Lighting It Up – February Edition

By Glenn Gawronski

It took me long enough, but I was finally able to identify one positive coming from the protracted NHL labor dispute. I have rediscovered the American Hockey League.

Spending the better part of the last decade or so focused on the NHL, junior hockey and the college ranks, the minor leagues were relegated to a bit of an afterthought for me. The AHL in particular was one of those leagues that I just didn’t get caught up in. Sure I’d try to keep tabs on a number of individual players, but I just couldn’t follow the day-to-day happenings on a regular basis.

But for obvious reasons, this hockey season has been a bit different. And the one thing that keeps jumping out at me is that there is some pretty darn good hockey being played in the AHL. I’ve been especially impressed by several younger prospects who really stand to benefit by getting significant playing time in the minors.

One player who immediately comes to mind is Jason Spezza. He has simply been terrific this season. The Binghamton forward has shown a real knack for making players around him better. And for such a young kid surrounded by veteran forwards, that’s really saying something. On a related note, I’m still intrigued as to why there are such divergent opinions on Spezza. Some scouts love him and feel he is a future star in the NHL, while other scouts see him as an overrated, over-hyped prospect on his way to becoming a major disappointment. Scouts seem to be at one extreme or the other. No one is taking the middle ground regarding Spezza. For my money, I have little doubt that he will be a long-time NHL performer destined for a very good career.

One player who’s responded well to the jump from college hockey to the pros is Albany forward Zach Parise. He really hasn’t shown his goal-scoring touch yet, but he’s working hard and displaying nice creativity. And the tougher, more physical style of hockey hasn’t posed a problem for him. He’s an intelligent player who only needs to gain muscle and experience.

Some other forwards that have really helped their status as top prospects include Eric Staal, Joffrey Lupul, Patrice Bergeron, Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek.

Staal is developing nicely into an effective playmaker and a solid all-around center that can play in all situations. Lupul is doing very well offensively and he’s made a lot of strides in his two-way play. Despite being one of the surprise stories from last year with his success in the NHL, Bergeron has gone to the AHL knowing that there are still a lot of improvements that he needs to make in his game. I must admit I didn’t envision Bergeron being this good this early in his career. And the Rochester tandem of Roy and Vanek has Buffalo smiling. Roy’s puck skills, work ethic and leadership ability makes him a definite fan favorite. He’s one of those guys that you just enjoy watching. And after a slow start, Vanek has begun to flash his offensive tools and pure scoring ability. If he ever learns to use his size more effectively and add more of a power element to his game, look out.

After sitting on the sidelines for a year, Philadelphia’s R.J. Umberger has shaken off the rust and shown his first round talent. Despite good size, he isn’t very aggressive and he doesn’t always initiate contact. But he’s a talent with above average puck skills. Manitoba’s Ryan Kesler, Umberger’s former college teammate, has really surprised me with his scoring ability. I always envisioned him as a solid third line, checking-type forward, but now I’m rethinking that assessment. Kesler has more skill than scouts had given him credit for.

Unfortunately, it’s not all good news with the young prospects in the league. One player who comes to mind is Cincinnati forward Stanislav Chistov. He’s frustrated scouts with his inconsistent play and failure to create more scoring chances. As the saying goes, he isn’t yet the sum of the parts. And from what I hear, some are starting to question whether he ever will reach his potential. Hartford forward Jamie Lundmark remains a mystery. Injuries have certainly had an effect on him, but he really should be more productive at both ends of the ice. Others that just haven’t lived up to my expectations include Chris Higgins, Mikhail Yakubov, Grant Potulny, Jeff Woywitka, Dave Steckel, Rob Globke, Nikita Alexeev and Ivan Khomutov.

Goalie Kari Lehtonen’s transition to North America is continuing and he’s getting more comfortable game by game. He’s been a lot more consistent and shown more focus and concentration. And in terms of the pure physical adjustments such as playing the puck and stopping shots from different angles, he’s made a ton of progress. I’m confident that Lehtonen will develop into a legitimate frontline goalie in the NHL. Of course, my track record shows I’ve never been an expert on goalies, so take this for what it’s worth.

While on the subject of netminders, Rochester’s Ryan Miller has just about reached the point where he has little left to accomplish in the minor leagues. In terms of his natural puck stopping ability, he’s one of the best in the league. He’s pretty much proven himself in terms of regular season play. Winning the Calder Cup is the only remaining challenge for him. He has to show that he’s a big-game goalie. When the next opportunity presents itself, he needs to establish himself in the NHL. The time has arrived for Buffalo to decide whether or not he has the overall tools to be a No. 1 goalie in the big leagues. The lockout is merely delaying that decision. From the scouts I’ve talked to, his future has little to do with his physical ability. No one doubts his abundant talent. But it’s the mental approach to the game that he must keep sharp.

Providence netminder Hannu Toivonen has been a real workhorse this season. His positioning has improved dramatically, and he’s not only making the first save but he’s shown the ability to get back in position for the next shot.

As for the disappointments in net, I’d have Pascal Leclaire, Mikael Tellqvist and even Maxime Ouellet at the top on that list. It seems their development has stalled and they need to refocus.

Overall however, this is one of the best crops of NHL-bound goalies that the league has had in a long time. It’s not unreasonable to think that as many as 10 future NHL number one goalies are currently prepping in the AHL. And as we’ve all seen with goalies over the years, there are guys that fly under the radar for a long time and then burst onto the scene.

All things considered, the AHL and its abundant talent has done a fine job of filling the hockey void.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.