There are plenty of things different about this hockey season, a late start to the schedule, a condensed schedule, and in some team's cases, an entirely different home city.
That's the scenario for the Binghamton Devils this season, who bring the AHL franchise to New Jersey to play out of Newark this season. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, leading the AHL squad to make themselves at home within the confines of Prudential Center and playing out of RWJ Barnabas Health Hockey House.
"With all that happened with the pandemic, and just the ability to play at the AHL level was in question, so a lot went into bringing us here. But from day one, Fitzy made a point of saying we're going to play, and we've got a lot of young guys, and you've heard Tom talk about draft and develop, draft and develop, we were committed to playing, and luckily enough and more than luck, the organization put the resources together to have us here."
Dennehy, joins Matt Loughlin and Amanda Stein, as well as special guest host, Binghamton's Director of Broadcast and Media Relations, Rob Lippolis, on this week's podcast for a behind-the-scenes, look at the next generation of Devils talent.
"I don't know how much a bullet weighs, but when it's shot with that type of velocity, it can do a lot of damage," Dennehy said, referring to rookie defenseman Nikita Okhotiuk. "Like he threw a hit last night… when he hits people, it's, I mean, it's like a bullet. He just puts all his force behind it. So, he might be 192 pounds stationary, but when you involve physics, he literally plays a lot bigger than that."
When Dennehy caught up with the podcast, the AHL team had just finished playing their first two games of the season. In just those two games, the third year AHL coach is watching his rookies jump head-first into their new opportunities.
"I think all of the young guys have shown well. Obviously, Nolan Foote scoring early on and getting multiple chances, […] Riley Walsh's shown you flashes of what he can do with the puck, Mike Vukojevic has come in and really opened our eyes to his size, his mobility. And Kevin Bahl, after not skating for a week jumps into his first pro game."
But this league is about these player's development, making them ready for the next step in their career, so while good showings in the first couple of games to start the year are exciting, there's much work to be done.
"We've all got a temper our excitement, they're rookies, and there'll be ebbs and flows. There'll be highs and lows. And, you know, it's just keeping an even keel and hopefully making continued progress. But I'm excited about their approach."
And then there's the unique perspective that Dennehy and his coaching staff have when they see players ready to make the jump. It's rarely a linear path and one where coaches like Dennehy and his staff have to guide players through. Part of Dennehy's job is to prepare players to grab onto those opportunities, without always knowing when they will arrive.
"What some younger guys need to learn is, you don't get a lot of looks," he shared, "and it's hard to differentiate yourself at this level. You look at some of the guys that that have made it up that I've been lucky enough to coach, for some of them, it's coming to grips with the role they're gonna play at the next level because maybe they were something different at a younger level. And for others, it was their ability to understand what their role was right away."
As Mike McLeod and Nathan Bastian begin to carve out regular spots in an NHL lineup, Dennehy reflects on their two separate journeys.
"Nate Bastian was, he knew what his strengths were, he knew where his bread was buttered, and really stuck to that type of game. For a lot of these younger guys, they're still trying to figure out what am I, you know, what can I be at the next level? And you need a lot of parts to build a championship team."
As for Mike McLeod, who has three goals and an assist through nine games this season, Dennehy had this to share.
"I think more than anything, it's maybe his game just needed a little bit of time to mature to that level. He plays with such pace, right, and it's such a fast game. And the other thing is, I think he really fits how Lindy [Ruff] wants that line to play. And it can be as simple as that, right? Lindy has in his mind, this is what I'd like out of that line, and Mike really fits that bill."
All in the opportunity.
There is no doubt that the team looks forward to returning to Binghamton as soon as they can, but right now, here in New Jersey, this is an opportunity that could not have been foreseen, and Dennehy hopes his players will see the value and experience the value of the organization is under the same roof as their NHL affiliate.
"The proximity here in this environment, during a pandemic, I think we're really taking advantage of it. For Kevin Bahl to be able to go from literally practicing with the NHL guys to playing his first professional game with us last night, and we're doing it safely, you know, we're following the NHL protocols […] I don't know that every AHL has [this opportunity]. But that's invaluable. We at the American Hockey League level have a day off and these [taxi squad] guys are skating with some of the NHL guys, that's really hard to replicate."