Portland Pirates 2006-07 season preview

By Kevin Forbes

Over the past few years, the Anaheim Ducks have allowed the same core of young players to develop together in the AHL. Although some players would move on to the NHL or wash out of the organization altogether and other players would join the system, the central group of prospects has remained relatively unchanged from their trying seasons as a young Cincinnati Mighty Ducks squad to last year’s strong finish capping off their first season as the Portland Pirates. This could all change during the 2006-07 season. Already a number of the top contributors for Portland last season have moved
on to the NHL or left the organization. 

Many of the key players who remain are on the last year of their entry-level contracts and are looking to make an impression to affirm themselves as viable NHL prospects. Entering
the second season in Maine, the squad has a lot left to prove.

Last year, the Pirates soared to a record of 53-19-5-3, placing them atop the Eastern Conference and second in the entire league. This was a marked improvement from the 44-31-4-1 record that the group posted as the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in 2004-05. Playoff success also came to Portland, with the Pirates making it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in ten years. The bar has been set for the 2006-07 season.

Goaltenders


Three of the five goaltenders who played for Portland last season have since moved on and the remaining two may not begin the season with the team. Both Mike Wall and Nathan Marsters filled the role of starting goaltender for the Pirates over the course of last season, but the organization eventually made moves to acquire Dieter Kochan and then Jani Hurme to fill their needs.


A similar situation has happened this year, with free agent signee Michael Leighton
earmarked for the starting job. The veteran netminder appeared in 40 games last season with Rochester posting a 15-22-1 record. A former Chicago Blackhawk prospect, Leighton has a total of 42 NHL games under his belt.


With Marsters already sent to the Ducks ECHL affiliate in Augusta, the backup position will be a battle between Wall and former college star David McKee. Wall has performed well in preseason play, most notably posting a 20-save shutout against the Lowell Devils, but McKee will provide excellent competition. A free agent signing in the spring, McKee made a name for himself by
breaking a number of hockey legend Ken Dryden’s goaltending records at Cornell.

Defense


No team can lose three of their top defensemen and not feel some impact, but the Pirates boast impressive depth on the blue line which could ensure the team doesn’t suffer from the departure of Maxim Kondratiev, Shane O’Brien and Ladislav Smid. O’Brien has found his way onto the Ducks opening day roster, while Smid was packaged in the deal with the Edmonton Oilers to acquire Chris Pronger. Kondratiev chose to spend this season in Russia, signing a deal with Lada during the offseason.


Returning to the blue line are Aaron Rome, Nathan Saunders as well as veteran players Bruno St. Jacques and Kent Huskins. Rome will be looked upon to step up and help replace O’Brien’s physical play and two-way skill in the lineup. Meanwhile, Saunders will try to rebound after missing most of last season with injury. Huskins and St. Jacques will serve as stabilizing forces for the defense, as well as mentoring some of the new faces.


Those new faces on the blue line will be Brian Salcido, Brett Skinner and Clay Wilson. Wilson and Skinner
played in the AHL last season with the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Manitoba Moose, respectively, and both should bring some offensive sizzle to the Pirates back line. Salcido was formerly a star offensive blue liner in his own right for Colorado College, and will be looking for more of the same in his first year of professional hockey.

Forwards


Little has changed for the forward corps of the Pirates. Although Dustin Penner has moved onto a full-time role in Anaheim and there’s little chance that Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry will be back, the Pirates still have a speedy two-way attack up front.


Ryan Shannon was a surprise addition to the Ducks roster after a strong training camp. Losing his 86 points will hurt the team, but there’s no guarantee he will be in the NHL for the full season.


The bigger news is the Zenon Konopka story that had the gritty center leave the organization in the
offseason and sign with Lada in the Russian League. However, reports indicate that Konopka has had a change of heart and has returned to North America after four games in Russia. Although no official announcement has been made, the former Ottawa 67’s star is expected to rejoin the Pirates and could provide an immediate boost to the team.


Tim Brent is another player who will be closely scrutinized this season. After two injury-filled years, the twice-drafted Brent was one of the last cuts at the Ducks training camp. If he can establish himself as a top forward in Portland, and more importantly, if he can stay healthy, the former OHL star could find himself back in Anaheim before the end of the season.


Colby Genoway and Pierre Parenteau will also be looked upon to help carry the offensive load. An AHL rookie last season, the undrafted Genoway tallied 61 points in 77 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack and was signed by Anaheim in the offseason. Parenteau has improved every year after being selected in the ninth-round selection in 2001. He has suffered injury problems in the past, but is looking to prove he is ready to take the next step and compete for time at the NHL level.


There will be a healthy dose of AHL rookies up front for the Pirates as well, with Ryan Carter, Bjorn Melin, Drew Miller and Petteri Wirtanen all competing in their freshman seasons. Miller and Carter are joining the team after successful college campaigns in Michigan State and Minnesota State, respectively while Melin and Wirtanen have come to North America after playing last season in Europe.


Curtis Glencross will provide depth. The former NCAA star has suffered injuries in each of his two professional seasons and needs to stay healthy to establish himself in the lineup. Scott Thornton and Pat Kavanagh are both new players brought into bring a veteran influence to the lineup, while Geoff Peters, Garrett Bembridge, Simon Ferguson and Trevor Gillies will all return to the Pirates lineup after playing at least part of last season with the team.


One prospect that won’t be starting the season with Portland is former 2003 third round selection, Shane Hynes. Hynes missed all but 12 games last season with a severe knee injury and was one of the first cuts at Anaheim’s training camp after the knee began to bother him once again. Although he’s reported to be healthy now, Hynes will begin the year in Augusta of the ECHL and will need to fight his way back up the ladder.

Outlook


The Pirates will once again have a potent lineup with plenty of depth at all positions. Their defense appear to be even more offensively talented
than last year, while their forwards are a quick and gritty bunch who can play well at both ends of the ice. Portland had a banner year last season despite numerous long-term injuries to key players and losing other players to extended call-ups in Anaheim. If either of these factors can be reduced, they should have no problem repeating last year’s success and competing for the Calder Cup.

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