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AHL Notebook: Lake Erie has options for Blue Jackets

by Patrick Williams

The Lake Erie Monsters have plenty to deal with at the start of the American Hockey League season without worrying about the fortunes of their new NHL parent club two hours south.

Lake Erie is in the first season of an affiliation with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and each of the teams trumpeted the new all-Ohio affiliation this past summer.

"They get to play in front of management more often," Lake Erie coach Jared Bednar said of the Monsters, who have started 3-1-0-1. "I think they're excited about that."

But amid the Blue Jackets' 1-8-0 start that has led to the arrival of new coach John Tortorella, Bednar knows he must keep his players' attention firmly in Cleveland, not Columbus. But it would be natural with a roster full of young prospects to have attention and gazes drift to the NHL. The Blue Jackets' struggles and the start of the Tortorella era could bring change to the roster in Columbus.

"We preach that there are going to be guys who expect to play games up top and deserve to play games up top, but those decisions are out of your control," Bednar said. "They have to take care of what they can control down here.

"We've got a good group of character guys down here that when they're here, we just tell them that [Lake Erie] is your focus. The quickest way to get up is to concentrate on what you're doing as an individual, what we're doing as a team down here, and that benefits you as well."

Certainly there are plenty of viable candidates for NHL promotion playing for Bednar.

Left wing Kerby Rychel, 21, has five points (two goals, three assists) in his first four games. Rychel's rookie season in 2014-15 ended early because of a concussion, but he is on the brink of full-time duty with Columbus and has spent time with the Blue Jackets already this season.

Rychel's linemate, rookie right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand, is another top prospect. He had 63 goals last season with Portland of the Western Hockey League. With more development and time to bulk up, the 20-year-old Danish prospect could be ready to step into the Columbus lineup before long.

Forward Sonny Milano, the 16th pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, is in his rookie pro season. Defenseman Michael Paliotta played a game last season with the Chicago Blackhawks before moving to Columbus in a seven-player offseason trade. Milano's center, Michael Chaput, earned 33 games with Columbus last season.

Two depth defensemen, AHL veterans Andrew Bodnarchuk and Jamie Sifers, firm up the Lake Erie blue line and are capable of filling holes in the Columbus lineup if necessary.

Keeping the focus in Cleveland is where Bednar's veterans come into play. Captain Ryan Craig has played 198 NHL games, and Bednar's message starts with the 33-year-old veteran.

"It's a really good mix for us," Bednar said. "We have some young talented kids, the draft picks, guys that are legitimate prospects that we see playing in the NHL sooner rather than later.

"But we've got those characters guys like Sifers, Craig, Bodnarchuk and so on. They do everything right on and off the ice. They're our top-conditioned athletes. They're guys that eat right and take care of themselves off the ice. The way they approach each day with practice and games is very consistent with what they do.

"That's the biggest thing that the young guys lack. The consistency on a night-to-night basis, a shift-to-shift basis sometimes. The focus and what those [veterans] are saying and just watching their approach to the game is the biggest thing that helps [prospects] out as they move forward."

Westward: Bednar has experienced AHL life in the Eastern and Western conferences since becoming an AHL coach before last season. He spent his rookie season with the Springfield Falcons in the Eastern Conference, where compact geography shapes its teams' schedules. Eastern Conference teams are often able to avoid hotel life for much of the regular season and can simply bus to and from road games on the same day.

The 11 changes in NHL affiliations and/or franchise locations this past offseason have changed the AHL map dramatically, however. The shift in geography created an opportunity for Blue Jackets management to station their AHL operation in Cleveland.

Now that Bednar and his Columbus prospects are in the Western Conference, their travel itineraries have received a makeover. The Monsters spent this past weekend in Winnipeg and will spend more time in airports and hotels this season than they ever did last season in Massachusetts.

"I think there are positives to both [approaches]," Bednar said. "[In the Eastern Conference], you play a lot of three-in-three [weekends] and have lots of practices during the week, so that's good for your development."

But he feels Western Conference life will benefit his young players in Cleveland as well as eventually in Columbus.

"I like getting out on the road more. It helps the team come together," Bednar said.

"I think that when you get out west and travel more like an NHL team, [when] you play more mid-week games and [fewer] three-in-threes, that you get to get your group out and go for week-long road trips, I think that that mirrors the NHL a little bit more. There are some positives to that.

"The more that you get used to traveling and playing, being in different cities, sleeping in different hotels, it brings your team closer together and quickly. When [players] go up, [the NHL lifestyle] is not something that is foreign to them."

Farewell: The Hershey Bears announced president and general manager Doug Yingst will retire at the end of the season. Yingst has been with the Bears, the AHL's oldest franchise, since 1982 and has five Calder Cup championships. His roles in Hershey have ranged from sales and promotion to moving behind the bench as an interim assistant coach.

Yingst has also succeeded off the ice in Hershey. The Bears have been affiliated with the Washington Capitals since 2005-06, which is tied for the AHL's eighth-longest affiliation. Hershey has led the AHL in attendance for the past nine seasons.

Hershey kicked off its affiliation with Washington by winning three Calder Cups in five years. The Bears also reached a fourth final. In 2009-10, Hershey won 24 consecutive games at home and set a league record with 60 wins.

Around the AHL: The Manitoba Moose (0-4-1-1) and Springfield (0-4-1-0) are the last teams without a win. … The defending Calder Cup champion Ontario Reign are 5-0-0-0. … NHL veteran goaltender Peter Budaj is 5-0-0-0 with three shutouts, an 0.98 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage for Ontario. … Lake Erie rookie Joonas Korpisalo has a shutout in each of his first two starts this season. … Providence Bruins rookie Frank Vatrano leads the AHL with eight goals in seven games. … Stockton Heat goaltender Karri Ramo, who cleared waivers and was assigned to the AHL by the Calgary Flames last week, made six saves in relief of Jon Gillies this past Saturday in a 5-1 road loss against the San Antonio Rampage. It was Ramo's first game in the league since 2008-09. … San Antonio forward Mikko Rantanen, the 10th pick in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche, had a goal and an assist in the 18-year-old's first AHL game this past Saturday.

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