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Similar to the last time the NHL locked out their players, the attention of pro hockey fans in North America has shifted to American Hockey League (AHL) due to the combination of young NHL players and prospects playing in the league during the work stoppage. In the latest edition of the Roundtable, two of the staff members, along with Chris Roy from the Maine Hockey Journal, briefly give their thoughts on issues surrounding the 2012-2013 version of the Portland Pirates. The Pirates are the Phoenix Coyotes' AHL affiliate. Portland opened their season last Saturday with a 6-3 loss to the Adirondack Phantoms.
After a season to get used to North American rinks, do you think we'll see David Rundblad blossom into the player everyone predicted him to be at the draft?
Chris Roy: Yes, I believe that David Rundblad has the potential to "blossom" into a very good NHL defenseman. He's a very dynamic offensive defenseman and could be a future quarterback to the Coyotes' power play. For him to make that jump - which he is really close - he needs to be more consistent the defensive side of the puck and show that he can fit into Coyotes' coach Dave Tippett's style of playing.
Carl Pavlock: I think Rundblad may need one more season in the AHL before he is the player that people expected him to be. I think he was probably rushed to the NHL level, so he needs to be some time to get properly seasoned as they say, which means a bit more time in the AHL will be required.
Jordan Ellel: I think getting to spend some serious time in the AHL will only help, especially with some mentoring from fellow Swede Oliver Ekman-Larsson regarding the North American game and the transition that he has been able to make. That being said, his getting turned inside out by Brayden Schenn for a shorthanded goal in the season opener is not a terribly great start - but it's just one game.
Brendan Shinnimin had an extremely impressive final season in the WHL (58G,76A) do you see him continuing his success on offense in Portland this season?
Chris Roy: He's going to be counted on to provide offense for the Pirates this season. He's a smaller player, but he has many of the same traits as another former Portland Pirate, Tyler Ennis that now plays with the Buffalo Sabres. I don't know if Shinnimin will put up 80-90 points at the AHL level, but if he can chip in with 20 goals and 30 or 40 assists I think it will be considered a successful rookie campaign.
Carl Pavlock: I'm not sure that he will be the leading scorer like he was in the WHL, but I think he will be a scorer at the AHL level. At the prospect development camp he looked good, and I expect to see him light the lamp a few times.
Jordan Ellel: I don't think we will see anything like his WHL numbers, but I expect to see him among the team leaders on offense and perhaps put up numbers similar to what Andy Miele was able to do last season. With players of Shinnimin's size, they need to constantly adjust their game to find open space, avoid punishing checks, and get their points. For every Danny Briere and Martin St. Louis, there are plenty of players who won't ever be able to make those final transitions. I'm hopeful that Shinnimin has that ability.
Is there a Pirate player you think may surprise people this season?
Chris Roy: I would watch Jordan Szwarz this season. His game has really grown over the last year. He missed all of training camp in Portland because of an injury and it took him beyond Christmas before he became comfortable playing in the AHL. This season he has entered camp in the best shape of his hockey career and I think that has shown during preseason and in how the coaching staff has confidence in using him in all situations. He's being put into a really good position to succeed and have a really good year. He's going to be counted to score goals, but to also lead the team into the trenches. He'll see time on the power play, penalty kill and put into a lot of key situations for the Pirates this season.
Carl Pavlock: I think that Chris Brown may be the player who surprises people. He was good at the college level and I think he has the potential to be a great hockey player, and he will probably see time in the NHL in a few years. I could potentially see him making a big splash his rookie season.
Jordan Ellel: I don't know that stand-out performances from guys like Brandon Gormley or Maxim Goncharov are really going to surprise anyone at this point given the hype they've had, but I expect big things from both d-men. On the forward side, I'm impressed with the group and would like to see a guy like Darian Dziurzynski or Ethan Werek really bring their game to the next level as they've been impressive during prospect and rookie camps the past few years.
How does the addition of NHL players to AHL rosters affect the Pirates' chances of making the AHL playoffs?
Chris Roy: I don't think it really matters because of AHL's unbalanced schedule. Portland isn't going to play every team so they won't have to face a team like an Oklahoma City, who has a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, or Taylor Hall or a Rochester Americans with Cody Hodgson. Yes, they'll see teams that have a couple players who would otherwise being playing in the NHL, but for the most part it's a non-factor because Portland's schedule is very New England based. They need to just play their games in their division and try to have success against the Manchester's, Providence's and Worcester's and they will be good shape.
Carl Pavlock: I think the influx of NHL players to the AHL may actually hurt the Pirates chances of making the playoffs. The Pirates only received one player, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who played the full season in the NHL last season, OEL is great, but he is only one player. If you look at teams like the Oklahoma City Barons they have a lot of big names like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Justin Schultz and the Albany Devils who have Adam Larsson, Jacob Josefson, Adam Henrique and Mattias Tedenby you see a number of AHL teams had a big influx of NHL talent.
Jordan Ellel: I can't say that I think it is going to do anything to help. While we expected players like Gormley and Goncharov to compete for a roster spot, the Coyotes really didn't send a lot of regular NHLers down to Portland other than OEL. In the meantime, you have teams like Adirondack playing Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Eric Wellwood and a host of other players that have significant NHL experience. Manchester, Providence, and a few other teams will also be icing very competitive squads. Even if the Pirates can't make the playoffs given those circumstances, the increased competition will only help the development of many of the 'Yotes prospects and that will be good for the future.
Where do you expect Portland to finish in the AHL's Eastern Conference?
Chris Roy: It's no secret that the Pirates are a young team this season. They are the youngest team in the AHL with an average age of 22-years-old. They have eight first-year contracts on the roster, and seven players who are playing in just their second season in the American Hockey League. The Pirates success will be determined on how soon the roster matures and grasp how to play professional hockey. I believe this team is a very talented team and is set up for the next couple of seasons, but for this year I think it's a learning year, which puts them in the middle of pack. They could finish anywhere from 6th to 15th depending on how soon they are able to mature. That said, if they mature as a team sooner than who knows they might be able to put a run together and challenge for the division.
Carl Pavlock: I think they will be a playoff bubble team. They were close and I think if the goalie issues are significantly addressed, which hopefully they are, they can earn a playoff spot.
Jordan Ellel: I don't think it's unrealistic to hope that the Pirates can finish in the top 8 and make the playoffs, but it will be a battle and I'm not going to be surprised if they fall just short like they did last season. I'm just hopeful that the players stay generally healthy and continue their development so that they are ready to contribute when NHL hockey finally returns.