On the eve of the 2006-07 AHL regular season, the Springfield Falcons hoped that they would be able to end the string of futility that had befallen them over the past couple of seasons. The Falcons had missed the playoffs for the past three seasons, not registering more than 65 points. However, after a full-scale coaching staff overhaul, and an influx of new prospects — graduates from the CHL, NCAA, and Europe — expectations were growing, with hopes that the young squad may make a run for the playoffs.
Early in the season, however, it appeared to be a case of same team, different season, as the Falcons stumbled out of the blocks yet again. Springfield dropped six of their first nine games, with veteran Sean Burke and rookie Karri Rämo splitting time. However, as Burke began to struggle, Rämo began to get hot, and the starting job eventually became Rämo’s, far earlier than many had anticipated. Since Rämo took over the starter role from Burke, the Falcons have gone on an impressive 11-6 run, including eight wins in 10 games, which included four shootout wins and one overtime win. It was a character builder for the young team. The Falcons currently sit tied for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
There have still been issues with this year’s Falcons squad. Goal scoring has been very hard to come by, as they have only picked up 66 goals in 26 games – placing them 24th out of 27 teams. They have also given up 86 goals, which also slots them in the bottom third in the league. Despite those deficiencies, Steve Stirling’s squad has proven resilient, particularly in close games, keeping their season’s hopes alive.
Goaltending had been a concern last season, as Brian Eklund, Gerald Coleman, and Jonathan Boutin floundered through another poor season in Springfield, however, goaltending is no longer a concern with the Falcons. It could be perhaps the only thing that has been going right, and has played an integral role in keeping the oft-inconsistent Falcons in the playoff hunt.
Perhaps the most valuable player thus far for the Falcons this season has been Rämo, who has put together a record of eight wins and five losses in 16 appearances, which includes a 3-0 shutout (which just so happened to have been Rämo’s first career professional win). The 20-year-old netminder has also put together a very respectable goals against average of 3.13, despite a few injuries in the young defensive corps playing in front of him.
Rämo has not had to be a workhorse as far as appearances go, as Stirling has been willing to split the time between first Rämo and Burke, then between Rämo and Boutin, but Rämo has had to stand on his head repeatedly in his games, facing large numbers of shots, and making big saves at key moments of games. Rämo is clearly the No. 1 goaltender on the team, despite the time sharing. He has shown strong positioning and composure under pressure – pressure that has come in nearly every start, as the Falcons are routinely outshot by a fairly large margin. He has also an ability to play elevate his already stellar game even higher in clutch situations, having won all three of his shootout and overtime appearances, and posting a 4-1 record in one-goal games. Given his stellar performance last season, playing a key role in HPK’s championship run in Finland, the smooth transition should not come as much of a surprise.
Rämo has been called up to the NHL twice already this season, albeit in an emergency back-up role both times, as starting Tampa Bay goaltender Marc Denis has twice run into visa issues. One wonders how much longer it will be until Rämo is recalled to the Lightning in order to play. Given his early season performance, the answer would appear to be soon.
Boutin, too, has looked strong since being recalled from Johnstown in the ECHL to serve as the back-up, building on what was a very successful 2005-06 season with the Chiefs. Boutin has posted a 3-2 record in eight appearances thus far, having won his last three starts, while posting a miniscule 2.07 goals against average. He gave up five of his 12 goals in half of one game, but has looked dominant for the remainder of his time on ice. His save percentage of .932 trails only Hamilton rookie Jaroslav Halak in the league’s overall standings. Boutin has righted a career that was on the wrong path in junior, and has played well enough that he should be able to stay with Springfield for the duration of the season, sharing time with Rämo for the rest of the season.
Coleman, who has spent the bulk of the season with Johnstown, has appeared in one game. In that one game, he was excellent, turning aside 37 of 38 shots in a 3-1 victory over division rivals, the Lowell Devils. Coleman, too, has improved from last season’s inconsistency. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for the organization, the goaltending depth within the Lightning system is very strong at present.
