November 22, 2011

AHL Journal: League a case in graduate studies

Grant Clitsome, formerly of the Springfield Falcons (photo: Dan Hickling)

By Dan Hickling

As much as the rabid fans found throughout the AHL – including those in the league's seven New England outposts -- hope for the best from their club, they aren't the only ones.

The parent clubs have a keen interest, too, in the goings-on down on the farm.

According to the AHL, 607 of its grads made it to NHL opening-night rosters, accounting for 83 percent of those currently twirling in The Show.

In the best of worlds, an NHL team and its AHL counterpart will both be Cup contenders (Stanley and Calder, respectively).

Even if not, most big-league clubs would be lost without their junior partners.

Ask the Boston Bruins, who had nine grads from the Providence Bruins on their Stanley Cup-winning roster last year.

Even the win-starved Columbus Blue Jackets, who have languished near the bottom of the NHL pool all season, were occasionally buoyed by call-ups from the Springfield Falcons.

“Your lifeblood is from the kids that you draft,” said Columbus coach Scott Arniel, who was a successful AHL bench boss in Manitoba before being hired by the Jackets last year, “your prospects that you have to develop. I know last year it was a struggle (for both clubs). This year, we made a conscious effort to make sure we had some good veterans to surround the young guys that we had there. We're really starting to see some growth in these guys.

“Guys who have had to come up and play for us, whether it was one of the young kids or some of the veterans, they've played well and they've played hard. That's what you need.”

At present, three former Falcons -- defensemen John Moore and Grant Clitsome, along with winger Matt Calvert, are with the big club after being summoned to plug holes.

Clitsome spent 3½ years in the AHL before finally making the jump from Springy midway through last season.

Although it was easy to become impatient while waiting for his turn, Clitsome said that the time spent under head coach Rob Riley and his assistant, Brad Larsen, helped make the wait worth it.

“I think it was good for me,” said Clitsome, who until recently was the Jacket's third-leading scorer. “It got my confidence up and I was able to play a lot of minutes. Rob was great, and so was Brad. I loved both of those guys as coaches.”

While the Blue Jackets have managed just five wins so far this year, the Falcons are faring a bit better (10-7-0, 7-3-0 in their last 10 games), which is a good thing, with them having missed the playoffs in each of the last 10 years.

Columbus made a concerted effort to bolster the Birds with such proven AHL stars as Alexandre Giroux, Marty St. Pierre and goalie Curtis Sanford (who has remained with the big club while helping the Jackets garner five of the last six points).

That, in turn has helped get youngsters such as David Savard and Tomas Kubalik – plus the aforementioned trio – closer to NHL readiness.

Around the AHL

The original two-year deal between Springfield and Columbus is set to expire after this season. However, according to Jackets GM Scott Howson, an extension isn't a matter of if but when. “We're in constant communication with (Falcons president) Bruce (Landon),” Howson said, “and we both know that each is interested in pursuing it. There's been no need to put it in a priority focus right now. But when the time is right, we'll have those conversations. We're very pleased with that relationship. We think (Springfield) is a great spot for our players.” … Some roughhouse episodes over the weekend have resulted in suspensions handed down by the AHL. Connecticut Whale center Kris Newbury was banished for four games for a hit to the head of Bridgeport's Justin DiBenedetto. Other sit-downs were given to Providence Bruins winger Zach Hamill (one game) and Springfield team captain Dane Byers (two games). Such is the way, now, in the Brendan Shanahan era.

Dan Hickling can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.