OTTAWA – The American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators will have plenty of incentive beyond the allure of skating on the home ice of their NHL affiliate when they host the Toronto Marlies at Canadian Tire Centre on Friday.
At the morning skate Friday, the AHL Senators occupied the same Ottawa Senators dressing room that normally houses the likes of Binghamton graduates Mark Stone, Zack Smith, Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Cody Ceci, and so on. Ottawa captain Erik Karlsson had a 12-game stint with Binghamton in the 2009-10 season on his way toward NHL stardom.
Twelve hours prior Ottawa had hammered out a 2-1 shootout win over the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins with Binghamton head coach Kurt Kleinendorst’s young players in attendance.
But at 25-36-2-2, the AHL Senators occupy sixth place in the North Division, 13 points below the playoff line going into their game Friday evening against the visiting Toronto Marlies at Canadian Tire Centre. Their Calder Cup playoff plans have been put aside, but there is no such thing as playing out the string in the AHL.
Still, Kleinendorst and the Ottawa organization have plenty of carrots to dangle in front of their young prospects.
“Guys are playing for roster spots,” Binghamton captain Mike Blunden said. “Teams are always watching, and scouts are always there, and they’re always looking [to fill] spots for next year.
“Guys are [also] playing for contracts, so we’ve got a lot to play for.”
Regardless of incentive, effort has not been a problem for Kleinendorst’s team. Binghamton has established a reputation in AHL circles this season around a solid work ethic.
But next season when the Ottawa affiliate relocates to Belleville, Ont., the plan is to build a reputation that goes beyond effort.
The game Friday continues a stretch of the team winding down its 15th and final season in its New York State home. Next season Ottawa will house its prospects in Belleville, a former Ontario Hockey League depot two and a half hours from Canadian Tire Centre. The setup will give Ottawa its first Canadian-based affiliate since 1996 and continue a trend of geographically friendly NHL-AHL affiliations.
The new Belleville Senators will sit in the middle of a Highway 401 AHL rivalry stretching between Toronto and Laval, Que., where the Montreal Canadiens will debut their new affiliate, the Laval Rocket.
The tilt with visiting Toronto carries plenty of intrigue against a Marlies team caught inside the crush of the North Division playoff race. This past weekend Binghamton wiped out a 4-1 Toronto lead at the second intermission, scoring seven third-period goals for an 8-4 win.
“I think we showed a lot of character,” Blunden said, “especially being down like that. That just shows that when we have everyone going we’re a good team.”
But those victories have been rare for the B-Sens lately. They are 2-7-1 in their past 10 games. A seven-game losing streak between Feb. 19 and March 4 doomed their playoff chances.
“Up and down,” was how Kleinendorst summed up the season. “We’re in a down stretch right now. We’ve had some moments where we’ve played really well for an extended period of time, but we’ve also been somewhat inconsistent.”
Blunden concurred: “That is kind of what we ran into trouble with this season, having guys taking nights off here and there. We need all 20 guys for us to be successful.”
Part of the 30-year-old Blunden’s job this season has been to help drive home the message of just how crucial playing with consistency is to carving out an NHL job.
“That is probably the hardest part of being a pro,” said Blunden, a 2005 second-rounder who came up through the Chicago Blackhawks organization and is in his 11th pro season with 126 NHL games to his name. “That is what these young guys are learning. Coming to the rink every day and bringing everything you’ve got.”
“Yesterday doesn’t mean anything. Today is a new day. “We’re still teaching that. The young guys are still learning, and I think they’ve come a long way. Hopefully we can keep the consistency going for the rest of the season.”
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Kleinendorst has started to turn the page towards youth. Ice time and special-teams play are some of the incentives in play for Ottawa’s top prospects. Second-year defenceman Ben Harpur has already established himself as an anchor on the Binghamton blue line; Andreas Englund, a 2014 Ottawa second-round selection, is in his first AHL season and has earned time with Ottawa already. Young forwards Nick Paul, Francis Perron, Jack Rodewald, and Gabriel Gagne could also benefit from the shift.
The flip side to that is being an unrestricted free-agent this summer as defenceman Brandon Gormley will be. He is another player with plenty at stake in the final three weeks of the AHL regular season. Ottawa acquired the 25-year-old left-handed defender from the New Jersey Devils earlier this month for future considerations.
Ottawa is the fourth NHL organization for Gormley, a first-round pick taken 13th by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2010 NHL Draft, and his NHL window could be closing rapidly.
“I was excited to get an opportunity to come here,” said Gormley, who had been with the Albany Devils.
Leaving Albany meant leaving playoff contention for Gormley.
“We’re not in a playoff spot at this time of the year, but at the same time you’ve got to keep pushing and mentally stay engaged, try to get better, and look toward the future.”
“You appreciate the opportunity and take advantage of it. That is what this business is all about.”
AHL veteran Marc Hagel arrived in a trade from the Iowa Wild on Feb. 1 and can offer a fresh assessment.
“The guys work hard,” Hagel said. “There are a lot of good hockey players in this room.”
“Our commitment to work ethic is our biggest [attribute], and that is what I’ve noticed.”
Here is a look at the other AHL affiliates of Canada’s NHL outfits.
Holding a one-point lead on St. John’s are the second-place Marlies. The Marlies’ third-period breakdown this past Saturday against Binghamton is looking costly at the moment; they trail the first-place Syracuse Crunch by two points. After their visit to Ottawa, the Marlies host the Springfield Thunderbirds and Syracuse this weekend at Ricoh Coliseum.
Fourth-place St. John’s has a difficult task this weekend – two home dates with the Hershey Bears, one of the hottest teams in the AHL right now. The IceCaps suffered two third-period collapses against the visiting Lehigh Valley Phantoms earlier this week and had to settle for a two-point haul from the two-game set.
Utica has won nine of its past 11 games, but has had difficulty building traction in the playoff hunt; currently in fifth place, three points behind the IceCaps. The Comets continue a six-game stretch away from home with three road contests this weekend.
Each team has 11 games remaining and is 7-3-0 in its past 10 games. Stockton starts a five-game road trip Friday with a visit to the Texas Stars. They will finish the regular season with five of their final six games coming on home ice.
Bakersfield starts a home-and-home series with the red-hot San Diego Gulls on Friday. Veteran forward Justin Fontaine has two goals and four assists in six games since the parent Oilers acquired him for fellow forward Taylor Beck at the NHL trade deadline.
For the Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets), their rut continues with a 2-6-2 mark in their past 10 games. Injuries on the Winnipeg blue line have taken a toll on the Moose roster, which lost rookie blueliner Nelson Nogier as well as veteran defenceman Brenden Kichton to recalls this week. Manitoba is second-to-last in the Western Conference.