The Falcons saw two rookie prospects jump to the Falcons this season (Matt Smaby from the NCAA and Andy Rogers from the WHL), as well as two moving up from Johnstown (Mike Egener and Jay Rosehill, and one coming over via free agency in Andy Delmore. Doug O’Brien is the only full-time holdover from last season’s Falcons defense, and that lack of chemistry among the defensive corps has been evident in the first half of the season, as the defensive coverage in the Falcons end has been inconsistent at best. A couple of injuries to key components of the blue line have not helped matters.
One of the bigger disappointments has been O’Brien, who has run into serious consistency issues thus far this season. It was hoped that he would be able to take on a leadership role, and be a bit of a mentor to young Smaby, who has been his defensive partner for much of the season, but he has found his role changed from last season. The arrival of Delmore, a power-play specialist, has decreased the two-way defenseman’s special teams and offensive roles. Also, playing on the top pairing against the opposition’s top line game in, game out, has brought to light some inherent weaknesses in O’Brien’s positional game. O’Brien missed seven games in November after suffering facial injuries sustained in a violent collision with Manchester’s Petr Kanko. He currently sits with seven assists in 19 games, and a minus-9 rating. O’Brien’s veteran leadership will be counted on in the second half of the season if Springfield is to challenge for the playoffs, and he will have to right his mediocre season.
As for Smaby, who is in his first professional season, there have been some growing pains in the transfer from the college game to the AHL. Smaby currently sits with a team-worst minus-16 rating, posting one goal and four assists, having appeared in all 26 games. The one goal came within the first minute of his first game of the season. Smaby has looked better in the past couple of games, and will look to build on his modest beginnings for the rest of the season. He has occasionally shied away from playing physically with the Falcons, which was one of the strongest parts of his game when playing for North Dakota. Finding that aspect of his game again will go a long way in ensuring that he is a productive member of the Falcons defense for the rest of the season.
The other rookie with the Falcons this season was Andy Rogers, who made the jump from Prince George in the WHL. Rogers missed the bulk of last season with a serious ankle injury, and was shut down in the hopes that he would be 100 percent by the time the season started. His ankle was fully healed, however, his clean bill of health would not last past the Traverse City tournament, where he picked up a hip pointer. He returned to Springfield a couple games into the season, but would last only seven games before suffering another leg injury. The perpetual injury problems for Rogers have to be very disconcerting to him, the Lightning scouting and medical staff, as well as the Falcons coaching staff, as it was expected that he would be an important player on the point. He was held pointless in his limited action.
One player who spent much of last season on the shelf, but has stayed healthy and been a consistent player on the point is Egener. After a couple of inconsistent seasons, the former top Lightning prospect has finally started to carve out a niche as a competent defensive defenseman with a strong physical game, using his size to his advantage, and staying disciplined. Playing a composed game in his own end, and using his good puck-handling ability to make the safe play rather than trying to do too much, Egener has finally started to show signs of promise, after a couple of gloomy seasons. Egener has three assists and 70 penalty minutes in 26 games thus far.
Jay Rosehill brings a similar, less flashy game than Egener (if possible). He, too, spent much of last season in the ECHL, but made the jump full time to the Falcons this season. Playing a safe, physical brand of hockey, the solid blueliner has been doing the little things right with the Falcons this season. He has one assist in 16 games, and is one of only three Falcons regulars to post a plus rating. John Adams, who spent the bulk of last season with Florida in the ECHL (but also had a cup of coffee with the Falcons), has looked solid in his limited action, picking up three points in 12 games, splitting time between Springfield and Johnstown. Former Dallas draft pick, and offseason signee Geoff Waugh, saw time as a call-up for the Falcons while O’Brien was injured, but was demoted to Johnstown after 10 games. He was pointless with 25 penalty minutes.
