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From 'D' to 'O' works just fine for Gragnani

by Lindsay Kramer

Marc-Andre Gragnani was the Buffalo Sabres’ third-round selection in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
Somewhere amidst the rubble that is the Rochester Americans' season, a possible jewel is emerging.

It stands in the form of rookie Marc-Andre Gragnani, a player who has rediscovered his true position on the ice and, maybe, a spot in the organization.

Dire circumstances have forced a lot of changes for Rochester this season, and one of the best ones has been the switch of Gragnani from defense to forward in early January. Forward is Gragnani's natural position, the one he played as a youth. When he joined Prince Edward Island of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he was moved to the blue line.

That worked fine in juniors, as Gragnani got by as an offensive defenseman. But in the AHL he found himself overwhelmed at the position, tremendously outmatched by opposing forwards. By the end of October, he was a minus-14. When the New Year started, he had sunk to minus-26.

"I think it's just a rough transition from juniors. Guys are stronger and faster here," said Gragnani, a third-round pick by Buffalo in the 2005 draft. "They are better with the puck. When they have the chance, they'll score."

Around Christmas, the Amerks started coming up short on forwards. Gragnani, with his tremendous speed and fluid skating style, was an obvious candidate to move up.

The decision hit pay dirt. Gragnani has a combined three goals and 15 assists since Jan. 1, and has moved up to second on the team in scoring with 34 points. And during that time, he is a plus-7.

"First of all, I like (forward). It's always important to have fun when you play," Gragnani said. "It wasn't hard for me to make the transition. I have no clue (how long I'll be there). I don't ask. I just play."

Gragnani is purposely low profile about his personal turnaround. The Amerks' 40 points are tied for the lowest total in the league, making it difficult to lift himself too far above the quicksand atmosphere around him.

"I think that (individual) stuff doesn't matter in the season. You don't have time to see it that way," he said. "You see it in the matter of the team. It's hard. We don't win a lot. But the transition (to pros) is what I've been expecting."

Late bloomer -- Even if veteran San Antonio scrapper Peter Vandermeer never plays in another NHL game, he now knows at least he's capable of doing it.

And that just might be good enough for him.

Vandermeer, 32, made his NHL debut with the Phoenix Coyotes on Feb. 10, a little more than a decade after he first skated in the AHL. Vandermeer took eight shifts and was credited with two hits. Vandermeer, who has amassed 2,403 penalty minutes - good for fourth all-time - is a 12th-year pro who made his AHL debut with Rochester on Feb. 4, 1998.

Vandermeer was starting to wonder whether the NHL was destined to remain beyond his grasp. He said he's thinking more about coaching, a sign that his playing ambitions may have peaked.

"You don't see that very often, a guy who is 32 getting into his first (NHL) game," he said. "People were saying, it's not going to happen. I began to believe that, too."

Vandermeer is the oldest of six hockey-playing brothers from Red Deer, Alberta. Jim Vandermeer is the only one of the other siblings to make the NHL. Peter flew in his parents from Alberta and his wife and baby daughter from San Antonio for the contest. He was returned to the Rampage on Feb. 11.

"If that's the only game I get, I'm grateful to the Phoenix organization for the chance," he said. "It just proves in my head that I was right, I could play in the NHL. It's a great thing in my life no one can ever take away from me. If you want something bad enough, all you have to do is keep wanting it."

Let freedom ring -- Binghamton forward Justin Mapletoft feels like he's enjoying a lot more freedom this season on a couple of different levels. That becomes most apparent when the Senators are on the penalty kill.

Of Mapletoft's 12 goals this season, seven have come shorthanded. That figure lead the AHL.

"I think the group of guys we have on our penalty kill units are pretty aggressive," he said. "For the most part, I'm trying to get any good shots. Most of our chances have been on the 2-on-1, and you have to capitalize."

Mapletoft has a little extra reason for his jump, as kind of a bounceback from the last two years.

Mapletoft, 27, spent his first four pro seasons in the Islanders organization. But when he thought he reached his shelf life there, he tried Europe. He passed the last two seasons playing for three teams overseas, waiting for New York to let him go.

"I think my years there were good. The style of play they wanted to play and I wanted to play were different," Mapletoft said. "I didn't like the way my game was playing. I don't think they put me in a position to excel offensively. I think I needed a change of scenery."

Once the Islanders let him drift away as a free agent, Mapletoft was impressed by a couple of Ottawa selling points. First, the organization obviously had plans for him since it was one of the quickest to bang on his door. Secondly, Mapletoft got the impression that he wasn't going to be crammed into the defensive forward pigeonhole from which he had just escaped.

It was good for them (New York) to release me. And I think it was good that Ottawa was the most aggressive of any team that showed interest in me. - Justin Mapletoft

"It was good for them (New York) to release me. And I think it was good that Ottawa was the most aggressive of any team that showed interest in me," he said. "As soon as they knew I was available, they were the first people to call."

Around the AHL -- No NHL hangover here: Syracuse defenseman Marc Methot had two goals in 40 games for the Crunch when Columbus sent him down last week. He potted three goals in two games last weekend, including an overtime score against Rochester on Feb. 16. …The Crunch's 166 PIM vs. Lake Erie on Feb. 18 were the most for a regular-season game in the 14-year history of the franchise. … Manitoba drew a raucous crowd of 15,003 to the MTS Centre for a contest against Toronto on Feb. 16, but that emotion couldn't prevent a Moose meltdown. Toronto tallied five unanswered goals after allowing the game's first three and the Moose were held to seven shots over the final 40 minutes, including just one in the entire second period. … Manitoba pulled in a total of 24,805 fans for its two-game weekend set vs. Toronto, a Moose record for consecutive home games. … Over its last nine games, Houston has outscored its opponents 22-6 in five wins, and has been outscored 11-1 in four losses. ... Quad City has participated in 15 shootouts, one off the single-season AHL record. ... After a home-and-home sweep over the weekend, Lowell is now 6-1-0-0 on the season vs. Manchester, and 9-27-6-4 vs. the rest of the AHL. ... Milwaukee has had a player score twice in a game 17 times this season, but the team is still looking for its first hat trick of the season. … The Rockford IceHogs wore their road red uniforms at home on Feb. 16 and Feb. 17 in support of the students, faculty and staff at Northern Illinois University, located about 40 miles south in DeKalb, Ill. … Hershey's Josef Boumedienne is riding a 13-game scoring streak, the fourth-longest streak by an AHL defenseman in the last 17 years; Andy Delmore had a 15-game run for Syracuse in 2005-06, Chris Snell put together a 15-game streak for St. John's in 1993-94 and Sergei Zubov had points in 14 straight for Binghamton in 1992-93.


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