June 24, 2012

From NEHJ: Recapping the 'Seaside 7'

By Dan Hickling

The Calder Cup hasn’t resided in New England since the Hartford WolfPack captured it in 2000.

A dozen years later, that distinction hasn’t changed.

Only three New England-based AHL teams — Bridgeport, Connecticut and Manchester — made it to the playoffs, and only the Whale advanced to the second round, where they lost in six games to Norfolk.

Still, the “Seaside Seven” collectively produced some interesting moments, showcased some exciting young players and even provided an intriguing story line or two.

In short, AHL matters were rarely dull around the region.

Casey Wellman and the Connecticut Whale beat Bridgeport before bowing to Norfolk. (Dan Hickling/New England Hockey Journal)

Connecticut Whale

Few AHL coaches do so much with so little as does the Whale’s Ken Gernander.

Gernander’s knack for getting players with limited skills to buy into his lunch-pail ways is impressive, which accounts for why a veteran journeyman such as Kris Newbury (25-39-64) could enjoy a career year. Or why unheralded rookie Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (24-40-64) could challenge for the AHL Rookie of the Year. Or how the Whale room could withstand the fractious Sean Avery debacle.

Throw in a little front-office turbulence (never a dull moment with Howard Baldwin), and what could have been a recipe for disaster became the biggest success story in New England (AHL version).

Manchester Monarchs

Wild swings were the norm in the Queen City, with its (seemingly) frequent streaks of seven wins followed by seven losses.

Somehow, the firm hand of Monarchs coach Mark Morris kept matters stable enough for Manchester to slip into the playoffs for the 10th time in its 11-year existence.

Even as the eighth seed, the Monarchs gave top-seeded Norfolk (remember that 29-game winning streak) a respectable first-round battle before eventually falling in six games.

Perhaps even more importantly, the Morris was able to get glue guys Dwight King and Jordan Nolan ready to make big contributions to the Los Angeles Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Same goes for Slava Voynov, who has emerged as a top-six NHL defenseman.

Bridgeport Sound Tigers

Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.

Talk about two radically diverse seasons within one year. Languishing in the Northeast Division cellar near the midpoint, the Sound Tigers under first-year bench boss Brent Thompson enjoyed a dramatic turnaround that earned them the division crown.

Young guns Rhett Rakhshani and Casey Cizikas showed themselves to be stars in the making — virtually NHL ready — with young defensemen Matt Donovan (10-35-45, plus 11) and Calvin de Haan close behind.

The key to the resurgence was goalie Kevin Poulin, who was on hand for virtually the entire 19-1-2 stretch in January and February that changed everything.

The big question now is whether Thompson will be return to the Bridgeport bench next year, or be elevated to the Islanders.

Portland Pirates

You like “if onlys”? There were plenty of them to be heard in Portland, to be sure.

If only the season had been a week longer, they probably would have made the playoffs.

If only the deadline trades they made had come just a little earlier, they would have built up a bigger head of steam.

If only they could have kept defenseman Chris Summers in town (instead of Phoenix), if only they could have kept disgruntled sniper Patrick O’Sullivan happy, if only …

As it was, the Pirates, who were in their first year of a long-term deal with the Coyotes, put on an impressive surge that left them one spot short of the playoffs.

Late-season acquisitions Brett Sterling (swapped in for O’Sullivan), goalie Peter Mannino and winger Kenndal McArdle all were big pluses.

Looking ahead, the Pirates will be playing in a renovated Civic Center next season, and also will have a secondary home in Lewiston (an hour up the Maine Turnpike).

Springfield Falcons

The season was truly a good news/bad news saga for the Falcons.

On the plus side was that Springfield (despite not making the playoffs) was playing meaningful games beyond April Fool’s Day. This may not seem like much, but for a franchise that hasn’t seen postseason action in a decade, it was something of an accomplishment.

So, too, was the emergence of winger Cam Atkinson (Greenwich, Conn.), the former Boston College standout, who scored 29 goals (in just 50 games) while toiling for significant time with the parent Columbus Blue Jackets.

The downside was that the failure to make the playoffs cost second-year coach Rob Riley his job, despite having had a hand in getting youngsters such as Atkinson and defenseman John Moore ready for the big time.

Riley will be replaced by Brad Larsen, who steps up from assistant coach.

Providence Bruins

For all the success of the big club in Boston in past seasons, the farm team in Providence has been left out of the Calder Cup fun for three years, not to mention significantly lagging on the player development front.

(The last Bruins draftee to spend major development time with the P-Bruins before impacting the big club? You’d be looking at Brad Marchand, Class of ’06.)

Not that this season, the first under Bruce Cassidy, was bereft of success stories.

Two rookies in particular, winger Carter Camper and defenseman Kevan Miller (both of them college free agents), opened plenty of eyes.

Miller, the Vermont product, whose plus-20 rating provided a startling contrast with Providence’s list of minuses, is still a work in progress but certainly looks like a keeper.

Worcester Sharks

They do things a little differently in Sharkland. No playoffs (three makes, three misses since 2007), no problem, so long as the talent pipeline to San Jose keeps flowing.

However, the gush of previous years slowed to a trickle this season, with the notable exception of second-year forward Tommy Wingels, who made a solid late-season contribution to the big club.

The emergence of goalie Tyson Sexsmith, who blossomed into an AHL All-Star, was a big surprise.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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