Norfolk Admirals 2006-07 season preview

By Colleen Greene

The Chicago Blackhawks have some top-notch talent in their system, and many of those prospects can be found on the roster of the 2006-07 Norfolk Admirals.

Last season, head coach Mike Haviland led his squad to a 43-29-4-4 record, good for 94 points and a third place finish in the East Division. While the Admirals have found plenty of regular-season success in the last few years, they have endured three straight first-round playoff exits, the last two coming against the eventual Calder Cup champions (Philadelphia in 2005 and Hershey in 2006).

This year’s group looks to have a good young goaltender, a mobile defense, and an influx of talent on offense that brings plenty of potential.

Goaltending

Last season in Norfolk, the goaltending duties were split between Adam Munro and rookie Corey Crawford. Though Munro had the better numbers of the two (2.72 GAA, .909 save percentage, 17-8-1 in 28 games), it was Crawford who played the bulk of the games for the Admirals, and since Munro decided to play in Europe this season, that looks to be the case again.

Crawford, 21, compiled a 22-23-1 record last year, with a 2.94 GAA and a .898 save percentage. Crawford is positionally strong and exhibits good mental toughness. He managed to get into two games for Chicago, allowing five goals on 41 shots. He may have a harder time getting call-ups this season, however, as Chicago’s roster already boasts two veteran NHL goalies in Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime. With a year of professional hockey under his belt, Crawford looks to have a strong season as the Admirals No. 1 goalie.

Backing up Crawford will be veteran Sebastian Caron. Caron, who signed with the Blackhawks in August as an unrestricted free agent, spent last season in the Penguins organization, spending most of his time in Pittsburgh, while playing a few games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. He should provide a steady veteran presence and will help bring Crawford along in his back-up role.

Defense

This year’s defense will somewhat resemble the group that manned the blue line for the Admirals last year, although a couple of them could find themselves in the NHL before the season is over.

Returning to the Admirals this season are Dustin Byfuglien, Danny Richmond, and James Wisniewski. The trio will look to build off productive 2005-06 campaigns with the help of rookie Jordan Hendry and veterans Steve Munn and David Koci. While Byfuglien, Richmond, and Wisniewski seem primed for success in 2006-07, the defensive corps will have to overcome a couple of big off-season losses in Michal Barinka and Nick Kuiper. Barinka, a top defensive prospect, chipped in 12 points in 54 games last season, while Kuiper registered a +16 rating, good for second on the team. Barinka was sent to Ottawa in the deal that brought Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski to Chicago, while Kuiper signed with Manitoba in July.

Byfuglien, 23, enjoyed a tremendously successful rookie year, providing Norfolk with an offensive spark from the blue line as well as a noticeable physical presence. The 6’3, 250-pound defenseman contributed 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists) for the Admirals, earning him a call-up to the Blackhawks, where he added five more points (3 goals, 2 assists) in 25 games. The versatile Byfuglien, who can also play forward if necessary, will certainly be an asset to the Admirals, but is likely to get called up to the Hawks should injury strike their blue line.

Wisniewski had a comparable season to Byfuglien’s in that his success in Norfolk was rewarded with playing time in Chicago. The Canton, Michigan native was the Admirals highest scoring defenseman last year (35 points in 61 games) and continued that success with seven points in 19 games for the Hawks. Wisniewski is strong on both sides of the puck, and the feisty 5’11 blueliner isn’t afraid to irritate the opposition. He also looks to build on a strong 2005-06 season, one that could very well see him in a Blackhawks jersey as well.

Richmond is another player who found success in both the AHL and the NHL last year. In fact, the Chicago native had a bit of a whirlwind season in 2005-06, playing for four teams in total. He split time in the Carolina organization between the Hurricanes and the Lowell Lock Monsters before getting traded to his hometown team in January. Richmond fit in immediately with the Admirals, proving especially helpful on the power play, before getting called up to Chicago. The 22-year-old is a strong skater with a good shot who, being a smaller player, reaped the benefits of the new rules last season. He should prove to be a valuable player in his first full season with the organization.

