GLENS FALLS, N.Y. – Terry Murray has coached 1,012 NHL games – which is more than any coach in the 76-year history of the American Hockey League.
And yet, prior to opening night for the Phantoms, he admitted that he still gets butterflies.
“You’re just excited to start the new season,” he said. “So, yeah, there are definitely some nerves there.”
It could also be that it’s Murray’s first game coaching in the AHL in 22 years. Or, it could be that he’s just ready to begin what many believe will be a successful campaign for the Adirondack Phantoms.
Since moving to Northern New York from Philadelphia three seasons ago, the Phantoms have scuffled, and missed the playoffs each season.
But the roster is chock-full of talent this season, loaded with 10 players with NHL experience, so expectations have definitely reached a new level.
“Every team has at least one player with that experience but we’re lucky enough to have a couple handfuls,” said Harry Zolnierczyk, who got to play 37 games with the big club last season. “Then the other guys are playing to try to get to the NHL, so they all want to be playing their best games up front here in the season. It’s going to be pretty intense right off the bat.”
And that intensity will only be driven further by the hopes of the loyal Adirondack fan base that hasn’t seen a Calder Cup title won by the team that makes the Glens Falls Civic Center home since 1991-92.
The players know that. They can feel it in their own locker room.
“The last couple years haven’t worked out the way the organization wanted it to work,” said Brandon Manning, who played four games in the NHL last season. “But the talent is here this year. It’s just a matter of it coming together. We’ve been working on that in training camp, but just this week, coming back up here to Glens Falls, it’s definitely exciting. The hype is there, now all we need to do is come through and it can be a great year for us for sure.”
While the pursuit of the Calder Cup is an ultimate team goal for the Phantoms, the key aspect of the AHL is development – as NHL teams hope to nurture and improve their prospects to the point where they can contribute consistently at the next level.
That’s why Murray is here.
“It’s nice to know that you have a coach with as much as experience as he has,” Zolnierczyk said. “You can definitely learn a lot from him which is great.”
The Phantoms are really deep up front, have a strong defensive corps and have veteran experience in goal with Scott Munroe, who gets the nod over first –year pro and training camp surprise Cal Heeter.
It’s just the right formula, the team hopes, to put together a very successful season.
A visit from an old friend… or two
When the Phantoms last won the Calder Cup in 2005, the veteran anchor of the defense was an AHL legend.
John Slaney, who played in more than 600 games in the AHL in parts of 13 seasons and amassed 519 career points, won his only Calder Cup that season.
At the time, Phantoms coach John Stevens referred to Slaney, one of his alternate captains, as a “coach on the ice.”
Consider that some pretty good foreshadowing on Stevens’ part.
Now, seven years later, Slaney, 40, is starting his second season as an assistant coach of the Portland Pirates, the AHL affiliate for the Phoenix Coyotes.
“Now that it’s my second season it’s a little easier because I know what my role is as a coach and I’m more organized,” Slaney said. “The important thing is developing these kids on the ice and the fundamental part of figuring out what each one of them needs to work on and hopefully I can correct them.”
Slaney is excited for the start of the AHL season because it brings back memories of that 2004-05 season – with all the talent that filtered down from the NHL while the league was on hiatus.
“There’s no question the game is going to be a lot quicker because there’s going to be some really good players that are playing in our league,” Slaney said. “It takes me back (to 2004-05). Those are some good memories for me personally.”
Slaney had 14 goals and 30 assists for 44 points in 78 games for the Phantoms that season and added another three goals and seven assists for 10 points in 21 playoff games, en route to his only professional championship. It was a season he remembers fondly.
“I remember my first NHL game was at the Montreal Forum,” Slaney said. “And you know what hockey is like in Canada, so that was unreal, but when you see what the fans in Philly did, especially that year and in those finals (more than 20,000 filled the Wells Fargo Center for the Calder Cup championship game) it was outstanding. We did it right that year winning the Cup for those people.”
Another Portland connection to the Flyers organization, albeit distantly, is center Brett Hextall.
The son of Flyers goaltending legend, and current Los Angeles Kings assistant general manager Ron Hextall, is a Philadelphia native and was a sixth round pick of the Coyotes in 2008.
Now 24, Hextall is entering his second season with the Pirates after playing three seasons at the University of North Dakota. He had seven goals and eight assists for 15 points in 72 games for Portland last season.
Leadership Group Announced
The Phantoms have named Ben Holmstrom as their captain for the 2012-13 season. Holmstrom, 25, has played parts of the last three seasons with the Phantoms and had a nice season for them in 2011-12 with 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points. He has also played seven games in the NHL over the past two seasons with the Flyers.
The two alternate captains are Manning and Danny Syvret. The duo will likely play together as a defensive pairing to start the season for the Phantoms.
How deep are the Phantoms? Only one player on the team has won a Calder Cup – defenseman Jeff Dimmen who won last season with Norfolk – and he can’t crack the starting defensive unit… Look for Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn to play together and not centering two different lines. The organization wants to see Schenn play more on the wing to see if that’s a viable option for him on a more consistent basis at the next level… Scratches for the opener are Mike Testwuide, Shane Harper, Matt Mangene, Dimmen and Zack FitzGerald… Some names you might recognize on the Portland roster: Defenseman David Rundblad (30 games in the NHL last season with Ottawa and Phoenix), Defenseman Chris Summers (21 games with the Coyotes), Center Rob Klinkhammer (15 games with Phoenix), right wing Chris Connor (147 career NHL games with Dallas, Pittsburgh and Detroit), Joel Rechlicz (tough guy with 17 NHL games with the Islanders and Washington), defenseman Michael Stone (13 games with Phoenix), Alexandre Bolduc (48 NHL games with Vancouver and Phoenix), goalie Chad Johnson (six games with the Rangers) and most notably, defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who had 13 goals and 19 assists in 82 games with the Coyotes last season.