The first quarter of the AHL season for the Binghamton Senators has been rocky, and it won’t get any easier this upcoming weekend.
The Senators sit last in the American Hockey League as they begin a four-game road trip tonight against the Providence Bruins. From there, the Senators trip will continue against a pair of high-end opponents in the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Albany Devils. To add a bit more sting to the Senators’ travel itinerary, they’ll have another date at Albany next Wednesday.
The Ottawa Senators will be relocating their AHL affiliate to Belleville next season, providing the NHL club with an affiliate two and a half hours away from Canadian Tire Centre.
But Ottawa management had a busy summer in retooling and preparing for their final season in Binghamton. In 2015-16, Binghamton finished second-to-last in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Luke Richardson then departed, and Ottawa brought in Kurt Kleinendorst, who won a Calder Cup in 2011 in Binghamton, to man their AHL bench.
Ottawa also added talented centre Chad Nehring, who was fresh off a 22-goal season with the Hartford Wolf Pack. Veteran winger Michael Blunden also came in from the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and can provide 20 goals in a full AHL season.
But Blunden has been limited to just three goals in 17 AHL games. Nehring does not have a goal in six games, missing a month due to injury. Top prospect Curtis Lazar supplied three goals in 13 games before heading to Ottawa.
Experienced defenceman Fredrik Claesson appears to have a home in Ottawa after four seasons of AHL development time, leaving the Binghamton blue line with a significant hole that has not been filled.
Goaltender Andrew Hammond arrived in Binghamton, playing twice before returning to Ottawa.
This week, Binghamton took one step, signing forward Jason Akeson after his return from the Kontinental Hockey League. Akeson is familiar to Binghamton after a late-season trade in 2015-16 landed him there. However, Binghamton lost forward Buddy Robinson and rookie defenceman Andreas Englund on recall to Ottawa on Thursday, while gaining forward Max McCormick in the process.
But the numbers reflect a trying season so far for the AHL Senators, who have five wins in their first 18 games (5-11-1-1).
Binghamton’s 2.17 goals per game is last in the AHL, while their 3.11 goals-against per game is 21st. Casey Bailey’s six goals lead Binghamton, but rookie Francis Perron is the only other Binghamton skater with at least four goals.
Special teams play has not alleviated any pressure either. The Binghamton power play is 28th at 11.7 percent, and their penalty kill places 16th at 82.1 percent.
Hammond could have provided Binghamton with some stability in net. Instead, number one goaltender Matt O’Connor has struggled. O’Connor is 2-6-1 with a 2.91 goals-against average and a very subpar .899 save percentage. Whether or not the second-year undrafted pro out of Boston University can find footing in the Binghamton crease remains to be seen. In 34 AHL games last season, he was 10-20-3 (3.31 GAA, .895 save percentage).
But Kleinendorst insists that there is reason to think that his Senators can rally from their poor start.
“I’ve watched us play,” he said. “We play hard. We compete.”
“It’s never going to be easy for us, there’s no question. There are a lot of teams that have a tremendous amount of talent. I think that we have got some talent, but most nights for us it’s going to be about hard work, it’s going to be about our structure, it’s going to be about getting key saves at key moments,” said the coach.
“We’re hoping that we’ll break out of this at some point.”
Nevertheless, this is a results-oriented business, and results are needed in Binghamton soon.
“We’re a much better team than our record. But at the end of the day, at this point in time in the season, you kind of are what your record is.”
1. Milwaukee Admirals (12-2-2-1, 27 points) – Goaltender Juuse Saros put up a stout November performance, winning the CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month award for going 5-0-0 with a 1.37 goals-against average and .955 save percentage. But now Saros is with the parent Nashville Predators on recall. Can the Admirals, who have an 11-game point streak (9-0-2-0) continue the pace that has put them atop the AHL? A two-game series on the road against the Cleveland Monsters is their task this weekend.
2. Lehigh Valley Phantoms (13-5-1-0, 27 points) – Lehigh Valley is rolling after a slow October start. The Phantoms went 11-2-0-0 in November, posting the second-best monthly record in franchise history. They did so without goaltender Anthony Stolarz, who is still on recall with the Philadelphia Flyers. After a subpar 3-1 home loss last weekend to the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Phantoms rallied by downing the Toronto Marlies in a 4-1 win at Ricoh Coliseum on Tuesday. A difficult test awaits this weekend in a home-and-home series with the Atlantic Division rival Hershey Bears.
3. Tucson Roadrunners (7-1-2-0, 16 points) – The Arizona Coyotes’ AHL affiliate has been through an emotional two weeks since captain Craig Cunningham collapsed on the ice before a home game Nov. 19. They have gone 1-2-0-0 since then in a schedule halted by postponements in the wake of the Cunningham incident. Veteran goaltender Justin Peters is back from the Coyotes, a rare bright spot of late for the Roadrunners as they continue a road trip.
4. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (13-4-2-0, 28 points) – The Penguins lead the AHL with 28 points, but they have tailed off lately. The loss of rookie forward Jake Guentzel to the Pittsburgh Penguins is a difficult loss. Veteran forward Danny Kristo, who was acquired from the St. Louis Blues two weeks ago, has not made an impact so far. Kristo is capable of a 25-goal season in the AHL, but he could not find traction in the St. Louis organization. If Kristo, who has two assists in 10 games this season, can rediscover his scoring tough, he could soften the Guentzel’s loss somewhat. A two-game trip to St. John’s is on tap this weekend.
5. Hershey Bears (11-4-3-1, 26 points) – Yet another Atlantic Division team that could emerge as a Calder Cup contender, as the Bears have survived a crush of injuries to sit within two points of the Atlantic Division lead. However, the loss of forwards Paul Carey and Jakub Vrana to the Washington Capitals removes two pieces from a talented attack. Vrana leads the Bears with nine goals, and Carey is an experienced playmaker. Still, depth is a strong suit for the Bears, and the addition of rookie forward Zack Sanford from the Capitals might offset the losses of Carey and Vrana. A three-game weekend awaits the Bears, including the home-and-home series with Lehigh Valley.
AWAITING THE CALL
Marlies rookie defenceman Andrew Nielsen has shown little difficulty in adapting to the pro game coming out of the Western Hockey League. He turned 20 on Nov. 13 but already possesses NHL-ready size at 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds. The parent Toronto Maple Leafs selected him as a third-rounder in the 2015 NHL Draft, and he responded by putting up 18-52-70 with the Lethbridge Hurricanes last season. So far this season with the Marlies he is 4-8-12 in 18 games, finding a home as a left-shot defenceman on a quality Marlies blue line. At some point he could project as a strong left-side option for the Leafs.
THE BIG GAME
The Manitoba Moose have continued their emergence after a disastrous 2015-16 season in which they finished with 50 losses and in 28th-place. That team featured nine rookies at various points, but those youngsters have made considerable progress this season. The Moose just finished a 3-0 road swing through the Central Division and head home this weekend to Winnipeg for a pair of games with the Texas Stars. After winning only 16 of 38 home games last season, the Moose have taken five of eight games at MTS Centre this season. The Moose roster boasts top prospects in goaltender Eric Comrie and forward Jack Roslovic, two critical pieces in the parent Winnipeg Jets’ staunch adherence to a draft-and-develop plan. Texas is off to a middling start, but the Stars will bring in several offensive weapons that can test Manitoba, including the likes of Travis Morin, Brandon DeFazio, Matej Stransky, and Gemel Smith.