by Aaron Vickers
Despite the loss of players David Moss, Richie Regehr and Mark Giordano as call-ups to the Calgary Flames, the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights continue to find success in the American Hockey League's West Division.
It''s due to a team-first formula implemented by head coach Ryan McGill.
Preaching a team-first attitude, McGill has managed to guide the Knights to a 37-19-3-1 record, third in the Western Conference, despite lengthy call-ups of his top-two defencemen Mark Giordano and Richie Regehr, as well as the sporadic call-up of one of his most productive forwards in David Moss.
"It starts out from the belief that no matter who is in the lineup we need everybody to contribute and it''s been that way from Day 1," McGill said.
"If you don''t have everybody contributing knowing that you''re going to lose players during the year whether it be to injuries or call-ups, you''re not going to have any success."
McGill credits the club''s success to versatile players who have been conditioned to fill multiple roles on the team. It was a strategy employed by the second-year Knights coach knowing his roster had the potential to be in a constantly changing state.
"You try to put everybody into every situation you can and you hope that when they get the opportunity again they have success," said McGill, who played alongside current Calgary bench boss Jim Playfair for the 1990 Turner Cup winning Indianapolis Ice, a team coached by Flames general manager Darryl Sutter.
"The fact that every player that has played here this year and every player that is playing here right now has been in situations through the year that they aren''t uncomfortable with."
Perhaps the biggest adjustment for McGill''s Knights has been on defence. Without Giordano or Regehr since after Christmas, the club has needed to rely heavily on its remaining blueliners and the stellar play of netminder Curtis McElhinney, who has twice earned player of the week awards and a trip to the All-Star Game this season.
"There hasn''t been just one person that''s stepped up," said McGill about his defense. "It''s been collectively six guys that have stepped up and kept the game real simple."
The fact hat McElhinney has been one of the league''s best goaltenders over that span hasn''t hurt either.
"His performance has meant a lot," he admitted.
"We''ve asked both goalies to be there when we need them to be there. They have done that for the most part. Nobody is perfect and no one is going to have a 100 per cent save percentage but when we''ve asked these guys to make saves for this team they''ve done that."
While the Knights will not see the return of Moss, Regehr or enforcer Eric Godard, who played 36 games with Omaha before being called up alongside Moss in January, the team could receive a boost from the return of Giordano to the blueline come playoff time.
The Toronto, Ont. native was placed on Omaha''s AHL Clear Day Roster, making him eligible for the playoffs. While Giordano has played in just five games for the team this year, he registered 58 points in 73 games last season for the Knights.
While the opportunity is available, McGill isn''t banking on having Giordano back in a Knights jersey anytime soon, but also didn''t rule it out as a possibility.
"It was an opportunity to put a player on because we had room. You just never know."
Still, the team will need more than just Giordano in order to find success in the playoffs, according to McGill. In fact, the club will need three things their coach declared.
"The biggest thing is staying injury free. The second biggest thing is your special teams have to be excellent and the third biggest thing is you have to get a break somewhere, somewhere somehow, whether it''s a lucky goal or a great save or something that is real timely. It has to happen throughout."
It will also take the same team-first attitude McGill has preached all season long, one that has allowed the Knights to flourish in the wake of call-ups, and one that has the club poised to make the playoffs for the first time in its brief history.