In 2010-11 the Portland Pirates will try to advance past the first round of the AHL playoffs for the first time since becoming the farm team of the Buffalo Sabres. In two years of affiliation with Buffalo, the Pirates have been bounced from the playoffs handedly in both seasons. After losing in five games to Providence in the 2008-09 season and getting swept last year by Manchester, the Pirates come into this season boasting an impressively balanced lineup that is built for a deep playoff run. With great balance of talent, grit and goaltending, the Pirates should turn some heads this season.
The Pirates will have the unenviable task of replacing two former AHL rookie of the year winners in their forward corps this season. With the departure of Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis, it will be up to newcomers Luke Adam, Corey Tropp and Jacob Lagace to pick up the slack.
Adam possesses enough talent to really be a difference maker right away. Possessing a knack for scoring goals in bunches, the forward is a legitimate candidate to win rookie of the year honors in the AHL. This would be a remarkable feat as he would be the third straight Sabres prospect to do so. Tropp and Lagace will be counted on to add some secondary scoring off the wings on the third line.
A huge positive for Portland is that perennial all-star Mark Mancari will be returning along with crafty center Paul Byron and Felix Schutz. Mancari is one of the elite players in the AHL and has consistently shown that he is a legitimate threat to score whenever he is on the ice. Byron has carried the burden of being an undersized center throughout his career, but there is no denying his playmaking ability and will most likely pivot the first line between Adam and Mancari.
Derek Whitmore will try to build off of a strong 2009-10 season in which he potted 18 goals, a career high. Center Travis Turnbull is coming off of a solid rookie season and should get increased minutes this year and some power play time. The Pirates will get some much needed veteran leadership from NHL tweener Matt Ellis.
As a unit, the Pirates defense will look similar to last year’s bunch with four blue liners returning. Leading the pack will be power play quarterback and AHL veteran, Marc Andre Gragnani. Unfortunately after a strong start to Sabres rookie camp, Gragnani sprained his knee and will miss the start of the AHL season.
The most intriguing defensive returnee is T.J. Brennan, who after completing the 2009-10 season on a high note, played well in Sabres camp and appears to be poised for a huge season. Drew Shiestel is another player who played well in Sabres camp and will have every opportunity to showcase himself with the Pirates this year. Rounding out the veterans is former Sabres first round pick Dennis Persson who has yet display any of the promise that made him the 24th overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft.
There are three newcomers to the Pirates defensive unit this season, with Tim Conboy being the only veteran. Conboy should replace the grit that was formerly provided by Mike Weber and is versatile enough to play forward on the fourth line.
Additionally there are two rookies coming in, Nick Crawford and Alex Biega. Both should have ample time to progress this season with the four returning Pirates on the blue line. Biega is the more mature of the two players having captained a stingy Harvard team last year. Crawford is coming off a huge year in Barrie of the OHL where he was a First Team all star and recorded an astounding plus-51 on the season.
Like the Sabres, the biggest strength for the Pirates is goaltending. Jhonas Enroth showed last year why he is one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL by carrying the load all season long in Portland. In 48 games Enroth posted a 2.37 goals against average and a .919 save percentage with five shutouts, all improvements from his 2008-09 campaign. With this likely to be his last season in the AHL, you can expect Enroth to make a statement to the Sabres brass that he belongs in the NHL and could help lessen the load on Ryan Miller next season.
Backing up Enroth is newcomer and local Buffalo boy David Leggio. In 30 games last year with TPS in the Finnish Elite league, he posted a 2.93 goals against avearge and a .901 save percentage.
Returning for a sixth season as the Pirates Head coach, Kevin Dineen will try to replicate his 2005-06 season in which he won the AHL coach of the year and came within a game of the AHL Finals. Eric Weinrich returns for his third season in Portland as Dineen’s assistant coach.
There were several training camp standouts for the Sabres this year, signifying that the future is bright in Buffalo. The most notable standouts were Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe, and Zack Kassian. Ennis picked up right where he left off in last season’s NHL playoffs by making plays all over the ice and looking like the Sabres most creative offensive player in most of their preseason games. Gerbe came into camp looking relaxed for the first time in his young career. His play on the ice showed his new found confidence and he will likely start the season in Buffalo, playing bottom six minutes. Kassian showed that he is a force anywhere he plays, controlling the boards well and contributing offensively by using his big body to make plays all over the ice. Coming into camp, Kassian was determined to show the Sabres brass he has matured after a tumultuous 2009-10 season Windsor.
Luke Adam had a great camp adding three goals in as many preseason games and T.J. Brennan, Brayden McNabb and Marcus Foligno also turned some heads with their play this preseason. If Brennan continues his improvement and has a stellar year in Portland he could be a late season call up for Buffalo.
Sabres 2010 first round pick Mark Pysyk played one preseason game, showing his patience in transition. He will only get better with another year in Edmonton captaining the Oil Kings.