It's hockey time in Springfield.
After a long summer following a disappointing end to the 2011-12 regular season, the Falcons have a fresh outlook and have some notable additions as they enter the new campaign.
There's a new coaching staff in place, led by former assistant Brad Larsen. Also new to the Springfield bench is Jared Bednar, a highly-regarded hockey mind who most recently was head coach of the Peoria Rivermen. Longtime NHL defenseman Nolan Pratt returns to help run the Falcons defense corps, which we've already covered in-depth this week.
The fresh start begins this weekend as training camp has officially opened. The Blue Jackets made their roster assignments to the Falcons a couple of weeks ago, and the list featured some notable names with NHL experience: Ryan Johansen, Cam Atkinson, John Moore, Tim Erixon, David Savard, Matt Calvert, and many more.
Larsen has a deep team to work with, but as Blue Jackets assistant general manager Chris MacFarland told me this week, it's up to the players to make it happen on the ice. Talk is cheap and there are high expectations around the team this year, so the onus is on the group to take a collective step forward.
I had the chance to sit down with MacFarland recently, and we covered all things Falcons: expectations, strengths, how the new talent will impact the club, and so much more. It's safe to say the level of optimism is high, but the Blue Jackets and Falcons don't want to jump the gun. There's a long season ahead, a season that is two weeks from officially getting under way.
I've included the full transcript of our conversation below. Hope you enjoy.
CBJ.com: What are you most looking forward to, or what excites you the most, about this edition of the Springfield Falcons?
MacFarland: I like the mix. I think we have a nice group of young guys and character veteran guys. We've added some players with significant NHL experience like Ryan Johansen and John Moore that will continue to get better there. The American Hockey League is going to be a real exciting league, and a lot of teams are going to see an influx in talent. It's going to be some great hockey right off the bat.
CBJ.com: What's the strength of this team?
MacFarland: We think our back end is going to be potentially real solid. When you have John Moore assigned and pick up a Tim Erixon (in trade with the New York Rangers) and add to an already-solid group with the likes of Savard, Prout and Nick Holden...there's depth there. They can move the puck and there are exciting young prospects there. I like our mix up front; there are hard-working guys and veteran guys we can mix in with Calvert, Johansen, Atkinson and Audy-Marchessault. It's a fairly deep group. On paper, we like the group but they have to do it on the ice.
CBJ.com: How important a step in player development is this for the guys that already have NHL experience (Johansen, Atkinson, Moore, etc.)?
MacFarland: It's crucial for all of them. It's a really good league, and if you underestimate the quality of play in this league, you're going to get eaten alive. It's fast, the players play hard and the schedule is tough - they play three games in three nights and you have to be ready to play. It's essential for these kids because they're getting an opportunity to play a lot and play more minutes than they do up here. But if they take advantage of it, they're going to see the benefits when they come back.
CBJ.com: How much will the team benefit from stability at the goaltending position this season?
MacFarland: Hopefully. Last year was a tough year, but we're looking forward to the year ahead. We're excited about the group we have, and in adding a guy like Curtis McElhinney who has a lot of NHL experience and is a quality goaltender. Then you pair him with Allen York, who had his share of adversity last year in the minors and finished so strong for us in Columbus. We're eager to see what they can do in the American League, and we think there's some depth there that, inevitably, you will always need.
CBJ.com: There's a fresh look with the coaching staff, as well. What will Brad Larsen and his staff bring to the group?
MacFarland: We like the group. Nolan Pratt played for a long time and now has a year under his belt as an assistant coach. He knows our kids well and knows the league, so his knowledge and expertise on the back end is going to prove really valuable for those guys. Brad (Larsen) has been an assistant for two years now and knows the guys, but this is going to be an adjustment for him. It's a great opportunity and a different role being the head guy -- he knows that, we know that and we think he's ready for it. Jared (Bednar) complements the group and has experience as a head coach in the AHL. He will be a nice sounding board for Brad, and he's excited to be back in a teaching role. He's going to be a vital piece for our success.
CBJ.com: What can the players expect from Brad as their head coach?
MacFarland: They'll know how he feels. He's very passionate -- spend a couple of minutes with him and you understand that. He's an energetic guy and wants his players to play hard and come ready to play. When you're around him, you get the sense of how passionate he is. He loves the game, he loves to talk hockey. We think he's got the traits to be a really good, quality coach for Springfield and to help our young kids become better players.