was transferred to Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton last season because of a logjam of forwards up front. He finds himself in a similar situation again this year, due to the NHL lockout.
Pecker can play a pest role, but also has the skills to put the puck in the net, if given the opportunity. Igor Pohanka and Joel Stepp are
two second-year players who didn’t get the chance they might have deserved in their rookie season due to the number of forwards. They both have shown strong two-way play, but need more ice time to develop properly. Pohanka found himself in the ECHL for part of 2003-04.
Zenon Konopka and George Davis will fill out Cincinnati’s roster. Both are character forwards. Konopka is a pesky forward who excels in the faceoff circle and works hard at both ends of the ice. He was
originally a tryout at the Rookie Tournament, but endeared himself to Ducks management and walked away with a contract. Davis will play the role of the
big bruiser who keeps everyone honest. Davis saw limited time with Cincinnati last season, but with the departure of Josh Gratton, he’ll be counted on to drop the gloves and protect his teammates.
With reinforcements thanks to the NHL lockout, the Ducks could be icing one of their strongest teams ever. Leadership could be an issue for the team, with most of the players still considered NHL prospects. Another particular situation to keep an eye on is how they manage ice time with so many promising youngsters on the club. Forwards like Pecker, Pohanka and Stepp could find themselves on the outside looking in or they could be sent to the ECHL.
Due to the lockout, other teams in the AHL are also experiencing the benefits of having young stars play for them when normally they would be in the NHL. Despite the improvements that Cincinnati has made, it must be remembered that the rest of the league has also improved in similar
ways. Coach Brad Shaw described it as follows: “As a league, we are going to see a
huge influx of talent and I am excited about coaching some of these guys. It will make the game faster down there and make it a great experience for the prospects who haven’t had a taste of the NHL.” Because of this league-wide
improvement, only a slight increase over last season’s fortunes can be expected.
The core of the team is talented on both ends of the ice with plenty of skill and speed. The defensive corps features a strong mix of gritty and stay-at-home defenders as well as puckmoving blueliners. But with the
team being so young, there could be growing pains as they grow and develop.
Expect assistant coach Dan Bylsma to really help in this regard. Bylsma was an alternate captain for Anaheim and also saw time last year with Cincinnati. He jumps into this coaching spot without prior experience,
but his leadership skills and NHL work should help him connect with the young players.
The final question on everyone’s minds is how this team will adapt if and when the NHL resumes play. With so many top players potentially moving up as soon as Anaheim reopens their doors, there will have to be players
ready to step up and pick up any remaining slack.
The Cincinnati Mighty Ducks begin their season on October 13th on the road against the Utah Grizzlies. Their first home game is October 23rd versus the Rochester Americans.
Jeff Dahlia contributed to this article.
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