The lack of goal-scoring punch for the Falcons has been a bit of a concern. The goaltending will not be able to do it all, and the offense will have to come around eventually this season if the Falcons are to challenge for a playoff spot come March. The sputtering offense has been due in large part to the lack of veteran presence. The Falcons two main rookies up front — Justin Keller and Blair Jones — have not been the problem. Team captain Norm Milley and fellow veterans Eric Healey and recent acquisition Daniel Corso have been pacing the offense in the early stages of the season, though they will need secondary scoring assistance from the third and fourth lines, loaded largely with veteran players, if the team is to right their low-scoring ways. The early-season addition of Jared Aulin to complement the offense turned out to be a bust.
Veteran Darren Reid was expected to be one of those players bringing secondary scoring from the third line, however, he struggled out of the gate for the Falcons, picking up only one goal in 10 games. He was traded to Philadelphia shortly thereafter in the deal that brought Corso to the Falcons.
Keller has been a pleasant surprise for the Falcons this season, having put up eight goals and appearing in all 26 games thus far this season. It was expected that of the four forward rookies to jump to the professional ranks this season, Keller was the one most likely to spend considerable time in Johnstown working on his skills. Yet it did not work out that way, as he had a very strong camp, and stuck with the Falcons early. Seeing plenty of ice time on the top two lines, as well as regular power-play time, the clutch former WHLer has made a relatively smooth transition to the AHL.
Jones, too, has been very strong with the Falcons this season, picking up 14 points through 23 games. Jones did run into a 10-game pointless streak, which, oddly enough, straddled a short call-up to the Lightning, a spot in which he appeared in six games with the big club. Jones has spent some of the early part of the season playing on the Falcons top line, and though he has cooled off since a quick start, his short stint with the big club will be invaluable in his regaining his confidence with the Falcons. Jones continued success as the club’s top-line pivot will be important in turning around the sputtering Springfield offense.
Stanislav Lascek, a third rookie to play with the Falcons this season, started the year with the Johnstown Chiefs, but earned a promotion after a quick offensive start, picking up 15 points in only 10 games. Lascek’s numbers didn’t translate to Springfield, as he picked up two goals and one assist, playing sparingly in 12 games. He is still with the Falcons, and will be eased into more playing time. He certainly has the talent and puck-handling ability, he just needs to continue getting used to the increased speed of the professional game, a speed that he is having difficulty adjusting to, given his relatively slow foot speed. The fourth of the team’s rookies, Radek Smolenak, as seen spot duty with the Falcons, appearing in two games. He sits seventh in scoring with the Chiefs. Another Johnstown veteran, Zbynek Hrdel, has appeared in one game.
Third-year pro Adam Henrich, playing for a contract renewal this season, has continued to have difficulty playing for the Falcons, picking up only one goal in five games with the big club. His failure to adapt to the AHL game is all the more disappointing, given how he has looked near-dominant playing with Johnstown. He will have to find his game in a hurry if he is to be back next season.
Marek Kvapil, who had a modest rookie season with 45 points, has had an up-and-down sophomore season. He has played fairly consistently, though the results have not been there for him offensively. He currently sits with only 12 points through 25 games, still good enough for sixth on the team in points, and has posted a minus-9 rating. Still seeing regular time on the power play, he has begun to see more results in the last couple of weeks, picking up two goals in his last three games, and his resurging offense will be of great help to the fledgling Falcons offense in the final two-thirds of the season.
Another veteran who was expected to provide depth scoring was David Spina, who put up a promising 24 points last season. After a very slow start with the Falcons, he was demoted to Johnstown. After a six-game stint, in which he picked up six points, Spina was recalled. In his first game back in the line-up, he picked up the shootout-clinching goal. He has also had the game-winning goal against Lowell at the start of December, and was named the game’s first star. He has two points through 19 games thus far this season, though they have been a clutch two points.
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