Hendry is looking forward to his first full professional season after getting a taste of the AHL last year following a four-year career at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. He signed an amateur tryout contract (ATO) with Norfolk and contributed five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in 13 games for the Admirals. The 22-year-old is an intelligent defensive player who isn’t afraid to jump in the offensive rush, and is capable of quarterbacking the power play. He is also a fearless hitter, making the end result an excellent all-around game. If he continues to experience the success he had in college, Hendry could have a standout season for the Admirals, especially if one of the previously mentioned players gets called up.

Forwards

Like the defense, the forward lines will also have to overcome a couple of big loses in Pavel Vorobiev and Matt Keith. Vorobiev, who split last season between the Admirals (9-16-25 in 32 games) and the Blackhawks (9-12-21 in 39 games), will spend the 2006-07 season overseas in Russia. Keith, who has been a durable and consistent player for the Admirals the past two seasons, has seemingly made the jump to the NHL, and will start the season with Chicago.

Despite those losses, a solid mix of returning players and newcomers could still make Norfolk a very good offensive team. Back in the fold are Martin St. Pierre, Colin Fraser, and Brandon Bochenski, while several rookies will be anxious to make an impact in their first year of professional hockey. With AHL veterans such as Brandon Rogers, Craig MacDonald, Carl Corazzini, and Ivan Novoseltsev leading a talented group of rookies, the team has a nice combination experience and youth.

It’ll be difficult for St. Pierre to top the year he had last season. Setting new club records in assists (50) and points (73), the undrafted center seemingly came out of nowhere to be named to the AHL’s All-Rookie team. Standing at only 5’9, St. Pierre makes up for his lack of size with terrific speed and scoring ability, and will be counted upon to be an offensive leader for Norfolk again this season.

Fraser, while bringing a different style game, is also looking to build off a successful 2005-06 season. By no means a gifted or natural scorer, Fraser’s strengths lie in his aggressiveness and unwavering work ethic. While he did manage a respectable 25 points in 75 games last year, Fraser will look to once again prove his worth as a valuable energy player in the coming season.

Bochenski is hoping to become a full-time NHLer in Chicago, something he could not accomplish in Ottawa, despite showing flashes of brilliance in call-ups to the team last season before he was traded. Although his defensive game still needs some work, Bochenski possesses good size and a nose for the net and he will definitely bolster the Admirals forward lines this season.

In addition, a few rookies coming out of the junior ranks who could play pivotal roles on this team include Michael Blunden, Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell, and Adam Berti. Blunden, a potential power forward who isn’t afraid to throw his weight around, joined the team for their stretch run last year after scoring 84 points in 60 games in his final season with the OHL’s Erie Otters. Bolland, a small but complete player, comes to the Admirals after piling up 130 points in 59 games with the London Knights last year. Brouwer, a 6’1, 216-pound right winger put up 102 points for Moose Jaw of the WHL in 72 games. Berti and Bickell, who both possess good size with a decent amount of offensive upside, are also coming off solid junior seasons.

Coming over from Europe is center Jonas Nordqvist, another rookie who could be a solid contributor. If he can use his deft passing skills and on-ice creativity in the AHL the same way he utilized those skills in Europe, he too could mold himself into an offensive weapon on this team.

While all of these rookies seem to have had successful seasons on paper last year, only time will tell if they’ll be able to continue that type of production at the AHL level. Whether or not they can produce in the pro game will go a long way in determining what kind of team the Admirals will be offensively. The potential for firepower, however, is certainly there.

Outlook

A solid mix of experienced veterans, more mature returning players, and hungry rookies makes Norfolk look, on paper at least, like they’ll be a contending team in 2006-07. Without any glaring weaknesses to speak of, the wildcard for the Admirals will probably be the ability of many of their young players to continue to perform at a high level in their first year pro. If they can, the recent history of early playoff exits Norfolk has been experiencing could easily change.


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