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AHL notebook: Coach's job more than coaching

by Patrick Williams

Manning an American Hockey League bench means being part-coach, part-career counselor, part-psychologist, part-father figure and juggling those roles constantly.

Manitoba Moose coach Keith McCambridge's to-do list this season is especially busy as he works to introduce nine rookies into pro hockey. Helping his players handle the transition to the pro game is McCambridge's job.

"You wear many different caps as a coach in this league," said McCambridge, 41, who is in his fifth season as coach of the Winnipeg Jets' AHL affiliate.

McCambridge spent two seasons as an ECHL coach and two more in the AHL as an assistant coach before taking his current job. He also brings 11 seasons of playing pro hockey with him.

Manitoba Moose coach Keith McCambridge, 41, is in his fifth season as coach of the Winnipeg Jets' AHL affiliate. (Photo: Jonathan Kozub/Point Shot Photography)

However, a 1-6-1-1 start has further complicated McCambridge's job. He must navigate the slow start in hockey-mad Winnipeg where the Jets, who have made a draft-and-develop philosophy an organizational mantra, relocated the franchise from St. John's, Newfoundland, to MTS Centre during the summer.

Landing in Winnipeg means that the Moose have access to NHL-level practice and training facilities. But it also means there is that much more focus and attention on a team that is the third-youngest in the AHL, according to Along with the nine rookies, the Moose have three players in their second AHL seasons.

"You have that 1-on-1 chance to talk and be the psychologist," McCambridge said. "That's a big part of coaching. The 1-on-1 time that you have with the players. The newer players is a feeling-out process, and there's a lot this season of getting to know them better and watching and seeing how they function [daily]."

Second-year goaltender Connor Hellebuyck shares a crease with rookie Eric Comrie. On defense, rookies Joshua Morrissey, the 13th pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, is paired with prospect Jan Kostalek. Rookie Chase De Leo joins prospects Scott Kosmachuk and JC Lipon at forward.

Veteran NHL defenseman Jay Harrison helps mentor the defensemen while Patrice Cormier, Matt Fraser and Matt Halischuk provide experience at forward. But the core of the Moose roster is young.

"Those first-year players, you have to let them know and realize that this is their job, this is their livelihood," McCambridge said. "So recognize that you're close to the [NHL]. But you've got to put the work in to give yourself a fighting chance at it.

"I think it's a big [adjustment]. I'll start first with players that are in the first year of pro. Understanding that the intensity and coming to work and trying to get better every day is something that I've found over the years take a little while for those guys to really sink their teeth into."

For AHL rookies, the move into pro hockey also usually means their first taste of adult life and responsibilities off the ice at 20 or 21 years old. Billet families or the sanctuary of a college campus are no more.

"The young players are something that you have to continue to drive that home and away from the rink also," McCambridge said. "Taking care of yourself, eating the right foods, getting the right sleep. Sometimes they're living with two or three other guys, making sure that they're taking care of their bodies and getting rest and everything from eating right to paying bills and dealing with traffic and all of the above.

"They have to realize that they have to make sure that they're eating at the right times, getting the right sleep and all of the away-from-the-rink distractions of, 'Have I paid my bills?' That's all part of not only being a good hockey player, but just as importantly growing up and being a good young man."

All systems go: A common approach for an AHL team is to mirror as closely as possible the structure and systems that their NHL parent team uses. Doing so can ease the adjustment period for players who are recalled to the NHL team.

"We like to follow really closely with how we're going to play the game and our structure so that when those [player recalls] come, it's a lot easier transition for the player," McCambridge said. "He doesn’t have to worry about where he needs to be on the ice or adjusting to a new system."

However, matching the NHL team's structure and systems can become complicated when the AHL roster does not necessarily have the same strengths and skill sets as those of the NHL roster.

"Our [league] is a bunch of new players," McCambridge said. "We're putting those into place, so there is a learning curve that takes place with that.

"There is a little give-and-take. Winnipeg is a very fast team. You have to find a balance. You balance the things that you focus on more as a coaching staff compared to other things. You focus on the strengths of your team and you work on the areas where you feel have weaknesses."

On the rebound: Rockford IceHogs goaltender Mark Visentin won his first game of the season Sunday, shutting out the Iowa Wild 2-0. He signed an AHL contract with Rockford in the summer after missing last season because of an ankle injury. Before the injury, Visentin, the 27th pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, spent two seasons in the AHL as an Arizona Coyotes prospect.

When Arizona did not retain Visentin after last season, he signed an AHL contract with the Chicago Blackhawks' top affiliate. But it was an AHL contract that offers a well-traveled pathway to the NHL.

Visentin, 23, landed with a team that has a history of sending goaltenders to the NHL. Rockford has been a goaltending pipeline for the Blackhawks since the affiliation began in 2007. Blackhawks goaltenders Corey Crawford and Scott Darling spent time in Rockford. Former Blackhawks goalies Antti Niemi and Antti Raanta learned the North American game with the IceHogs after coming over from Finland.

"After being here a few weeks you really see that they really do care about developing us down here in Rockford, and pretty much give us all the resources we need to do it," Visentin told the Rockford Register Star.

Around the AHL: Springfield Falcons forward Dustin Jeffrey won the AHL/CCM Player of the Week Award for the period ending Sunday. He had two goals and five assists in three games. … At 8-3-0-0, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers' 16 points lead the AHL. … The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins enter the week with a six-game winning streak. … Winless before last week, Springfield went 3-0-0-0 and outscored opponents 16-4. … The Grand Rapids Griffins, expected by many to contend for the Calder Cup this season, have started 1-6-0-0. … Providence Bruins rookie Frank Vatrano has started with a league-leading 10 goals in his first 10 games. Providence teammate Alexander Khokhlachev has four goals and nine assists in 10 games, and is tied for the AHL lead in scoring with 13 points. … Rookies occupy the first four spots among goal leaders. Along with Vatrano, Devin Shore of the Texas Stars has eight goals; Rockford's Tanner Kero and Nick Ritchie of the San Diego Gulls each have six goals. Kero and Shore are on recall to the NHL. … Shore on Tuesday was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for October. Shore had eight goals and three assists for 11 points along with a plus-7 rating in nine games for Texas during the month. Providence Bruins center Frank Vatrano (10 goals, two assists) was named Rookie of the Month and Calvin Pickard of the San Antonio Rampage 5-0-1, 1.79 goals-against average, .946 save percentage) was named the Goaltender of the Month. … Wilkes-Barre/Scranton goaltender Matt Murray won the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the top rookie in the AHL and the Aldege "Baz" Bastien award as the league's top goaltender last season. The 21-year-old has not slowed down, starting this season with a 1.83 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage in six games.

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